Do I sit on the fence indefinitely, or do I commit to be a follower of Jesus? I made my choice.
Every time I hear the majestic, measured notes of the song, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,” I remember the time when I came to such a point in my life. It was in my second year of graduate school that I decided to visit the New York Center Seventh-day Adventist church, located on West 46th Street, just off Times Square.
It had been many years since I went to church. In the seven years since arriving in the United States as a Hungarian refugee, I had been completely absorbed in finishing high school, progressing through a brutally difficult chemistry program at an “ivy league” university, working part time during the school year and full time through the summers. The biochemistry department at Columbia University’s Presbyterian Medical Center admitted me into their Ph.D. program. The department gave me a stipend to live on and now, having just passed my written comprehensive examinations, all that was left to get my doctorate was to study in depth how Escherichia coli regulated its synthesis of ribonucleic acids. A mere few happy years in the laboratory, followed by writing a dissertation.
With a doctoral degree in sight, I felt liberated from the pressure of uncertainty. I began thinking about what I would do after receiving the doctorate. What mattered most was not so much what I would actually be doing later on, but what kind of a person I would become.
At the core of my concern was my relationship with the Lord. Since my early youth back in Hungary, I knew that there was a loving and caring God, who is the Creator and the Lord of everything. In the back of my mind, I always assumed that the Lord was watching and taking care of me, and this notion gave me a sense of security. But during the turbulent seven years since coming to the United States, I had repeatedly deviated from practices in which I was brought up. I began to wonder if it was right for me to expect the Lord’s friendship without any reciprocation on my part.
* * *
I was born into a Jewish family in Hungary, right smack at the early phase of World War II. Not an auspicious time or place to make one’s appearance in the world. My father was not particularly religious, but he had very strong feelings about his Jewish identity. My mother tells me that once he discovered a Christian Bible in her possession, a gift from one of her Jewish-Adventist friends. My father reportedly threw a tantrum and tore the Bible to pieces in front of my mother.
Along with all able-bodied Jewish men, my father was conscripted by the Hungarian Army into labor battalions, a workforce for heavy manual field labor. These defenseless men were taken to the Russian front to build roads, bridges, dig trenches, and do whatever was asked of them. Shortly after the Russians trounced the German-led coalition in 1942, my mother received notice that my father had disappeared in the vicinity of the city of Kursk. That was the last we heard of him.
In Budapest, all Jews were required to wear the yellow Star of David on their outer garments, so that they could be singled out of the general population. This was the first step toward the extermination of my race. My mother somehow obtained false identification papers, which stated that our family name was “Krecsmarik” (instead of “Schwartz,” our real name) and that we came to Budapest, running from the advancing Russian Army. Obviously, we did not wear the Star of David.
After the war, my mother changed our family name from “Schwartz” to “Javor.” This was done to gain relief from the endemic anti-Semitism of the society of that time, as all Jews in Hungary had family names of German origin. In contrast, “Javor” (a Slavic name) provided a measure of protection.
Budapest was bombed by the Allies, and everyone lived in bomb shelters. These were large, dimly lit moldy-smelling rooms in the basements of apartment houses, where everyone stayed except when the “all clear” signal was given. Here I would be playing with boys of my age when one of them would ask me my name. I would run to my mother, calling out to her quite loudly “Mother, what’s my name?” Naturally, we would have to move to another shelter where no one knew us, until a similar episode occurred. During this period, my mother joined the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Her friendship with two Jewish-Adventist ladies was decisive in this step, and she felt safe in her newfound Christian fellowship. After the war, my mother continued to attend church. Every Sabbath, she and I would go to number 13 Szekely Bertalan Street, the “A” meetinghouse, where the largest Adventist church in Budapest was located. At that time, elementary schools were in session on Saturdays, and students were required to attend. However, we went to church instead.
In the lower grades, my mother worked it out with my homeroom teacher that, for a small fee, he would tutor me in the afternoons on the missed material. Later, in the upper grades, I was simply marked absent for Saturdays, but no one troubled us about it, possibly because I was getting excellent marks.
At the church, I would attend the children’s Sabbath school and then sit through what to me seemed interminably long sermons. Indeed, in those days, a minister did not bother to get behind the pulpit if he did not hold onto it for a solid hour. Likewise, the prayers went on for long periods, to the detriment of my knees.
But there were also high points. There was the choir’s rendition of famous pieces by the Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly, with the composer sitting in the audience. I watched this white-haired music icon, as he listened to the music with his eyes closed.
I also enjoyed the slide shows, where colored slides were projected onto the front wall of the auditorium. One particular slide, the coming of Jesus on the clouds surrounded by angels, made a deep impression on me.
Sundays frequently found me in the hills of Budapest with my friends from the church. In the summer we hiked and played ball, and in the winter we sled down the snowy slopes, half freezing to death. We also went on extended bicycle excursions, which sometimes involved even overnight camping. All this came to an abrupt halt when I left Hungary for the West in the aftermath of the Hungarian revolution of 1956.
* * *
The New York Center Adventist Church had a very nice auditorium with a stage and comfortable chairs. The minister, J. Reynolds Hoffmann, gave remarkably penetrating talks, which kept me coming back for more. The church members were friendly and the young people invited me to join in their activities. Over the months, I began to feel more and more comfortable coming to church.
Then it hit me. I have known all my life the truths of the Bible. But they were a set of propositions that I kept at arm’s length. Even though I accepted them intellectually, they were not impacting my life. The text “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my father which is in heaven” (Matthew 10:32, KJV) came to mind very forcefully. I felt that the time had come for me to decide. Do I sit on the fence indefinitely, or do I commit to be a follower of Jesus? I made my choice.
Pastor Hoffman baptized me in 1964. From that point, all my important decisions were made from the perspective of a follower of Jesus. I ordered my professional and social life to be in harmony with my confession of faith. I chose to associate with other young people who would assist me in my faith journey.
In those years, Adventist young people were organized into Missionary Volunteer Societies, and I was given the task of leading the local group. A lovely young woman was chosen as the assistant leader. Working together, Shirley and I became close friends, and shortly before receiving my Ph.D. degree, we married. Thirty-eight years later, I am still convinced that this was among the best choices I have ever made.
From New York we moved to Andrews University, where I joined the chemistry department. There our two sons were born. Now one is an electrical engineer and the other a physician. Each has found a lovely wife, welcome additions to our family.
While still in graduate school, I was able to bring my mother to New York to live with me. Although she has not been able to rid herself completely of the demons of World War II, time and the peaceful surroundings have been therapeutic. As she is approaching her 98th birthday, I am reminded that her bravery in World War II and her decision to become a Christian were two of the most decisive factors of my life. Those of us who are blessed with loving mothers have an easier time sensing God’s love for humanity.
When the Spirit prompts us to make potentially life-changing decisions, we may not be in a position to understand the consequences of our choice. But we may be certain, that He, who speaks to our hearts, has our best long-term interest in mind. Happy is the person who hears and responds to His loving promptings.
George T. Javor (Ph.D., Columbia University) teaches and does research in the Department of Biochemistry, Loma Linda University School of Medicine, Loma Linda, California. Email: email@example.com