A week ago today I returned to the United States from a month-long service learning trip to Poland through Taylor University's Lighthouse Program.
There is so much that could be said and it feels a travesty to fit everything neatly in one post. My mom would be the first to tell you, I am not neat. There is multitudes more to say. I only appease my writer’s guilt with an open invitation. Please ask me questions or meet with me for coffee; I would love to share more about my time in Poland. This is a patchwork sort of account of my experiences. It does not flow and it seems more little bits than a grandiose whole, but that seemed the fitting narrative to tell as I processed my experience. Here are some things I saw, heard and learned:
A predominately Catholic nation, Poland (or, Polska as the Polish would say) is a highly religious culture. More than one person told us that Catholicism held the nation of Poland together through many difficult times including the German and Russian invasions during World War II and the Communist era. People flocked to parishes where mass was a sign of solidarity and tradition something consistent to hold onto.
The Catholic and high church culture still dominates the religious population across Poland. Even those such as Phillip, a student I met at the Collegium, who identifies as an Atheist would still attend Mass and participate in church traditions with his family. Apart from Catholicism, other church traditions such as the Evangelical and Orthodox church are present, but rare. In Sandomierz, the town where we spent most of our time, according to several community members, out of 11 churches, nine were Catholic, one was Evangelical and one was Orthodox. Dave and Sandy Hatfield, leaders of PCM, our partner ministry, told us that many people in Poland, especially in Sandomierz, view the Evangelical church as a cult. Some students we talked with showed mild concern when they discovered that we were Evangelical. One student, Iga, joined us for church on Sunday and translated part of the service to me from Polish to English. She asked me, “This is an Evangelical church; is this what you believe?” By hosting Tuesday and Thursday night English classes at the church for students, our hope was to allow them to set foot in an Evangelical church, meet the pastor (Adam) and break down walls and misconceptions regarding Protestantism. We wanted to give students a positive image of the church - a place that they would return to after we left.
Apart from the influence of Catholicism and our ministry in the Evangelical church, one religion, which boasts a 1000-year history in Poland has almost entirely vanished. Once comprising nearly half of towns like Sandomierz, Judaism in Poland was decimated during the Holocaust. One afternoon, a few of my teammates and I walked down a street with Sandy. She pointed to a street and a building that was once a synagogue, mentioning that this was once the Jewish quarter. I tried to imagine rabbis gathering on street corners and violin music flowing through the air. According to Adam, few Jews remain in Sandomierz. He said they no longer practice their faith.
Near Poland’s Slovakian border lies Auschwitz and Birkenau, two former concentration camps turned death factories that slaughtered millions of Jews and decimated their vibrant culture. The horrors of the Holocaust drove future generations of Jews far away from Poland and other European nations once housing such camps.
During part of the year, Dave and Sandy visit with Holocaust survivors at a retreat camp in Poland. Over szarlotka and kawa (apple pie and coffee), Sandy told Elise and I the stories of several survivors with whom she developed friendships. After our trip, Dave and Sandy will meet with some of these people and others sharing quiet resilience and courage during a visit to Israel. That resilience which we heard in the stories of the Jewish people, we saw reflected in the broader Polish culture. The people of Poland are resilient. They are courageous. They are deep thinkers. They are a people of quiet strength. We saw these traits in the individuals we met and in the history and culture of the nation.
One of my passions is understanding the importance of religion in light of culture. During our time in Poland, I learned more about the role of the Catholic Church in Polish culture through conversations with students in the Collegium. The phrase, “to be Polish is to be Catholic” was repeated often. Though Catholicism (from observation) in Poland seems much more tradition-based than relationship-based. One student, Iga, who became friends with Cassidy and I, was describing one tradition her family practices during the Easter season. She described the process of filling a basket with breakfast food, bringing it to the church where the priest would bless it and eating it for breakfast the next morning. We asked Iga what the meaning of this tradition was. “I’m not sure,” said Iga. “It’s just tradition and tradition is beautiful.” She explained the beauty of her church, the Cathedral Basilica. For Iga, worshipping in the splendor of the cathedral drew her up and into the nature of the Trinity. She, unlike many students we met, knew Scripture and had a vibrant faith. Some students and community members would embrace the traditions, yet know nothing of the purpose. I met several Atheists who attended the Catholic Church.
