Forsake Not the Entertainment of Strangers

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Forsake Not the Entertainment of Strangers

(A True Story)

The year was 1981. My wife, Pat, and I had just checked out the vacant one-bedroom apartment on the back of our house, making sure that it was clean and ready to advertise for the next tenant. Little did we know that it was about to become a guest room with kitchen and bath.

Before we got around to putting an advertisement in the paper as to its availability, an article in the paper caught our eye. A local lady who worked in a homeless shelter had been contacted by some Romanian emigrants she had previously helped to settle into a home here in our little town of Murfreesboro, Tennessee. In 1981, Nicolae Ceausescu, the brutal communist dictator of Romania, was ruling with an iron fist and vicious terror. The newspaper article told of two musicians from Romania who were attempting to defect to the U.S while their orchestra was touring here.

Coincidentally, Pat and I had attended that very orchestra’s concert just days earlier when it performed on the campus of our local academia, Middle Tennessee State University. Although we were unaware at the time, there was a brief reception backstage for the orchestra members after the concert during which the Romanian family that lived here in Murfreesboro presented some flowers to their countrymen. The principal violinist, Stefan Petrescu, took the opportunity to whisper in the ear of the presenter “My friend and I would like to stay in America.” The Romanian immigrant slipped him a piece of paper with a phone number on it and told him to call when he got a chance.

The orchestra continued the tour under watchful eyes. It was two weeks later, in Birmingham, Alabama before the opportunity to make that call occurred. The orchestra director got a call from Romania calling him back on some emergency. (I don’t recall whether it was a family illness or what.) The protocol in orchestras is typically that the second in command is the principal violinist (who just happened to be the man that had whispered the secret desire to defect.) The director gave him everyone’s passports, which he had been keeping “for security.” This was still several years before the overthrow of Ceausescu.

As soon as the director left the motel, Stefan went to each room where orchestra members were staying and gave them their passports and said goodbye and good luck. He and his friend, Dan Nedelcu, the principal violist, then went to a pay phone and called the number they had been clutching since their Murfreesboro concert.

The Romanian family in Murfreesboro got their call and told them to wait right there, they would come for them. They immediately drove to Birmingham, picked up the defectors and brought them back to Murfreesboro. They called the benefactor in town that had helped them get settled in a strange land, Mrs. Christine Huddleston. She, no doubt, thought “Oh, my goodness! What have you gotten yourselves…and me…into?” But she helped. She put the two men up in a motel and got the local paper to write a small blurb about the defecting musicians needing a place to live.

Pat and I read the article and remembered seeing the orchestra when they played at MTSU. Being musicians ourselves, we immediately had one bond in that. And, as mentioned earlier, our back apartment was vacant. We called Christine and told her they could use it for a few weeks until something more permanent could be arranged. She brought them over to meet us and we found more coincidences. From a communist country where few practiced any religion at all, they were Christians. Not only that but, like us,  they were also Baptists! My wife was the pianist at First Baptist Church here.

They spoke very little English. They were fairly fluent in French, but neither of us knew French. One of them, Dan, also spoke German. I knew some German. We did a lot of our early communication in what I call Swine-Deutsch, which is sort of a German version of Pig Latin if you know what I mean. 

They both had families back in Romania. Stefan had a wife who was a dentist and one son about 5-years old. Dan had a wife who was also a professional musician and two or three children. They had both told their wives that they would defect if they got the opportunity, but with the understanding that they would somehow get their families out of Romania once they had the means. 

I called the manager of the Nashville Symphony and told him of the plight of these two defecting musicians and asked if they could audition for jobs. There were no openings at the time, but he did very graciously arrange for a benefit concert for them. The two of them were introduced on stage and played something with the orchestra that featured them, a Bach double concerto as I recall. Then they played a duet which one of them had arranged… variations on “America.”  The audience loved it and gave generously at the door as they left the War Memorial Building.

Additional musician contacts helped arrange jobs for them. Soon, they were playing for weddings, giving private lessons (that must have been interesting…with the language barrier!), playing in the MTSU/community orchestra, the Huntsville, AL orchestra, and the Jackson, TN orchestra. A few months later, Stefan, the violinist, was able to get into the Nashville Symphony which paid better than the smaller orchestras. 

They were financially self-sufficient within weeks and even started paying rent on the apartment we had donated. They stayed there about a year. Neither knew how to drive a car. I taught them. They would borrow my car and circle round the cul-de-sac island of my side street, Park Circle. Neighbors got a kick out of seeing them slowly going round and round.

Eventually, they were able to get their permanent immigrant status from the U.S. Immigration department. It wasn’t a sure thing, though. They worried that they might be sent back. They had to prove that their lives were in danger if they returned to Romania and that they had legitimate political reasons for their defection and not just a desire to better themselves economically. I remember buying them a Romanian language Bible just before they were to go to Memphis to appear before the Immigration board and plead their case. I got the help of the Romanian family that had brought them here from Birmingham to find a passage in it that I had selected from my English version, so I could highlight it and mark it. I told them not to turn to it and read it until they were outside the door of the boardroom waiting their turn to go in. 

By now, you are wondering what verse I chose. I’m afraid I’ve painted myself into a corner here because I don’t remember. At the time, it seemed very apropos, but I can’t remember what it was for the life of me. Perhaps, you can give some thought as to what verse you would have selected under such circumstances. Could it have been, from Ruth…”your people will be my people; your God, my God.”  Perhaps it was, the 6th chapter of Matthew…the verses that contain, “consider the lilies of the field….” Or perhaps it was the 23rd Psalm. 

I do remember that I quoted another scripture to them when they asked me toward the end of their year’s stay why we had taken them in. I told them that, just the week before I heard about them, someone at work had quoted the scripture, “Forsake not the entertainment of strangers, for by so doing, some have entertained angels unawares.” There was a moment of silence and then they smiled and assured me they weren’t angels.

They did get their families out of Romania a little over a year after they came. Strangely enough, the Romanian government did typically allow the emigration of families if they were joining their spouses or parents. Still, there was a lot of red tape and they had to leave virtually everything behind and pay exorbitant fees to get out. The violinist wife of Dan even had her professional violin confiscated from her as she boarded the plane. 

As I write this, Stefan is teaching at MTSU, composing and playing in the Murfreesboro and Nashville Symphonies. Dan and his family moved to Huntsville, AL where he plays in their symphony, the Murfreesboro Symphony, plus others and teaches.

May 28, 2021 19:29

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