Determined to Serve in Budapest

In celebration of the 175th Anniversary of the Scottish Mission in Budapest, the RCH speaks with Rev Susan Cowell, former Associate Minister at the Mission, to hear about her time in the congregation. Rev Cowell served in Budapest from 1994 until 1998 and is now serving at Kirkton Church in Carluke.

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 talk with Rev Susan Cowell, former Associate Minister at the Mission, to discuss her deep connection to Budapest, getting inspiration from Jane Haining, her ministry to expats, and her determination to serve at the Scottish Mission. The following is an edited version of her interview.

Set the scene for us: when did you serve at the Mission and what are you currently doing now?

I came to Budapest in 1994 and I left in 1998. I had been seven years in my first charge so it was very different from being responsible for three country congregations all at the same time. I was only on a four year contract and I very much wanted to come back but the Church of Scotland [CofS] had major discussions and, for one reason or another, none of which I know, I didn’t come back. It was a very sad time for me, but I had a ball while I was here.

When I came not a lot was happening, for obvious reasons, the state of the country and the state of the people. The CofS had sent Alison MacDonald in 1989 but she wasn’t really steeped in CofS things and didn’t maybe know so much about the administration of things and so things just went on as they had for the last twenty years, the difficult years. Though I’m not a stickler for protocol, sometimes it needs to be followed, so one or two things needed to be sorted out during my time. I just loved my four years and I can easily say they were the happiest of my life. Professionally, I think, they were the most productive of my life as well.

When I went back in 1998, I was just two years off retiring and I didn’t know what I really wanted to do so I filled in for various ministers all over the place and I’ve been doing that now for the past eighteen years! Currently I’m almost retired, but the group that I’m with I’m helping out with because the pastor is the Convener of the World Mission Council and he gets an allowance to employ someone because he’s away from the parish so much. It makes me quietly smile because the World Mission Council actually pays him an allowance and they actually have to pay me and I vowed to never work for them ever again, so Father God has a sense of humor.

Why did you decide to bring your congregation to Hungary?

I come back and forth to Budapest regularly because I have my “adopted family” here in the city so I come to see them and their children two or three times a year – I’m Grannie Susan to them. The minister I work for, Rev Iain Cunningham, came to a presbytery meeting in his role as Convener and when he came back he said, “Oh I can see why you love going to Budapest, it’s a lovely place and I would love to take a group there for the weekend,” and I said, “Don’t just go for a weekend for goodness sake, go for a week!” That’s how it was left for a while and eventually he said he didn’t have the time, why not have me lead the group. That was all I needed and before five minutes passed I had the whole week planned because I knew exactly what I wanted to do.

What all have you done since your groups arrival? It seems that your program really connects to the Scottish history here. How did you decide what main sites to highlight?

We wanted to make a very serious focus on Jane Haining – there was a program not long ago on BCC about her, and I’m very interested in her. I know a woman in Glasgow who speaks about Jane Haining and she’s been here to Budapest many times, she used to host the Jane Haining prize winners, so I’ve got a great connection through that. I admire Jane Haining and what she did and her story so much – so that was to be the focus of our week really. We made a whole Jane Haining day and that’s why we came to the Mission and to the school, and then later in the day we visited the House of Terror.

The CofS has always had this bursar system where mostly men have come from a Hungarian Reformed Church to study in Scotland. One of the men one year needed a place to live so I offered up my apartment in Edinburgh to him. The last of his three years there his wife had to go back [to Romania] because her maternity leave was up and he was a bit lonely, which was understandable, so he asked if he could invite another Hungarian to come and join him in my flat. I told him of course and he invited Ábrahám Kovács and him and I have always kept up since then. When he’s in Scotland he comes to see me and when I come here he comes to see me. I told him I was thinking of doing this trip and he said, “You must come to Debrecen!” and he really pulled out all the stops, so we had a whole day in Debrecen on Friday. We went to the Emanuel Home and to the Nagytemplom [the Reformed Great Church of Debrecen] – it was a long day but it was a fun day and very much in line with the group’s interests.

Those were the two big focuses of our trip.

How did you end up serving at the Scottish mission in Budapest? Can you tell us a bit about your calling and the process you went through to get here?

