Journey to Poland
by elise elrod ©1994
(more 1994 photography currently being converted for this journal - check back soon)
In 1994, I was invited to travel to Poland with the Gideons. The Gideon organization distributes bibles worldwide. There are many aspects of Gideon life that are very religious and far more conservative than I see myself, Even so, I learned much by traveling to Poland with them. This journey was during the year just prior to seminary training. (Note: names have been changed)
Day 1, Thursday, 7 April 1994
Joni, Melody, Scott and I traveled to Nashville in the van because my baggage would not fit in the car. I am sure the Gideon men will feel I have over packed; after warning me not to do so. We ate lunch at the airport after checking bags to Washington DC. Scott refused the very meal he ordered and loved the day before. We sat in the ticket area of the airport for a bit after lunch. Joni was fairly quiet. Melody giggled and acted silly. Scott could not sit still and used the rest room several times. We have not heard from Tim since the day before yesterday. After an early brunch, we said our farewells at about 11:30 a.m.
Joni warned me not to eat sugar on the trip. Melody told me to stay with the group and stay in the light. Scott said something I have not quite figured out. They left to drive back to Murray as I went through security to the departure gate.
Day 2/3, Friday/Saturday, 08/09
Upon arrival in Warsaw, there was much confusion. After going through customs, the Gideons found their bags on the luggage belt with tags on them reading "GDN", GDANSK. A lady in the baggage area explained to them that it is impossible to check luggage to Gdansk. And, she said, the airport that would take us there was 4 kilometers away. They would need to catch a bus, which would not run for another hour and a half. It was only through her insistence that several Gideons checked the belt for their luggage. Bags would have otherwise been left in Warsaw. After all picked up their bags, each person signed declarations for all traveler's checks and for all US currency.
The Gideons gathered for photographs while waiting for the bus. With all baggage in one place, it became obvious; everyone noticed that I brought the most. After the comments and clever phrases were all exhausted, I heard no more about it. The flight to Warsaw was aboard a commuter on the Polish airline "Lot". Now I know what the travel agent meant when he said the group had "lot space."
Upon arrival in Gdansk, the Gideons walked from the taxi-way (airplane) to a small terminal building. Two large barn doors opened and in came the luggage aboard carts. A large bus waited to take them to the hotel. The four star hotel was not even one star by U.S. standards. They were told Warsaw would not be quite so nice.
The first meeting was after supper. Gideons were told they would all speak in church services the next morning. They were warned not to drink the water. There were many instructions concerning dealing with Polish people.
Two of the Gideons I would be traveling within Poland are Henry and Bill from Canada. Bill left Poland when he was nine years old. He knew enough Polish to be dangerous. Bill was really wired for the occasion. After spending three days, five plane trips, lasting over nine hours and endless time waiting in airports, Bill wanted to stay up all night and talk. The three of us talked for a few moments before someone suggested all have breakfast together in the morning. Bill agreed. After such an arduous trip, it was already past time for bed (11:00 p.m.) , I borrowed a travel alarm from Henry. The alarm was set for 6:00 a.m.
Day 4, Sunday, 10 April, 1994
At 6:00 am, I awoke in what seemed like a minute after lying down. The alarm did not ring. I set it but forgot to turn it on. The shower was interesting. To use the shower, one pulled the faucet out of the sink and hung it on a clip on the wall. There was no shower curtain. I showered, dressed and went down stairs for breakfast. Envisioning ham, eggs, and toast, much to my surprise, breakfast consisted of several plates of what appeared to be lunch meats and a large assortment of what appeared to be salad spreads. The food was pretty good and I had seconds.
When the driver came, the Gideons were told their interpreter would meet them at the church. The driver's name was Dominik. He spoke some English. The church was about a thirty minute drive. Bill, still wired, asked the driver every question imaginable about Poland, the driver's denomination, Gdansk, the driver's family and the driver's job. It became obvious by the time we arrived at our destination, the driver wished Bill would stop talking. He was not angry but it was difficult to translate questions and drive. He did about 120-140 kilometers per hour through the roughest city streets I have ever seen.
We arrived at a small church, which referred to itself as a church of Christ, not 'the' Church of Christ but 'a' church of Christ. This small structure was in a little town called Gadinia. There were about twenty parishioners in attendance. Church services in Gdansk begin about 10:00 a.m. and last 2-3 hours. Except for about five songs, the pastor had the remainder of the time. This left the pastor with time for an hour and a half sermon.
