You need a friend
by Twila Schock
"Professor, you are so fair. You must be very lonely," announced Svetlana.
Those words were hardly the ringing endorsement that this new missionary to Slovakia wanted from her student. But being a missionary for only two months, I had not yet discovered that the meaning of the word “fair” is largely determined by cultural norms.
‘No legal way.’
My story begins in 1994. Slovakia, a fledgling nation, was established in January 1993 after Czechoslovakia’s “velvet divorce” resulted in two nations: the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic (Slovakia). Struggling under Communist control until 1989, the Lutheran church in Slovakia sought to rebuild its atrophied infrastructure by reopening Lutheran gymnasia (high schools) closed earlier by the government.
Enter ELCA missionaries. My husband and I accepted the invitation from ELCA Global Mission and the Slovak Lutheran church to serve as religion teachers at the recently-reopened Evangelické lyceum (high school) of Bratislava and as developers of an English-language congregation.
While we arrived with great energy and zeal, we soon discovered that 40 years of Communist leadership had depleted not only the church but the entire infrastructure. Roads, electrical systems, banking and telecommunications were crumbling.
For us, this meant no telephone.
“How does one get a telephone?” I asked L’ubica, my colleague.
Laughing at my naïveté, she said, “There’s no legal way.”
“What do you mean ‘there’s no legal way’?” I pressed.
“Just that. There aren’t enough phone lines for our people. Maybe because the Communist system was broken. Maybe because the government didn’t want us to communicate so easily. Most share a phone with a neighbor. You can apply for a phone at the telecommunications office; you won’t get one. You’ll need to have a ‘friend’.”
I was stunned. No one had told me that this was part of the deal. How were we to start a congregation without a telephone? How were we to accomplish anything?
In that instant, I decided that getting a telephone was going to become my full-time job. After all, I was an American missionary; that meant two things. I had a “pick yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality that said I was not to be deterred. And the missionary in me was going to model a new ethic. I was determined to get a phone, and I was determined to do it legally.
And so I tried. I tried the usual avenue of simply applying. I was put on a 10-year waiting list. I tried petitioning for an exception. I was told there was no just cause for an exception. I pleaded at the ‘foreigners office.’ They looked at me as if I were from Mars. I tried nearly 20 different avenues. I finally had to accept facts. There was no legal way to get a phone.
‘I have a friend’
One day, meeting with Heda, my Slovak language tutor and the mother of one of my students, I was sharing my telephone woes.
“This is absurd!” she announced angrily. “You will get a phone. How can you start a church without a telephone?!”
“Heda,” I replied. “I’ve tried every legal way imaginable. It’s not going to be.”
“Well,” she huffed. “Why did you do that?”
“Do what?” I asked.
“Try to do it legally! That’s ridiculous. It’s impossible!” she scolded.
“Heda, I’m a Christian. I believe I have to do this fairly,” I responded.
“Well,” she huffed. “I’m a Christian, too. And let me tell you. My journey as a Christian under the old government was not nearly as neat and tidy as yours.”
“You will have a phone, and that’s the end of it,” she announced.
“But how?” I asked, fearing I was getting drawn in way over my head. How was I going to explain this to my boss in Global Mission?
“It’s simple. I have a friend.” And she left.
‘You need a receipt’
Truth be told, I dismissed this exchange entirely. I was certain that Heda did not have the type of friend who could make this happen. Further, I would never be able to explain this to my superiors in the United States.
I had all but forgotten the discussion until one day when Eva—Heda’s daughter—walked into my classroom.
“Professor,” she announced in front of her classmates. “Be home tomorrow at 4 p.m. You’ll need 2,000 Slovak crowns. You’re getting a telephone.”
How could this be!? I was aghast. First, I was being instructed to do something entirely unfair; I was being told to pay a bribe. Second, one of my students was in on it. Third, my entire class now knew. And, worst of all, I was teaching Christian ethics!
But truth be told, after months of trying to minister without one, I wanted that phone with a desperation that was quite new to me.
That evening, I called my supervisor in Global Mission.
My supervisor was also a seasoned missionary. He understood cultural norms with a depth I had not yet acquired. He said, “Let me do some checking around.”
