A Safe Place to call "Home"
by Zsuzsanna Bagdán
by Zsuzsanna Bagdán
A shelter for Scots

We only need shelter if we are in some kind of trouble. A shelter is a place that protects us from harm; where we can hide from those chasing us. The Scottish Mission and its institutions have become a shelter to many – but to achieve this, they first and foremost had to provide a shelter to Scottish missionaries.

It all began in the mid-19th century when Scottish missionaries were bound for Palestine on a study trip to lay the groundwork for Christian mission amongst the Jews, during which they also examined where they could set up mission stations in Europe, observing the location of Jewish communities on the continent. The idea of converting Jews to Christianity comes from the ideology of millennialism: with the turn of the century approaching and the world opening up, there was a growth in the expectation of Christ’s return as well as in the feeling of missionary responsibility towards the world’s nations. Many believed that the evangelisation of Jews was a prerequisite for the Saviour’s return; that is why the Jewish mission became such an important and noble cause for Scots, which was supported enthusiastically in terms of finances, and to which several missionaries fully devoted their lives.

Forced rest in Pest

Although there were mission stations set up all over Europe and Asia Minor by Protestant Scots, it was only due to the predicament of two elderly missionaries that Scottish ministers gained a footing in Pest as well. From the point of view of Great Britain, there seemed to be no chance of setting up and maintaining a Protestant mission in the Roman Catholic Austro-Hungarian Empire, despite the fact that it was ripe ground: with the growth of the middle class during the Age of Reason, the second largest denomination in Pest-Buda was that of the Jews. In 1839, on their way home from Palestine on the Danube, two Scottish missionaries were forced to suspend their journey and stay in the largest Hungarian city of the Monarchy because of their ill health. During the nearly six months of recuperation, it became clear to them that the Jewish mission of the Scots and their enthusiasm for the renewal of Protestant churches would enjoy the protection of Archduchess Maria Dorothea, and through her, the tacit consent of her husband, Archduke Joseph. The first missionaries arrived in 1841 – three years later the Scottish missionary conferences were launched with the patronage of the Archduchess, and also the first Jewish person, Israel Saphir, was baptised together with his whole family. Shortly after that, Saphir established a Sunday school for Jewish and Hungarian children, and also set up a youth organisation.  

Spirit preserved

Up until the revolution in Hungary, the Scottish mission enjoyed great popularity among the Protestant-liberal elite of the age. After the Revolution and War of Independence of 1848-49, the neo-absolutist government banned Scots from the Monarchy – even in 1854, only five British citizens were allowed to stay in the empire. The death of the Archduchess also affected the public embeddedness of the mission; their evangelical piety made many liberal Protestant thinkers uncomfortable. And yet, those who had found faith in this community continued their work with great devotion in not only the Protestant congregations founded with the support of Maria Dorothea, but also in the Scottish school, and found spiritual shelter in the German-speaking branch church in Pest – founded with the support of the Scottish Mission – and its hospital called Bethesda, a unique institution in Europe. 

A shelter for baptism

Throughout the storms of history, it was the school of the Scottish Mission – which became a school only for girls at the beginning of the 20th century – that represented stability and protection for many children: the school accepted pupils who had been denied enrolment elsewhere due to their poor background or illness. The institution showed the way to Jesus Christ while at the same time respecting the religious convictions of its Jewish students, even considering it to be a value. Although the aim of the mission was to evangelise the students, baptism was only granted under certain strict conditions – they did not want to devalue this sacrament, which is the sole shelter for people of faith, by making it a mere instrument for social advancement. The Hungarian ministers serving in the Scottish congregation also remained true to this sentiment, and they ensured the survival of the community even during the First World War, when Scots were once more banned from the country.  

There were, however, periods of time when there was a significant increase in those who wished to get involved: in 1919, and also from 1935 on, although the “method” itself did not change: those who visited the Scottish congregation were able to participate in church services, Bible studies, and they were offered pastoral care. And, of course, there was a multitude of social events: during the interwar period, which is considered to be the “golden age” of the Reformed Church, a great number of events were held in Webster Hall, the assembly hall of the Scottish congregation’s school. 


Up until 1942 only those who were seriously committed were baptized; however, participants of the Scottish Mission stood on the side of the persecuted in every other way: initially, they helped the Jews who sought shelter here, and later, when the situation required, facilitated emigration. From 1942 on, they set aside their theological convictions and urged everyone to be baptised. In the meantime, the school became a boarding one, and there was a great need for courage and consolation – provided by both the Rev. George Knight and Jane Haining, matron of the girls. The school suffered repeated atrocities. Knight was summoned home after being arrested by the police and cited to court – he needed Bishop László Ravasz’s intervention to be released. Later it turned out that the minister had been cooperating with agents of the British secret service and recruited Hungarian Jews to the resistance movement, which is why he had to leave Hungary so hastily. On her own responsibility, Jane Haining resolved to stay with the children in her care until she was taken away in April 1944; she was deported to Auschwitz, where she died in the company of her pupils.  