Even with the Gideons speaking through an interpreter, it still left the pastor with a few moments. Henry related two Gideon stories. I was impressed with his careful handling of the interpreter. Bill spoke last. He told of his childhood in Poland, of his time as a nuclear engineer in Pakistan, but even though he spoke of himself, I felt he related it well to the Gideon work.
After a few words from the pastor, a silver basket was passed for a Gideon offering. The parishioners gave about 4,500,000 Zloty (Polish unit of money). Twenty thousand Zloty are approximately one US Dollar. So, the offering was about $200.00, a considerable some for a church of twenty where the manager at McDonald's makes $1.00 per hour.
After the service, the chairs were moved back, tables were brought in. Table cloths were placed on them. Sweet cakes and what resembled cookies, candies, and snacks from a gourmet shop filled the tabletops. Coffee and tea were brought, steaming hot in pitchers. All but a few of the congregation stayed. To see people so poor and yet so generous makes one feel guilty.
Dominik loaded his car with people and stuff for the trip back to the hotel. The good-byes were warm and had a thankful air about them. The Gideons are the ones who should be thankful to them. No sooner than clearing the church driveway, Bill began his inquisition of Dominik again. Dominik, declining Bill's invitation to dinner, explained that they had lost their only child, a son, to a car accident. His wife had great difficulty in meeting people or going anywhere except to church and home. Bill continued his questions, only with Dominik's heartbreaking loss as the new inquisition. Dominik could not help but be relieved upon arriving at the hotel where he escaped Bill's questions. The day had been stressful for him. The interpreter had not been available at the church and Dominik, although uncomfortable, inherited that job too.
Dominik provided much insight concerning Polish people. His most interesting comment concerned religion and Communism. He said that perhaps it was easier for Christians under Communism than now. The communists did not force themselves upon the church. The churches are primarily Catholic. Dominik said that the Catholics have attached themselves to the law, school and politics. This means there are priests in schools and that the Polish people find themselves living with Catholic influence, even though they may not be Catholic. He also talked about the unified church under Communism, how churches have pulled away and the growing friction between denominations.
In the afternoon, we went for a walk in a district known as "Old Towne." Gdansk was established in A.D. 960. When they say old, they mean old. Portions of the old walls still stand. Hitler's army destroyed the rest. There will be more time after the work is done.
In one of the shops, the Gideons met a man named Martin. He spoke some English. He was asked if he was a Christian. He said yes, but refused the little Polish New Testament the Gideons came to distribute. He wanted an English one. He kept referring to it as a bible written in American. Henry had an English Bible in his pocket and gave it to him. He still did not understand that "King James" was not an American. Later, Will gave a little Bible (Gideons call testaments) to a woman named Kasha who ran a Jewelry store. He "witnessed" to her. She was polite and listened.
During the afternoon, Martin found the group again in a crowd of several thousand people. He wanted to know more about the Gideons. He also became a bit of a tour guide. The Hare Krishna sang their chant in the street. There is apparently a battle for the hearts and minds of Polish people since the fall of Communism. Dominik was right.
For supper, several of Gideons piled into a van and went to McDonalds. I ate the special, which was 47,000 Zloty ($2.00). The interpreter told me that everyone who worked there made between 50 cents and $1.00 per hour.
Gideons decided they were all millionaires because $1,000,000 of their unit of money is worth 50 U.S. dollars. The average teacher in Poland makes $150 per month. Yet a gallon of gasoline is about $2.
Tonight, the travel and time change have caught up with me. Bedtime is 8:15 p.m.
Day 5 , Monday, 11 April, 1994
Today, breakfast is at 6:30 a.m. Gideons proceeded to the church where their morning meeting would be held at 7:15. The local Gideon interpreters and drivers were with there. Much confusion ensued while the local Gideons tried to organize which international Gideon would go where. What the Gideons are doing is referred to as an E.A.P. (Extension Action Program). Gideons came out of church pews in pairs, however they may have been seated. I would be traveling with a Gideon named Trevor, a Gideon from North Carolina. The driver assigned is actually a taxi driver by profession named Jakub. The interpreter is a lady named Natalia.
Today, Gideons went back to Gadinia to distribute bibles in the schools. Jakub is insistent that no one but him carry any of the boxes. This seems poor thinking since his little car will not store enough boxes to service even one school. He reloaded after Gideons went into the school.
