JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM
A tale by Johny Noer
THE MAYOR’S OFFICE
… suddenly the room was flooded by an invisible presence.
I started to look for the tables of the Law. Those which were first placed on the roof of the Uzgorod Synagogue. "They are forgotten and hidden in that museum on the other side of the river," some old city people explained. "The building with the trees in the front and some new streetlights just outside."
I arrived early one Friday morning. It was quiet at that hour. I entered a room where three of the white washed walls were bare. On the forth wall hung a large painting of Moses. Enormous in the little room, and I got encouraged; if Moses was there, the tablets of the Law might be there as well.
An elderly man was sitting in a chair, his hands on his chest, fast asleep. I didn’t want to disturb him, but he suddenly woke up and immediately started to select some rolled parchments. He stared at me while he blew dust away from the scrolls. The specks of dust were swarming in rays of the Friday-morning sun. I asked him, "Do you have the tables of the Law?"
"The tables of the Law?" He went on working efficiently, but without undue haste, gathering books and illustrations.
"Yes." I pointed at the huge painting of Moses. "The tables of the Law of Moses. Those, which were on the top of the old synagogue."
"What do you want to do with the tables of Moses?" He was cutting out an image from a book and glued it on a piece of black parchment.
"Put them back on the synagogue!"
"Why?" He picked up a pen and, with a fluid ease, wrote something in Russian.
"It’s the word of God! It will mean a blessing for the city!"
"A blessing for the city?" He ceased to work and looked at me. "There’s not such a thing as ‘a blessing for this city’!"
"Haven’t got them! They are lost… forever!"
The next place was a few kilometres away. With a parking lot for privacy behind a high stone wall. At eight a.m. sharp I drove my jeep in behind an iron railing, where some bicycles were parked under the black useful shadows of a few big trees. Behind the trees was a small church. I entered through a door near the front of the church. Candles burning at the altars along the walls gave me enough light. I walked the length of the church, until I could see down the right arm of the cruciform building. It was hard to see past the votive candles. I walked quickly down the right transept. A great shadow reared up the chapel wall: A black priest kneeling at an altar! He stood up, peered into the dark like an owl.
"Sorry to disturb you!"
"What do you want?"
"I’m looking for the tables of the Law. Those which used to be on the top of the old synagogue. They should be stored in a cellar of this church."
"They aren’t." The shadow of the priest grew immense behind him.
"May I have a look in the cellar?"
The shadow shrank down the chapel wall, as the priest came towards me. A circle of apostles on the ceiling was watching us.
"No Law-tables here!" The priest sneered. "Look for yourself!"
There was no electricity in the cellar roof. Light was supplied from the doorway and from a single small window at the level of the ground. It was a chamber of moisture and shadow, comprising perhaps a fifteen foot square. Its walls were an unfinished mixture of stone and earth.
The priest gestured unwillingly towards some roughly hewn shelves bolted to the wall that was farthest from the light. On the top there were rows of golden-green candlesticks and altar jars. Boxes with labels indecipherable in the gloom on the bottom some cleaning tools.
"No tables of the Law," I whispered.
"Out of date! Put aside forever!" The priest sneered again glancing sideward towards the dusty shelves.
"Out of date? I was surprised. "Put aside forever?"
"What is obsolete and aging will soon disappear."
"What do you mean?"
"The letter to the Hebrews?"
The priest was blinking rapidly, in an effort to free his eyes of the dust of the cellar.
"The letter to the Jews?" I asked.
"Exactly," he said.
When I left the church, a streetlight came on whitewashing the rough stones, sharpening the shadows under the tower. As the swallows went to their nests, the first bats appeared. In my mind I composed the words of the priest, as I walked towards the car: "Out of date, put aside forever!" Perhaps this was the reason why I couldn’t find the old tables of the Law? They had disappeared! Had vanished away! Some new tables had to be made?
A little bat circled over my head.
Perhaps I was forbidden to restore the old tables of the Law?
The little bat flickered across the streetlights, hunting bugs. Behind me the great door to the church was closed and bolted by the black priest.
I went to the Jews in Mucatchevo Street. Their present synagogue was in an old building inside a dirty yard behind a big, red rotten gate. A furious dog tried to keep me away.
A young lady in a flower shop next door told me that there was ‘nobody there’! She had a pencil-tight skirt, big golden earrings, a necklace to match, and shoes with skyscraper heels. The way she said, ‘nobody there’ was offending. She shook her head in a mocking attitude, her big earrings dangling and dashing around her cheeks; she didn’t like her Jewish neighbours!
My world had changed since the day I stood in front of the Uzgorod synagogue and was told that ‘the tables of the Law’ were missing. But I was now living in the administrative purgatory of a new Ukrainian democracy, and each day, inside myself, a grim knowledge grew: "What I was told by that black priest in the small cubicle in the basement of the church on the other side of the river was true: The old tables of the Law were out of date! New ones would have to be made. I was somehow marked for a special effort that one task; it was my job to produce these new law-tables!
I decided to speak to the mayor of Uzgorod.
On a cold December evening in 1991, a few days later, I wrote the following report to my friends in Denmark:
"It was an indescribable situation! Rather grotesque. Something like that had never before taken place in the town of Uzgorod in Ukraine.
… and then just in front of the mayor’s impressive building. As I observed what was happening, I felt the presence of evil; a religious theatre put on stage by the devil himself!
On the marble stairs leading up to the large entrance, old women, dressed in black, squatted down in prayer. Pale, hungry men with burning eyes and candles mumbled prayers, and a priest conducted some sort of a service. In front of the town-hall were two camps of tents. Some had the cross designed that way – the others that way…
The Greek-Orthodox and the Greek-Catholics were having a row. Both camps claimed a church building downtown, and they were now with religious zeal hunger striking for their new democratic rights. For 70 years the believers of Uzgorod have never been able to demonstrate; now was the day, when these two groups could sing, pray and preach against each other. When I arrived, they had already done so for 2 weeks!
