Some people would have called our trip foolhardy. But I kept telling myself we were acting on faith.
There were three of us traveling to Eastern Europe shortly after the countries there had revolted against Communism. Our goal was to determine whether church leaders in this unsettled part of the world would be interested in a mission such as ours. The only problem was we had no contacts there. And no place to stay. Not even train tickets back!
At the time we made the trip, I was a student at Biola University in California, completing my work for a doctorate in cross-cultural education. My wife Julie and I were expecting our fifth child. It wasn’t an ideal time to think about travel, but I’d felt the Lord’s leading to work for Him in Eastern Europe.
The one who organized our trip was Dr. Charles Corwin. Chuck and Elouise, his wife, are the founders of Tyrannus Halls International, a ministry that establishes residence halls on secular university campuses around the world. THI derives its name from the Ephesian lecture hall mentioned in the Book of Acts, in which the Apostle Paul reasoned for the faith. The goal of each Tyrannus hall is to challenge the Christian men who live there to impact their world for Christ.
The third member of our group was John Winston, founder and president emeritus of the only evangelical graduate school of theology in France. John, who speaks several European languages, acted as our European mentor and interpreter on our visits to Budapest, Bucharest, and Prague
I was excited about the possibility of being part of a THI ministry overseas. But the more Chuck told me about the proposed trip, the more I could see it was truly a venture of faith. He pointed out that, because Eastern Europe had been virtually closed to mission work and contacts were hared to establish, we’d have to trust the Lord to guide us.
A couple of months before we started our trip, my devotional reading brought me to the Book of Acts. It wasn’t the first time I’d read the book, but it was the first time chapter 10 made such an impression on me.
Two visions are recorded in this chapter. In one, God instructs a devout Roman centurion named Cornelius to send for the Apostle Peter. In the other vision, God encourages the reluctant apostle to go to the centurion with the message of salvation. Both men obeyed, with wonderful results, as the early Christians later summed it up: “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18, NIV).
It hit me hard that, without God’s direct intervention in two people’s lives, the Gospel of Jesus Christ might not have reached the Gentile world. In a sense, I could identify with Peter. Just as the apostle needed a Cornelius for his outreach to the Gentiles of Judea, I needed contacts in Eastern Europe for a Gospel ministry there.
So for two months before we left, I petitioned the Lord, “Give us a ‘Cornelius’ or two—people who can open the door to a Tyrannus Hall ministry in Eastern Europe.” I used the name Cornelius because it reminded me of how specifically the Lord had guided Peter. I wanted our contacts to be arranged by the Lord as well.
But time was running out and Chuck had come up with very few contacts, though he had used every avenue he could think of. In Budapest, for example, he was able to get the names of only three persons and one church—but no addresses and just two phone numbers.
Not one definite appointment had been set up by the time Chuck and I flew to Paris, where we were joined by John Winston. There we boarded the Orient Express for a 22-hour train ride to Budapest, still without a specific contact. It was totally a trip of faith—or foolishness.
The travel guide we contacted at the station in Budapest, after our arrival Saturday evening, had no trouble defining our journey. He told us, “It is foolish to come to Budapest in the summer without reservations.” We tried the National Tourism Office, but the prices for available accommodations were exorbitant.
Discouraged, we returned to the street. There Chuck followed an impulse and spoke to a well-dressed lady. She told us in English that her husband was a diplomatic economist. More than that, she offered a place where we could stay for half the price the Tourism Office had quoted.
Though unsure at first, we later praised the Lord for this blessing. Our benefactor, Maria Mihályné, directed us to eating places that were within our budget and made phone calls in Hungarian for us. At least she tried. The first number she dialed produced no answer. We learned later it was a denominational headquarters, closed on Saturday night.
The second number was that of another denominational headquarters, but someone was there to answer the phone. We arranged an appointment for the following Tuesday.
The third name on Chuck’s list did not include a telephone number and our hostess couldn’t find the name in the book. So we were down to the last source, which was just the name of a church. No address. No phone number.
