We’re the Church That Won’t Draw Lines

In celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, the RCH speaks with Rev Aaron Stevens, current Minister at the Mission, to hear about his time in the congregation. Rev Stevens initially came to the Scottish Mission as a young man teaching English abroad, but before he knew it, his ties to Budapest became greater and greater. He is now entering his 10th year as Minister here and he shares his memories of service and calling with us as a reminder that sometimes the church is called to do extraordinary things. 

In celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, the RCH is interviewing various ministers, past and present, to hear the stories about their service at the mission. Today, we speak with Rev Aaron Stevens, current Minister at the Mission, to discuss what initially brought him to Budapest, what made him stay, and how the Scottish Mission changes the lives of its community. The following is an edited version of his interview.

Given that 2016 is the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, can you tell us a bit about the plans for the Jubilee in the coming year?

We’re looking at September of this year to celebrate 175 years – which coincides with the beginning of the school year in September, and of course this was set up as a school, so it works well. There are two main expressions of celebration of the Jubilee. One is that on the weekend of September 17 and 18 we will have worship service, the opening of a kind of exhibition here at the church, and we’ll have visitors from Scotland and, as far as I know, the presiding bishop of the RCH will be with us for that as well. I was speaking with the RCH’s Ecumenical Office and I believe on the Saturday of that weekend there will be a kind of reception or dinner, and then of course the festivities on Sunday; the British ambassador has also agreed to join us for some of those events on that weekend.

Some of the visitors from Scotland will also stay for a whole week. I hope that during that week we will, in a way, tour Budapest as a combination of sightseeing but also remembering. For example, we might spend a morning taking a tour of parliament, but then also look at where our original location was near the Parliament, which is the same street that the German congregation is on today – it could even involve a visit to that church. Also, on Castle Hill there’s the Lutheran church, which our church had a part in the founding of, and the minister there and the Scottish ministers here were on good terms with one another. So maybe on another day we go to Castle Hill and do the touristy thing there, but we also look at the thumbprint of the Scottish Mission there, so to speak. Really, we hope to do sightseeing with a purpose.

I hope that in the weekend we focus on the official ceremonies, so that if people can’t give a whole week to a visit, then at least the main fanfare can be during the weekend, but then people who want to come and have time to explore the various connections, the various ministries, that we’ve cooperated with over the years and also now, will have the chance to do so. The whole idea is to come for the week to have more time to really encounter people and not just hear a lecture.

In addition to those kind of participatory interactions, we hope to be developing a website where a lot of the photos or stories or interviews can start to be put together in one site so people don’t have to search all over the internet – hopefully we can bring things together.

How did an American like you come to be a pastor at a Scottish church in Budapest?

I grew up in South Carolina, which is, if you look at the religious map of the United States, a pretty Presbyterian area because, as early as in the 13 Colonies, the Scots were settling on the eastern coast and in the southeast. So I grew up in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and when I was in university there was a youth mission trip in 1991 through which we first went to the Netherlands, joined together with a Dutch group, and then we came to Hungary. That was pretty soon after the fall of communism and the Hungarian government was returning properties to the church, properties that had been taken by the government to be used, or sometimes not used, or not even taken care of.

There was a conference center at Lake Balaton that had really been neglected and was in a state of disrepair when it was returned to the Reformed Church, and the RCH was inviting international youth groups to come and help clear the land to get it ready for development. I knew then that I wanted to teach English abroad, so I went back to the states at the end of the summer and when I finished my studies in December of 1993, I came here thinking I would teach English for a year or two – and I ended up staying here and eventually married a Hungarian.

There was a Bible study that I was teaching on Fridays, and, since I was a native speaker, and because I was an English teacher, it didn’t take too long before I became one of the leaders of that Bible study. I realized that, over the course of the week, I would put more thought and effort into planning that one Bible study than into these other English lessons that I was getting paid for. I thought, “Okay, if this is what I look forward to, if this is what I enjoy doing, then maybe this is what I should be doing... But if I want to do that then I should study more.” So I, by that time with a family, went to the US, to Richmond, Virginia, to study at a Presbyterian seminary to be a Christian Educator and to be a Minister.

