Powerlessness, Citadels, and Trusting Generosity

By Alice Wanamaker

I am a person who feels powerful most of the time. Since I was very young, I’ve felt like I was preparing myself to do something big and important for the world. Since I was very young, I’ve felt like one day, I would have influence that I couldn’t fathom then and can’t fathom now. That feeling has just gotten stronger as I’ve grown up and started to understand my skills and the world I live in. I am smart and motivated and very privileged. I am the kind of person who gets power in our world.

This is exciting, obviously, but it also feels like a weight. Now, this is going to sound super arrogant, but I regularly blame myself for terrible things that our administration does. My mind gets narcissistic and brutal when I hear things on the news. It doesn’t spur me to action; it just makes me feel defeated and bad about myself, and it’s not a useful place for me to be.

When I first signed up for this trip, I kind of thought that it might be medicinal against this thought pattern. I hadn’t gone further than D.C. while old enough to remember it. So from the beginning, I hoped that I would be awed enough that it would finally click that I wasn’t in charge of everything. I had no idea what that might feel like, but I hoped.

I’m happy to report that I was right.

You might think you know what the phrase ‘rolling hills’ means, but I’m telling you right now that you don’t. They are not the same. They are not familiar. And there are fields of sunflowers that stretch in neat rows all around you, and miles of defunct steel plants that are now nothing but half of a skeleton and two-thirds of a memory, and store vendors speaking to you in broken English because they learned the English they needed for their business and no more, and you know as you speak to these people and thank them that they will not remember you.

Even the people in the village, who I love and who I was devastated to leave, do not know where I am headed.

So, part one: powerlessness. What a feeling. The world is so big and so complicated that even when emails from nonprofits and viral Instagram posts and random teachers in your school are telling you that you are the one who can save us from ourselves... there are parts of it, most of it in fact, that none of us will ever touch. I do not affect everything. I am not responsible for everything, and I can never be. There will always be parts of the world that I have no influence over whatsoever. What a relief.

Part two: citadels.

In this congregation, in this country, it is so, so easy for us to forget our history. Our church is only a hundred years old. And it is true that Northampton is an extremely liberal city, and it is true that we’ve led the way on quite a few social issues. In some ways, we get to consider this place progressive and innovative and powerful. But power is isolating, again. It is so easy for us to feel untethered and unsupported and very, very, young.

I call this section ‘citadels’ because we went to a citadel, the place where Francis David was imprisoned for his beliefs and died six months later. Shortly before this imprisonment, Catholics regained control of the country. Wanting to keep control of it, they told Francis David that the new religion he had created (which was then called anti-trinitarianism) would not be banned. All he had to do was promise to keep his teachings as they were--to stop innovating, to stop questioning his beliefs.

But he didn’t, and he was killed for it.

We have martyrs. That shook me. We have brothers and sisters who have been fully persecuted for their beliefs--our beliefs. We have this little white church from the fourteenth century with fading biblical frescoes that has now been Unitarian for much longer than it was Catholic. We have public monuments to our icons that people leave flowers on. Our beliefs were not born in a small, gay city in western Massachusetts. Our beliefs were born at the faultlines between four enemy sects, at a time when religion was the thing that shook the world.

We are not young, and we did not make this happen, and we are not alone in it.

And then we got to Karasconyfalva.

So, most of you have probably heard me speak here before; I do it a lot. I’d also guess

that most of you haven’t seen me cry up here. When it comes to meaningful experiences and talking about them, I don’t cry easily and I don’t cry often. I remember getting choked up for a second at one graduation speech, but never anything more.

I was sobbing when I spoke at the service in Karasconyfalva. As soon as I opened my mouth.

Most of what I said was about understanding how much history we have, because I was struck by that the second I stepped foot in that church. But that’s not what was the hardest to get through.

I had started with a thank you, because I couldn’t imagine starting with anything else.

Your kindness has stunned us many times over, I said, and we are very, very grateful for it.

When I say stunned, I really do mean it.

One day we all went out to dinner at a restaurant. I got one of the smaller meals, and I was still hungry when I was done with it. Eneco, the minister’s wife, offered me a piece of her pizza several times. Eventually, I accepted, but when I took a bite, I realized it was completely covered in mushrooms and I didn’t like it. I started to pick off the mushrooms, ready to just eat it plain. Eneco noticed and immediately, insistently asked me if I didn’t like mushrooms. When I eventually muttered a ‘yes’, she grabbed the half-eaten slice back and called across the table for her daughter to give me a piece of hers instead.

I was so embarrassed, I felt sick. I didn’t want to be a pain. I didn’t want to take someone else’s food, especially considering that they might not go out for pizza nearly as often as I do.

I felt guilty about that for several days afterwards. I was convinced that we--no, that I was taking too much, that they were feeling put-upon to give more than they were comfortable giving.

And then when we got to the service, Eneco cried as we sang with the village children, and when we were given gifts, and then when I talked, too.

It was really hard to let myself trust that much generosity. She cooked most of our meals in our own kitchen, and I later found out that she would wait to eat until we were done. She gave all her time and all her energy and a slice of pizza that I wasted. And she was crying at the end, just as much as all of us who had been showered with all of this love. It was hard to let myself believe that she had gotten something out of giving that much.

Part three: trusting generosity. Eneco hugged me twice when we left. She wasn’t mad at me.