The first school superintendent (director) was very cooperative. Gideons were able to go class to class. Trevor spoke in each room as others distributed New Testaments. Trevor asked each class if they had heard of God. Since each school had a priest assigned and religion lessons in Catholicism, it seemed a strange question to me. Later, in the car, Natalia advised that his question be changed to, "how many have a personal relationship with Jesus?" The Polish Protestants see this as the primary difference between them and Catholics. There are over 100 Catholic churches and less than a dozen protestant churches. [editorial note: this tension concerning a perceived difference between Christians and Catholics, not only by Polish Christians, but also by the U.S. Gideons was prevalent throughout the journey. I personnaly understand Catholics to be part of the Christian religion]
At the next school, the Director was very friendly and went with Gideons to each class. The building has many stories. There were 90 testaments in each box. Jakub was beginning to see the wisdom in everyone carrying boxes, although he was reluctant.
Some classes were attended by nuns. One gathering of teachers was watched by a priest. Gideons began to use the phrase: "How many of you have a personal relationship with Jesus", several children raised their hands in a few classes. Two nuns out of about nine raised their hands and the priest just smiled. One young man raised his hand high. The others laughed. Most children who acknowledged did so by a slight movement of the hand. Sometimes, the entire room burst into laughter when the question was asked. Gideons always explained who they are, how many Gideons are in the world, and of course, the purpose of the organization. Gideons received very few questions; neither did the Gideons I observed solicit them.
After a few classrooms, before a Gideon began speaking, the director would say in Polish most of what they had been saying. It took a while to realize that they were repeating his words. The director said over 500 children attended night school there. He asked that Gideons leave bibles for them. It was agreed but only if Gideons came back to distribute them. He told us that they would be working with a different director.
Trevor, Natalia, Jakub and I went to lunch near the riverfront about 2:15 p.m. Natalia ordered for all of us. We had to pay to go to the restroom. When my soup arrived, it was blood red with round chunks of meat in it. Natalia refused to tell me what was in it. She and Jakub laughed as the spoon touched my mouth. I ate a little and then ate what appeared to be a Polish hamburger steak and fries. [editorial note: after returning to the U.S., I learned this had been duck blood soup]
After a short time at the hotel, the Gideon group I was with went back to night school (about 30 minutes drive). The night director was not quite as enthusiastic. She took us from class to class where we did pretty much as before. The night school was for troubled young people and pregnant girls.
Return to the hotel was about seven or seven-thirty. It was discovered that Jakub is a Polish Gideon today. He was encouraged to wear a coat and tie tomorrow and to wear his Gideon emblem.
Very tired-missed 5:00 p.m. Gideon meeting. About 1300 little bibles given by Gideons today.
Day 6, Tuesday, 12 April, 1994
Today began with the typical Polish breakfast at 6:15 a.m. of lunch meats, salads and bread. This morning, hot dogs were added ? All proceeded to the regular Gideon meeting at the church. In the cab, the International Director of the Extension Action Programs, Mark, became aware of what Gideons had been told to say by their Polish interpreter. He instructed that under no circumstances should the classes be asked, "How many have a personal relationship with Jesus?" He explained that the Catholic Church did not want the Gideons there for the most part and Gideons could easily close the door to the work in Poland.
Upon arrival at the church, Mark further elaborated with the group at large. He explained that although permission had been given by the Bishop to be here, the priests were divided in their support of that decision. He continued, saying that we have already had teams turned away by the priest at the school door on Monday. One school, he said, had a priest deny them. The director overruled the priest. According to Mark, the priest proceeded to go from class to class telling students they did not have to accept the testaments.
Once in the car, Natalia and Jakub immediately disagreed with Mark. They claim to see the battle clearly. A personal relationship with Jesus is what this is all about. Trevor tried to make them understand what Mark said, that Gideons could not risk the work being closed in Gdansk. They did not agree with the lack of direct references to a personal relationship with Jesus. Even so, they agreed to follow the Gideon lead.
Mark's comments have me thinking, but I too wonder how the Gideon mission can include the real plea for young people to accept Jesus for themselves. Gideons, of course spent the day in compliance. By the way Jakub showed up today in a nice coat and tie and his Gideon Emblem. Gideons began referring to him in each classroom as a Polish Gideon and that Gideons from eight other countries were here to help Jakub.
The Gideon presentation in each classroom introduced the Gideons as businessmen active in many countries. They also used the statistics: 126,000 Gideons; in 161 Countries; giving away bibles translated in 70 languages, during a 97 year history, with 600 million bibles circulated thus far. Gideons talked about the testaments as being a free gift; just as Jesus is God's free gift to the world. They referred the students to the notes in the back which would help them learn who Jesus is and how he can change their life. They also referred them to the notes in the front and how those scriptures could help them with your problems.