We came back here in 2004 and I started working for a place at Kálvin Tér called The Protestant Institute for Mission Studies. I was teaching Congregational Mission and Outreach to primarily laity, but sometimes I would do workshops and sometimes there were courses at the institute. After I taught there for about two years, they were starting to restructure that educational program and at the same time the Scottish minister at this church returned to Scotland. I was wondering where I was going to fit in the Reformed Church system and the Scottish church here was looking for a minister. I contacted the Church of Scotland to talk more about this and it was 10 years ago that I became the minister.

How did your time as an Elder in the congregation inform the way you view your pastoral role now?

Hmm, that’s a good question. When I first came here as an English teacher, I didn’t speak any Hungarian and I was thrilled to not only find an English-speaking church, but an English-speaking Presbyterian Church. Because I had been an Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, the minister at that time said, “Why don’t you be an Elder here?” We were a very small Kirk session: with Susan Cowell and Bertalan Tamás we had two ministers, and with the other Elder and myself there were two of us as well. Two ministers and two Elders, two men and two women, two Hungarians and two non-Hungarians – it was balanced no matter how you looked at it! I remember the ministers sometimes asking us what the pastoral care needs were and I remember thinking, “We’re all away from home, we’re all adjusting to life here, there’s not near the informal connection network that you would have at home.”

I do think that that distance from home, even when people become relatively settled, can still become an issue. It’s not as simple as homesickness, because you might be happy to be here, you don’t regret coming, but you just don’t have as many connections and so I think remembering that, and giving people a place to connect, becomes a part of ministry. You can’t force it, you just have to give opportunities for it to happen. That’s why I think the coffee and tea after service, even though it’s done at many different churches all over the world, is such an important part of what we do.

Very soon after I became the minister here I was talking to a member of the church and I asked him, “Who is Jesus Christ to you?” and he gave a very traditional Reformed theological answer. Then I asked him, “What do you think Jesus is calling us to do together?” and he paused and he said, “I think coffee and tea is the most important thing we do.” I thought that was such a contrast because I thought he was going to give another theological, doctrinal response, but he went from this very orthodox explanation of who Jesus is to this straightforward answer about the importance of coffee and tea. That tells me that there is a theological basis whether we know it or not.

Part of it is that it just gives people a chance to connect who otherwise wouldn’t be connecting. I remember the need for that and it does us good if we can help people connect. There’s nothing better than if we have a non-worship event and the Sunday after, I see two people who haven’t spent much time together sitting next to one another. I think that’s really cool that they may not have known each other but now they are sitting next to each other – it means that connections are happening. I think remembering the need for connection has really informed my practice of ministry.

In light of the jubilee’s Biblical motto, Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” and its overarching theme of “Outreach of Love,” how do you see the essence of the Scottish Mission in Budapest?

I love the history of outreach – I don’t think every congregation is called to be what we are. Somebody once was pressing us on the question, “Are you an urban outreach or are you a church for expats? You’ve got to choose because otherwise you won’t have any identity.” To a certain extent, I thought the question was helpful because it makes you ask yourself why are we here, who are we here for, etc., but it’s helpful only to a certain extent because I think at the end of the day we had to say that we’re the church that won’t draw those lines. That’s who we are.

When somebody comes to me and says “We’re looking for a space to house our services to refugees,” I don’t want to take that request too lightly. I do think to myself, “Well, how much storage space is needed and what else is going on in the church?” I do think of some of the pragmatic questions. I wonder, how many other people who use the church will appreciate this? What misunderstandings and disagreements can occur? But I also just feel like I have this institutional heritage that lets me say, “Let’s give it a try,” because if any church can try this, we can. I think that gives us the freedom to let in new approaches to outreach and we benefit from that.