Surviving four decades

From November 1944, the Scottish school provided shelter to seventy children, enjoying the protection of the Swedish Red Cross, and hid several other people, including Prime Minister Zoltán Tildy. The Scottish Mission closely cooperated with the so-called Good Shepherd Committee, founded with the aim of rescuing Jews, an active member of which was József Éliás, who had converted to Christianity in the mission. Once the war had ended, the Jewish mission was reviewed, and with the unfolding of Communism the school was first appropriated and then nationalised. St. Columba's Scottish Congregation – the only Western mission operating behind the Iron Curtain – managed to survive four decades in the rooms that they were allowed to keep in the school building. During these four decades, no Scottish minister was granted a permanent residence permit; it was first János Dobos and then Bertalan Tamás who served as ministers among the former students and English-speaking Protestants.  

International community

It was in 1990 that once more a Scottish minister arrived to lead the congregation. The Budapest congregation of the Scottish Mission is attended by people from Kenya, Uganda, the United States, the Netherlands, Scotland, Italy, Afghanistan, as well as by Hungarians. The English-language worship services attract about fifty to sixty people each Sunday. The congregation comprises foreign students, employees of embassies and international or multinational companies, families of mixed nationalities, as well as refugees and asylum seekers. Just like to any other safe European country, each year thousands of people have come to Hungary, hoping to escape war, poverty or some other conflict. A few hundred of them have been granted refugee, humanitarian or subsidiary protection status, and they were able to settle down in Hungary for shorter or longer periods of time. They had to wait for the completion of the lengthy asylum procedure in one of the refugee camps in Hungary.

Meet Moheb Hassan

Moheb Hassan, a Christian refugee from Iraq, first became acquainted with St Columba’s Scottish Church due to his contact with the Refugee Ministry of the RCH Reformed Mission Center. His family left Iraq due to violence and instability in the country and they have now made a new home in Hungary. Moheb enjoys his time at St Columba’s Church because it is a place of worship that gathers together people from many countries and religious traditions, so all can feel comfortable there. He sees himself as fully integrated into life in Hungary and is thankful for the sacrifices that his parents made to bring him and his sibling here to safety.

"I can see new things here..."

From refugee camp to congregation

To this day, several American and Canadian missionaries have found a spiritual home in the Budapest congregation of the Scottish Mission, who, with their special perspective as foreigners, were quicker to notice the refugees living in Hungary. One such missionary couple would always stop by the Debrecen refugee reception centre during their frequent trips to Subcarpathia (Ukraine), and got to know those living there. Their primary intention was to provide pastoral care to the residents of the refugee camp – the wife had experience in post-catastrophe counselling – and to ease the tensions that arise during the waiting period. They built relationships and some of the Christian residents of the camp began attending the Sunday morning worship service of the Scottish Mission, getting up at dawn to make it in time. The congregation always offered them lunch before letting them return to Debrecen.

>> For almost 10 years the Refugee Ministry of the Reformed Church in Hungary has been helping the integration of refugees fleeing from prosecution.

The days of refugee crisis

The Reformed Church in Hungary launched its refugee mission ten years ago, collaborating since the beginning with the Scottish congregation. Together they offer a helping hand to those seeking the Word of God – in English. Just like in the past, when the renewal of Hungarian Protestants and the Jewish mission went hand in hand, today religious activities and the work with refugees are in close proximity at St. Columba's Scottish Congregation: the flight of stairs leading upwards from Webster Hall takes us to the refugee mission office on the left, and the pastor’s office on the right. During the refugee crisis in autumn 2015, several refugee families came to the Scottish church from Keleti railway station to spend the night there. Members of the congregation – including former protégés of the refugee mission – prayed for those on the road, visited them at the railway stations, interpreted for them, and opened up their church building for those in need. It was inspiring to see these people coming from an unknown land enter a Christian congregation and feel happy: they slept in a room normally used for prayer, surrounded by peace and love, and continued their journey in the morning with renewed strength.  

"As the weather turns colder and colder in September of 2015, the refugees en route face another difficulty: most of them have insufficient clothing, and sleeping outside further endangers their health. Children and women are especially vulnerable, which is why St. Columba’s Church started the SOS project, aiming to provide a warm and welcoming environment where refugee families can rest for a night." >> Read more

A community which talks about God

The community is a shelter to others as well: you can come here to get a breath of British Puritanism or to find clearly humanist approaches; you can seek refuge here in times of grief or in search of acceptance, regardless of your religion, ethnicity or age. In the summer camp for children organised on a regular basis, Muslim girls wearing headscarves can be seen playing with the Roma children living nearby. In the winter, the table is set to create a feeling of home for those who were forced to leave everything behind. Compared to a regular Reformed congregation in Hungary, there are different customs at Christmas. On Christmas Eve, there is a Holy Communion service, upon the request of congregation members – those who had to flee their homes because of their faith are overwhelmed with emotions on this day of religious significance, in the land of exile. On Christmas Day, the worship service is followed by a lunch for those whose families are far away, to ensure that nobody is alone during the holiday. The idea for this common meal was first brought up years ago by an Iraqi refugee, as he believed that celebrating together is a part of Christmas. Every year since then, each participant contributes to the dishes to be served, some of them preparing delicacies from their own cultures. The community incorporates the wealthy and the refugees struggling for survival: this is a teaching about God’s love and power as well as about the movement of the Holy Spirit, the scope of which provides us all with a shelter, no matter where we come from and why.  

Five Things

"For about nine years now, I’ve been minister of a church dedicated to serving people from other countries. I hope a few lessons I’ve learned can help your congregation show kindness to strangers" – Rev. Aaron Stevens.  

>> The First 5 Things a Refugee Should Hear When Entering Your Church