Humor was injected into Gideon presentations in very simple ways. Rhetoric that is not the least bit humorous in English becomes hilarious to young people when spoken through an interpreter. Today, growing reluctancewe was felt from directors. Apparently, Monday's work throughout the area produced a stir. Priests, nuns and directors are talking. Perhaps, Mark may have had a good tactical point. If the work is stopped before the little blue Polish New Testaments get to the homes, little the Gideons came to do would be accomplished.
The small Gideon band I was with finished early today. One school held assemblies in a wide part of the hall and allowed Gideons to distribute there. This was faster, although it was more difficult Gideons to be heard. Few children refused and the feeling of young people struggling and reaching through each other racing to get a bible was impressive.
The site of this school was established in the fifteenth century. The location was at one time the border between Poland and Germany. It was the home of Polish purity. The current building was built as a residence in 1849 and became a school in the late 1940's. The principal here told us after the Gideon distribution that she was a Christian. [Editorial note: I wanted to ask if she was Catholic but did not. I still feel a great tension about any perception that Catholic and Christian are seen by Catholics as mutually exclusive alternatives. The statement seems an insult to me. I cannot believe Gideon leaders were open to telling Catholic leaders that such an assumption existed]
The work concluded after a drive to a local college and the discovery they had finished for the day. About 1:30 p.m. I had pizza in Old Towne with Natalia. Afterwards, we looked around Old Towne for jewelry and other gifts. It became a running joke that I was looking for Amber with a bug in it. I found out that the rarest Amber is that which was formed around insects. Amber is hardened tree sap.
After the shopping, which yielded very little, we walked back to the hotel. Natalia's house was within 30-40 yards of the last shop. She could not be persuaded to go home without walking me and Trevor to the hotel, a three mile round trip for her. She felt the need to protect us in broad daylight in downtown Gdansk. Obviously, she knows more than we do .
The evening meeting at 5:00 p.m. was filled with Gideons telling accounts of their day. Nearly everyone is excited. It would be difficult, even for me, to experience this work and not see something special in it. After the meeting, six of us went to Malano's, a restaurant near Natalia's house. We made it there and back, at night and without her. Ten more Gideons soon joined the group. The fellowship was great. The "bug" jokes continued. Everyone pulled out their millions and counted them. The tip for eight of us was 340,000 Zloty, nearly four days wages in Poland.
Bedtime 8:30 p.m. Thiis was indeed a great day!
Day 7, Wednesday, 13 April, 1994
Today we were assigned to three Gdansk schools. In the car we talked about many aspects of Gdansk living. Natalia explained that the average person made about 30 million Zloty per year. A small Fiat costs about 60 million Zloty. The banks do not make car loans but some dealerships do. Consequently only a few (less than 30%) own automobiles. Natalia has a small Fiat and wants to take a photograph of me sitting in it. She may have to settle for me standing beside of it. I am bigger than the car (at the time of this trip, I weighed over 300 pounds).
At the first school, the director provided the help of a teacher who would serve as a guide for the school. This person was very polite and took Gideons from class to class. Presentation and translation was improving; Gideons were able to generate laughter everywhere they went. Young people received the little testaments easily. Most followed when directed to the "notes" as they referred to them all day. Work continued as instructed by Gideon leaders but greatly tempered, given the advice of Natalia and Jakub.
Today we encountered a Catholic priest. He was meeting teachers in the teacher's break room. Many of them already received New Testaments from us and had them in their hands. He greeted each one with all gums and teeth. He was smiling and easy going like the priest you see in the movies. He huddled with one teacher. We could see them examining the little blue testament. He turned to shake my hand; his face seemed to turn to stone. I said gen-dab-we (good day) and he just grunted.
Then he made eye contact with Natalia. He talked to her at great length. Trevor and I were looking out a window. When we turned around, he was picking up his brief case and leaving. Natalia told us that he wanted literature describing the Gideon organization. He was suspicious of who we are. We saw him no more today.
After he left, a ten or eleven year old boy came to the room. He said to Trevor, "I come to thank you on behalf of my whole class for coming to us with this gift" He spoke a little English. He stood quite at attention while he spoke. He began to inquire if Gideons would be going to room 8B. After some discussion with the director through Natalia, the boy said that he needed to know because his brother was in room 8B. He wanted him to have one of the little blue testaments. We gave him an extra New Testament and told him that if we went to room 8B, to give the extra one to someone else. He said; "yes I will," as he left smiling. The length of time spent at this school caused a delay in serving the third school until tomorrow.
While Gideons worked the second school, Jakub went to school number three to make apologies for being late. According to Jakub, the next school would have been a problem had the current school not taken so long. The director of this school clearly was not interested in what the Gideons were doing. He said Gideons would have to visit each class with the priest by our side.
