October Mural of the Month: The Legend of Bódvalenke

“Look, here we are with all our great problems, and misery, and all sorts of bad things, but – please accept us.”

As I introduced last month, I will be sharing one mural each month from the Fresco Village Project in Bódvalenke, to highlight Roma stories and culture and bring more attention to this wonderful project! Check out my post about the project for more information here.

This month’s mural is called The Legend of Bódvalenke, and shows depictions of some of the residents of the village when the project was beginning to take shape.

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Eszter Pásztor described the story behind the mural:

“At the time when we started this project…there were a few houses [at the other end of the village] that were built in contravention of all regulations – on marshland. That was because the mayor at the time didn’t want to have the Roma…build their houses next to his place. So he managed to get building permits for them for this totally unsuitable land. And the situation was horrible – the water table was so high that you couldn’t even build an outhouse because the [water] would just wash all that dirt up. And the houses were about to collapse, and, particularly in the summer, the smell was horrible. So we knew the first thing to do was to demolish those houses and buy other ones and relocate those families. And that was still under the socialist government,” *she laughs* “so they gave us the funding for it. That was one of their last actions while still in power.”

“And when the guy who painted this was working here, that was the time when we made the most important decisions, like: who can participate in the program, whose house we were going to buy, who’s going to be whose neighbor? Which meant that there was incredible tension in the house. And he somehow let all that tension through him and he threw it up on the wall.”

“The central figure is an Indian demigod, with strong associations of Jesus Christ, with the entire village of Bódvalenke behind him. There is the great manipulator**, there is the cruel wife of one of the moneylenders**, there are the guys who kill everything off with their sharp tongues (*long tongued-figures to the upper left of the main figure*), there are the ones who don’t want to know anything (*three figures above the right arm*), there is the painter himself with the horn of plenty above him, off which only children drop (*far left side*). That woman there** is a mother of four, actually working as a prostitute, who used to get on the bus in the morning, go out to the main road…and when she has made enough money to feed her family, then she will…do her shopping, get back on the bus and come home. Like any other working woman. Maybe she was a bit broken by the experience. And down here (*bottom edge of mural*), you see all the oppressed, suppressed, all those in pain or misery, those who are helpless, who are forlorn.”

“And to me, this whole picture says that, look, here we are with all our great problems and misery and all sorts of bad things but – please accept us. You may know Picasso’s famous painting the Guernica. This doesn’t look like it but by association I’d say that this was the Roma Guernica.”

** = exact location in mural unknown

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Learning to Follow

As part of my placement this year, I’ve been volunteering at several local schools. One of these schools, which I’m sorry to say I don’t know the formal name of yet, has several small classes of Roma children, where they learn about Roma culture, sing songs, and practice their language skills.

Today, however, right at the beginning of class, the children all grabbed their coats and lined up at the door. I was perplexed. Was there a field trip scheduled that I didn’t know about? I just started at this school last week, and I don’t speak enough Hungarian to always follow the discussion. The teacher, Kristi, always speaks slowly and clearly to me, kindly guiding me through the basic premises of the lessons, but I know I often miss details. So where were we going?

Each student had a partner to hold their hand in the line. Kristi guided me to the back and gestured for me to grab the hand of the last little girl, who grinned up at me with boundless excitement. Then, we were off! I still had no idea where we were headed, but I gripped that small, sweaty hand tight, and just followed the leader.

I spend a lot of my time here following people around. I follow my site supervisor, Pastor Zsolt, after church services when I’m not sure where to go next. I follow my co-teachers from classroom to classroom, because the layouts of three different schools have tangled themselves in my mind. I follow members of my community on my bike, as they guide me through the town to different shops and parks. Not only is this constant following helpful and necessary, it’s also quite humbling. I’m used to confidently leading the way, relying on my own knowledge and experience to guide me through my world. As I mentioned in my last post, learning to rely on others is a growing edge for me, so to have so many people in my community willing and able to lead the way every time I am lost (be it literally or metaphorically) has been an eye-opening blessing.

As it turned out, the children were leading the way to a nearby park, for a bit of much-needed playtime in the sun. I got to watch them giggle and scream and shove each other off playground equipment, each of them shouting to me the English words for the colors they saw, or demonstrating how they wanted to be pushed on the swings. When the time was up, they all lined back up again. This time, I knew where I was going. But I still grabbed that little girl’s hand, and let the other children lead the way.

Feeding the Spirit: Hungarian Hospitality

My apologies for the social media silence I have been in since my arrival here in Szarvas. I find myself too often at a loss for words to explain my experiences here, but I must keep putting pen to paper (or fingers to keys) to share this new world I live in!