That’s another funny story! In 1993 it was a time of the orphanage crisis in Romania and one of the churches in the town where I lived was always going over with convoys of aid for the orphanages. Every time I saw that one had just left I said, “I wish I’d known about that, I’d love to have come along!” and one time they called my bluff on it – so we came in September.

I was in charge of driving a sports vehicle there and some friends of mine provided one. Now because we couldn’t get lead-free petrol, we brought the old car rather than the new car and I broke down three miles away from home – in Scotland. We got going again and we struggled and struggled and somehow I nursed this car along until just outside Budapest. We parked off the motorway to go for lunch, we walked away from the vehicle, and the engine fell out. Literally, it fell out. Steam, petrol, you name it, it was on the ground. So we left the car there, got a taxi, made it to the airport, rented a car, and went on our way – that was September.

I had done seven years as a parish minister and it was time to move on so I kept applying for jobs. I was resigned to just giving up because nothing seemed to fit but then I saw an advert in the daily newspaper titled, “Minister in Budapest,” and I thought, “Gosh, if I’d have known there was a church in Budapest that would have been useful when we broke down!” The next day in the church magazine, Life and Work, I saw the same advert and the next day in Ministers Forum there was the advert again.

It seemed like somebody was trying to tell me something so I sent to Edinburgh for the information and they sent me back a sheet of yellow paper – half way down it said, “A knowledge of Hungarian or willingness to learn,” and I said, “Oh no! I have done all of the training I’m ever going to do!” I’m not a linguist, I never was. So I left the paper on my desk and near the end of January I was stuck on a sermon I was writing and I looked around at all these papers lying around and I found it again. I phoned up and the chap asked if I was interested and I said, “Well I don’t know!” and he said, “You’d better hurry up because tomorrow’s the closing day.” So I took a minute, said I was interested, and from that moment it was my job. I didn’t care who else applied, it was mine.

I had to go in to Edinburgh with my application form, was later called back for an interview –at that time, worship at the Mission was split between two Sunday’s of Anglican worship and two Sunday’s of Presbyterian worship – with all these old ecumenical-this and ecumenical-that type people. I didn’t even know what they were talking about and I made a right mess of it. I remember walking out and thinking, “Well, if that was your job, you’ve absolutely messed it up.” I was walking down the stairs thinking how I had blown it totally and all of a sudden the secretary was literally shouting from the top of the stairs, “SUSAN! Come back! You’ve another interview!” So I went back for the second interview and at one point somebody made a comment and I just said, “Don’t give the job to anyone else – that’s my job! I want it.” I was 51 at the time and I wanted the job.

I went home after the interview and thought that I would have a phone call waiting for me telling me I had gotten it, but I returned home and there was no call. So the next morning I was up early for the postman and there was no letter – things didn’t go according to my script at all! I then went out in the morning and came back around lunchtime and there was a call.

The strangest thing is that I was to leave in June for Budapest, this all happened in February, and I was to leave on the 20th of June, 1994 and much later on when I was reading about Jane Haining I learned that she left on the 20th of June as well. It was scary. She, of course, didn’t arrive on the 20th – but we both left the same day.

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?

From what I’ve seen this time, because I’ve been back and forth quite a bit since 1998, I knew Rev Aaron quite well during my time serving here but our paths sort of went in different ways these past few years – and the way I see it, the Mission today is very different to what it was when I was here. Debbie, who was in the congregation when I was there, she said the congregation has totally changed and there are very few expats now. When I was there, there were only expats on contracts. Everybody in Budapest, just because of the economy and the history of the country, was there for a job for one year or two and then they went back. So we often had a total clear-out in the summer. I could see today that it was totally different and I was amazed by all the mixed-marriage couples of Hungarians and others there.

When I was serving there, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot happening and all of a sudden we got a large influx of people in their 20’s and 30’s, lots of boys, coming over so they could be a big fish in a wee pond here in Budapest. Them, and a large group of families, kind of formed the core of that time.

We started a 20/30 youth group for them and I had them regularly at the weekend because there was nothing in those days for youngsters of that age, especially if they were single, so my house really became the gathering place. It started off on Sunday’s but soon it became Saturday’s and Sunday’s where they would come to the flat where I lived and they would go to church on Sunday mornings, go out for lunch, mosey around during the afternoon, and then come to me in the evening – we had terrific fun.

