“My Once in a Lifetime Life” is a series of occasional blogs written by Joy Zomer, who spent several years in Europe as a Christian missionary. Now a single mom of three children, Joy is the director of a high school alternative education program. This post recalls her life in the Budapest apartment complexes called The Concrete Blocks and her attempts to find community in a small Hungarian church.
Finding Community in the Concrete Blocks
I couldn’t imagine living there. I remember hoping I would be spared the despondent isolation of knowing what one of them looked like inside. Built by the Soviets over 30 years before, the apartment buildings were a mass of crumbling height. Over 30 floors high, the apartments appeared to run one into another. As I gazed upward, drab grey and black clothing – shirts, dresses, pants – hung out of narrow box-shaped windows as if suspended in space, escaping the cramped, suffocating intensity of those tiny homes.
We were new to Budapest and wanted to fit in. We wanted to live out what we had come to do; we aimed to become closer to those we worked with and wanted to help. So, we chose a start-up church organized by the mission partner we worked with and began the search for community in those nameless blocks of concrete.
Years later, I see as clearly as today the narrow brown entry door which led into a narrow entry area that signaled the front portico. There was a temporary laminated entry paper reading “Magyar Reformatus templom” or, in English, Hungarian Reformed Church. Walking in with my 2 ½ year – old toddler and a 6 – month old baby girl, I quickly realized that day that I was among only a handful of females in the dank room. Lawn chairs slatted with plastic strips, old-fashioned wooden folding chairs, and wood benches made from fence posts filled the room as the parishioners settled in for worship.
After a few visits, it became clear to us that there were no women because there was no place for them. Mothers and children were marginalized and generally stayed out of the Sunday church atmosphere until the children were of an age to sit through the hour and a half services. The church culture was conservative, much like the church I remember of my childhood. Hymns and psalms were familiar and regular, preaching was a teaching tool as well as a means to remind parishioners of the sins they should be aware of. It was a two-a-Sunday affair, and your attendance signified your commitment to your faith for another week.
The problem for me was the lack of community for women and children. So, we proposed a plan to the church leaders: we would organize and help coordinate a church nursery. The idea was a new one for the people of the Concrete Blocks. I rallied support and offered up toys from home. Somehow a small basement room, across the park from the church room, was available. . .but only on Sunday. I well remember pulling together blankets, toys, and crafts to invent a new space each week in a windowless basement. Women came. Children came. Some Sundays there were more than could be handled in the small room.
I can still feel the wind blow across me on that walk from the church room to the nursery room. Dressed for church and buffeted between the tall cement block towers, I worried that my little ones would get sick in this dismal space. The floor, dirty and cold, was always covered with something to prevent the cold from taking hold of our children. But, even in that setting, we walked and we played. We sang Bible songs and read Bible stories. There was laughter and, though my Hungarian was limited, we shared. We were mothers in a tiny space, seeking a faith community that was free.
As so many things do, this time passed. The nursery ended and our time at the church faded. Yet, the memory of a communist bloc (and the Communist block) does not. Even now I wake up from sleep, I and imagine a life there. In daylight, driving into my garage, I wonder what it would feel like to simply park alongside 50 other Trabants and walk to my apartment block. In the space of my backyard, I reflect on my life’s paths, thinking again of the mountains I have not had to face, of the roads I have not traveled, and the disappointments I have not encountered. And I think, again, of those mothers and those children. I pray that their lives have been salvaged by a God who sees no political ideology, no class status, no hidden motives. My thoughts don’t leave me then, but my fears for all they did not have do. Every day is a chance to commit to a God who is free, no strings attached.