It’s why a mission that was at one time protecting Jews and welcoming Jews in a way that not all churches were (we weren’t the only ones, but it wasn’t something that everyone was doing) then today can be a place of welcome for refugees and not need to bat an eye over that. That’s just who we are and that gives us opportunities.

What would you characterize as being the main focus of the Mission during your time there?

I was inducted into ministry here in November of 2006, so we’re reaching the end of my first 10 years, and certainly when I came what I found was that there was already engagement with refugees. It was more integrated at some times than others – sometimes it happened to just be people that were in the church who also happened to work with refugees and sometimes refugees were coming to church.

We almost lost our refugee connections a few years ago just because the refugees who had been a part of our congregation had moved to other countries, or were established enough in Hungary that maybe they were working on Sundays and couldn’t come, or they were living farther from the church and they had families so it was more difficult for them to come. We talked about, you know, is this something that’s going to be a chapter in the past? In part because of the refugee crisis, and in part because of renewed connections with the people who reach out to refugees, we’ve been able to reinvigorate that. So certainly refugee outreach has been something that predated my arrival, though not by much, and it’s something that has been fairly constant.

Something that we’ve talked about, and have become more intentional about, is a connection with university students. One way it’s been more connectional and structured is when Calvin College students come here from Grand Rapids, Michigan, in the United States. I’ve now got a fixed role in their curriculum, helping them with their service-learning placements – as they find places to do service-learning, I’m the one coordinating that, helping them, and supervising the work somewhat. Through that connection it means that we get to see more of the students here more consistently. What happens then is if you have these university students coming in every fall then other people in that age range are a little more energized by that presence.

With its long history of reaching out to “the other” and those on the fringes of society, what memory sticks out to you where you’ve experienced the Scottish Mission providing a sense of refuge during your service here?

One thing we do in the summer is a day camp. It’s kind of what people in North America, or at least in the US, would call a vacation bible school. We invite children to come here from about nine in the morning until around four in the afternoon and in between we have games, music, a worship time, and bible stories – it’s a little bit meant to be almost a kind of daycare for one week in the summer. During that week we have kids from refugee families, Hungarian families, and occasionally ex-pat families. Every year that’s an exciting week and you see how quickly the kids overcome whatever social barriers might exist.

One year I remember there was a boy from this neighborhood, from a Roma family, and there was a younger boy from an Iranian family and I saw the Iranian boy kind of shadow the Roma one – he was almost like a big brother to him. Basically you got the impression that this younger boy was so happy that there was somebody else who wasn’t a white European, you know, and it was just kind of interesting and in some ways it was sad, in some ways it was just sweet. But I don’t think it was a coincidence that this boy chose that one to follow around.

Just to see how children can be children and how they’ll get along – or if they don’t get along, it’s not going to be about who’s from what background – and I’ve really enjoyed that.

Given that St. Columba’s is in a unique position, simultaneously being a part of both the Church of Scotland as well as the Reformed Church in Hungary, how do you see that connection between the Scottish Mission and the RCH play out? Do you see your congregation influencing the Hungarian church, or do you feel them influencing you?

To me, it’s very clear that we are both Church of Scotland and Reformed Church in Hungary. One reason that’s interesting for me is because I come originally from an American Presbyterian church, which, although it has its roots in the Church of Scotland, it’s not the same thing as the Church of Scotland. So I feel like I come with a perspective slightly as an outsider to each of the churches, but at the same time it helps me see that there’s this reformed connection between the two – it has to do with realizing that we have a shared commitment to the Bible, to reading the Bible in an informed way (which in fact means reading the bible in a way that’s more intentional and requires more work than literalistic readings, but which is also truer to how the bible was written than literalistic readings). We have in common the commitment to always learning from the bible, to kind of discipline ourselves in how we read the bible, believing that the bible is relevant, believing that we need God’s word to correct us because we’re never going to get this completely right.