Jakub said he discovered, because the visit was delayed, the priest had to go on to other appointments. This left Gideons with someone the priest appointed. Classes had already dismissed for the day. Gideons would have to leave testaments. Two boxes were left but Polish Gideons were advised to go back later.
Afterwards, Jakub went home. His wife has just had surgery. Trevor, Natalia and I ate a late lunch, Pizza at a shop uptown. I bought an umbrella because it was raining. We visited a toy store and then a few jewelry shops. I finally found a Polish Amber piece with a clearly visible, distinct insect inside. The piece was in a little shop under a porch. The street looked like something out of a James Bond movie. The shopkeeper had a reference book that showed that the insect is of a variety found in only 1.7% of the world's amber. I took it to a silver smith in Old Towne who agreed to mount it in a silver spider. I thought a bug should be mounted in a bug. The stone was 1,000,000 Zloty and the mounting was 500,000 Zloty. My one and half million Zloty piece of jewelry cost less than $75.00.
At the 5:00 p.m. meeting, the president of Gideon International, who happened to be on this trip with us, addressed the group. The stories were good. Everyone is still excited and delighted to be in Poland. After the meeting, Gideons proceeded to the church where the morning meetings have been held. There everyone attended a two hour Pentecostal service in which Mark spoke. He certainly deserves his reputation as a speaker. He spoke of willing workers and a sovereign God, and seeking souls. His text was Acts 8, 9 and 10. His translator sounded like one from the U.N.
Afterwards, supper at the hotel. I stayed up until midnight writing and watching British T.V. everything else was in Polish. Another interesting day!
Day 8, Thursday, 14 April, 1994
Stayed up too late last night and climbed out of bed with only a few minutes to shower and dress before our 6:15 Polish breakfast. After breakfast, all went to the church for the morning meeting. The Gideon team, with which I had traveled thus far, remained intact, although Malcom threatened to take the interpreter. He was evidently just pulling their chain. When they were almost assigned a different interpreter, he intervened.
Today, the team had to take care of the school delayed yesterday. Also assigned, were one medium size school (330 students) and one very large school (1100 students). The team arrived prematurely at the smaller school, one hour earlier than promised. The school was very cooperative and Gideons were taken from class to class. Finished by 9:00 a.m..
The largest school was next. The director was supportive and enthusiastic. She turned the Gideons over to an equally cooperative vice-director. He took them from class to class until he had to teach himself. He then assigned two students who continued as escorts. We must have gone to forty or more classes. By now, Gideon presentations have become orderly, predictable to interpret and targeted at getting the young people to become comfortable through laughter so that they may be directed to the New Testaments without feeling threatened or pressured.
Again today, young people present themselves to say thanks for the gift and for coming. Several English speaking students wanted to talk with Gideons. The vice-director began showing students the helps in the testaments. During a class break he spoke with us concerning his worries for a world without God. We did not see a nun or priest at this school.
The vice-director apologized that the tea he served could not have been served in better cups. He made the tea in a porcelain-enameled pot with a submersible heater. Every child should have a headmaster like this man. He spoke of the young people in terms of care and not trouble. As we moved thru the school, teachers and students alike constantly approached him. He had time and patience for each one.
At the next school, many children were leaving as the Gideons entered the schoolyard. Trevor said, referring to the little blue testaments, "Let's give out a few here." Once a testament or two was given, young people immediately swarmed them. I have never seen anything like the Gideons being pressed by dozens of children with outstretched hands. Two hundred testaments later, the team was summoned into the school. Apparently a teacher became angry. They sat in the director's office for forty-five minutes waiting on her. She was friendly and apologetic when she finally arrived. She gave Natalia a short list of classes on a piece of paper and left the Gideons to go to each class without an escort.
After Natalia talked with each teacher, presentations began. They went fairly well with laughter. The sign-off after each one became, "We love you, God bless you, da vee zan ya (good-bye).
The notes in the bible were pointed out carefully in each class. The remainder of the school had to be handled on the front steps as the young people left. This went well although the time required to point out the notes to each one was not possible. Apparently there were classes, which were not on the original list provided by the director, and these classes were now leaving school. Large groups of older young people came out onto the steps, took testaments and went back into the school. Finally things quieted down and the team left, finished for the day.
Jakub, Natalia, Trevor and I went to McDonald's to eat again. Afterwards, we visited the Solidarity monument at the shipyards where Lech Walesa became so famous. The Polish people have been through much and you can see it in them. We returned to the hotel at 4:30 p.m.
