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Transylvanian partner church gives surprise gift

Unitarians in Székelykeresztúr raise $10,500 for their partner church's capital campaign in Concord, Massachusetts.
By Michelle Bates Deakin
11.9.09

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The Rev. Gary Smith hugs Réka Gagyi (Bill Claybrook)

The Rev. Gary Smith, senior minister of First Parish in Concord, Mass., hugs Réka Gagyi after reading a letter announcing that the congregation’s partner church in Transylvania had raised $10,500 to help the Concord church with renovations. (Bill Claybrook)

Known for his eloquence, the Rev. Gary Smith, senior minister of First Parish Church in Concord, Mass., is rarely speechless. But a surprise gift to the church presented during a September service left him momentarily without words.

The people of Concord’s partner church in Transylvania had pooled their meager resources to make a gift to the Massachusetts church’s capital campaign. In front of the congregation that Sunday in September, Smith opened a surprise envelope to reveal the amount: $10,500.

“I was just floored,” Smith said. “They live in what is mostly a barter economy without a lot of cash. It’s just stunning generosity that speaks volumes about our relationship with them.”

The Concord church and the Congregation of Székelykeresztúr have had a partnership lasting two decades. It began after Smith traveled to Romania in late 1989 with then-UUA President William Schulz. They were part of a delegation visiting the birthplace of Unitarianism after the fall of the repressive regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Soon after the fall of Romanian Communism in 1989, the founders of what would become the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council in 1993 formalized many partnerships between struggling Transylvanian Unitarian congregations and North American churches including the partnership between Concord and Székelykeresztúr.

Over the past 20 years, members of each church have visited the other and established long-standing friendships. The Concord church has provided the Transylvanian church with financial aid, scholarships for its youth to attend the local Unitarian high school, and help with the physical labor of rebuilding its grounds.

The weekend of September 19-20 was a celebration of the partnership. A group of First Church members had traveled to Keresztúr for the Transylvanian Thanksgiving and for the dedication of the church’s newly completed Community House. The building had fallen into disrepair, but through a series of grants and donations from the Concord church—as well as construction help from the Concord youth group—the refurbished building was reopening with a parish hall, offices, library, and overnight accommodations. Back in Concord, the church was having its annual service in celebration of its partner church.

First Parish member Rodger Mattlage, who had long been active in the partner church program, traveled to Transylvania for the dedication. He said a conversation with the Rev. József Szombaltfalvi was the unintentional trigger for the Concord church’s surprise.*

During the summer, Mattlage had been in Keresztúr visiting with Szombaltfalvi. Szombaltfalvi was troubled to hear that the Concord church was struggling to meet the goals for its capital campaign to renovate and expand the church and its offices. Mattlage recalls that Szombaltfalvi thought about the issue for a few days, and then told him, “We’d like to give a gift.”

Mattlage responded, “That will make a lot of us cry.” And then Mattlage cried himself.

Members of the Keresztúr congregation began to pledge donations. A retired man was the first to offer $100, which was half of his monthly pension. Then a businessman offered $100, and then a student who had received a First Parish scholarship. And the gifts began to pile up.

When Mattlage returned to Transylvania in September for Thanksgiving and the dedication, Szombaltfalvi revealed to him the size of the gift. “I said, ‘That’s way too much,’” Mattlage recalled. “I had no idea it would be that much money.”

Szombaltfalvi asked Mattlage for his help in translating a message to read at the service back in Concord. The note read, in part:

Dear Brothers and Sisters from Concord!
At this time you are repairing and enlarging your church. In these hard and critical economic times this isn’t an easy undertaking. Therefore we would like to give you something back after all the great help you have given to us, year by year. I suggested to the leading board of our congregation that we organize fundraising in order to help on your project. My suggestion was greeted with joy and people asked with tears in their eyes: Can we do this?

Yes, we can…

The leading board of our community has determined that by the end of October $10,500 will have been collected and sent to you. Please take our offer with love. God bless your work and lives.

With love,
József and the Congregation of Székelykeresztúr

The note was presented to the Concord congregation by college student Réka Gagyi, a member of the Keresztúr congregation who spent the summer working in Concord.* Winslow Pettingell, co-chair of the partner church committee, also helped with the presentation. He says he is still dumbfounded by the size of the gift. “It’s so typical of the people of Keresztúr,” he said. “They literally will give you the shirts off their backs.”

On November 8, members of the Concord church gathered to dedicate their new renovation and addition. The patio that runs the length of the new religious education and office wing will be dedicated in honor of the Congregation of Székelykeresztúr.

That same day, members of the Concord church completed a card to thank their Transylvanian friends for their generosity.

Pettingell is deeply grateful for the gift. “We’ve been in a fortunate position to be able to give to them for a long time,” he said. “But it’s been much more than giving financial support. It’s a deep-seated recognition of one another.”

Smith echoed those sentiments in his September sermon. After he collected himself from the shock of the gift, he preached about the special relationship the members of the two churches have shared.

“I could not have imagined when I was a child that when I grew up I would have a family and a congregation and a village in the most rural part of Romania, literally half a world away, who would love us, who would have our pictures on their walls, who would have our tears on their streets. It would have been unimaginable.”

“Those of us who have entered into the hospitality of this Transylvanian extended family of ours have often been at a loss to find words for the experience, we have been unable to capture the grandeur of their hospitality, how we who have so much have found ourselves so humbled by receiving the shirt off someone’s back, the dish off their shelf, the food off their tables.”

And now, Smith could add, money out of their wallets.


Correction 11.16.09: In an earlier version of the story, we said that Mattlage was the "prime instigator" of the Concord church's surprise. Mattlage said that the surprise gift to the Concord church was the unintentional result of a conversation with the Rev. József Szombaltfalvi. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

Correction 11.19.09: In an earlier version of the article we mistakenly said that Réka Gagyi was attending college in the United States. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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