My first mission trip: Romania, post Ceauşescu

The city of Bucharest in December, 1994 was celebrating the 5th anniversary of Ceauşescu’s overthrow. I attended another celebration, the grand opening of the first Pizza Hut in Romania. It was also frigid cold.

I was teaching Greek 1 at Timotheus Bible College. The building was still only a shell. It had sporadic electricity, but was without indoor plumbing, doors, heat, and in some cases, walls. I hadn’t known to bring boots, so my feet turned numb as I stood for hours on cold concrete. We had a fire burning in a covered 55-gallon drum. One memorable morning I illustrated some fine point of Greek with a dramatic sweeping gesture, and knocked loose the stove-pipe, filling the room with smoke until some guys managed to re-attach it. The power would go on and off. Cats padded in and out. Snow drifted in the hallways.

After class was lunchtime, and the volunteer ladies would bring in a typical meal of ciorba (CHORE-buh; a thin vegetable soup), bread and, for our vegetable, pickled tomatoes.

That was my mission.

Greek class - "Better keep your coats on!"
Greek class – “Better keep your coats on!”

And I loved it. As it turned out, they invited me back three times, once more in winter and twice in summer, adding Greek 2 and later Bible Interpretation to my teaching load.

Third trip, Jan 1996

My host, Ion, was an engineer who had helped to design the country’s railroads – and had also spent months in jail under the communists. He took me around to different places, where I preached. Ion’s own church met in a bowling alley, likewise unheated and without lighting. The congregation sat huddled on the spectator benches; I used the scoring table as my pulpit, my back to the lanes. Steam blew from my mouth as I talked about the shepherds in the field, watching their flocks by night.

In the summers we visited the mountains of Transylvania, where I preached in some Brethren assemblies. One time, I went in the only clothes I had with me, a T-shirt and torn jeans. We popped into
The real Castle Dracula, in Transylvania

the meeting, which had apparently been going for some time. Ion quickly negotiated with one of the elders, and then gave me a surprise: “Okay, you’ll be preaching; in about 5 minutes”. The most I could do was swap my sandals with a friend whose shoes fit me. I started my sermon by apologizing for dressing down: these Brethren, like country folk in many countries, went to church in their best clothes.

A missionary adapts, I learned, or quickly falls apart and becomes an ex-missionary. Stay relaxed, walk with God, and embrace the unexpected. I learned a second truth as well, that is, look for appropriate ministry: God has jobs for every kind of person, in my case, a professor. These two principles might appear contradictory, but they are both taught in the Bible (think the apostle Paul) and my experience confirms them.

By the time I was on my final trip to Romania, Karen and I were already laying plans to go on the mission field permanently: I would serve as New Testament professor at ESEPA Bible College and Seminary in San José, Costa Rica ( There is a rightness in this task to which the Lord has called us, for which I give thanks. I had only picked up a little Romanian; this time we took the longer path and learned Spanish properly. The first time I taught in Costa Rica was in Spanish, a talk on the book of Acts that I’d written out and had thoroughly checked over by my language teacher. And I stay flexible (I teach; I also do things like raise funds for ESEPA, paint classrooms, and work in administration). I say “yes” to many things I don’t normally do. And I say “no” to things – including many worthwhile things – that would distract me from my main task. I’m entirely pleased that we’ve been in Latin America for 12 years now; still, mulţumesc, Lord, many thanks for Bucharest.

ADDENDUM: the reader may enjoy this essay, “How Did Paul Know Where he was Supposed to Go?”

“My first mission trip: Romania, post Ceauşescu,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor of New Testament, Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica

3 thoughts on “My first mission trip: Romania, post Ceauşescu

  1. Gary, this is beautifully written. I feel as though I’ve just been to Bucharest, still shivering from the cold. The presence of kitty cats in Greek class is delightful, and the smoke in the room nearly chokes me, but I’m laughing instead at the chaos. Thank you for helping us to truly “experience” a little bit of Bucharest. Those two words, adapt and appropriate, will likely stick with me for a while.

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