With a shrug, Chuck showed the name to Maria. She knew the church! She gave us directions, and we decided to attend the church in the morning.
It was a drizzly day that Sunday. We tried to follow the directions we’d been given, but we got lost. Asking for help from people on the street proved frustrating. We finally found the church and entered late, as the choir was singing.
Elderly man in the back row saw us enter and came into the foyer to greet us. Discovering we were Westerners, he motioned for us to sit in the back pew. When the choir finished singing, the man slipped away, returning shortly with a young choir member who became our interpreter for the service.
That encounter proved to be a breakthrough for us. After the service, we learned that the choir member, who spoke excellent English, had headed the Hungarian Fellowship of Evangelical Students the past 10 years. He was also a busy physician in a city of 2.2 million people. Chuck shared the purpose of our visit and enlisted his support. He agreed to meet with other leaders and see what he could do.
With our faith bolstered, we traveled on to Bucharest via night train. We could only purchase one-way tickets, because Romanian regulations required that outbound transportation be arranged within the country.
Around 7:00 the next morning, the train made a stop at a station about two hours outside of Bucharest. I was sleepily looking out at the scenery when I noticed four teenage boys approaching our car. One of the boys was lifted up to the open window of the cabin next to the one Chuck, John, and I were in. I realized what the teens were doing when I saw them walk away with a handbag.
I rushed to the next cabin. The occupants—a man and a woman—were in the aisle, looking out the opposite window. I gestured frantically toward their cabin and they stepped back in. Rushing to the open window, the couple yelled at the retreating teenagers.
The conductor was alerted, but by this time the boys had slipped through another standing train and escaped. John was able to speak to the woman, who told him that the thieves had stolen a bag of prescription drugs. They had not touched a bag that contained money and passports.
The lady was so grateful for my intervention that, when she learned we had no accommodations in Bucharest, she insisted that we be the guests of her family. Once again, the Lord had provided help from an unexpected source.
Like Maria in Budapest, our “angel” in Bucharest, Sonia Vitzu, made telephone calls to the few contacts Chuck had, to set up appointments. We were grateful for her many courtesies, but we realized how truly miraculous our association was when it was time to leave Romania.
We could hardly believe our ears when Sonia told us it would take two or three days to get a train ticket. If it took us that long, we might have to bypass Prague to get to Paris in time to catch our plane home. She insisted on accompanying us to the train station.
We arrived at the station at 10:00 in the morning, and were dismayed to see about 200 people lined up at the ticket counter. Sonia told John she knew some people and excused herself. About 20 minutes later, she returned and told us we were free to leave. We could come back at 4:00 to pick up our tickets!
We used the time we’d been spared from the ticket line for meetings with the president of the Romanian Evangelical Alliance, the director of an evangelical seminary, and other key contacts for establishing a THI ministry in Bucharest.
Then we took a 26-hour train ride to Prague. As with the other locations, we had names and phone numbers but no set appointments.
He in turn introduced us to leaders interested in THI, including Karel Taschner, General Secretary of Czechoslovakia’s Brethren churches. Through this single contact, God opened the door for my future ministry in Eastern Europe. As this is being written, I am preparing to move with my family to Prague to join the faculty of a developing seminary and head the THI work in Eastern Europe. Julie and I should be there with our children, studying the Czech language, as you read these words.
The trip I’d made with Chuck Corwin and John Winston must have seemed foolish to some. But it strengthened my faith in a God who answers prayer—even as unusual a prayer as mine for “Corneliuses.”
On a later visit to Eastern Europe, Chuck and I were excited to see the results of our original journey. Among the people we saw again was the English-speaking doctor who had been pulled from the choir to be our interpreter. He had already identified a potential staff member for a developing Tyrannus Hall in Budapest!
Did I mention his name? It’s Kornél Herjeczki. Kornél is the Hungarian equivalent of Cornelius.