Pastor Lee Powell of the International Baptist Church of Budapest will return to the US in April after nine years in Hungary. In an interview with The Budapest Times he relates his experiences in the country and his thoughts on its future.
What brought you to Hungary in the first place?
You know, you have to be careful what you ask for or you just may get it! In 1996 I read the book The Wisdom Hunter. It was a story about a pastor from Atlanta, Georgia, who through a series of events became the pastor of an International Church in Europe. I think the book had a greater message, however. What got me excited was the thought of people from all over the world worshipping God together. I said, “I’d like to do that”, but I said it with the wishful attitude that one might say, “I wished I were a millionaire”, but never believing in a million years it would come true.
Then in 2001 I received word that the International Baptist Church of Budapest (IBCB) was considering me to be their first church-supported, full-time pastor. When we came to meet and interview with the church we got off the plane and went into a four-hour intense interview. Afterward my host suggested I walk down toward the Danube to relax. When I stepped beyond the buildings and reached the Danube I was speechless at the beauty and I knew I was home. Three months later we moved here.
Most expats do not spend as long as you have in Budapest. Why the decision to leave now and where are you going?
Probably one of the most-asked questions among expatriates is, “how long are you here for”? For the last nine years I have had a standard answer for this question, “I am here until God moves me”. I have loved IBCB, Budapest and Hungary since I arrived and I thought I may spend my entire life here. However, about six months ago I was contacted by a church in Atlanta, Georgia, US. In the same way I was confident the Lord wanted me to move to Budapest, I am confident that now is the time we should go to the Lake Arrowhead Chapel in the metro-Atlanta area.
Yours is a rather unique experience, I would imagine that a lot of people turn to you when crisis strikes or life seems overwhelming. Are there typical difficulties that expats go through?
One of the things that you find out in life and even living out of your own country and culture is that people are people and all of us have the same problems. With that being said there are a few things that expats deal with that are very trying. Probably the biggest is the issues that arise with family back home. It is devastating, heartbreaking and frustrating to be so far away when loved ones die or are very sick. These people definitely need our prayers and support. I have faced this issue personally and I know you can feel so helpless this far from home, but, I might add, prayer does transcend distance. The other thing is loneliness. People are in a strange place, strange language, strange culture and all alone. Expats can go for weeks in the city without one person speaking to them. Part of my mission and IBCB’s is to help encourage these people in their daily lives as they face life’s struggles.
In my mind there are four types of expatriates living in Hungary: those who were transferred here in the corporate or diplomatic field; others who move to Budapest seeking adventure and hope to land a job; students taking university courses; and refugees who see Hungary as a stepping stone into the EU. What is your experience?
I think your assessment is right; however, all these people do have several common issues: (a) they are all living in Budapest for a moment in time; (b) they are all adjusting to a new place; and (c) they all have a spiritual destiny. I believe that one of my primary tasks while in Budapest is to help all of these people see that their being here was not an accident but part of God’s divine plan to bring them to the spiritual destiny He has planned for their lives. So, though outwardly they may seem to be in Budapest for various reasons, there is a greater sense in that they are all here for the same reason.
Are there stages that people go through in adjusting to the expat life? What are the most common challenges that people face?
They normally say there are several stages that an expat goes through. First, the honeymoon phase. Everything is new, exciting and wonderful. From the culture, the people, the food, the new sights and sounds, everything is thrilling. However, between six and nine months this normally wears off and the second stage, “culture shock”, begins. Culture shock is that phase in which you simply cannot understand why this culture does the things it does. For instance, to have a stamp on an official paper is an imperative in Hungary but this means nothing to someone from the USA. You can’t understand why the person will not accept an official paper from the United States of America that has been signed, has an official letterhead, etc, etc, but not a stamp. You try to explain that we do not use stamps but the bureaucrat here says, “you must have a stamp”. Put on top of that the language barrier and it makes people explode with frustration and anger. This can be debilitating and some people try to avoid it, but if you are here long enough you will experience it. By the way, this is probably one of the biggest topics of conversation among expatriates. They love to tell of some instances where their culture/system/way of thinking clashed with the way of thinking here. It makes for some entertaining stories. The third phase is readjustment. In this phase life begins to slow down, you begin to get yourself a routine of sorts in Budapest and life begins to make sense again. These phases are fairly common among all expatriates. Again, I think that my role and IBCB’s role is to say, “these phases are common, it will be OK, life will get better and God is going to use this in your life to make you a better person”.
