This summer I spent two weeks in Budapest, Hungary on a graphic design and photography mission trip to serve the Youth With a Mission base of Kiev, Ukraine. Our original plan as a team was to go to Kiev and work with the base directly, but social and political tensions made it difficult to get to Ukraine. Instead the YWAM base in Budapest hosted us.
We had two main projects for the trip; one, to achieve a complete design overhaul of the YWAM Kiev “brand.” The second was to complete a social documentary photography project of the city of Budapest. We were all surprised at how God used the change in location for the trip to work through us for His glory. The Christian community abroad is such an important thing that must be cultivated.
We spent the first week in Budapest learning to navigate the city and searching for stories that we could use for our social documentary. Surprisingly, one of my favorite parts of the entire trip was pairing up, camera in hand, and seeking out stories by finding curious parts of the city or attempting conversation with the Hungarian people.
One man in particular really stimulated my perception of Eastern European culture and daily life. His name was Béla and he worked at a place called Antikvarium, which is a small antique and treasures shop. At first, he was hesitant to talk to us and was insecure about his English, but after some encouragement he opened up about his life. He kept his finger in a Hungarian to English dictionary and continually flipped through the pages to find a specific word that would complete his thought.
Béla recounted in broken English about his early childhood just outside of Budapest. He grew up in a big family and they shared a small flat together. They were cramped, but always had large, happy meals together. After finishing secondary school, he was forced to work instead of continue his education because of Soviet control. He didn’t mind these times, because as a waiter in a high-end hotel restaurant, he was able to interact with interesting people and hear stories about the times before World War II.
He was able to save up money and meet up with his German friends in Yugoslavia for a while. He continually told us of the widespread influence of Communism in Hungary, and how it has persisted in the culture.
“They called [Budapest] a paradise … but it was not a paradise,” he told us as he described the times of Soviet influence.
Béla said that, once Soviet control left Hungary, the country struggled to pick up its broken pieces. Factories closed, jobs were scarce and the country did not know how to interpret their newfound freedom. Even today, Béla said that the country is governed by a false sense of freedom.
“Old people and young people cannot find jobs … people like me want to work, but there is no work.”
The freedom so long sought for brought disorganization, and the high prices and unemployment has constrained and controlled the country just like the Nazis and Communists. Béla no longer has money to travel to see his German friends, but he was thankful for his job at the Antikvarium since so many others like him do not have jobs to remain living in Budapest.
Amidst his sobering recollections, I was shocked by his cheerful attitude and zest for life. This gave perspective to my own sheltered American life.
Overall, I was really surprised how much I enjoyed the social documentary aspect of the trip, because I was nervous to talk to people who might be unwilling to converse or might be rude. Budapest changed my perspective on the attitudes of people who live in a culture that is not structured around freedom and human rights, and it emphasized the need for Christ no matter the culture.