Blessing in Bucharest: Finding Christmas behind the Iron Curtain (Part II)

When a group of students from Wingate College went to a small Baptist church in Bucharest in the mid-1980s, the events changed their lives.  This is their story. Photo:

CHARLOTTE, December 26, 2011—  (In the 1980s a group of students from Wingate University, a small college in North Carolina, traveled to Bucharest, Romania to observe the struggle Christians endured for the ability to worship.  One Sunday evening, the students went to a Baptist church where they sat in the balcony to observe the service.  When it was over, they greeted the Romanians outside of the sanctuary.  The events of that night changed the lives of many people forever.  This is Part II of that story.) 

The women sat on the left side of the aisle while all the men were seated to the right.  No one removed their coats despite the length of the program.  Aside from a small stained glass window at the front of the sanctuary, the only visible color was in the babushkas the ladies wore on their heads.  Those not wearing the vivid scarves had on fur hats instead.

Shortly after the service began, Reverend Ionescu rose to explain the reason for the visit by the Wingate Students.  His comments seemed only to further arouse the curiosity among the members of the church.  Throughout the service they kept turning toward the balcony, particularly when everyone rose to sing.  It was unusual for them to have visitors of any sort, especially so many and so young.  To see youthful faces that were not members of their choir was difficult to comprehend, but the message resonated loud and clear.  Americans too.  Rarely did they see Americans. 

For the next couple of hours, the Romanians below continuously turned and gazed toward the balcony, communicating only with their eyes as they reached out to touch the Wingate students with their hearts.  It was a powerful study in subliminal exchange, as if the Romanians were making a silent plea to have their story told to someone beyond the barriers of their borders. 

When the service finished, the Wingate students walked down the balcony stairs into the vestibule to greet the Romanian people who were leaving the sanctuary.

The interpreter took the first position by the door.  Then, spontaneously, without instructions, the students formed a semicircle from the door through the narthex, shaking hands with people and smiling as they departed.  It was one of those serendipitous occasions that sometimes catch you unprepared for what is about to occur.

The Romanians looked tired.  Weary.  Yet they were deeply appreciative, and thankful, that these young Americans had journeyed such a great distance to spend time with them.  It was a quiet scene filled with hushed voices.  The mixture of languages was somehow comprehended, though neither group spoke the other’s tongue.  Soft words.  Muted tones.  A silence of sharing the moment.

As one old woman passed the interpreter she caught the eye of Celeste McElwain.  Celeste  was poised beyond her years with an uncanny ability to relate to other people’s personalities.  Her slender frame, combined with a rosy complexion, bubbly personality and bouncing pony tail gave her an even younger appearance than she was, yet she was dynamic and outspoken in a manner that drew people to her. 

Perhaps the old Romanian woman who approached her recognized that trait in Celeste too, for as she passed in front of her she quietly uttered the word, “Pace.”

Bewildered, Celeste looked to the interpreter for an answer.  He grinned and said, “’Pace.’  In Romanian it means ‘Peace.’”

Celeste turned back to the Romanian woman with a sincere smile and repeated the word, “Pace.”

A classmate standing to the left of Celeste overheard the exchange and immediately spoke to another woman in front of him.  “Pace,” he said.  An uncontrollable smile spread across the woman’s face as she returned the wish by again saying, “Pace.”

Soon the vestibule was filled with the soft sounds of Romanian and American voices, all echoing the same simple word, “Pace.”  No other word could have been more appropriate.  It was the only word necessary.They repeated it over and over again, “Pace.  Pace.  Pace.”

Then in the dim light of the room, Celeste reached into her purse and removed one of the small bibles she had brought with her from home.  She gave it to the old woman, placing it in the palm of her hand and covering it with her own.  The woman gazed intently at Celeste for a long moment before looking down at the treasure she gripped within her ancient fingers. 

And then she began to cry.

As the tears made silent trails down her cheeks, the Romanian woman looked at the interpreter and said something to him in her native language.  He listened carefully to be sure he understood precisely what the woman was saying.  And when she finished, he translated her words. 

She says, “All of my life I have dreamed of having a bible written in English.  For me it is a symbol.  Today, you have answered my prayers.”

A hush fell over the room.  Everyone stopped, spellbound by the words of the little Romanian woman who had but one simple wish; to possess a book written in a language she could neither read nor understand.  Yet that book symbolized all of her hopes, dreams and aspirations for a life she would never know.  A book that was her bridge to a world she would never see.

But the old Romanian woman wasn’t finished.  Not yet.  Again she spoke, only this time the interpreter translated her words simultaneously as she spoke them.  He cast his eyes toward Celeste while the old woman slowly uttered her message to the young college student. 

“She says, ‘I only know three words in English,’” he told her. 

Then the Romanian woman moved forward to Celeste and hugged her. 

When she pulled away she smiled gently, leaned forward and whispered into Celeste’s ear the words, “I love you.”

Though her voice was not loud, in the quiet of the room it was enough to be heard by those close to her.  When the Romanian woman spoke those three little words, everyone nearby was overcome with emotion.

Three words.  Simple words.  The only English words the old Romanian woman knew.  “I love you.”  The message is universal.  Even in that bleak corner of the world there was indeed hope, there was faith, and yes, there was love.

The cold no longer mattered.  It had been nullified by something far greater.  In the span of a few brief, spontaneous moments, we came to realize that those people had warmth enough for everyone nestled deep within their hearts.  We also knew that there would always be candles to brighten the darkness, flickering with their silent, gentle flames of hope, because those elderly Romanians still believed in miracles.

It was spiritually uplifting.  Joyful.  Gratifying.  Suddenly everyone in the party understood how the Romanian people had managed to persevere for so long under such impossible living conditions.  Through it all their faith had kept them going, and perhaps better than anyone else, they knew the true meaning of the word, “Pace.”


Photo courtesy of Maranatha Romania Missionaries

 Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in Charlotte, NC, founder of The Magellan Travel Club which creates and escorts customized tours to Switzerland, France and Italy for groups of 12 or more. Inquiries for groups can be made at Taylored media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others. As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 69 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries.

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Bob Taylor

Bob Taylor has been travel writer for more than three decades. Following a career as an award winning sports producer/anchor, Taylor’s media production business produced marketing presentations for Switzerland Tourism, Rail Europe, the Finnish Tourist Board, Japan Railways Group, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council and the Swiss Travel System among others. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club ( and his goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.


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