In celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, the RCH speaks with Rev Aaron Stevens, current Minister at the Mission, to hear about his time in the congregation. Rev Stevens initially came to the Scottish Mission as a young man teaching English abroad, but before he knew it, his ties to Budapest became greater and greater. He is now entering his 10th year as Minister here and he shares his memories of service and calling with us as a reminder that sometimes the church is called to do extraordinary things.
In celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, the RCH is interviewing various ministers, past and present, to hear the stories about their service at the mission. Today, we speak with Rev Aaron Stevens, current Minister at the Mission, to discuss what initially brought him to Budapest, what made him stay, and how the Scottish Mission changes the lives of its community. The following is an edited portion of the interview – the full text can be read here.
Given that 2016 is the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, can you tell us a bit about the plans for the Jubilee in the coming year?
We’re looking at September of this year to celebrate 175 years – which coincides with the beginning of the school year in September, and of course this was set up as a school, so it works well. There are two main expressions of celebration of the Jubilee. One is that on the weekend of September 17 and 18 we will have worship service, the opening of a kind of exhibition here at the church, and we’ll have visitors from Scotland and, as far as I know, the presiding bishop of the RCH will be with us for that as well. I was speaking with the RCH’s Ecumenical Office and I believe on the Saturday of that weekend there will be a kind of reception or dinner, and then of course the festivities on Sunday; the British ambassador has also agreed to join us for some of those events on that weekend.
Some of the visitors from Scotland will also stay for a whole week. I hope that during that week we will, in a way, tour Budapest as a combination of sightseeing but also remembering. For example, we might spend a morning taking a tour of parliament, but then also look at where our original location was near the Parliament, which is the same street that the German congregation is on today – it could even involve a visit to that church. Also, on Castle Hill there’s the Lutheran church, which our church had a part in the founding of, and the minister there and the Scottish ministers here were on good terms with one another. So maybe on another day we go to Castle Hill and do the touristy thing there, but we also look at the thumbprint of the Scottish Mission there, so to speak. Really, we hope to do sightseeing with a purpose.
I hope that in the weekend we focus on the official ceremonies, so that if people can’t give a whole week to a visit, then at least the main fanfare can be during the weekend, but then people who want to come and have time to explore the various connections, the various ministries, that we’ve cooperated with over the years and also now, will have the chance to do so. The whole idea is to come for the week to have more time to really encounter people and not just hear a lecture.
In addition to those kind of participatory interactions, we hope to be developing a website where a lot of the photos or stories or interviews can start to be put together in one site so people don’t have to search all over the internet – hopefully we can bring things together.
How did an American like you come to be a pastor at a Scottish church in Budapest?
I grew up in South Carolina, which is, if you look at the religious map of the United States, a pretty Presbyterian area because, as early as in the 13 Colonies, the Scots were settling on the eastern coast and in the southeast. So I grew up in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and when I was in university there was a youth mission trip in 1991 through which we first went to the Netherlands, joined together with a Dutch group, and then we came to Hungary. That was pretty soon after the fall of communism and the Hungarian government was returning properties to the church, properties that had been taken by the government to be used, or sometimes not used, or not even taken care of.
There was a conference center at Lake Balaton that had really been neglected and was in a state of disrepair when it was returned to the Reformed Church, and the RCH was inviting international youth groups to come and help clear the land to get it ready for development. I knew then that I wanted to teach English abroad, so I went back to the states at the end of the summer and when I finished my studies in December of 1993, I came here thinking I would teach English for a year or two – and I ended up staying here and eventually married a Hungarian.
There was a Bible study that I was teaching on Fridays, and, since I was a native speaker, and because I was an English teacher, it didn’t take too long before I became one of the leaders of that Bible study. I realized that, over the course of the week, I would put more thought and effort into planning that one Bible study than into these other English lessons that I was getting paid for. I thought, “Okay, if this is what I look forward to, if this is what I enjoy doing, then maybe this is what I should be doing... But if I want to do that then I should study more.” So I, by that time with a family, went to the US, to Richmond, Virginia, to study at a Presbyterian seminary to be a Christian Educator and to be a Minister.