Whether it is the DIY spirit of American culture or my own pride, I have found it surprisingly challenging to accept hospitality. I want to insist that I am fine without help, that I don’t need anything else, because to admit otherwise would make me a burden on those around me. The truth is, I am incredibly vulnerable here. I don’t speak the language, or necessarily have the resources to take care of myself. But the hospitality of my community has continually surprised and sustained me, both physically and spiritually.

For example:

On weekends, when there is no school cafeteria to eat in, I eat my lunch at a nursing home across the street from my apartment. The kitchen staff there doesn’t speak any English, but whenever I walk in the room, I am welcomed with smiles and a full plate of food, each of them leaping up from their own meals to grab me an extra knife, a ladle for the day’s soup, or a fresh cookie. I stutter through a few Hungarian phrases I know, and we share a meal together, without any expectations of my ability to contribute or reciprocate. Even more amazing, I went in one weekday evening to ask if they knew where one of the nurses was. Without my mentioning anything, one of the staff members immediately handed me a steaming plate of food for my dinner. I don’t have cooking capabilities in my apartment yet, so I’ve been eating sandwiches for dinner most nights. I had no idea how much I needed that hot meal, and hadn’t expected to receive it, but the kind souls at the nursing home took care of me, and I left with my heart as filled as my belly.

I could go on and on about the support I have received in my new home. I have heard the words “if you need anything, just let me know” more times than I can count. This selfless generosity, time and time again, is teaching me not only to accept hospitality, but to see God in the faces of those around me.

On one of my first nights here, one of my co-teachers, Klari, was explaining to me the lesson plans for her religion class. They were studying the vows that monks take, particularly the vow of poverty. As I listened distractedly, internally obsessing over all the unanswered questions in my life, her voice broke through my thoughts. “God will always make sure you have what you need,” she told me. I was floored. While I may not have as much control over my life as I am accustomed to, I am still being taken care of by my community. I am shown God’s love every day, be it through food, loving notes from my students, or enthusiastic encouragement when I attempt to speak Hungarian. What I need might look different than I think it does, but I have faith that God will fulfill it, in whatever form that takes.

Painting the Picture – Mural of the Month Feature

Hello from Hungary! I have been in this amazing country for well over a week now, and I can’t believe how much I’ve seen and learned. I’ll get into most of that later; for now, I wanted to talk about an experience my group was able to have this past weekend, and a resulting feature on my blog!

Deep in the Hungarian countryside, nestled among marshy foothills and acres of sunflowers, lies a small village called Bodvalenke. This isn’t an ordinary village, however. Out of the 50 or so homes in Bodvalenke, nearly 30 of them are painted with stunningly intricate murals, each depicting various scenes from Roma culture or folklore. Beginning in 2009 and directed by Eszter Pásztor, the Freskófalu Project (Fresco Village) highlights Roma artists from around the world and brings prestige and tourism to the region. As their website describes, the project has two goals:  “[G[lobally, to contribute to the dismantling of prejudices, and locally, to remove the village from extreme poverty – that is, to prove that a Roma village can stand on its own.”

Unfortunately, the project has run out of funding, and there doesn’t seem to be hope of getting more in the near future. Weather and poor building infrastructure has already damaged several of the murals, and many more are at risk of loss. The people of Bodvalenke are proud of their town (as they should be), but they are too disenfranchised and poverty-stricken to fight its decline. Tourism to the Freskófalu Project can be a boon, but without more government funding, the future of the project remains uncertain.

However, the passion and the kindness of the residents is unwavering, and we were welcomed with open arms for a homemade meal and a personalized tour. Our group was frequently followed by local children, who were excited to practice their English and show off the woven crafts they had for sale at a nearby school.

During our tour, Eszter led our group to nearly all of the murals, lovingly describing each detail as though she had painted them herself. The stories are beautiful, and fascinating, and often haunting. Roma culture is very expressive and empathetic, and these elements were reflected in the artwork. I was blown away time and again – not only by the precision and care each artist or group had taken with their mural, but also by the willingness of the residents to allow large groups of strangers to tromp through their yards to view them.

I left Bodvalenke feeling incredibly moved by the Fresco Village. To see such vibrant life and resiliency in the face of discrimination and hardship is powerful, and not an experience I’ll soon forget. Since Eszter’s words are far more eloquent than my own, I will be sharing one of her mural descriptions each month, so that you can all witness this important project and hear the stories for yourselves. As Eszter says, the first step in empowering a community is to return their dignity to them. I hope that by sharing their work and their stories, I might contribute to that movement.

This month’s mural is called “Flying Angels”.

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Eszter: The painter János Horváth first thought of this picture at a time when the Roma were flying to Canada and France and all sorts of other countries in the hope that they’d find refuge there, in hope of a better life. [In this mural] everyone is leaving. Even the tree tears its roots. And there are some who [tell] them, “Go away!”. But by the time they get there – you see this returning movement in the picture – they are turned back.

