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Hungarians help church flourish after communism

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Second in a series

BUDAPEST, Hungary — For two decades, they've helped provide the face of the LDS Church in Hungary, having converted to the faith as adults and young teens at a time when their central European country was shedding the shackles of communism and embracing newfound freedoms.

They've watched Mormonism flourish, flounder and persist, and they're anxious for the next generation to take root so growing pains give way to a firm future of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their homeland.

"We cannot take things for granted yet," said Balatoni Gabor, a 1991 convert who serves as bishop of the Pest Ward. "We still have to work for it very hard."

A half-dozen Hungarians — Benko Sandor, Csepai Andras, Valkai Nikoletta, Bajo Zsuzsanna and Bodacz-Nagy Bela joining Balatoni — recently met in the Hungary Budapest Mission home, talking of how merging paths brought them to become Mormons. Some had to cross international borders; others joined friends in finding the church in their hometown.

"We were the ones looking for the missionaries," Benko said with a smile, as he recalled first meeting East German LDS patriarch Walter Krausse through relatives in the late 1980s. "He was a great friend to Hungarians. We came to know him as other people had and of his love radiating to others as he talked about his life and his service."

Krausse gave the Benkos' contact information for the church in Hungary in the summer of 1989. On Nov. 25, Benko, his wife and their 12-year-old son, Sandor, were baptized, serving in callings and leadership positions ever since.

As a street minstrel in Sweden, Csepai experienced his own internationally connected conversion earlier that year. Making good money, he gave himself a deadline — three days before returning home to Hungary — to find something more fulfilling.

"I wanted to prove to myself that I could give this up for the purpose of the Lord, and Heavenly Father answered immediately. He knew my weakest point — he sent sister missionaries to me," said Csepai, who was taught in English, baptized in Sweden and arrived in Budapest as Hungary's third convert in the post-communism times.

Missionary work in Hungary dates back to the late 19th century. Mischa Markow, likely the first Hungarian convert, joined the LDS Church in Turkey in 1887, and his missionary endeavors included attempts in — and subsequent banishments from — Hungary as well as several neighboring countries.

Efforts were repeated through the late 1930s, with limited success prior to World War II and Soviet occupation. The 1956 revolts resulted in a softer communism in Hungary, including a higher standard of living than neighboring nations, lessened travel restrictions and the like.

In the 1960s, missionary work with Hungarians living in Austria spread into Hungary itself, and a branch was established in Budapest in 1976. It was later disbanded due to government restrictions, although several senior missionary couples served in Hungary in the late 1970s.

The LDS Church received considerable media attention in the 1980s — Hungarian television broadcast Mormon Tabernacle Choir programs and documentaries on Utah and the church. A popular book of the time — "The People of the Golden Plates," took a closer look at the church.

In 1987, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles offered an Easter Day prayer and blessing on Hungary's behalf in a park on Budapest's Mount Gellert. Two days later, he and Elder Hans B. Ringger of the Quorums of the Seventy met with the secretary of the government's Office of Religion and Internal Affairs as the church was approved to register in Hungary.

The first missionaries arrived in 1987 from the Austria Vienna East Mission; the church received full recognition in 1988; the Hungary Budapest Mission was created in 1990; and the Book of Mormon was translated and published in Hungary in 1991.

And Hungary was at the forefront of communism's reduced role in central and eastern Europe, with the open borders between it and Austria in 1989, serving as a precursor to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In the late '80s and early '90s, LDS missionary efforts were so well-received that appointments with the missionaries were having to be three weeks out.

That was the era that Balatoni, Valkai, Bajo and Bodacz-Nagy joined the LDS Church in their hometown of Dunauzvaros — all separately from either other but quickly becoming intertwined.

The city was opened in January 1991 with a room at a local museum used for meetings. Later that summer, the 15-year-old Balatoni met four elders at a street display. Having checked out other religions while attending high school in Budapest, Balatoni was receptive to the Mormon message and was baptized in August 1991.

The next year, best friends Valkai and Bajo joined Balatoni — their classmate of seven years — as new members of the branch. They did it not only separately of him, but of each other.

"In the summer, we had a fight," Bajo recalled. "Nikki met one set of the missionaries, I met the others. We met again in church, made up then and became best friends again — we even ended up serving missions at the same time in the same country (Ukraine)."

Bodacz-Nagy completed the foursome of longtime friends, baptized as an 11-year-old later in 1992 after accompanying his mother and sick sister to the doctor and seeing from afar two missionaries serving in Dunauzvaros.

"They were smiling, and I was having one of the worst days of my life," he said. "I told my mom, 'Look at those two guys — what do you want to bet that they will come to us.'"

They did — followed by a conversation about God and an in-home visit with a discussion and a Book of Mormon. Bodacz-Nagy and his mother raced to see who could read the most in the Book of Mormon in three days; they not only accepted a baptismal invitation, but chided the missionaries for not asking for a commitment on their first visit.

Bodacz-Nagy was baptized in a physical-therapy swimming pool. "And we were his Primary teachers," Valkai said of her shared calling with Bajo.

"And I was his Young Men's leader and, later, his branch president and his bishop," Balatoni added.

In less than two years, the Dunauzvaros Branch had skyrocketed from two members to 110 and subsequently split. As a whole, Hungary seemed to be forming a branch nearly every month.

But Hungary wasn't without its challenges — over the years, some members have moved away or fell into activity. The novelty of all things American and western European wore off. Initial interests in religions and freedoms gave way to economic pursuits.

Others struggled to learn the Mormon culture and customs — for example, some released from callings or leadership positions considered themselves "fired" and left with hurt feelings; others expected the church to fill the role of the former communist government and solve all problems.

"The people still think that way," Balatoni said, adding members need emotional and spiritual self-reliance rather than over-depending on church leaders. "They have the principles, their scriptures, a brain, a connection to their Heavenly Father. They have the oil in their own lamps."

But all agreed Hungary's biggest challenges could also be its biggest opportunity. Members are adapting. Church rolls count an increasing number of returned missionaries and a new generation of local Latter-day Saints, grown and raised in the church in Hungary.

Now, they need to reach out to others in their neighborhoods and cities.

"We need to share the gospel; and not be ashamed of it and be quiet about it," Benko said. "What we need is a genuine trust among each other and among ourselves that we can share the gospel."

"The Ukrainians have set a good example for us — how to do it through member-missionary work," said Valkai, who traveled to Kiev for the recent temple dedication. "For half our mission, we couldn't wear name tags. Somehow, the people on the streets knew we were missionaries, and they would stop us and talk to us about the church."

Csepai added, "I always come back to missionary work, because that changed my life in the biggest way. When you have a problem that you cannot resolve, go out and try to help others, and yours will be solved.

"I'm passing out Books of Mormon and pass-along cards. It's like medicine. I forget my problems and start having love for others."

e-mail: taylor@desnews.com