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Cross-cultural exchange in Romania stretches Spokane woman’s faith

By Joan Healy-Hartill

When a dying friend told her not to wait to live her life, Barb Borgens of Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, decided to join eight others for the church’s joint mission trip April 15 to 26 to Felsorákos, Romania.

Barb Borgens
Barb Borgens

Without her friend’s encouragement, Barb said she might not have gone and would have missed faith-strengthening experiences and memories that give her new meaning in her work as a buyer with United Retail Merchants (URM), her involvement as a deacon and her volunteer assistance with church projects, such as the recent Manna Concert or the Tree of Sharing.

Beyond several specific mission tasks, Barb said the highlight of the trip was the team’s immersion in a cross-cultural exchange.

While some may have decided not to go because of warnings that accommodations might lack modern conveniences, that didn’t intimidate Barb, who grew up on a farm in Montana.  She came to Spokane in 1968 to study at Kinman Business College.

Members at Westminster have previously joined several partnership visits the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Spokane has made to the Unitarian Church of Felsorákos.  This was an independent visit.

The Unitarian Church in Felsorákos, a village with a population of about 1000, developed a partnership with the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane in 1991, after the 1989 fall of Communist rule in Romania.

Two Westminster members visited Felsorákos in 2005 and encouraged Westminster to become involved. The spring 2008 visit was the first trip involving the whole church.

The team’s mission was to check on and help paint a house that is being renovated into a guesthouse for tourists, and to meet with the mayor of the nearby city of Barót to check on the progress of a project to bring fresh drinking water to the village.

Because Westminster had previously donated $2,550 for water quality testing and the water source has passed the test, Felsorákos is now waiting for a European Union grant to complete the project.

The team began their visit with some sightseeing that included tourist sites. 

At the Teleki Library in Marosvasarhely, they found one of seven remaining copies of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.  They also visited the fortress of Sighisoara in the heart of Transylvania, the birthplace of Vlad Tepes, the infamous Dracula.

In Felsorákos, the visitors stayed in the homes of host families.  Barb and another woman stayed with Elemer and Jolanka Petro, nine-year-old Elemer, Jr. and three-year-old Arpa’d.

Their days started with a hearty breakfast and a morning toast with the local drink, Polinka, at the home of each host.  Lunch and dinner, prepared by several women from the Unitarian Church, were held in a communal dining room. 

Barb shared some of her experiences in the cross-cultural exchange.

On Sunday, they attended worship at the Unitarian Church, led in Hungarian and English by the Rev. Jozsef Kotecz.  The Westminster women sang a hymn for the villagers and village women in traditional dress sang for the Westminster group.

Although the team had two interpreters, often none were needed.

“One item we served for the villagers was chocolate cake,” Barb said.  “While it was baking, a village woman indicated she would check on it. I said ‘toothpick,’ and made the motion of sticking it in the middle.  The woman said, ‘No, no,’ and walked over to the broom, plucked a bristle and held it up.  I understood.” 

The village was a step back in time. 

Gypsies traveled through town, bright red tassels on the horses bobbing. 

Ox-drawn carts clattered over cobblestone streets. 

Chickens roamed yards. 

Because there were no fences, shepherds guarded sheep.

At 7 p.m. each night, the church bells rang, and cows trudged to their separate homes.

“The villagers thought we were crazy,” Barb said, “because it was a highlight of our day to watch the cows come home.”

The week was filled with other exchange events for the Romanians and Americans. 

The team taught the villagers how to play Bingo, gave out Pez candy and glow sticks to the children.

The 80-year-old church organist played the hand-pumped organ for them and in response, a member of the team played violin.

Singing together, both groups found out that they knew the song, “She’ll Be Coming ‘round the Mountain.” 

There were visits to local wood carvers, wood print makers and weavers. 

At the guesthouse, which was not ready to be painted, the Westminster team presented the president of the Unitarian Church their gifts for the house—quilts, sheets, towels, dishcloths, dish towels, bedspreads, afghans and $2,000.  

On the last day together, the villagers gave a farewell picnic, an opportunity for the people of Felsorákos and the team from Westminster to dance and sing.

Barb said the community experience strengthened her faith: “I hug the people from the trip now because the Romanians liked to hug.  I will always have a connection to everyone who went with me to Felsorákos.”

The minister of the Unitarian Church in Felsorákos, the Rev. Jozsef Kotecz, his wife Reka Bencze and step-daughter Ottilia Gyorgy will visit Spokane in early February as part of the ongoing relationship-building, faith-strengthening and insight-producing exchanges.

“My friend has since died,” said Barb, who now has not only the special memories of that friend but also the special memories of being welcomed by a Romanian community.  “I tell people don’t wait to do what you want to do.

“Although the people there are Unitarian and we are in the United Church of Christ, the labels do not matter.  What is most important to them and to us is the importance of community.

“They have little in material things, but a strong sense of community,” Barb said.

For information, call 624-1366.

Copyright © January 2009 - The Fig Tree