You will have spent almost a decade away from America. You once told me that people will experience culture shock upon returning home if they have been away for more than five years. Have you kept in touch with parishioners after they left? What do they tell you about the readjustment process?
Well it has almost been a decade since I left America. The smoke from 9/11 had not yet cleared the air when we came to Budapest. So it has been a long time. The most challenging thing in a sense is our children. My wife and I grew up in America. We understand the culture in some respects… at least until 2001. We know from the region we are from how to respond to people, though we have to constantly remind ourselves, but we do know. However, my daughter was three when we moved to Budapest. She only has some “shadow memories” of America. My son was born in Budapest and he doesn’t know anything about America. So, in some sense they will have the biggest challenge. Again, it is inevitable that we will go through the same process that others go through who enter a strange country, but I think it typically stuns you when it happens in your own country. I don’t know if you saw the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button but at one point Benjamin Button has been gone from home for years. He’s travelled the world, had unbelievable experiences and finally makes it back to his childhood home in New Orleans. He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “You come home and things look the same, smell the same, yet everything is different because you have changed”. The truth of the matter is that Budapest has changed our lives forever and we cannot go back to the life we had before because we are not the same people we were before. We will experience the “reverse culture-shock”.
How has Hungary and the expat community changed during your time here?
Tremendously. There are more and more products we recognise on the shelves of the stores. There are more and more English-language signs, establishments and speakers in the city. There have been great improvements in the city; the streets, the trams, etc. You don’t always notice it when you live here all the time but family and friends who have come to visit over the last decade say, “Wow, Budapest is really changing from the first time I was here”.
The expatriate community is changing also. When the “Iron Curtain” fell many businesses from the West came in here to establish themselves. They sent thousands of workers from abroad into Budapest to help establish, start up and get their respective companies going. As these companies have found themselves established after some 20 years they now are turning many of these jobs over to Hungarians. For instance, one American company when I arrived here had almost 300 Americans working there but two years later they only had three families. That’s a big change. Also this financial crisis has cut into the expat community since these people are expensive for their companies to keep here.
Many people pinned great hopes on life improving in Hungary after joining the EU in 2004. There has been a lot of disillusionment since then. Corruption – perceived or otherwise – is still rampant. Bureaucracy still stifles. What is the problem in your mind?
Hungary, like many other countries, tried to establish themselves without God during the communist era. The problem is this: when you take God out of the equation of life you also have to remove all morality and from this spiritual vacuum rises up many horrible consequences. Stealing, lying, cheating, deceit are considered wise business, rather than being honest, working hard and loving your neighbour. Hungary, like my own nation, needs a spiritual rebirth. They will have to find a common spiritual morality to permeate society if they are ever to stem the growth of the Frankenstein-like godless society they’ve created. I know many would say, “that’s preacher talk” but the truth is that every nation that has turned its back upon God and His truth has ultimately come to ruin. History proves this fact and I pray that the spiritual leaders, Mr. Orbán and the nation of Hungary would turn towards God’s truth. This will help Magyarország more than the EU, IMF or any other political or economic solution.
What of the Hungarian mindset? Is it defeatist?
You know, I stepped off the plane loving Hungarians even though I did not know any. After having been here all this time I really do love them now. The truth is that Hungarians, just like expats, are frustrated with their system here. They get cheated, they get abused and they are sick of it. From my limited perception, although the Hungarians are very frustrated with how things are going they rarely do much to make a change. They complain, they get frustrated and they vent but rarely do they take any decisive action. I think sometimes their history chains them to the past so much that they are unable to move into the future. But only the standard of truth can break this mentality, which is why I pray that Hungary will have a spiritual rebirth.
If there were one attribute that you could bless the Hungarian people with, what would it be?
The Bible talks about the “fruit of the Spirit” and one of the aspects of this fruit is “long suffering”. It has the idea of someone who does not give up easily. Who, through many struggles, battles, wars and time, continues to be steadfast, patient and enduring. This reminds me of the people of Hungary. This nation has been here a long time. It has a long history and much of it is sad and marked with seeming defeat, yet over and over you see the Hungarian people continue, the language is still spoken, the customs are still vibrant and I pray that this “long suffering” would be a mark of this nation’s spiritual journey and be used of God to bring about a spiritual revival.
Is there anything else you wish to say?
We have loved Hungary. We have loved Budapest. Despite many frustrations with expatriate living and many misunderstandings in our attempts to speak Hungarian our lives will never be the same because of this wonderful place. paprikás csirke, gnocchi and húsleves will be in our blood forever. I thank God for Hungary and I thank you Budapest for allowing us to be embraced by you. Isten Áldjon!