Our prayer for those we encountered, especially those immersed in Catholic tradition was that they would encounter the love of the Lord Jesus Christ in a tangible way. We prayed that they would be captivated by the person of Christ. We prayed that they would come to understand that they are fully known and loved by their Abba Father.
As we approached conversations with students, we would pray that the Lord would take our words and have His way with them. We prayed against confusion or any falsehoods in our words and prayed instead that the truth of Christ would saturate the hearts of His children. Unlike the United States, Poland has religion classes in school and most people profess to be Catholic. That also makes open doors for conversations on worldview easier. Usually if a student would ask us, “Why did you come?” or “Tell me about your school,” we would use those prompts as an open door to tell them about our backgrounds in Evangelical Christianity, chapel at Taylor, life in community as the Body of Christ and other aspects of our personal and collective stories. Two students, Phillip and Jacob, spoke with me candidly about their atheism. I asked them what frustrated them with religion and what they wished people at their best would believe. Both had different responses. Phillip left the Catholic Church four years prior and told me he did not know why. He said it took up time and he lost interest. He questioned me on my belief and I shared with him my similar past, one of doubt and skepticism but colored by the hope in Christ which surpasses my fears and fills my life with beauty and vibrant grace. Jacob disliked the Father nature of God because his own father was long gone, abandoning his family years prior. I felt a deep ache for Jacob because my own father abandoned my family when I was 14. I grieved with him because I knew the hurt of that brokenness. Different students reacted differently to questions of faith and ultimate concern. Some scoffed at us “evangelicals,” a group considered cult-like in Polish culture. Others were genuinely interested in our beliefs. Iga even decided to join us for church one Sunday, her first time in an Evangelical church.
Apart from our time with students in their Catholic religious context, we felt it vital to understand the religious context which now was absent - the Jewish people. Prior to the Holocaust, the Jewish culture in Poland was vibrant. King Casimir, a renowned Polish ruler, opened the nation to the Jewish people when much of Europe turned its back. Dave and Sandy took the first few days and the last few days of our trip introducing us to the lost people who once populated Poland. We visited the Polin Museum at the beginning of our trip and Auschwitz and Birkenau at the end. I have always been captivated by Jewish history, but nothing can describe the weight of standing in a gas chamber. Nothing can describe the feeling of squinting from horizon to horizon and seeing nothing but barn-like shacks, once holding nearly 700 people each in a structure smaller than the Freimuth Administration Building. Nothing can describe the biting wind that takes one’s breath away as one looks down the railroad track that leads only one way - poison and ashes. Each step I took was a desperate struggle to try to understand. I saw the faces, heard the voices, smelled the mixture of prison camps smells - all in my mind. At that moment, a train whistle sounded in the distance and I shuddered. Now I understand the ugliness that sound held for survivors. In that moment, I saw another picture in my mind - Christ crucified, bearing every sin, bearing the Holocaust, bearing the genocide and grieving over each name, millions of names, of His creation, decimated. Those slaughtered were known and loved by the Father God. Our visit that day seemed one of remembrance and solidarity, a call to warn and to never repeat and to never turn away from injustice. That day, I walked out of Auschwitz and Birkenau in under ten seconds. Professor Hernandez remarked that the simple action of walking out of the concentration camps was what millions dreamed of doing and never achieved. It seems wrong that we left so easily, but we will always remember.