I do believe in self-care, in not giving the things you aren’t able to give. But why not give absolutely everything else?

I want to offer every molecule I can possibly live without. I want to give up things that matter to me, and things that make me comfortable, and things that I want to keep.

That’s the kind of love that we have on our side. That’s the kind of love that is our partner.

That’s the kind of love we need.


New Possibilities

By Bebe Leistyna

I did not have many expectations going into this trip. Knowing very little about Transylvania, I was eager and nervous to see how life was the same and different. From the moment we arrived in Homoródkarácsonyfalva, I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the people of the village. But it was something more too. Through the songs they shared with us, the food they made for us, and the way people invited us to see their art, gardens, and animals, the sense of pride they felt was so clear. It almost overwhelmed me because often I feel like the way we live in the states fosters a culture of never having enough material things and always wanting more. It can make you feel inadequate or ashamed, even when everything is perfectly okay. With this can come a kind of reservation which can hinder being generous with one another.

Although I do not live there and I cannot know everything, I did not sense this same feeling in the village. People were so open to us. One family invited us to see their baby water buffalo and another invited us to see their gardens, ducklings and baby bunnies. Eniko, who organized everything for us, took the time to describe the different herbs in her garden and what she used them for. There was a sense of excitement about it all and we were able to share in it. This kindness and generosity did not seem to be reserved solely for us either. People look out for each other and know the needs of the community.

Although I did not have many expectations going into this trip, it has truly changed how I see community and myself. I feel so humbled to be a part of this group and to have had this experience with such wonderful people. I sense new, exciting possibilities for my life and look forward to sharing even a little bit of the love I felt on this trip.


Things I Will Change and Why

By Eva Weigand-Whittier

I'm sad to be leaving tomorrow. Today was wonderful and the service was great. It is fantastic to be with the ancient frescos in the building they were made for and the little congregation felt so special. Alice's reading was really good and I felt so happy I almost cried but I was able to not. I will miss this place and these people both in youth group and the village. How about a list of what I am looking forward to and what I will miss?

What I will miss:

Time with youth group

Independence from my family

Places other than my house

The people in this village

Time during which I won't be interrupted

The art

The food

People waving to me like we are friends even though we don't know each other

Looking forward to the next day

Cheap stuff to buy

The peace of mind I have and lack of being sad

The slower pace

Having little time alone

The lucky nice weather

Never being bored

Playing cards together

The beauty

These peoples accents

Calmness that I very rarely feel at home

The very high concentration of Unitarians

Things I am looking forward to:

Any friends that may be around

Good toilets


My parents; I really have appreciated time away from them but they deserve a place on this list

TV although I haven't missed it

Not being confused by the wifi

My other trips this summer

Fewer flies

Drinkable tap water

Things I will change and why:

Maybe I will journal sometimes, because I feel unhappy that many days I do nothing that matters to me and maybe reflecting would help me appreciate each day more and think of things to do.

Maybe I will go to church sometimes, because I really enjoy sleeping in but I also really enjoyed the 1 or 2 I went to in the semi recent past and there are some people who I would like to see more than I do and it may help me keep the little bit of spirituality and community I have felt here in my life back at home.

Maybe I will hug my friends more because that us usually a good idea.

Maybe I will go on more walks by myself or with others because the world is pretty even if it's uglier than it is here?

Maybe I will make more art because I have some nice reference photos and would like to keep some parts of the experience with me if I put them in art and also I would like to generally be more serious about art because I enjoy it and wish I were better.


Closing the Distance

Colin Henrichon

Having lived in Western Massachusetts my whole life, I have only been exposed to American culture on a daily basis. Even after traveling to Canada, Ireland, and Bermuda, I never felt any sort of culture shock. This was in part due to the fact that these countries have similar culture, and English was the main language. So in the months leading up to this trip, I became increasingly excited about what was to come. I was also a total train wreck with anxiety. And before I knew it, there I was, standing in a completely new culture that I knew nothing about. We immediately were greeted by the children of the village. They gave us flowers, and sang a song to welcome us. They even made us all flags, with their flag on one side, and our flag on the other. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we tried so hard to hold back tears as we did not want the children to think we were sad, when in reality, we were overwhelmed with their generosity. I never thought of America as a generous country, but it wasn’t until I spent time in the village that I really understood, and began to comprehend, just how selfish we as a country can be. The villagers opened up their homes to us. They welcomed us into their place of worship. They continued to shower us with love, support, and even a little bit of patience as we attempted to speak Hungarian. I do not like to call the village a poor one. They have everything they need. And they are happy. But compared to what we have here in the States, well, needless to say I was shocked at how little they had in comparison to us, and yet they gave so much. And they enjoyed doing so.

At the end of our trip, we all sat in a circle and engaged in our last nightly check-in. After reading some opening words, we thought about what we would like to bring back with us after these ten days. My mind shot through a million different possibilities. “Do I want to bring back some of the language I learned? Or do I want to bring back stories of the village?” And while all those ideas were great, one idea rang out more. I wanted to bring back that same level of kindred generosity. I want to be that guy that gives instead of takes. It may sound cliche, but seeing how others live a life much different from ours, be it through the food they eat, the music they play, sing, and dance to, or the language they speak, it made me think. I now can appreciate more of the world around me. And if there is anything at all worth holding onto from this trip (and there is a lot, believe me), it’s that a little generosity can go along way in closing the distance between us.