I road in a stretched, Toyota Camry, limousine to the church. A Norwegian Gideon of some means brought it seven hours on the ferry across the Baltic Sea. He was our driver. I have a feeling he rides in the back seat at home.
This night, the church hosted the Gideons to a literal feast. Their hospitality, considering their economic circumstances, is overwhelming. After dinner they presented an offering of six and one half million Zloty ($300) The International President, Malcom turned out to be quite a singer. He led the group in several songs from memory. The sound in that old church was moving. The main host, Kamila sang a solo after the Gideons moved their activities to the sanctuary. Then Malcom sang a solo. They all signed twenty testaments each to be given to those who will be baptized Sunday.
Afterwards, 10,000 testaments needed to be moved from the Baptist Church to the Pentecostal Church. A line of Gideon men was established outside the main gate, through the courtyard and into the church. What a site to see boxes of 90 testaments each being handed Gideon to Gideon like sand bags to a flood wall. Afterwards we walked to the hotel some distance away.
Back at the hotel, it is time for bed. I've stored away a Coca Cola Light (Diet Coke), which is difficult to find here. Mineral water gets old, day after day.
10:30 p.m. The team distributed 1447 testaments today!
Day 9, Friday, 15 April, 1994
Today started with the now familiar lunch meat and salad breakfast. Cereal and hot dogs were also provided. Afterwards, The Gideons met at the church for the morning meeting and work assignments. Once again, the team remained the same. I traveled with Trevor, Jakub and Natalia.
At the first school, the team was sent away for the first time. The director was not there and the assistant director did not know anything about testament distribution. The team left two boxes and said that they would return when the director was in.
The next school was only across the playground from the first school. Again the team was sent away. The classes to which they would distribute would not be in until 12:30. Again they said they would return. They were able to distribute 100 or so in the schoolyard driveway.
The third school was ready for them. Here the director would be very cooperative. Gideons went class to class and all went well. When they finished, there was time before the director would return to the first school.
Natalia suggested that she show us the sight where World War II was started. It was interesting and included a preserved bombed-out barracks. The sign in front of the monument said "Never War Again" in Polish. When finished at the monument it was time to go back to school number one. There the team found the director expecting them.
He asked them many questions. Most pertained to the Gideon relationship with the Catholic Church. Are they associated with the Catholic Church? No. Are there any Catholic Gideons? Trevor said, "Not yet," which is true but the Gideons feel "not ever." Who gave them permission? The Bishop. What translation is the testament? From original Greek into the Polish language, nothing added, nothing taken away.
The Gideons worried that he was deciding whether they would go further. His arms were firmly folded all of the time. Finally Gideons rose and worked with several classes. The director stood stone faced in the corner of each room. Even so, the team was able to draw laughter from each class and each teacher, and once in a while, a week smile from the director.
This school was seven floors. Gideons made distributions through the fifth floor. No elevator and many boxes of testaments. Our driver Jakub finally accepted the notion that the Polish Gideons did not need to follow the U.S. Gideons everywhere they go, acting as box bearers. He allowed the team to carry boxes and even would enter the room before them on occasion. They tried to make Jakub see that it is the Polish Gideon they were presenting as the leaders. Still, when they got down to only one box on the floor, Jakub would not relinquish it.
When the team returned to school number two, the director was ready. She acted as a scout, going ahead, finding the rooms. She would suddenly appear from around a corner or down a staircase, point out the next room and disappear again. She was great. The classes went well except for a few students who refused testaments and one teacher, who sat in the back of the room in protest. The Catholic Church has a significant influence on the schools here. The team was, it seemed, an interruption to the norm.
After the team finished with the distribution (900 testaments), I had lunch with Natalia and Jakub. The Polish people must love pizza because this is the third time she suggested it this week. The bank was next. I cashed $300 in traveler's checks into Zloty (six and one half million). I went to the jewelry store where the silver smith had been working on 'the spider' with 'the Amber stone' in it. It was ready but he felt it was now worth more than he quoted. Instead of 500,000 he wanted 600,000 ($30). He said it took him six hours. He asked: "Too much?" Like any self-respecting tourist, I said, "No, no." I paid him and took his photograph. I was not able to talk with him long. A crowd came into the store.
At the 5:00 p.m. meeting, the Director of Extension Action Programs internationally, Mark explained how he felt Gideons should answer a Catholic Priest or director if pressed with the question, "Why are there no Catholic Gideons?" He said that Gideons should say: "It is not that Catholics are not Christians. Gideon International is a protestant organization. As difficult as it is to get all evangelical men to agree on organizational rules, how could they organize if we add Catholics? Gideons do not believe any man to be infallible, not even the Pope. We do not believe people are prayed out of purgatory. We do not see Mary in the same way as the Catholics."