"I realize it’s not a convenient moment to speak about churchly matters," I said, when the mayor received Gisèle and myself in his office. Together with us were two local bishops for 22 Evangelical churches representing (after 70 years of atheism) 3000 Christians!
The mayor lifted his hands in exasperation and pointed to the closed curtains: "They are driving me mad," he sighed. From the street the noise of liturgical songs and prayers rose up through the carefully closed windows. We were asked to sit down around a large polished desk, and I put forward my request: "Would the town of Uzgorod issue an official invitation to the Danish Pilgrim-Convoy?" This was my first step in contacting the mayor. It wasn’t the moment to speak about the missing tables of the Law on the synagogue!
As I spoke and stressed the importance of such an official invitation, our voices were drowned in the noise of the Orthodox mass taking place on the street below. The mayor looked at me with tired eyes. I realised that he was more than loaded with demands from church people.
Then that something happened! Exactly that, which I so often have experienced during our 15 years of travel with the Pilgrim Convoy! It started as a warm glow in my heart. I noticed that the two bishops at the other end of the table experienced something of the same kind. The room was flooded by an invisible presence; it was as if that massive office door suddenly opened, and somebody entered: The Lord was among us!
The tiring song from the street stopped. The tormented look on the mayor’s face disappeared, and he suddenly bent forward listening with interest. The interpreter had to speed up her translation, as the mayor stopped speaking Russian and excitedly switched over to the Ukrainian language. "I will visit the Danish Pilgrim Convoy," he whispered, "I will bring the official invitation!"
We all looked at the mayor. He stopped with that peculiar expression on his face as if he listened to his own words. Then he continued: "After all what has been going on in the Ukraine for the last 70 years a Christian convoy like yours will be more than welcome! We need you!"
Exactly two weeks later a Russian car with a uniformed chauffeur drove the mayor of Uzgorod into our Pilgrim Camp. The two bishops had arrived some hours in advance. They wanted to inform us about his coming. Gisèle got busy in the kitchen, and a lovely table was prepared. The two bishops were vegetarian and were served a special dish. The mayor ate with relish the tasty roast beef. "We are all vegetarians in Ukraine these days," he sighed jokingly. "In a couple of weeks, I’ll come back," he continued being served another dish, "I want to bring our Russian TV-team; the pilgrims must be known in our new independent state..!"
In that moment I had to think of that unusual visit we had some weeks before. The American prophet, Charles Dodds suddenly turned up and delivered a message from the Lord: "Now you will come to see the Lord your God open doors… you will see people in leading positions come to your door, for I, the Lord, your God, will draw them to you."
Fragments of this (now partly fulfilled) prophecy filled my heart: "You have been set to proclaim My word from high places and low places, yes, form places that are strange in your eyes. You are to proclaim that there must be a ‘going out’ before there will be ‘a going in’… ‘a going in’ to the Promised Land!"
I knew that such words were referring to the Jewish people! That’s why I was not surprised when the inspired word ended: "But there will be opposition, much opposition! says the Lord."
"The high places?" I thought about the roof of the synagogue. One of the highest places in town! The word of the Lord had to be brought back to this place! In that way the proclaiming of the word of God from – indeed - "a strange place in our eyes!" would be fulfilled.
I began to look at the shape of things. Within the frame work of my mind I felt as though I was all alone. I could receive no help from the traditional Christians in town; they were fighting each other and were hostile towards the evangelicals. What about my evangelical friends in other parts of the country? Those bishops who had received us so far? Would they understand the importance of the task that these tables of the Law had to be put back on the roof of the synagogue?
I went to a large conference in the Ukrainian city of Kiev, arranged by the Union of Evangelical Christians, only to meet that predicted opposition in a peculiar way.
A group of Belgian Christians arrived with some trucks of humanitarian aid. We knew some of these brothers and greeted them warmly. Afterwards I heard that they had contacted the Ukrainian leaders of the conference and warned them against us. "Johny Noer is a divorced and remarried man, and he has some strange ideas about Israel," they said. These false rumours were silenced by the American leader of the conference, Pastor Bill Burkett, who took our defence; but in some 24 hours, Gisèle and I experienced how a wall of ice and silent hostility had been built around us.
"We noticed how you reacted to these undocumented accusations," explained the two bishops from the Uzgorod region, "and we agreed that these charges could not be true; that’s why we will help you in your evangelising efforts." I understood that the synagogue – as far as they saw things – was nothing of their business….
I felt somewhat out of breath, when I considered what was lying ahead. Because of the bureaucratic and not very efficient Soviet administration, the whole process of issuing all necessary papers for our 50 vehicles, team and cattle would take time; nothing would be ready before March next year! In the meantime evangelisation was taking place in the total border area around the Hungarian town of Záhony. The Red Star had consequently been removed from a former Communist party building which Pastor Bálint had dedicated as a new church. Before the dedication service I was asked to conduct a series of meetings on the necessary subject of ‘holiness’, and then we continued with beautiful days of evangelisation.
One evening I noticed a broad-shouldered figure, terrifically muscled, looming in black outline against the light of the illuminated tabernacle. He had a bottle of vodka standing beside him on the ground and a handful of walnuts in his pocket.
"The Mafia doesn’t want you here," he said. "If you don’t go away, they know what to do with you." He picked up two walnuts from his pocket and, squeezing them together in his mighty fist until they cracked loudly, he smiled at me. A vicious, evil smile…