My first discussion about injustice took place when I started the first grade. My family lived in Yugoslavia, where the Communist Party had been in control for more than 10 years. Great changes happened in our country after World War II, especially in politics, economics, religion, and education. The Communist Party was the only political affiliation; land was taken from the peasants and it became the possession of the state; religion was ridiculed, and religious people were persecuted and jailed; and the educational system was a means for developing a communist society. My parents became members of the local Baptist church when I was in kindergarten. In September 1957, my father walked me to school on my first day of first grade. He explained to me that, due to the fact that he and my mother had become Christians, I would encounter difficulties in school. He concluded in a very trinitarian fashion by telling me that nevertheless, God made me very smart, I could excel in my education, and if I ever needed him to come to school, he would be there. This was the start of my eight years of education in the communist system.
It was a constant tug of war between my father and the school system. My father told the school administration that my sisters and I would be in school every day except for Sundays, when he and his family would be in church. The church happened to be two buildings away from the school; on Sundays, we could hear what happened in the schoolyard and they could see our family going to church. Each Monday morning would begin with the homeroom teacher asking us where we had been on Sunday. The teachers would tell the Christian students who had gone to church that we were retrograded, that we belonged on Noah’s ark, that we will not have a place in the socialist system, and then finished with any other insults he could think of. A couple of times, teachers came to the church to try to convince my father to let his children come to school on Sundays. My father would remind them that he had already had this conversation with them. I assume they tried to convince the local Nazarene families to do the same.
In the seventh grade, we were given the Young People’s Communist Party card. Our parents were supposed to sign it, but I didn’t even show it to my father because I did not want to upset him. When I graduated from eighth grade, I had followed my father’s advice and I shared first place with the daughter of the president of the local communists. When I look back to my eight years in communist school, I think that my desire to excel, my willingness to fight for justice, and my ability to not let fear dictate my life were all formed during those years.
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After I finished eighth grade, my family and I migrated to Italy and lived in three refugee camps—Trieste, Capua, and Latina. Our longest stay was Capua, because our family was rejected by Canadian immigration and we had to start all over from the beginning of the process. During a religious holiday, the local priest came to sprinkle the apartments in the refugee camp with holy water. When he came to our apartment, my father said that he did not need to come in because we were Baptists. This rejection infuriated the priest who supposedly said that he would show my Father how powerful he was and make sure that we stayed in the refugee camp even longer. I do not know if he carried through with his threat, but I remember the damage he might have caused as a result of my father’s declaration that he was a Baptist.
In between college and seminary, I took a year off and worked at a meat factory in Detroit. This place did not slaughter the animals, but it received meat from other slaughterhouses. Our job was to do things like smoke the meat or shape the sausages. There were over 300 people working in two shifts, one shift in the morning and one in the evening. The people who worked there were immigrants, African Americans, and Hispanics. We had a union and a union representative in name only. One Romanian man cut his hand and was taken to the hospital. The doctor told him not to go to work because his wound was very deep and could easily become infected. After two weeks of recovering, he came to collect his paycheck. Because he could not speak English, he asked me to go with him to speak with the boss, who was also the owner. The boss told me that he cannot receive any money because he had not completed the proper forms. I asked the boss if anyone had given him the proper forms, reminded him of the fact that he could not read the proper forms even if he received them, and then asked if the union representative knew about this accident. The boss went to the door, opened it wide, and told me that, if I wanted to come to work the next day, I should leave as quickly as I could and take my friend along with me. I was aware of the injustices that were done to the workers in that place, but I never knew that it was so blatant. I must confess that I was embarrassed and humiliated, but the gentleman that I took to the office spread the news among our fellow workers that I stood up against the big boss. I think the reality was that the big boss tossed both of us out of his office.
In my second job after graduation from seminary, I had to write reports about the suffering church in Eastern Europe. I was at a conference in Toronto, and a gentleman came to tell me that I had slandered him and his leadership. I asked him to show me the supposedly slanderous words. They were these: “The believers chose (name) to present their petitions and grievances to the government, not the wishes of the government to us. The government has enough of their agents who tell us what to do, they do not need another person!” He recognized that my statement was true, but also told me that it is much easier to make such statements from the comfort of an office in Wheaton, Illinois, than it is to be in a confrontation with communist agents who were trained to intimidate the leadership of the church. Another church leader who had read that article came to me and said, “My dear brother, I was decorated with multiple medals in World War I and World War II so no one can call me a coward. Yet, these communists have broken me and so many other people so that when we go to their offices most of our courage, if not all, has evaporated and we seek to do our best knowing that we have been broken.”
I want to conclude by discussing one of my children’s favorite pictures of me. I am protesting in front of the White House and the US Capitol. I am pictured with Father George Calciu, an Orthodox priest who was imprisoned in Romania for his faith. Despite the known persecution by various communist governments, the government of the United States continued to provide them with special benefits. The benefit that the US extended to the Romanian government was known as the Most Favored Nation Clause. This clause protected the country from various tariffs and taxes. One of my assignments during our protest was to call representatives in both the House and Senate. I was surprised when a particular representative took my phone call and listened attentively to my plea. He was a believer, and I asked if he would be willing to vote against the clause because his Christian brothers and sisters were suffering for the sake of Christ in that country. He replied that he would be willing to vote against the clause, but he will not because the miner’s union from his county has a fraternal relationship with the miners’ union from Romania and he could not go against his constituency.
I understood his situation just as I understood the predicament of my friend who was a war hero of both world wars and a broken man. The US representative was a broken man too, and he gave me a lesson in the injustice that can be perpetrated by people who think that they are doing the right thing. Injustice comes everywhere, and in many forms. Some people are not aware that they do unjust things, and some do it intentionally. Some people are broken by acts of injustice, and some people rise up in the midst of injustice. However, all of us should be willing to speak for those who cannot, and we should speak up every time we see injustice perpetrated.