It would take divine inspiration indeed each time I was forced to answer such a question because I could not say what Mark said in the way he said it. Later, at the Pastor's Banquet, Trevor tried to repeat Mark's words to Natalia. She said: "I am glad you did not know these words to say to the director he would not like."
The pastor's banquet was good. There were only 8-10 pastors present. There are few evangelical churches in Gdansk. Mark spoke. He did an outstanding job. Later someone told me that a story Mark used from the week was one in which my friend was involved and that it was stretched considerably from accurate. (Gideons are known for stretching stories)
We took the bus back to the hotel. Another tiring day.
Day 10, Saturday, 16 April, 1994
We had the last hot dog and cereal breakfast in Gdansk, boarded a bus and went to the train station. The train is really the way to travel. In my cabin were Herbert, Executive Director of Canada and Billy. Billy is more than most can bear. He is extremely judgmental and has a way of putting things with facial expressions that would try anyone.
Billy fell asleep. Herbert and I discussed the Gideon Organization. His views are surprisingly similar to mine. He asked that I not give him credit for expressing them when Malcom is involved. I sensed a bit of strain in the relationship between the U.S. and Canada.
We discussed children leaving the nest. He apparently has experience. His view is that even though we want to help, nothing given at this stage is really help. It just delays the inevitable problems; sounded familiar.
The train took us through the Polish countryside. This is a country of great transition. Horse drawn farming is still quite common and yet we saw a few modern tractors.
Billy was awake and telling the story of his life. I went to the dining car for mineral water. Seemed like a good time. When I returned, I noticed Herbert had escaped, so I sat in a cabin with Phillip. I did return to Billy who announced that I had really missed a great testimony, his, while I was gone.
When the train stopped, we all stood in the isles just to discover we were not there yet. We sat back down. Maybe Polish people should tell Gideon jokes. When we arrived in Warsaw, we left the train and got on a bus. Our hotel, which we were warned would not be nice, was nicer than Gdansk.
After lunch, a ham and egg omelet with fries, yes! We boarded a bus and went to the Jewish Ghetto. There, as in the World War II Park in Gdansk, we saw much of the suffering of the Polish people. One stop included the remains of a Polish prison. All that remained was the portion built underground. The rest was mined by the Nazi's and destroyed with prisoners still inside. The photographs in this place helped me understand how difficult it must be to convince Polish people of someone else's religion or ideology. None here would be unaware of what happened last time the government went after a particular group.
Communism has been dissolved in Poland for only a few years. Free enterprise is a new concept and they still struggle with it. Likewise they struggle with the idea of having multiple faith based religions; the Catholics inherited almost complete domination of the religious scene when Communism fell.
At the evening meeting Gustav, an international Gideon was told that work in the morning required leaving 7:15 for a 9:00 a.m. worship service starting time. I was to go with him.
After the meeting, we had supper at the hotel. Bedtime is welcome tonight.
Day 11, 17 Sunday, April, 1994
At 6:20, I had breakfast and was ready for the driver at 7:15. He did not show. Apparently there was some confusion. As it turned out, our 9:00 a.m. service was only a mile or two from the hotel and the driver arrived shortly after 8:00 a.m.
The church had no pastor and was run primarily by three elders. A young bible college student delivered the message. An interpreter sat between Gustav and I and softy repeated every word. He spoke of the armor one has in Jesus Christ. He talked about a patient and careful Satan. Why would anyone, he said, drop their armor against Satan if they had it.
The song: "This is my Savior, this is my song" and "Jesus, there is something about that name," sound familiar, even when sung in Polish. The young bible student asked if the congregation noticed God's care in our lives. He said, in Jesus, you have everything you need. The time is now, he said.
One of the Elders, responding to the message, I'm sure, emphasized that many come to Poland to evangelize. "Isn't it about time we evangelized ourselves," he asked.
Gustav spoke through an interpreter. Many of the faces in the congregation were all aglow. You could see them helping him in their minds. Gustav told stories of the past week in Gdansk.
One of the elders, a Christian radio broadcaster closed out the service, thanked everyone and handled church announcements. He said to those present, "Earlier today we prayed for a man in the hospital. Who will go see him?" I was sitting in the 2nd row and did not have the nerve to turn around. It did appear he got volunteers.