During our time in Poland, I encountered several unexpected things that to me, are beautiful: the resilience of the people, the depth of Catholic and Jewish history and the passion of students to learn English and engage in thoughtful conversations with us, even as we return to the United States. I’ve mentioned the resilience previously as a trait which I believe came after centuries of invasion (with Russia above and Germany below). Poland often was destroyed in the middle. These people have faced World Wars, the Holocaust and most recently, the rise and fall of Communism. Yet standing on top of the Palace of Culture and Science in Warsaw, a building commissioned by Stalin and built by the hands of Polish laborers, I felt the bittersweet reminder of oppression, but looking out over the city, I saw a people victorious. I remembered when Sandy said that after World War II, Warsaw was roughly 80% destroyed. In the aftermath of the war, communism settled in like a fog and a multitude of industrialized apartment buildings and other such gray, concrete-looking blocks lined the streets. Today, many of those building still stand, but around them is life. There is a sprawling new metropolitan area filled with malls and shops and city life. Warsaw was destroyed, but it rose again and overcame. Its people, like their ancestors, would not have their home in shambles forever. They rebuilt the city and began establishing its new identity. It is a different city, but it is beautiful because it is founded on the resilience of its people. That is something I’ve come to deeply love in the Polish people.
I mentioned much of the depth of Catholic and Jewish history and culture previously, but the students themselves were surprising to me. Whereas I can barely speak a minute in Spanish and German, these students (at the high school, upper division level) are fluent in English. They consider it the best language and the one they have to speak if they want to go to university and the one they have to speak if they want to get a good job. It feels like such an honor to be speaking to students in a language that is my native tongue, but is foreign to them. I wished so many times that I could just speak to them in Polish. As some struggled with English, I wish I could have encouraged them with a phrase in Polish. But many of these students passionately embrace English. They wanted to talk and learn and share. They were, as their nation was, resilient and driven to succeed. As they prepared for their Matura (college entrance exam), they filled their time mostly with studying. I remember studying for the SAT and ACT in high school, but I never devoted as much time to studying as these students who live and breathe academics.
As I reflect back over my time with students and my time in Poland, I think of my prior, personal expectations centered on the “missions high,” that one gets after returning from a short-term trip. I’ve encountered that short-lived feeling before and the vibrancy that it instills in the weeks directly following such trips. I expected to face that sort of emotional reaction during and following Poland. However, this time, it was absent. The Lord showed me very early during our time in Poland how it is only by His presence in me that I am able to advocate His name and be an ambassador for the Gospel. When I encountered Jacob and Phillip, internally I shrunk a little. I thought, “am I prepared to give a defense for my faith?” Immediately I prayed internally that Christ would only allow His words to be heard by both men. I left both conversations humbled, recognizing that I am in consistent need of Christ’s indwelling life and truth. That reliance on Christ’s strength became a theme for our team as we faced sickness throughout our trip. Leaving Poland, we were sad to leave the people we had met and come to love, but we were ready to share our stories with those at our homes.
We had much time to reflect while in Poland once the school day would end. It became a daily Sabbath of sorts for our team when we would journal, pray, study Scripture or meet with students. One thing that I felt the Lord reveal to me was not only a resilience in the people of Poland, but a resilience in the gospel and His power and truth in us. 1 John 3:20 was a verse I circled back to several times. It speaks of the strength of Christ in overcoming doubts and fear. It speaks of the courageous, powerful resilient heart of God. My life is back in Upland now, but that resilience which I glimpsed in Poland has become a pursuit and an area of growth in my life in Christ. I may never face persecution to the level of martyrdom. I may never be imprisoned or face overt opposition. Even so, I am called to be an advocate for my faith and proclaim the truth of Christ with resilience, wherever I go.
