Romania's men with a mission: Thanks to the zeal of evangelists, fundamentalist Christianity is becoming a force in Eastern Europe, says Andrew Brown

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The Independent Online
WHEN Gary Cox delivered a computer printer to the Voda family, the neighbours were celebrating Romanian national day by slaughtering a pig. Blood ran all over the pavement as we swayed graciously along the potholed road in the missionary's shiny German van. Here in eastern Transylvania, a prosperous family is one that can afford its own pig for the winter. Aid from missionaries is a small-scale matter, but no less influential for that.

The printer he delivered was to help with the translation of evangelical tracts; he also brought grindstones to help to set up a corn- milling business and several small parcels of money.

Gary Cox has been visiting Medias since 1974, with a break of seven years when he was banned from Ceaucescu's Romania. He has brought money and food, set up small businesses and organised aid convoys to anyone who needs them, from Zagreb to Siberia. If you want to understand how fundamentalist Christianity is becoming a force in Eastern Europe, he is a good man to watch at work.

He doesn't come on like a missionary at all. Though he has lived in the West Country for almost 20 years, he still has the accent and some mannerisms of an East End boy, except that he is ducking and diving for God. He can bargain in five languages and talk his way round almost any bureaucrat.

He does not preach, except when invited to; and he is contemptuous of those Americans who believe they can come to Eastern Europe with The Answer. He believes that God is directing his work; but he also believes that God is directing the work of the churches he supports, and this work is carried out by the natives, not by imported missionaries, whose function is to support and succour them.

The organisation for which he works, Eurovangelism, grew out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional Bible-smuggling methods of support for Christians under Communism. As evangelical Christianity has revived in Eastern Europe, it has concentrated its efforts into practical projects. Eurovangelism was, for example, among the first organisations to bring aid to Poland after the imposition of martial law in 1981 - Gary Cox was caught in Warsaw when the tanks went on to the streets. And as monolithic Communism dissolved, the evangelical churches were quick to gain some freedom from the state.

Gary Cox says: 'Despite the hardships and the persecution and the alienation these people experienced, their faith was real. I sensed they were more joyful than I was; had a closer relationship with God than I did.'

The centre of his endeavours in Medias is the extended family of Ion Voda, a deacon in the local Baptist church. Nelu Pushca, Ion Voda's son-in-law, is studying at the Bible institute that was built on to the church almost as soon as the Communists fell. Elena Gherlitz, a daughter, translates evangelical tracts from English, which are supplied by a publishing house in Hungary set up by Eurovangelism in 1988.

The father is now building a workshop in his back garden for glass cutting, where two more local Baptists, skilled workers, will find employment. His son, Calin Voda, is setting up a market-gardening business in the back yard, of which the surplus will be given to the local poor.

Almost everyone in this part of Medias seems to keep a few chickens or a goat in the yards behind their houses. But the Baptists are putting up polythene growing tunnels, like greenhouses, but cheaper and more flexible. In these they can grow fresh vegetables during winter, while everyone else is dependent on pickles. A similar project to grow vegetables through the summer is already under way with the blessing and co-operation of the local authorities, who have supplied the Baptist church with a list of local people who need to be fed.

There will be no shortage of poor people as the transition to a market economy continues. There is plenty of food in the market: potatoes, pigs, root vegetables and even garlic, but a bottle of cooking oil now costs a dollar - about half a day's wages; and this winter Romanians will for the first time be paying a market price for their heating, roughly seven times what they paid last year.

The point about the aid that Gary Cox disburses is that it aims to transform the recipients' characters as well as help them materially. Protestants are still by any measure a minority in the countries of Eastern Europe: 85 percent of Romanians are nominally Orthodox; and some of the remainder are Roman Catholics. But evangelical Christianity is tremendously well- adapted to flourishing in a hostile environment.

Unlike Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy, it does not need priests. Evangelicals need leaders, but any good leader will do: there is no role in the theology for a special caste whose members are needed to link men with God. The central teachings of sin and redemption are easily communicated. So is a belief in God's constant action in the life of a believer. To join an evangelical church demands commitment, certainly. But it also offers community and access to a network of support around the world.

The established churches emerged from their long struggle with Communism either exhausted, compromised, or both. The evangelicals, by contrast, hit the ground running. Their strength lies not only in resources, but also in energy and ambition. A thousand new evangelical churches have been planted in Romania alone since the fall of Communism. Close up, the picture is even more impressive. Consider Oradea, a grubby industrial city, all grey and brown like paintings of the First World War, that crouches under a pall of smog on the Hungarian border.

Oradea's Second Baptist Church grew from a couple of hundred to a membership of 3,000 under Ceaucescu. Since his fall, the congregation has planted 40 daughter churches in the surrounding towns and villages. The city's own church, which seats 600, is packed for four services on Sunday, each one lasting two hours. When the worshippers sit down for the sermon, the aisle stands out like the crest on a Mohican haircut, completely crammed with worshippers who cannot find a seat.

So they are building a new church complex, which will hold 3,500 people at a time. Part of the complex is complete and already being used for a Christian institute. (Publicity material aimed at fund-raising in the American market refers to this as the University of Oradea.) Four hundred full-time students and a further 120 on day release can study theology and literature; theology and teaching; theology and social work, or theology and music, in four- or five-year courses. The church hopes to add law and theology, and business with theology, to build what the dean of studies calls 'a generation of trained businessmen who are working to biblical principles and morals'.

Those who take degrees in theology and teaching will go on to teach religion in the public secondary schools - which is a nice revenge both on atheists and the Orthodox church.

The institute is supplemented by an evangelical secondary school, as the church felt that four or five years of study were insufficient to eradicate the habits of thought acquired under Communism. It all adds up to an ambitious plan: to turn out a generation of leaders for every walk of life and every denomination. The Baptists have students from Orthodox, Baptist, Pentecostal and Brethren families. They dream of a society completely remodelled by Christianity, just as they feel they themselves have been.

Nor is this dream confined to Romania. There are students at the college from Bulgaria, Moldova, and Ukraine, too.

The church has growing economic interests in Oradea. It owns the model orphanage at Felix, which was built and funded largely by Swedish evangelicals. It has an interest in a printing business, which has just won the contract to print all the labels for the new Coca- Cola factory down the road. It will soon start a market-gardening business, partly to employ the children who must leave the orphanage, and partly to be able to distribute food as well as sell it.

Much as the medieval Catholic church provided a way out of poverty and obscurity for anyone of real ability, the modern evangelical churches are offering Romanians education, funding and access to an international network of support to anyone who rises in their hierarchies.

But the evangelists' success and self-confidence has won them powerful enemies among the established churches of the region. There is a fierce propaganda campaign being waged against them in Bulgaria, by both church and state; in Russia a draft law is under consideration that would require all 'foreign' churches to be licensed. Romania has religious freedom for the moment, but the Baptists confidently await an Orthodox backlash.

Peter Vidu, one of the pastors of Oradea Second Baptist, sees the fall of Communism as something God wrought so that His churches could evangelise. Their enemies in this enterprise, he says, include the Orthodox church. 'Always there has been persecution for the real Christians. And there are only two kinds of persecution: pagan persecution and religious persecution. We have had a pagan persecution under the Communists, and now we are threatened with a religious persecution. I would rather have an ex-Communist president than an Orthodox one. False religion is worse than no religion.'

(Photographs omitted)