[One] of the questions that this picture tries to [ask] is: Do we have a home? And look at all the faces – they are all distorted. They are distorted, because when you are afraid or when you intimidate others, then you lose everything worth living for. You lose love, and trust, and confidence, and all the good things, and all that remains is envy and suspicion and fear of the other. And that distorts us; both those who fear, and those who make you fear. This picture was painted with the Roma in hand, but I think [it could reference] any refugees.

The Question of Where

“…do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?” – Jalaluddin Rumi

After much anticipation, I have finally received my site placement for my YAGM year! (Disclaimer: this might still change. But for now, it’s the plan.)

I will be living and serving in the riverside town of Szarvas, Hungary. Szarvas (which is the Hungarian word for deer) is a little over two hours southeast of Budapest, located on the shores of the Körös river, with a population of around 17,000 people. 

Though much of my actual work will depend on the needs of my community, my placement includes helping teachers at local Lutheran elementary and high schools (although I suspect I will learn more from them than they will from me). Additionally, I will serve at a local Day Center for people living with addiction. As my letter of placement states, I will be “connected to both the Roma and non-Roma Hungarians in Szarvas through a variety of Lutheran ministries”. 

Though I have some experience teaching, I have never worked with students younger than college-age! I also have not walked alongside those living with addictions. I am certain I will learn a great deal in this placement, and I can’t wait to experience the culture and life of Hungary!

I am nervous, I am excited, and, I pray, I am ready. Stay tuned, folks. 

The Question of Why

“Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

“You’re moving to a different country for a year? To be a missionary? Why?

It’s a question I am asked often. More often than when, or how, or what. Nearly everyone I have spoken to about my upcoming placement as a Young Adult in Global Mission in Central Europe wants to know that answer – why?

I was first introduced to the YAGM program the summer of 2013, before I started college, when I was lucky enough to be part of the team visiting the Rocky Mountain Synod’s companion synods in Madagascar. For three weeks, we traveled around the incredible island, meeting as many people as we could to develop a more genuine and productive relationship between our churches. One of these meetings was with the country coordinators (at the time) and one of the current YAGM volunteers of the Madagascar program. As they spoke to our group, describing the basics of the program and some of the amazing experiences they’d had as a result, a little voice in the back of my head piped up.

“This will be you someday,” the voice insisted. “You’re going to be a YAGM.”

To my 17-year-old self, that was a terrifying prospect. I wasn’t ready to leave home for that long – I hadn’t even been to college yet! Was this a calling? The Holy Spirit? Insanity? Whatever it was, I hushed the voice and returned from my trip feeling wiser and ready to begin life as a real adult.

College, however, proved to be quite a challenge for my relationship with God. I quickly found a campus ministry (looking at you, LuMin) and assumed my faith would stay the same as it always had been – strong, passionate, and vocal. I was mistaken. College is busy, and stressful, and overwhelming – in some ways, the most challenging time of my life thus far – and I began to lose touch with God and my beliefs. I still went to worship, and cherished my church community, but that undeniable faith began to feel faint and farther away. I’d never had to work at my faith before; it was just always there for me.

By the end of my senior year, I was feeling more disconnected from God than ever. This isn’t easy to admit – I want to pretend that I am preparing for this journey with the strongest faith of my life, with undeniable confidence in who I am and what I believe. I want to show the best side of myself. But part of this journey, I believe, is about being honest and true to how I’m feeling. Explaining who I am now, at the beginning, is the first step in that process.

I am trying to reconnect with God. When I am at church retreats, or Easter services, or singing Holden Evening Prayer, I feel that enduring faith I used to take for granted. I feel so close with Jesus, and I remember the love, and why I believe in all of this in the first place. But when the song ends, and I have to return to my daily life, the apathy and the questions come seeping back like a fog, and I lose the connection again.

I still believe in God with all my heart. I still believe that Jesus died for my sins, and that I was fearfully and wonderfully made. I will never lose that part of myself. But it somehow feels less genuine now, and less effortless. I no longer have the faith of a child – the faith of an adult takes work. My year of service with YAGM is part of that work.

I want to allow myself to feel vulnerable, and force myself to rely more fully on God’s love and grace. I want to be challenged, and to discover who I am without the labels I have so carefully constructed for myself in Western society. I want to stare my privilege in the face, and try to use my gifts for the benefit of others in new and unfamiliar situations.

By making faith an inescapable and intentional part of my daily life, I am seeking to actively strengthen that connection with God. This mission will challenge me deeply, and push me farther outside of my comfort zone than I have ever been. But I am also hopeful that it will remind me how much I need my faith, and how much God loves me. I will see God’s love in the faces of those who support me when I cannot speak the language, those who frustrate me when I struggle to understand their culture, those who show me new lives and ways of living them. I will learn, and I will grow, and I will, hopefully, find my true faith again. Intentionally.