ohn Tipei’s first encounter with the Securitate (secret police) of Romania happened on 1974, during his first year of college.
“They attacked us [the Evangelicals], sometimes nominally, to shame us publicly. I started to write articles back to them about whatever they said about us. I told them that what they were writing was not true. They started to track me then.”
He was only two weeks into his studies when he was invited to speak with the Communist authorities at the university. The head of the Securitate at the university asked him to “inform” on the activities of the Evangelical students. He declined, saying, “I am not betraying my brethren.”
Tipei was later invited to a particular gathering at the university, not realizing it was another meeting of the Communist party. In the assembly, it was noted, “We regret that there are some among us who have a different religion that our ‘Communist religion.'”
Tipei stood up and identified himself, and then left the meeting. Later, the secretary of the Student Government Association informed him that he had just lost his chance at becoming a member of the Communist party.
Becoming a party member was lucrative, the way to gain an easy life, John and his wife, Rodica, explained to me. In communist Romania, people waited for hours to get low-quality food. Yet, party members received high-quality food from special shops, delivered to their homes. They also got better jobs, leadership positions, and the like.
John and Rodica were married in 1978. Two months later, they applied for a visa to the United States. Visas were often suspended in bureaucracy, since the government wanted to discourage immigration. And because John was already on the Securitate’s radar, the approval of his family’s visa seemed all the more insurmountable. The four-year wait became a test of faith.
Church life under the Communist regime was particularly difficult, the couple explained. Many people were employed by the government to spy on believers. In fact, after the fall of communism, many church leaders were exposed as Communist agents.
“Everybody knew who the agents were,” Rodica remarked with a chuckle.
In an effort to gain a visa, Tipei wrote about 40 letters of appeal to Nicolae Ceauşescu (Romania’s president), U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the United Nations High Commissioner, the Helsinki Commission for Human Rights, and other offices of authority. He had to ask visiting friends and students to mail the letters from outside of Romania.
During this season of waiting, John attempted to flee the country with a few colleagues. He planned to go to Chicago, since a man from their town in Romania was pastoring a small congregation there. He was caught and kept in jail for eight days. Rodica expressed her anxiety: “I didn’t know if he was dead.”
Upon his release, John was condemned to 16 months of forced labor. He was required to work on a construction site in the hot sun for 10 to 12 hours per day. Yet, God was still working. After six weeks, all those with sentences of three years or less were given presidential amnesty.
When John’s former place of employment refused to give him back his position, the Tipeis resorted to making and selling noodles in order to survive. Because the necessary ingredients were rationed, the Tipeis relied on donations from family and friends. John made the noodles and his wife sold them in the marketplace, even though they lacked proper licensure. By God’s grace they survived that season, managing to get by without detection.
After many appeals, the Tipeis finally got the news that their visas were approved. They were warned not to tell a soul. The Securitate threatened to pull them from the stairs of the plane if they did not obey. They were also given a persona non grata status, meaning they were undesirable persons in their own country and would not be allowed to come back.
“I was so afraid,” Rodica recalled. “Only when the plane was heading toward Italy and the people were like ants on the ground did I say, ‘Whew! Yes, we are out!’”
They went from Romania to Rome on their way to the U.S. They underwent lab tests and scrutiny from the American government. Finally, after 10 days in Italy, they headed to Arizona in September 1982.
For many years, John’s heart had been set on going to seminary. In August 1983, he became a student at what is now the Pentecostal Theological Seminary in Cleveland, Tennessee. His wife was completely supportive. He enrolled in the Master of Divinity program with a concentration in Biblical studies.
In 1986, the Tipei family moved to Chicago. He worked with Romanian Missionary Society, translating Christian books, devotionals, and theological materials from English to Romanian. The society’s president prophesied the Tipeis would see the fall of communism, and the translated materials would go back to Romania for training purposes.
They found it hard to believe him; yet, 1989 brought unbelievable news to them. Through Radio Free Europe, they listened as Eastern European countries, including Romania, broke out of communist oppression.
In summer 1991, the Tipeis chose God over material possessions when they moved back to Timişoara, Romania, to teach. Rodica left behind her job as a medical assistant, and the family left behind their new townhouse and vehicle.
Post-communist Romania was poverty-stricken. Nonetheless, things slowly progressed, and John began traveling eight hours from Timişoara to Bucharest every two weeks by train for various teaching responsibilities.
In 1992, the Tipeis moved to Bucharest, since the work at the Pentecostal Theological Institute (PTI) had increased greatly. He taught there for the next few years before moving to Sheffield, England, for doctoral studies.
In 1997, John was appointed president of PTI. With the financial assistance of Youth World Evangelism Action and Church of God World Missions—providing approximately $1.4 million—the school’s construction was completed in 1999. The next year, John Tipei finished his doctorate.
During his PTI presidency, Dr. Tipei began expanding the institute’s library. At the same time, Barbara McCullough was director of the William G. Squires Library at Lee University, where John had worked when he was a student in Cleveland. Under McCullough’s direction, Squires donated a wealth of materials to the budding institution. Barbara then went to Romania, where she spent an entire month cataloging books and training their library workers.
In 2010, Tipei resigned as president of the institute. Two years later, he was appointed senior pastor of the Bethel Romanian Church in Gallatin, Tennessee.
Recently, I was privileged to spend a weekend in Gallatin, and saw firsthand their church’s youth ministry—growing blades of grass. The Sunday service tossed me gently like a starfish into the sea of old Romania, filled with traditional customs and powerful prayer.
The Tipeis calculate they have moved 22 times over the years, quite remarkable for a family of seven. Their children are Ramona, Rebecca, Ruth, Raymond, and Ronella. I look upon John and Rodica with a sense of reverence.
“You’re travelers,” I told them. The agreed.
In my spirit, I am taken to Bucharest. Words from the national anthem echo on every beige brick wall in the market square: “Awaken thee, Romania, from that deathly sleep!”
I see a few good men standing in a semicircle, holding a pearl of great price: a flag of blue, yellow, and red. With deepest respect, they hold the banner and sing, “Now or never, let us give proof to the world that in these hands of ours, Roman blood still flows!”
I raise my vintage Polaroid for a final shot. Through the viewfinder, I see a grizzly hand covering my lens. I lower the camera, revealing a smiling face framed with glossy black hair. He makes room for me in the inner circle of celebrants. I am greeted with brotherly hugs and nods from others. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the Tipeis. I turn, and they wave.
Through some supernatural means, I know this joyous song, and the words gush out from deep within my spirit: “We’d rather die in battle, in elevated glory, than be slaves once more on our ancestral land!”