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Harvesting Hope

We do not need to think the same thoughts as someone else, in order to love them. So wrote Francis David, a long-ago faith ancestor of today's Unitarian Universalist movement. He wrote these words in Transylvania, where he lived and was persecuted for his unpopular beliefs. Today, his words could be the motto for a special partnership between two congregations in two very different parts of the world.

You could call it a perfect match, although in some ways they couldn't be more different. The First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California is a thriving, active congregation in a downtown setting, just blocks from a newly revitalized city center. The Unitarian church in Ok'land (oak-LAHND), Transylvania serves a small village of people who share the Hungarian language and culture, but live inside the country of Romania. But the churches had more in common than you might think. The Oakland church had nearly died out a few decades earlier, at a time when the neighborhood had fallen victim to the poverty and violence that are still very real issues in Oakland. The church in Ok'land, Transylvania was dwindling rapidly because fewer and fewer people could stay in the village, where there were no jobs to be found.

When Beverly Smrha, a member of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, California, met Reverend Levente Kelemen, the minister of the Unitarian church in Ok'land, Transylvania, they had an idea that great things could happen when Oakland and Ok'land partnered up. The Oakland, California congregation's members did not just want a partnership where they exchanged letters and small gifts. They wanted to make a real difference. They wanted to help the folks in Ok'land, Transylvania figure out how to bring jobs to their village, so that people could stay in the place where they and their ancestors had been born and still afford to feed their families. That history and ancestry was important to the California UUs, since Transylvania is the birthplace of Unitarianism. The folks in Oakland understood that for the Unitarians to lose their Transylvanian transitions would mean they, in California, would also lose an important part of their own heritage as UUs.

The folks in Oakland, California formed a committee. They started coming up with great ideas. Some of them owned small businesses in California, and they were eager to share with the Transylvanians their knowledge about business plans and strategies for small business start-up. But they had to take a big step back. Business in Transylvania is just not the same as business in California. Life in a country that is recovering from years under a cruel Communist dictator is not the same as life in California, with its history of freedom and encouraging new ideas.

The leaders in Oakland, California needed to learn to be patient and listen to the real needs and realities of the leaders in Transylvania. The leaders in Ok'land, Transylvania needed to learn that it was safe to talk with each other, and with their new partners in the U.S. Over time, with a lot of listening and talking, the people of the Ok'land, Transylvania church decided what their town needed was a flour mill and bakery. That way the people of the town would have access to fresh bread, the main staple of their diet; the farmers would have a place to sell their grain; and there would be more jobs for people running the mill and the bakery. So the people in Oakland, California started raising money and providing support to help make the dream a reality.

Soon the project grew so big a new organization was born, Project Harvest Hope. After the flour mill and bakery were up and running, the folks in Ok'land, Transylvania decided their village needed a dairy farm that would meet the standards of the European Union, which Romania hoped to join. So Project Harvest Hope began raising money to buy the finest dairy cows. They also helped bring in experts from other parts of Europe to work with the people of Ok'land, Transylvania to meet all the complicated European regulations. It took a long time, but finally Ok'land had its model dairy farm, with fifty dairy cows in a clean, modern barn. Money from selling the milk meant the people in the village could afford to educate their children, and calves from those fifty cows went to other farmers in the area, sharing the wealth.

Project Harvest Hope continues to change and grow, finding new ways to be a part of economic development in Transylvania. On both sides of the partnership, people need to stay flexible, to keep listening and talking to one another, because life is changing quickly as modern freedoms and technologies come to Transylvania. The Unitarians there are becoming part of modern, free Europe, and at the same time rediscovering their ancient heritage and culture, which the dictator Ceausescu tried to strip away from them. Village life and folk traditions are being restored as people are able to remain in the places where they are rooted. And the Unitarian Universalists of Oakland, California and supporters of Project Harvest Hope around the US are able to connect to our faith's roots in Transylvania, where Francis David taught so many centuries ago that "we need not think alike to love alike."

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 16, 2012.

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