The first person he called was a leader in the Slovak church, respected for acting with integrity and justice. “Your missionary has a friend who can help,” said this leader. “This will make her ministry much easier. In Slovakia, everything is based on relationships.” He never suggested that this was in any way unfair. In that time of Slovakia’s history, living and working in community was survival.
With clearance from the Slovak context, my supervisor then sought approval from his supervisor. His supervisor agreed that if the local church leadership agreed that this was acceptable, I could proceed.
But I needed a receipt.
“A receipt?!” I exclaimed in astonishment. “How am I to get a receipt?” “You need a receipt,” he repeated. As promised, the next day at 4 p.m. a telephone technician rang at my door. The first order of business was to demonstrate that I had 2,000 Slovak crowns. After he was satisfied, he did the installation. Handing him the money, I said, “Sir, I need a receipt.”
“A receipt?!” he asked, incredulous.
“Yes, sir. I must have a receipt with a signature.”
He laughed, shaking his head, and wrote a receipt for 2,000 Sk. Then he signed it: “Juraj Darga.” Only months later did I come to understand his laughter. “Juraj Darga” was a generic name, equivalent to “Jane Doe” or “John Smith.”
The joke was on me, but never mind. We had a phone. Problem solved! I still, however, had one remaining concern.
‘Professor, you are so fair. You must be very lonely.’
The next day in my ethics class, I decided that, to have any integrity with my students, I needed to face this head on.
“You all heard Eva yesterday, right?” I continued.
Some nodded. Some looked puzzled.
“You heard Eva tell me to have 2,000 crowns ready to pay for a telephone, right?”
“Well,” I continued. “I want to discuss the concept of fairness and the fact that you all know that I paid a bribe.” My students looked at me with genuinely perplexed expressions.
“What I did,” I proceeded, “was not right. Where I come from, it was unchristian. Unfair. But I want to tell you why I felt it was necessary. And...”
“Wait a minute!” interrupted Katarina, as her hand shot up in the air. “How can you say it’s unfair and unchristian where you come from? I lived in the States for two years. You do this sort of thing every day.”
My jaw dropped. “Katarina, why do you say that?”
She proceeded to explain. “In your country, if you want something done faster than usual—for example, if you want faster mail service—you pay for express mail. In Slovakia, if you don’t want to wait 10 years for a phone, you pay an ‘express fee’, too. It’s just unofficial here.”
She had a point.
“You think it’s wrong to use ‘a friend.’ But what do you call ‘networking’ and ‘power lunches’? You often use friends to get things done. You just don’t see it.”
She was making sense. But I felt that I needed to challenge her.
“Katarina, many people in your country speak of corruption. Can you give me an example of what you would call corrupt?”
“Sure!” she said. And she happily began to explain that if—for example—a lazy student received entry into medical school by either faking an entrance exam or by tempting an examiner with a set of keys for a new car, that would be corrupt. “You see,” she concluded, “every patient who would ever use that doctor would pay a price because someone allowed an incompetent person to become a physician.”
At that point another student, Svetlana, spoke up, “Professor, you are so fair. You must be very lonely. In Communist times, we needed to work together—to share everything—to survive. I might have a friend who can get you a phone. You might have a car and can get my grandmother to the doctor. It works that way. And it’s nice.”
Katarina piped in, “We think our way is Christian. And it’s in the Bible.”
‘…everything they owned was held in common.’
It’s 2016, 22 years after that conversation, and much has changed.
Life and infrastructure in Slovakia has changed. Slovakia has joined the European Union. My students have graduated and become parents, pastors, professors, physicians, lawyers and politicians.
And I have changed.
I came to that land with missionary zeal. I wanted to make a difference and to help. What I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that much of what I thought was fair and right was not so much a Christian value as it was an American value.
I cherish those times, not so much because of what I was able to bring to Slovakia, but because of what Slovakia, and especially my students, brought to me. I will never forget Katarina’s challenge to me: “We think it’s Christian. And it’s in the Bible. You’ve read the book of Acts, haven’t you, professor?”
“Yes, I’ve read the book of Acts.”
“Here it is,” she said, scrambling to look it up. “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”
She closed her Bible and said, “I think that’s fair.”
Yes, Katarina, many years later, I think so, too.
The Rev. Twila Schock has served as a missionary in Slovakia, Russia and Germany, and as ELCA director for global mission support. She currently serves as senior pastor of Christ Lutheran Church in Belvidere, Ill.
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