In 1945 on a train between Bucharest and Budapest, Sabina–the only woman on a train full of Russian soldiers–sat in a cargo car among the packages. She braced her legs against food and goods strewn around her.
“You can’t go!” Anutza had begged. “ The Russian soldiers are hungry for women. You walk through the streets and find girls with their throats sliced, and no one does anything!”
But Sabina knew that without supplies, the relief workers in Hungary wouldn’t be able to feed the starving Jews and Christians of Budapest. The Russians had ransacked the Hungarian city, and Richard couldn’t leave Bucharest. No one else would volunteer to make the delivery, so Sabina had to go.
After a long search, she found a corner in one of the few available train cars. The Russians had commandeered all the others.
The journey that should have been quick and easy took days. As the train pulled into Budapest, Sabina’s eyes widened. Soldiers were still fighting, and everything was in ruins. The city’s public transportation had been destroyed, and buildings spewed smoke from smoldering ashes.
With her packages in tow, Sabina stumbled through the streets of the war-torn Hungarian city. The people she sought were nowhere to be found. Some had been killed in the last days of fighting, and the Germans had deported the rest. At last she found two Christian leaders–Pastor Johnson of the Norwegian Mission and Pastor Ungar, a Jewish Christian who led the church where Jews and other nationalities worshipped. To them, Sabina was an angel sent from God.
The famine in Budapest was at its worst. As people emerged from the cellars, food had grown scarce. Hundreds were homeless, church buildings had been razed, and the people had resorted to eating a horse killed in the fighting. Sabina’s help arrived just in time.
From Budapest, Sabina planned to go to Vienna. The Austrian city was also in ruins, and its people were starving. She arrived at the Budapest station for a train to Vienna, but people already hung from the doors and spilled over the roof of the available car. Suddenly Sabina heard her name and a round of cheerful laughter.
“There’s no room, but we’ll make room!” called out a girl who was with a group crowded together on the top of the train car. They were Auschwitz refugees who had stayed with the Wurmbrand family in Bucharest. Sabina climbed to the top of the car and joined the girls. The four-hour journey from Budapest to Vienna now took six days. For weeks Sabina had no contact with Richard, but she stayed in Austria until the work was finished. Although her work in Vienna may have been complete, the task in Bucharest was unending.
“Strange news,” Pastor Solheim said, interrupting Richard’s work arranging the sanctuary for the Sunday service. “The government is summoning what it calls a Congress of the Cults. Every confession–every religion, in fact–is asked to send a big delegation.” Solheim snorted. “And the conference is to be held in the parliament building! Whoever heard of such a thing? What can they be planning now?”
The mix of amazement and apprehension on his friend’s face concerned Richard.
Everyone shared guesses and rumors about the meaning of the upcoming congress. Many believed the government’s promise of full religious freedom, but Richard saw a larger, darker picture. Isn’t it happening here just as it happened in Russia? he mused. Lenin defended the persecuted sects ... until he came to power. Then tens of thousands died in concentration camps. First the church is lulled into acceptance. Then the blow falls. Richard shuddered as horrific scenes flooded his memory.
Richard and his colleagues met with Pastor Solheim to discuss their involvement in the impending assembly. With Solheim, the head of the mission, lay the final judgment, and Richard saw the determination shining in his dark eyes.
“We’ll go, and we’ll speak out,” he said. The decision was made.
In Romania, the Christian church had begun a dangerous dance with Communism. Orthodox and Protestant leaders seemed to compete with one another in submitting to Communism. An Orthodox bishop stitched the hammer and sickle on his clerical robes and asked to be referred to as “Comrade Bishop” not “Your Grace.”
Other priests became officers of the secret police, and seminary leaders added dangerous new theology to their curriculum. The deputy bishop of the Lutheran Church in Romania explained to his ministerial students that God actually had given three revelations not two: one through Moses, one through Jesus, and one through Stalin. It was under Stalin’s revelation that the church now lived.
The Communists had “elected” the church leaders, and the church had little choice but to accept them. One group of Baptists in the town of Resita flew the Red flag over their annual meeting and sang the anthem of the Soviet Union as if it were a hymn of the Christian faith. The president of the Baptists praised Stalin as a great Bible teacher and proclaimed his fulfillment of God’s commandments. Ministers who refused to dance with the Communists suffered greatly. Now all these ministers gathered at the Congress of the Cults.
On the morning of the gathering, Richard and Sabina joined their fellow clergy members climbing Parliament Hill. Crowded into the galleries and on the great hall’s floor were four thousand religious leaders. Orthodox bishops and Catholic priests joined Protestant pastors and ministers. Jewish rabbis and Muslim mullahs sat side by side. The crowd cheered as Comrade Stalin, whose enormous portrait ominously stood guard over the hall, was named patron of the congress. No one seemed concerned that Stalin was an atheist and a mass murderer of Christians.