When considering cultural distinctives, I find that religion (as mentioned previously) and hospitality, especially surrounding meals are paramount. Since I delved into the concept of “to be Polish is to be Catholic” and the deep roots of Judaism previously, I’ll focus on hospitality. I do believe that hospitality is a universal concept with different implications surrounding various cultures. I don’t believe that hospitality is absent in the United States, it just looks different. It was common for students at the Collegium to invite us to coffee at Cafe Mawa after classes or to other cafes around Sandomierz. I’ve heard the concept of “setting the table” referenced frequently at Taylor; that is what I noticed - literally and metaphorically - in Poland. Students would carve hours out of their schedules to talk, learn and share with us outside of the school day. Several students, such as Iga, invited members of our team to their homes. When Cassidy and I visited Iga’s home, she offered us house slippers, introduced us to her family, gave us a grand apartment tour and ushered us into her purple bedroom. Once seated, she left only to return with trays of sweets: tiramisu, szarlotka, caramel bars, sweet pretzels, chips and fruit tea, for us to share. We spent hours in Iga’s flat, laughing and learning from each other. Iga wants to become a linguist and has shelf upon shelf of foreign language books, flashcards and teaching tools. She loves the English language and has a British flag and a New York skyline print displayed on her wall. She shared her love for music with us and the songs she would sing during “adoration service” at her parish. Iga showed us a Taylor mug she received from last year’s Lighthouse team, smiled and said, “This is my favorite mug.” Iga still keeps in touch with members of last year’s Lighthouse team and has kept in touch with Cassidy and I after we returned to the United States.
The hospitality I saw in Iga, in Marta, in Szymon and Daria, in Daniel, in Ania and in others, I saw in a different, beautiful way in my team. Though many battled illness for much of the trip, I noticed in my teammates a hospitality and willingness to drop everything and listen. I saw their willingness to love and serve. I noticed several times when a teammate would stop journaling to play a game with Sam or Lex. I saw moments where my teammates would pause to see, truly see, the person in front of them. They saw and sought to know and understand those whom they encountered. Connor met a student with a stronger attitude and a rough life. He reached out to this student and formed a connection. He saw and sought to know and understand. This recurrent observation encouraged me to pause and truly listen, to the unsaid as well as the said. Some of the quietest students became the closest friends. One student, Klaudia, was silent for an entire English class, afterward she came forward and apologized for her silence; she was afraid to make a mistake. Yet, she is a student with whom I have remained in touch with. When we truly listened to the students, we saw past the language barrier and saw their resilience, creativity and passion.
The people of Poland captivate me. I am moved by their pursuit of truth, rejoice with their curiosity and grieve for the misguided. The evangelical church in Poland is small and has seemingly limitless possibilities. The Catholic church is culture and is found in every town, however small. It is ornate and beautiful with architecture pointing up and into the awe of God. The once prevalent Jewish community is scarce, but its remnants are vibrant. I am moved by the strong faith of the Polish people, whatever worldview they hold. I pray that they might know and understand the father heart of God. I pray that they might experience and encounter His love.
I see PCM as presenting a helpful form of ministry addressing this hope. PCM empowers leaders to arise from their own communities, not simply send an outsider in. They empower Christian leaders to pursue ministry training, seminary and worship ministry. They provide resources and support to small churches to thrive and help larger churches stay on track. They provide a network of prayer for the Polish church. Then, each local Polish church will seek to know and love its community, those members they encounter everyday. The local church will remain after PCM and short term trips leave. The church receives the community members with their questions, their curiosity and their hunger for truth. In the long term, the church is able to minister to the community it knows.
Our ministry team came, served, learned and returned to the United States. We were fortunate to have a team that had excellent interpersonal relationships. Each member exhibited flexibility in different ways, willing to adapt to changes of plans easily. That was, after all, one of our team goals: flexibility. Through illness, weather and general changes, we enjoyed time together. My personal goal, to listen well, was developed at a deeper level through pausing for conversations that came my way. While I learned to listen better to my teammates, I also learned how to listen better to the voice of Christ, the whispers in the busyness and the whispers in the mundane. I am continuing to learn to pause and rest, to soak in and think through, to wait and listen.
I learned to listen to the stories, the histories of the unheard and overlooked. I learned to listen to the cry of injustice and grieve in the graveyard of genocide. I gained a more in-depth understanding of long memory and why sometimes, grieving and solidarity is showing more love than questioning why nations and groups just can’t get along. I learned that my story is different and that is okay. I learned to see and listen more clearly.
I pray that each day my sight might become clearer, my hearing more astute and my heart more resilient that I might know and love all whom I encounter, whether domestically or abroad.