On my last night in Timişoara, Romania, I went on a ‘revolution walk.’ I knew the revolution had begun in Timişoara on December 16, 1989, but when my friend’s father, D., offered to show me the places where the big events happened, I jumped at the chance.
As we walked around the town, he recounted the events in great detail, as if he could still see the thousands gathered in passionate protests, the anger of the crowd that pushed a firetruck over the bridge into the canal, the Baptist pastor leading a kneeling crowd of thousands in the Lord’s Prayer. This man—out of authentic humbleness—would never “accidentally” let slip his own good deeds during the Communist regime and the time of the revolution. But his daughter informed me of the Bibles hidden in sacks of flour coming to their house for distribution—despite living surrounded by Communist party members, and the open-hearted generosity to the families who were even poorer than his own family of 10 children.
“In fact, if the revolution hadn’t happened when it did…I honestly don’t know what would have happened,” she told me. “The noose was tightening around our family because the Securitate, the Romanian secret police, were becoming increasingly suspicious of our activities. Two men, posing as North Americans, even pretended that they wanted to smuggle Bibles, but when I was translating for my father, I could tell they were not native speakers.”
But on the morning of December 16th, the repressed fury of the people erupted over an attempted “removal” by the Securitate.
“It was a Hungarian Reformed pastor who began preaching against Communist values and advocating for human rights,” D. related in his broken English as we strolled through the bitingly cold streets of dusk-heavy Timişoara. “The government warned him many times, but he refused to be silent, and his church began to grow rapidly.”
The morning of December 16th, the police, firemen clutching powerful hoses, and others armed with tear gas came to remove him from the church—but they were met with a large circle of his parishioners guarding the church.
“Here.” D. stopped in front of a nondescript church. “It was here the revolution started.” I stared at the plaques on its grey, crumbling wall memorializing the moment, the graffitic scrawl of the pastor’s name with the Romanian word “liberty” after it. I could see it—the determined crowd standing close as they were drenched with powerful bursts of water, the electric, reckless feeling of unity against something more powerful than them.
We continued our revolution walk towards the center of town, D. pointing to the spot on the bridge where the crowds pushed a firetruck into the canal. “I have no idea how they could do that,” he said grinning.
“That afternoon, thousands flocked here,” he said as we reached the picturesque center, framed on one end by a majestically-crafted Orthodox Church and on the other by a gleaming opera house. He pointed to the top-story windows of the buildings surrounding the center. “The Securitate was up there, firing down on the crowd.” He pointed over to the stairs of the Orthodox Church. “At one point during those few days, a group of young teenage men tried to take refuge in the church, but the priest, being in Communist pockets, shut the doors and many of those young men were murdered on the steps.”
By December 17, shops were raided to collect Communist propaganda, and pictures of Ceauşescu, the Communist dictator, were pulled out of the shops and destroyed. The government frantically cut all communications to the outside and stepped up their forcible suppression—but the tide was turning.
“Old grandmothers and mothers came out in the streets to feed the soldiers who were shooting their own people,” D. remembered. “They asked the soldiers, ‘You are our sons…why are you shooting us, your mothers?’ After that, many refused to fire on the crowds.”
Eventually, news of the revolution spread through the country, and Ceauşescu and his wife were executed on December 25th in Bucharest— but over 1,000 people had lost their lives during the short time of the revolution.
The revolution brought political, social, and religious freedom to the people, but economic hardship is now acute. Many people struggle to find jobs, put food on the tables, and to pay the rising fees and taxes—this can be contrasted to the available factory jobs and good wages during the time of Communism. “Do you think people regret the present situation now and wish for the old days?” I asked D. He didn’t understand my question, even after I repeated it several times. Finally, I gave up and asked, “Were you scared?”
He gave me a sideways look, his eyes crinkling as he smiled. “A little,” he admitted.
Just one lit match, if thrown into the right place, can ignite a forest fire. One pastor, speaking according to his conscience, flared momentarily on a cold winter’s day in Romania— and changed the course of history.