How a Reformed Church Overthrew Communism in Romania
This week marks the twenty-year anniversary of the revolution that overthrew the Communist regime in Romania. My wife still remembers the fear and uncertainty of living through those days.
Chuck Colson’s book, Being the Body, tells the story with an eye to the role of the Church. It all began with a Hungarian Reformed congregation that would rather bring down the government than part with their pastor…
The following is an abbreviated excerpt from Colson’s Being the Body. I hope you will pick up the book and read the whole story.
Communism and the Rise of Nicolae Ceausescu
In the 1940′s and 50′s, under young leaders like Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s nightmare began. Multiplying like cockroaches, the Communists eliminated the light of opposition any way they could. Students and peasants, pastors and priests – over the years, millions were thrown into prison. Many died there.
Meanwhile, Ceausescu climbed through the party ranks, dreaming of the day Romania would be his. By the early 1970′s his dream had come true. He was president of the country, with the party and the army firmly behind him.
Ruling from a kitschy Versailles-style palace in Bucharest, Ceausescu brutally plundered Romania and reshaped it in his own sick image. Romania’s soil has been called the most fertile in Eastern Europe, yet the Ceausescu government starved its people. While citizens shivered in long lines to buy bread laced with sawdust, the government shipped most of Romania’s food abroad. Meat, butter, sugar, oil and flour were strictly rationed. Vegetables were scarce, citrus fruits nonexistent.
While their people competed for bony chickens and occasional pork knuckles, the Ceausescu and top party officials had difficulty keeping their cholesterol levels in check. A menu from a birthday dinner for Elena Ceausescu make Marie Antoinette seem frugal.
When he wasn’t choosing which type of caviar to consume, Ceausescu was promoting his pet program of “systematization,” which razed thousands of rural villages and transferred their citizens to apartment blocks in designated urban-industrial centers.
Raw concrete and exposed joints pockmarked these mid-rise flats that were a warren of dark, tiny rooms and flimsy walls, smelling of sewage and old garbage. Heated by a central system controlled by some sadistic state functionary, the blocks were maintained at about fifty degrees during the winter.
Many families had hot water only once a week, and electricity was rationed as well. Forty-watt bulbs were the highest wattage allowed in homes that had current only certain hours a day, and bulbs were removed from streetlights. At night the roads were utterly black, flanked by worthless steel stalks.
Meanwhile the Securitate, a spidery network of secret police that webbed the country, enforced the wretched status quo. An estimated one in four citizens informed for the secret police, who harassed and imprisoned anyone who didn’t salute the regime.
A Reformed Church On Fire for Christ
Laszlo Tokes, a large, handsome man with deep, compelling voice, had become pastor of the Hungarian Reformed Church in the center of Timisoara in 1987. Tokes quickly gained immense popularity, not only with the elderly in his congregation, but also with students from the university.
While the Communists weren’t particularly concerned about the old people, they did care about the students. Religion should have been irrelevant to this generation coming of age in the last decade of the century of Lenin.
Tokes mourned for his town and his country. The secularism of the atheistic regime had bitten deep into the hearts of the people. Still, he knew the church could help set those hearts on fire. His Reformed faith had given Tokes eyes to see what could happen when the church understood its identity, when the people stopped thinking of their faith as just a Sunday morning ritual and understood that the church was the community of the people of God that could infiltrate the world.
Tokes found dusty baptismal records of families who had once been part of the church but had dropped away because of the collaborator’s empty rites. Tokes invited them back. New converts were baptized. New tithes came in. The celebration of Communion took on new meaning as parishioners remembered the body and blood of Christ and realized that, indeed, the risen Christ was among them.
Within two years, the membership rolls of the Timisoara Hungarian Reformed Church had swelled to five thousand. But the growth was more than numbers; people were being discipled.
Both the Securiate and the ecclesiastical superiors knew they could not allow the church to continue like this. Tokes’ booming voice proclaiming the Word of God from the pulpit echoed in their minds like a bad dream. There was no place for this passionate Christian faith in Ceausescu’s Romania.
The methods of the Securiate were anything but subtle. They threatened members of Tokes’ church, and parishioners had to run a gauntlet of secret police just to enter the building each Sunday. Once the service began, agents would stand in front of the church cradling machine guns in their arms or dangling handcuffs in front of them. Merely attending church services became a silent act of protest.
Meanwhile, Tokes was denied his ration book; without it he was unable to buy bread, fuel, or meat. Parishioners, who by now had learned the real meaning of fellowship, shared from their own slim resources, smuggling firewood and food to the pastor and his family.
Then Tokes himself was attacked. Four men, their faces concealed behind ski masks, burst into the pastor’s small apartment in the church building. Laszlo and Edith happened to have visitors that evening, who helped then fight off the attackers with chairs. The assailants ran away, leaving Tokes bleeding from a knife wound in the face.
