That’s the term for the kind of thing I’m working on. And like most passion projects, this one is fuelled by a moment of inspiration. It was here, in the Homoród Valley in 2013, that I first felt the urge to tell the story of the Hungarian-speaking people who live here. I was sitting in the living room at the parsonage in Homoródszentpéter, a Hungarian village that, in the 16th century, reformed its religion directly from Catholicism to Unitarianism without passing through Calvinism.
As a sociologist with an interest in religion, and as someone who for a period of 14 years found herself a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I had come to Transylvania on a budget travel trip with a group of Canadian and American Unitarian Universalists. The trip was a bus tour of about 16 people, including a theologian and an historian, both from Winnipeg, and an assortment of people from American congregations who were visiting their “partner congregations” in Transylvania.
We had been divided into small groups. The Americans headed off to the villages they were visiting and those of us along just for curiosity were also sent to village parishes. I, and a woman from Australia who was a new convert to UUism, had been assigned to Homoródszentpéter. That morning, we had been to church for Pentecost, the high point of the church calendar, and, now evening, the minister, Kinga Réka Székely, had just explained the link between religious practice and ethnic survival for Hungarians in Transylvania.
In this country, where there are no individuals who are not affiliated with an organized religion, everyone has a religion in the same way everyone has a mother tongue. To lose a religion is to stop existing as a social, even political, construct. The religious practices we had seen that morning–the men seated separately from the women, the old taking communion before the young–were expressions of ethnicity as integral to the experience of being Hungarian in Transylvania as baking chimney cakes, wearing braided, seven-button jackets, and slapping boots when dancing. And the Hungarians of Transylvania were determined to continue to exist.
Kinga Réka spoke in a matter-of-fact, direct, arresting style. The thought of relying on religious practice as a strategy for ethnic survival struck me as a fascinating social force. I felt compelled to come back to see if I could understand what that might be like.
And now I had returned. Kinga once again opened her home to me, putting me up in the same guest room I had slept in four years earlier. The familiarity of knowing I could watch the cows leave for pasture at 6:00 from my window was comforting. Before I went up to bed, Kinga’s husband, Csaba, called to me from the living room that there was no need to get up early. After two months of rising at 7:00 with the first school bell, I welcomed the chance to sleep late in a soft bed.
I had come to record an interview with Kinga. Neither of us felt rushed to get this done, and so we agreed I would just hang around until the time felt right, a process that took four days.
To come back to a place is a special kind of visit. I remembered Magda who lived across the road and kept the parish family functioning with meals and laundry, and she remembered me. I remembered rooms and felt at home in them.
Because I was comfortable staying an extra few days, Kinga had time to take me with her to two events. The first was a celebration of the restoration of the early 15th century frescos in the Sepsikilyén church.
In many ways, this art and architectural treasure is a metaphor for the state of Hungarian identity in Transylvania in 2017. At the dinner that followed the ceremony (I got to attend because Kinga was invited), I asked the coordinating minister for the region to identify the greatest challenge facing his area. His answer: “that we have treasures like the church we are celebrating today–and that because of migration, these churches have tiny memberships.”
The most talked about aspect of the fresco restoration was the fresco covering the north wall depicting the legend of King (Saint) Lazlo. Unitarians in Transylvania feel as strong a link to their ancient, pre-Christian past as they do to their present religion–and church frescoes provide evidence that they have been resisting losing their cultural identity since the imposition of Christianity in the year 1,000. If I was here to understand the role of religious practice in preserving cultural identity, I was going to have to understand that link–and that enduring resistance.
(Lots of information in photo captions, but you need to click on the photos to see them.)
*Photo credit: https://www.facebook.com/pg/sepsi.ro/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1057722497692892
Below is a sample of the music played at the ceremony by the Codex Old Testament Ensemble, a group out of the Transylvania University in Brasov. Their repertoire consists of early music from Transylvania and Eastern Europe.
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