That question of, “What is our role today and what should it be?” is a question that all three churches are asking, along with thinking about what does it mean to train ministers today and what the role of Elders is. I think that, as a congregation of the Church of Scotland and the Reformed Church in Hungary, I can look at the conversations happening in both places and say, “You do realize that you’re not the only one dealing with this? Did you know that they’ve done this?” and I can kind of help bridge things. I think seeing the common roots that helped bring us about as we are and seeing the shared struggles today and being able to kind of voice that in both directions is a great opportunity for us.

How has working at St. Columba’s influenced your life?

It is interesting that when I came here to Hungary to teach English, thinking that I would teach for just one or two years, I did not think that I was going to go into ministry. I had a lot of reasons not to do it. But then when I came here, because it was a small congregation (and we’re still not a large congregation), each person counted. My own leadership, or chance to try leadership, gave me a certain a kind of affirmation that without which I don’t think I would have gone into ministry later.

In some other church context, even though theoretically the opportunity could exist for me to take on a leadership role, it practically never would have been my turn. I either wouldn’t have become an Elder on the session or, even if I had, there would have been somebody else to go to General Assembly instead of myself. It just so happened that these things, these opportunities, came my way and that helped me become very comfortable with different levels of church work at a young age, so that when I did become a minister I saw so well how things fit together.

I do think that part of my life here is rethinking what home means. If I go back to America that wouldn’t feel like home as much anymore, but here will I ever be fully Hungarian? Probably not. So just thinking about what it means to be a Christian in that context is really interesting for me. I think it’s actually uncomfortable in a good way.

We can forget the cultural baggage here – I don’t even ask visitors to church, “Where are you from?” because I know it’s not an easy question to answer. If there’s an American woman who had an American father and Hungarian mother but she grew up in Jeddah and I say “Where are you from?” how’s she supposed to answer that question?

We don’t worry as much about where were from, we just think about where we are now and what does that mean. That has shaped me in a way that I don’t think I would have been shaped if, for example, I had just come here to teach English and I were still today an English teacher with no connection to the church. I think I would have become part of a sort of English teacher enclave, let’s say still married a Hungarian, still bilingual, but I think somehow it’s the church that mixes things up more and puts it in the context of something bigger than intercultural exchange. I think that motivates me to navigate these messy waters without feeling discouraged.

Any other thoughts?

If you look at our history, there were times when the Mission simply would have shut down without Hungarians to take the leadership, but at the same time I think it simply wouldn’t have been the same kind of ministry without people coming in from the outside. That kind of exchange and synergy of somehow local and outsider working together, bringing in new energy or new ideas or just a discomfort with how things are – I think that can be really thought provoking for any congregation. What does it mean for the corner church in suburban America? How might they be energized if they started to listen more to newcomers and outsiders that kind of were on their fringe who don’t know how things have always been done? Maybe that’s a good thing.

Lastly, I definitely want to say that there can be a temptation when we talk about protecting the marginalized or being welcoming to say that that’s a western value that the foreigners have brought in, and our history just doesn’t show that to be the case. Jane Haining was a great example in the school, but she was one person on the staff of a whole institution that made the Jewish girls feel safe here. The Hungarian ministers have done so much to reach out to refugees or anyone else, and so that’s actually part of our shared value. It’s not something where the international people come in and try to motivate Hungarians towards it. The acceptance and hospitality has a strong tradition within the Hungarian circles as well and history shows that this Mission is one place where they’ve been able to show it. That’s kind of a diplomatic answer, but it’s true.


Interview by Kearstin Bailey

Photos:reformatus.hu/Vargosz, Dimény András

Cover picture by Bonnie Humke

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Reformed Church in Hungary

Address: H-1146 Budapest, Abonyi utca 21.   

PO Box: 1140 Budapest 70, Pf. 5

Phone/Fax: + 36 1 460 0708 

Email: oikumene@reformatus.hu

Our church through American eyes

We encourage you to read our  former GM intern Kearstin Bailey's blog about her time, spent in Hungary.