A few weeks ago, I was driving through Ridgewood, Brooklyn and it dawned on me that I did the same thing when I was a seminary student. From 1974-1977, I studied at Gordon-Conwell in the Boston area and there was a Romanian Baptist church that was just starting in Brooklyn. I volunteered to come from Boston and help them. For the next few summers, I worked at their Vacation Bible School program. After I joined First Baptist Church of Hightstown as the Minister of Christian Education in 1977, I continued to work with the church in Brooklyn and even worked at a third church in Patterson, New Jersey. When I left the area for missionary work in the Midwest, I was no longer connected with those churches.
During the past few years, I have returned to my birthplace several times. My parents became believers in 1956 and were baptized as adults. In 2018, we dedicated a new church building there and this past March, we had the first believer’s baptism in the sanctuary.
In September, I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia to celebrate the 100th birthday of my parents’ pastor. He asked if I would help again with some small Romanian churches in New York and Boston. In contrast with most American Baptist churches, many ethnic churches have evening services. In fact, the attendance at the evening service is usually better because most of the congregants work or attend English-speaking services in the morning. After that invitation, I started making monthly trips to Romanian churches in Brooklyn, Greenfield, and Boston.
When I go to a Romanian church, I often see myself in the families that have recently arrived, primarily in their sons and daughters. I was 16 when I arrived in the United States in December of 1966. We arrived in New York City and some of our relatives took us to see the Statue of Liberty. We settled in Detroit, where our sponsors lived. My parents worked the third shift, from midnight to 8 a.m. In the beginning, they took two buses to get to work before they started carpooling with other workers and eventually buying their first car. We experienced the frightening Detroit Riots, but we had finally arrived in the Promised Land and we believed that everything would turn out alright.
In addition to having jobs and a place to live, my parents gave us stable foundations in both school and church. We had 16 months to learn English in an Italian refugee camp, but it was not sufficient for understanding chemistry and physics or even worse, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Beowulf. Our friends and teachers were the best and they volunteered to teach us, while encouraging us that everything would work out. They were right.
We went to our local ethnic church on on Wednesday evenings, Friday evenings, and the whole day on Sunday. The walk from our home to the church was about 30 minutes. It was good for our health to walk but, more importantly, it gave our neighbors the chance to see us and for us to get to know them. We had Jewish, Italian, Polish, Serbian, Romanian, Japanese, German, Egyptian, and English friends—this was our neighborhood.
The church was the place where we could grow in our faith as we prayed together, worshipped together, and traveled around the country together for rallies and conventions. In our youth group, there were about 30 members between the ages of 15 and 30. I keep in contact with many of them 50 years later. About half of the group stayed in Romanian churches, while the rest settled in English-speaking churches. In that group, there are entrepreneurs, doctors, inventors, engineers, and truck drivers. We have aged well and now we can discuss our grandchildren and their desire to learn the language of their grandparents.
As I drove the two hours from Brooklyn back home to Atlantic Highlands, I had the opportunity to look back at the places and things that made me who I am today. I thank God for all the people who helped me along the way.