Red flags filled the auditorium, and top Communist leaders (the Romanian prime minister and minister of the interior) joined a grouping of top religious leaders on the platform. The assembly convened, blessed by the trembling old Orthodox patriarch Nicodim, whose hand the Communist leaders kissed while crossing themselves and paying homage to the Orthodox icons. Prime Minister Groza opened the congress with assurances of the Romanian government’s support of faith–any faith–and the guarantee that the government would continue to pay the clergy. In fact, there would be raises. Those gathered welcomed the lavish promises of religious support from the government, and cheers and applause shadowed every speech.
Following the Communist assurances were responses from the priests and pastors. One by one they praised the government leaders for their support of religion and declared their loyalty to the new Romanian government. The state could count on the church if the church could count on the state. Communism and Christianity were fundamentally the same, the leaders said, and could certainly coexist. Throughout history, streams of all political colors had joined the great river of his church, one bishop said. He welcomed the prospect of a red one now entering as well. Over the airwaves, the glee and fervor of the religious leaders and Communist puppets were broadcast to the entire country.
Richard’s blood began to boil. He tugged at his tightening shirt collar and seethed at the cowardice of the religious leaders. Communism hated religion! The ministers spoke out of fear for their families, their jobs, and their salaries, but why couldn’t they just have stayed silent?
Next to Richard, Sabina shifted and sighed in exasperation, her anger growing with every fawning lie. Communism was dedicated to religion’s destruction, not defense. The religious leaders had seen what happened in Russia. Why would they be so foolish as to think it would be any different here? The church had been seduced by the empty deceptions of Communism. This congress was spitting in the face of Christ.
Finally Sabina couldn’t take it any longer. She exhaled slowly and wiped her sweaty palms on her lap. Her heart racing, she leaned toward her husband and grabbed his hand. Under her breath, she whispered in Richard’s ear, “Richard, stand up and wash this shame from the face of Christ!”
Richard slowly turned toward Sabina and stared into her angry eyes. It was clear he knew she was right, but she could also tell he understood the consequences.
“If I do,” he warned, “you’ll lose your husband.”
Sabina’s eyes bored into Richard’s, and she squeezed his hand harder. Her nails dug into his palm. With courage only from the Holy Spirit, she spoke again.
“I don’t want a coward for a husband.”
Richard sent his identification card forward and requested a chance to speak. The leaders of the congress were delighted to usher him to the podium. They glanced at one another and smiled, imagining the next day’s news release: “Pastor Wurmbrand of the Swedish Church Mission and the World Council of Churches congratulates the Communist government on its support of religion in Romania!” They could almost see the headline and were already congratulating themselves on the propaganda win. But Pastor Wurmbrand had something else in store for the Congress of the Cults.
He took the podium, and a great hush fell on the hall. Sabina could feel the Spirit of the Lord drawing near. As Richard began his speech, the room sat in rapt silence. The object of Richard’s praise wasn’t Communism but Jesus Christ.
With faith-fueled courage, Richard reminded his colleagues that their duty as priests was to glorify God the Creator and Christ the Savior who died on the cross, not temporal earthly powers. He extolled the church’s calling to support Christ’s everlasting kingdom of love against the vanities of the day and ignored the party line, speaking biblical truth instead.
As he went on, the atmosphere of the entire room began to change. Ministers who had sat motionless for hours, passively absorbing the flattering fabrications of the Communist Party, seemed to wake up. Their glazed eyes refocused, and they shook themselves as if from sleep. Sabina’s heart filled with joy as she realized her husband’s gospel message was being broadcast to the entire country.
Suddenly someone began to clap. The tension snapped, and waves of applause washed over the room. Delegates stood and cheered. The Romanian church had awoken again.
From the platform, the minister of cults, a former Orthodox priest named Burducea, leaped to his feet. “Your right to speak is withdrawn!” he called out. With veins pulsing in his reddened neck, he barked orders to his minions on the floor below. “Cut that microphone!”
The audience shouted him down. “Pastorul! Pastorul!” they chanted rhythmically. From “a pastor,” Richard had become “the pastor.”
Richard ignored Burducea’s order, reminding him that his right to speak came from God. As Richard verbalized the message all the Christian leaders wanted to speak, the crowd supported him with robust applause.
The uproar continued for minutes, with Communist lackeys scampering across the parliament hall in a frantic effort to silence Pastor Wurmbrand and calm the delegates. They severed the microphone wires, but it did little to quell the exhilaration in the room. Christian leaders shouted and clapped long after Richard left the stage.