We came back here in 2004 and I started working for a place at Kálvin Tér called The Protestant Institute for Mission Studies. I was teaching Congregational Mission and Outreach to primarily laity, but sometimes I would do workshops and sometimes there were courses at the institute. After I taught there for about two years, they were starting to restructure that educational program and at the same time the Scottish minister at this church returned to Scotland. I was wondering where I was going to fit in the Reformed Church system and the Scottish church here was looking for a minister. I contacted the Church of Scotland to talk more about this and it was 10 years ago that I became the minister.
How did your time as an Elder in the congregation inform the way you view your pastoral role now?
Hmm, that’s a good question. When I first came here as an English teacher, I didn’t speak any Hungarian and I was thrilled to not only find an English-speaking church, but an English-speaking Presbyterian Church. Because I had been an Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, the minister at that time said, “Why don’t you be an Elder here?” We were a very small Kirk session: with Susan Cowell and Bertalan Tamás we had two ministers, and with the other Elder and myself there were two of us as well. Two ministers and two Elders, two men and two women, two Hungarians and two non-Hungarians – it was balanced no matter how you looked at it! I remember the ministers sometimes asking us what the pastoral care needs were and I remember thinking, “We’re all away from home, we’re all adjusting to life here, there’s not near the informal connection network that you would have at home.”
I do think that that distance from home, even when people become relatively settled, can still become an issue. It’s not as simple as homesickness, because you might be happy to be here, you don’t regret coming, but you just don’t have as many connections and so I think remembering that, and giving people a place to connect, becomes a part of ministry. You can’t force it, you just have to give opportunities for it to happen. That’s why I think the coffee and tea after service, even though it’s done at many different churches all over the world, is such an important part of what we do.
Very soon after I became the minister here I was talking to a member of the church and I asked him, “Who is Jesus Christ to you?” and he gave a very traditional Reformed theological answer. Then I asked him, “What do you think Jesus is calling us to do together?” and he paused and he said, “I think coffee and tea is the most important thing we do.” I thought that was such a contrast because I thought he was going to give another theological, doctrinal response, but he went from this very orthodox explanation of who Jesus is to this straightforward answer about the importance of coffee and tea. That tells me that there is a theological basis whether we know it or not.
Part of it is that it just gives people a chance to connect who otherwise wouldn’t be connecting. I remember the need for that and it does us good if we can help people connect. There’s nothing better than if we have a non-worship event and the Sunday after, I see two people who haven’t spent much time together sitting next to one another. I think that’s really cool that they may not have known each other but now they are sitting next to each other – it means that connections are happening. I think remembering the need for connection has really informed my practice of ministry.
In light of the jubilee’s Biblical motto, Galatians 5:6, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love,” and its overarching theme of “Outreach of Love,” how do you see the essence of the Scottish Mission in Budapest?
I love the history of outreach – I don’t think every congregation is called to be what we are. Somebody once was pressing us on the question, “Are you an urban outreach or are you a church for expats? You’ve got to choose because otherwise you won’t have any identity.” To a certain extent, I thought the question was helpful because it makes you ask yourself why are we here, who are we here for, etc., but it’s helpful only to a certain extent because I think at the end of the day we had to say that we’re the church that won’t draw those lines. That’s who we are.
When somebody comes to me and says “We’re looking for a space to house our services to refugees,” I don’t want to take that request too lightly. I do think to myself, “Well, how much storage space is needed and what else is going on in the church?” I do think of some of the pragmatic questions. I wonder, how many other people who use the church will appreciate this? What misunderstandings and disagreements can occur? But I also just feel like I have this institutional heritage that lets me say, “Let’s give it a try,” because if any church can try this, we can. I think that gives us the freedom to let in new approaches to outreach and we benefit from that.
It’s why a mission that was at one time protecting Jews and welcoming Jews in a way that not all churches were (we weren’t the only ones, but it wasn’t something that everyone was doing) then today can be a place of welcome for refugees and not need to bat an eye over that. That’s just who we are and that gives us opportunities.
To read the rest of the interview with Rev Aaron Stevens as he talks about the main focus of the Mission during his time here, how he has seen the church reaching out and providing refuge to those in need, and also how simultaneously being a part of the RCH and the Church of Scotland affects the congregation, you can click here.
Interview by Kearstin Bailey
Photos:reformatus.hu/Vargosz, Dimény András
Cover picture by Bonnie Humke