City of Freedom
Romania's "First Free Town" Hears Message of True Freedom
September 1, 2008 - Believers in Timisoara, Romania, united July 4-6 to proclaim the Good News of Christ during the nation’s largest Christian gathering since the fall of communism—a Festival of Hope With Franklin Graham.
by Bob Paulson
Timisoara (tee-mee-SHWAH-rah) has a relaxed, Old-World charm that tends to mask the trials its people have faced. Fewer than 20 years separate Romania today from the revolution that freed the nation from the cruel regime of Nicolae Ceausescu (chou-SHESS-koo), the communist leader who held power from 1965 until 1989.
Ceausescu had manipulated the media to create a heroic image of himself, and he used his secret police—the Securitate—to ensure that no one would undermine his government. He forcibly relocated families in a failed effort to form agricultural collectives. Agricultural production dropped drastically and poverty escalated.
Christians suffered during these years. The government interfered with clergy appointments, seminary enrollments and church publications. People who converted to Christ often were forced into less desirable jobs, and many pastors suffered harassment and imprisonment.
In December 1989, protests broke out in Timisoara after a government-influenced bishop tried to remove a pastor from his church and evict him from his parsonage. The pastor was an outspoken opponent of Ceausescu’s regime and policies. Crowds surrounded the parsonage to prevent the eviction, and over several days demonstrations escalated. At one point a crowd marched to Communist Party headquarters and threw stones before being repelled. On Dec. 17 Ceausescu ordered the army and secret police to fire into the crowd, resulting in scores of deaths.
Four days later in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, as Ceausescu tried to address a pro-government rally from the balcony of the Palace of Parliament, the crowd jeered him, and the secret police moved in to break up the crowd, killing some 40 people. Protests broke out in other cities, and some army units refused to back up the secret police. On Dec. 22 Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, fled Bucharest, and the army actually helped protesters battle the secret police and take over government buildings. The Ceausescus were captured, tried by a military tribunal and on Christmas Day were put to death by firing squad.
Today, Timisoara prides itself in being the birthplace of the revolution, the "Primul Oras Liber" (First Free Town). And since the revolution, Romania has changed dramatically. The government is now democratic; the country joined NATO in 2004 and the European Union in 2007. People are now free to live and worship as they wish.
Not everything is rosy, however. Many Romanian pastors say that people’s spiritual hunger is not as evident now as it was during the communist regime. They have tasted Western-style materialism and media. Many are preoccupied with material things and do not see a need for God in their lives.
Recognizing the need, the evangelical churches united to invite Franklin Graham to hold a Festival of Hope that would call people to repentance and faith.
It was a big undertaking for a few churches. Nearly 90 percent of Romanians are Orthodox; only about 3 percent are Protestant, and Timisoara has only 29 evangelical churches. But small numbers didn’t stop believers from working and praying for the Festival.
Franklin met with Festival leaders July 4, thanking them for their work and asking them to keep praying. He recalled Billy Graham’s visit to Romania in 1985, and he noted the contrasts between that visit and the Festival held at Timisoara’s Dan Paltinisanu Stadium: When Billy Graham visited Romania 23 years ago, he was allowed to preach only in churches. Now Franklin would be preaching in a 32,000-seat soccer stadium. Twenty-three years ago, no advertising was allowed to publicize Mr. Graham’s visit. For the Franklin Graham Festival, billboards and bus stop signs were everywhere.
Churches from many surrounding towns and villages in Romania’s Banat region also got involved, including the Baptist church in the village of Teremia Mare, about an hour northwest of Timisoara, where hard-working farm hands tend sunflowers, strawberries, melons and other crops.
Prior to the Festival, Caius Bodi, pastor of the 37-member church, spent most of two days pedaling his bicycle from house to house, working through a list of 220 children to invite to the Saturday morning children’s program. During a break in his trek, he sat at the kitchen table in the home of a church member and talked about his burden for his congregation.
"There is a spiritual battle; it has not been easy," Bodi said, his eyes intense as he leaned forward in his chair. "My main focus is a true and genuine repentance. I’m doing my best to help the congregation to understand the need for a serious relationship with the Lord." For three years, his congregation has met monthly with the local Pentecostal church to pray for spiritual revival. He saw the Festival as an opportunity to work toward that, and he arranged for a total of eight buses to bring people to the meetings. During the Festival, 230 people from the village attended the evening meetings, and 40 went forward at the invitation; 180 of the children he invited went forward at the children’s meeting.
Back in Timisoara, Lucian Chis pastors Aletheia Church, a congregation of about 250 with a focus on leadership training and missions. "In my opinion, God has something special for Timisoara," Chis said. "The revolution started here, and we became free in December 1989. We are continuing to pray for spiritual revolution, and I believe God will use this Festival for that purpose."
The Festival was marked by three days of nearly perfect summer weather. The meetings were full of music from local, international and U.S. artists, as well as testimonies from popular athletes.
Franklin Graham spoke of universal longings. "Everyone here is looking for happiness," he said. "The problem is, many people look in the wrong place. They think that materialism brings happiness: 'If I could just have a new car, I’d be happy.' 'If I could buy the latest fashions, that would make me look good and I would be happy.' … And people turn to drugs, to alcohol, looking for happiness. Why? Because we are searching. We are looking for peace and purpose and meaning to life. But something is missing. You have some of these things, but you’re not filled. You’re empty. You see, God made you, and there is a vacuum inside of you that can only be filled by God Himself."
More than 3,900 people responded to the invitation to put their faith in Jesus Christ. On July 6, some churches reported that they needed extra chairs in their morning services. Remus Runcan, of Maranatha Church, said that 69 new believers were added to his previously 94-member church. Bethel Church had 114 new believers in their service that day.
Sunday attendance at Bethany Baptist Church is usually about 350, but on July 6, more than 450 came. "It’s a fresh air in our spirit and in the church," said Pastor Adrian Neiconi. "Even we pastors feel that something new is happening."
It felt like the old days, he added, when people seemed more hungry for Christ—before the revolution and the materialism that has followed. "In recent years it has been like a spiritual desert. Now, after the people saw so many come to Christ each night, they are excited. The Festival helped remind our members of their mission: 'We are saved to serve.'"