The other thing that was a great event was Debbie’s dancing – regularly we had 40 or 50 people. I used to say that they came for the dancing or the English practice and they met the Lord because a lot of kids used to come thinking it was good practice and then hopefully did meet the Lord.

Another of our very useful add-on’s was an English language Bible study held at the church in the RCH Synod Office. Every Friday we had 40-50 teens, university students, and much older people and because they came to Bible study they tended to come to church as well since I was there and Aaron [Stevens] was there.

The essence of the Mission is really multifaceted, and it depends on the people that are there.  It’s obviously changed over the years, and rightly so, because now it doesn’t have the expats that we had.

What would you characterize as being the main focus of the Mission during your time there?

Well there were the expats really and we did a lot of socializing, especially with the older women whose husbands were maybe working here – we weren’t opposed to a few coffees and swims and operas as well!

Another thing which we invented was the Thursday group called the CAMEO group, something similar to what used to be called the Women’s Guild in the Church of Scotland, but not just for women, so we called it the CAMEO group which stood for Come And Meet Each Other. I think it was once a month or maybe every other week we would have our own members speak about their jobs, they had such interesting ones, and I made a meal and we would have maybe fifteen or twenty-five people there.

Another of my dreams, long before I was ever in the church, was to have a family meeting and do things in different groups for different ages of the family and come together to worship and eat – I’m a great believer in eating! – and to have fellowship. I never got it going in Scotland, though I talked about it and talked about it, but after one of the day camps in the Mission, one of the mom’s asked me, “Why does this have to stop just because the summer’s over?” So for several Saturdays, once a month, we came to the church and we had literally a day camp for a day and the whole family would come. We didn’t develop it as much as I would have liked but the mum’s met in once place and the children met in another place and we ate and sang together. We had a lot of other things going on too – it made for very busy weeks.

With its long history of reaching out to “the other” and those on the fringes of society, how did you experience the Scottish Mission providing refuge to people during your service there?

As I said, during my time we mostly worked with expats, and they weren’t on the fringes of anything because all those people had initiative to have come in the first place. It wasn’t difficult to come but it was more difficult than it is now – there wasn’t a Tesco on every corner! Various things were harder to understand, so they wouldn’t have been content to be on the fringes of anything. They were all, with the jobs and tasks they had, they were management and they were up front. But because I saw my mission to expats, I wasn’t involved and the church wasn’t involved in marginal things.

One thing I did for a couple of years though – I went to Bethesda Children’s Hospital and played with the children, literally played because it was good for my Hungarian, but we didn’t do much more than that. And that was just me, not the congregation, but it was what I wanted to do. The same with me teaching English at some of the local schools when I arrived – those were things that I was interested in.

Given that St. Columba’s is in a unique position, simultaneously being a part of both the Church of Scotland as well as the Reformed Church in Hungary, how did you view the connection between the Scottish Mission and the RCH during your time in Budapest? Did you see your congregation influencing the Hungarian church?

It wasn’t really a factor while I was there. As you know, Berti [the other minister at the Mission] had a Hungarian service as 9:30am every Sunday, I sometimes played the organ there, but the two congregations never really met or had any interaction. Whenever we had a big event even, we didn’t invite the Hungarians because we thought they might have been horrified that their church was used for things like dancing and that would have been a problem. There was a Tuesday Bible study that a RCH minister led in English and I went along in support, but the churches themselves didn’t interact at all.

Although Berti was there, we had nothing to do with the other Hungarian Reformed Churches. We did camps occasionally for them, and I did lots of training days for Sunday school teachers but that was more in Romania and in Ukraine – they came from far and wide to get the free supplies from churches back in Scotland that I would hand out at the events. They went home very happy because it was so difficult to afford materials there.

How does your time serving at St. Columba’s affect your work today?

Well it influences my life full-stop, and of course you’re always interested in Hungary and you pick up on any Hungarian and anything that mentions Hungary makes your eyes light up. I’ve also often been involved in the Jane Haining speaking competitions – where youngsters from east and west have the chance to meet – it’s been going on for 27 years! The bursar system of studying also still happens and I’m quite fond of that.

Interview by Kearstin Bailey