After the service, this same elder took Gustav and I back to the hotel. On the way, he talked about the state of evangelical Christians in Poland and about the Polish people and their participation in church. He said that only five or six years ago, under Communism, that 75% of Polish people attended church, primarily Catholic. He said that when Communism fell, the priests seemed to seek as much power and control as they could.
Many in the Catholic Church have begun to question how informative these men are and the validly of the church having such power. He said that church attendance has fallen to about 40% in the major cities and 55% in more rural areas. He said, if anything, Communism was easier on evangelical Christians because the community feared the Catholic Church having too much power. This exactly matched what we were told in Gdansk. [editorial note: my experiences with Catholics here in the U.S. before and after the trip do not reflect any such attitude, in most cases, quite the opposite. I have been well received and cared for by Catholic Christians]
Once back at the hotel, we had lunch. We took a cab to Old Towne. It seems Warsaw has one too. Everyone compared notes later; concerning major discrepancies in the cost of a cab ride from the hotel to the same street corner and back again.
The Gideon were told that they would be very busy this week. They also discovered that the Warsaw Gideons were not very organized. The meeting time caught people up from Friday. Spirits were still high.
Afterwards, supper and early bedtime for me.
Day 12, Monday, 18 April, 1994
It was cold and rainy today. After breakfast, the Gideons had their morning meeting. A gideon named Fred and I wentmto the steps of the math and science building of a Warsaw university. I wished for my gloves and an umbrella today. My feet were so cold they became numb.
Thankfully, the porch was covered. Unfortunately when Fred stepped inside to get warm, he was ushered immediately back out by a security guard. As the morning wore on, the word of what Gideons were doing began to spread inside the building and on other parts of the campus. Individuals would come out of the building and request testaments. One maintenance man came to the sidewalk in front of the porch and asked for several. He said he wanted to take them back to the other workers.
When Gideons had finished for the morning, with no more testaments in the boxes, a young woman named Sally came to the porch and asked, "Why do you do this?" They explained to her about the Gideons. She asked "Why only the New Testaments? Why not the whole bible? She said that the Old Testament had much more historical significance and that she would like to have it in English, not Polish. She was asked if she knew Jesus. She said that she believed he died on the cross but that this had no significance today. She was asked if she believed in God. She said God was a concept you talked about but had no relevance. I was glad she spoke English because we had been left without an interpreter about mid-morning.
Ready to leave, no bus came for us. We decided to walk to the hotel. It was much further than we thought.
After lunch, there was some confusion as to who would go where. The team going to the prison was short two people. Henry and I volunteered to go. The idea of seeing Polish prison seemed a once in a lifetime opportunity to me. When we arrived at the prison, a Polish Gideon, an American Gideon and an interpreter went inside to arrange our visit. We were told that prisons would not be available to us without prior notification of exactly who would come with their passport numbers.
After a lengthy wait, the trio returned with news that six would be allowed in. I was one of those. Inside they took our passports and had us wait while they did paperwork. When I received permission, I moved thru a metal detector, which sounded. They took no action. Every Gideon who passed through the detector caused the detector to sound. Still, they took no action as we were ushered into a second room. Soon, I heard others shouting my name. They saw a camera around the neck of one fellow and took it from him. Under my coat, hanging off my shoulder, was my cherished camera. They took it. My Nikon is expensive, but I guess I was worried most about my passport. After our personal belongings were locked away, they took us into the prison yard.
We walked to a distant building. The prison cells and common areas were eye-opening. I have never been in a major U.S. prison. So, I will not attempt a comparison. It is enough to say, living conditions alone seemed like more punishment than anyone deserves. Losing one's freedom for great long periods of times seems more than adequate. The next day, I did not return to the prison.
Remainder of trip, April, 1994
The remainder of the trip included more testament distributions. Probably the most interesting of these was at Politechnika Warszawska, the Warsaw University of Technology. The work there flowed freely with many Gideons from many countries including the U.S. and Poland. There was more time to talk with people. It was surprising how many knew some English.
Most importantly, I was able to concentrate in a greater way on photography than during previous days. There was a street person who took a handful of testaments and gave them to other street people. Then, he sat on a curb drinking beer reading the bible. There were adolescent twin sisters who, like a set of bookends, buried their eyes and minds into the little blue book. As I began to look around the city, the bus stops, in cars, walking along sidewalks, even high up on a balcony, I saw what I had already seen in the hallways, classrooms and schoolyards of Gdansk. The little blue New Testaments were infectious.
Everywhere were people reading the little blue book. This sounds like one of the stretched stories for which Gideons are well known but it is true. The work the Gideons perform puts the testament in the hands of people who want to read it. I "witnessed" this myself.
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