Waiting to Be Exiled
Soon after the secret police must have concluded that killing Tokes would simply make him a martyr. Instead, they would render him ineffective by exiling him to a small, remote village outside of Timisoara. A court ordered his eviction from his home and church, setting the date for December 15, 1989.
On Sunday, December 10, Laszlo Tokes looked out over the upturned faces of his congregation. ”Dear brothers and sisters in Christ,” Tokes announced, “I have been issued a summons of eviction. I will not accept it, so I will be taken from you by force next Friday. They want to do this in secret because they have no right to do it. Please, come next Friday and be witnesses of what will happen. Come, be peaceful, but be witnesses.”
The Candlelight Vigil
Five days later, on December 15, 1989, the secret police came to take Laszlo and Edith. They brought a moving van for the Tokes family’s belongings, but they never got to load the truck. For massed protectively around the entrance to the church building stood a human shield. Heeding their pastor’s call, members of the congregation had come to protest his removal.
The brick-and-concrete home of the Hungarian Reformed Church sat directly across from a tram stop. Each time the crowded cars unloaded, passengers could see the people gathered outside the church building.
“What is going on?” they asked. When they learned what was happening, many joined the group. Some were from other churches; some were just curious or supportive onlookers.
Meanwhile, Lajos Varga, a friend of Tokes, began making telephone calls, rallying believers from all over Timisoara – Baptists, Adventists, and Pentecostals, Orthodox, and Catholics. A burly, hearty Baptist pastor named Peter Dugulescu was also part of the crowd, as was Daniel Gavra, a student from Dugulescu’s congregation. Gavra made his way through the people toward Dugulescu.
“Look, Pastor,” he said, opening his jacket surreptitiously because of the Securitate agents.
The way things were escalating, Dugulescu half expected to see some sort of weapon. But the lump in Gavra’s jacket was a paper packet filled with dozens of candle stubs.
It was past one o’clock in the morning when Tokes opened the window of his apartment a final time before he went to bed. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Light from hundreds of candles pierced the darkness. Hands, cupped close to the people’s hearts, sheltered the flickering flames, and the flames lighted their faces with a warm glow.
Rumblings of Revolution
The extraordinary demonstration continued throughout that night and into the following day. Then, late in the afternoon, the people took the protest a step further than a show of solidarity for Laszlo Tokes. For the first time in their lives, Romanians shouted their secret dreams aloud: “Liberty! Freedom!”
Students began singing a patriotic song that the Communists had banned years before: “Awake, Romania!” And much later, as night fell on December 16, someone began shouting: “Down with Ceausescu! Down with Communism!” Part of the crowd headed downtown to the city square, while the remainder kept guard at Tokes’ church.
Before dawn of December 17, the secret police finally made their move and broke through the people. As they did so, Laszlo and Edith took refuge in the church sanctuary near the Communion table. Tokes wrapped himself in his heavy clerical robe and picked up a Bible, holding it like a weapon.
The bolted church door gave way with a splintering crash, and the police swarmed into the building. They beat Tokes until his face was bloody. Then they took him and Edith away into the night.
With their pastor gone, the crowds moved from the Hungarian Reformed Church to the central square of Timisoara. By now armed troops, shields, dogs, and tanks filled the streets. But even with the army in place, the people did not retreat. For this had become a full-scale protest of Timisoara massed in a city square, shouting and singing. Daniel Gavra and many others distributed candles. And when darkness fell, the people – lighted their flames against the night.
The Communists responded with the brute force they had always employed when threatened by freedom seekers. They ordered their troops to open fire on the protestors.
Daniel Gavra and a number of other believers marched into the square carrying the new flag of the revolution: Romania’s tricolor with its Communist emblem scissored out of the middle. As they marched, Gavra linked arms with a young Pentecostal girl.
The soldiers opened fire, and the girl slipped from his arm. She was dead by the time she hit the pavement. Daniel barely had time to comprehend what had happened when there was another explosion and he fell, his left leg blown away by a barrage of bullets.
In the confusion of the crowd and the darkness, the savage gunfire claimed hundreds of victims, but the people of Timisoara stood strong. Though shocked at the cost of their stand, they know there was no middle ground. They had decided to stand for truth against lies, and stand they would.
By Christmas 1989, the world reeled with the results of that stand: Romania was free and Ceausescu was gone. The people of Timisoara rejoiced. Churches filled with worshipers praising God.
A few days after Christmas, Pastor Peter Dugulescu opened the door of the hospital ward where Daniel Gavra had been taken after he was shot. The boy was still recuperating, his wounds bandaged and a stump where his left leg had been. But Daniel’s spirit had not been shattered.
“Pastor,” he said, “I don’t mind so much the loss of my leg. After all, it was I who lit the first candle.”