This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, but few American
Christians are aware of that fact. Pentecost is a major
national holiday in Austria, and it is a shame that many
Christians don't celebrate the birthday of the church in
America. We celebrate Memorial Day at this time of year
and there is apparently no room on the calendar to
squeeze in another holiday. Protestants should also
celebrate Reformation Day on October 31, but that would
interfere with Halloween!
Pentecost ranks as the third most important holiday in
Austria, and it is always celebrated as a three-day
weekend. Schools, banks and many other institutions
remain closed from Saturday through Monday. Trees are
turning green and flowers are blooming after the long,
cold winter months, but it is still too early for the
annual onslaught of tourists. These factors make
Pentecost a favorite time to schedule national
conferences and retreats. Because Pentecost is the
official birthday of the Christian church, this is
especially suitable for Bible conferences and church
Every year, Christian youth from all over Austria meet
for a national youth retreat on Pentecost weekend. The
retreat is held in a different major city each year and
is the highlight of the year for many teens. Because most
Austrians are Roman Catholic, evangelical
congregations are generally small and their youth groups
even smaller. This is the only time when many youth get
to know other believers outside their own small circle of
PENTECOST WEEKEND YOUTH RETREAT, 1969
It was March, 1969, when I assumed the role of youth
leader for the Linz Baptist Church. The pastor informed
me immediately that Linz was to host the annual Pentecost
Youth Retreat in May. Since the Baptist Church was the
largest evangelical church in this city of a quarter
million inhabitants, we were being asked to provide
sleeping quarters and meals for about 150 youth.
Fortunately, our youth were willing helpers and before
long, everything was arranged.
A week before the big occasion, the city of Linz made
headlines. An ice cream vendor who set up his stand in a
public park was washing his dishes in the contaminated
Danube River. Some of his customers contracted salmonella
and a typhoid epidemic broke out. National media jumped
on the report, warning people to avoid the city. Those
who lived in Linz were advised to stay in their homes and
to avoid all contact with anyone outside the immediate
family. Sporting events and concerts scheduled for
Pentecost weekend were cancelled. The large
industrial center was virtually shut down!
I consulted with local officials and medical experts
about what we should do. I explained that our visitors
would be staying in private homes and we would be eating
in the church. No one would be traveling by public
transportation, so contact with the outside world would
be practically non-existent. The epidemic was contained
within a few days and all those infected were
quarantined, so city authorities saw no reason why we
should cancel our event.
Because everything had been prepared, we decided to go
ahead with the retreat, but informed parents and youth
leaders in other parts of Austria about the situation.
They should decide if their youth could attend.
The retreat was well-attended and to my knowledge, no one
stayed away. The typhoid epidemic ended as abruptly
as it started. When the retreat was over and we had
cleaned up the church, I drove home, thanking and
praising God for his blessings and protection.
When I got to our apartment, I began to share with Verna
how everything had gone, but she suggested that it might
be better to drive her to the hospital. A few hours later
our third child, Becky, was born!
PENTECOST WEEKEND YOUTH RETREAT, 1972
The 1972 Pentecost Youth Retreat was planned well in
advance - not by us, but by God himself!
The date, May 22-24, was provided by the calendar and the
place had been determined long ago. In 1969, Linz hosted
the retreat, in 1970 it was Vienna's turn and in 1971 it
was Graz. In 1972 it was Salzburg's turn. City
authorities offered to organize meals and accommodations
for us. They gave us nearly every room in a public youth
hostel and arranged for us to eat in the Airport
Restaurant at special reduced prices - to stimulate
off-season business. The Police Department readily
granted us permission to conduct a street rally in the
heart of the city on Saturday afternoon. We wanted to
sing, share testimonies and invite people to an
evangelistic service that evening.
Saturday morning, 180 young people from all corners of
Austria converged on Salzburg, arriving in trains, busses
and cars, but the city was already buzzing with
excitement. U.S. President Richard Nixon was coming to
Salzburg on his way to a summit conference in Russia!
All hotel rooms were booked. Policemen and secret service
agents were everywhere! Shiny black limousines carrying
diplomats and high ranking public officials cruised the
streets. Prime Minister Bruno Kreisky and Minister of
Finance, Hannes Androsch, were among them.
Word had gotten out and hundreds of young Vietnam-war
protestors came to Salzburg from all parts of Europe to
greet the US President with posters and chants. TV and
news teams from all over Europe converged on the city,
prepared to share whatever happened with the rest of the
Across the street from the Baptist Church, which was
hosting the youth retreat, 20,000 soccer fans gathered to
cheer their teams to victory. Saturday was an
important game between Salzburg and Linz. The police were
out in force, knowing that a victory for either side
could easily provide an excuse for rowdies to stage a
fight in the city streets. Add to this the chanting
radicals who stalked Salzburg streets, angry that
authorities had forbidden them to stage public
demonstrations. They bore posters which declared,
"NIXON IS A MURDERER!" and "AMIS OUT OF
VIETNAM!" Several youth attempted to burn an
American flag, but were stopped by the police.
Even before the Presidential Jet landed, police cordoned
off the airport and allowed no one to get near unless
they had valid airline tickets. But 180 youth
participants of the Pentecost Youth Retreat had special
permission to enter! We had a clear view of "Air
Force One" from the windows of the Airport
Restaurant while reporters, TV camera teams and
demonstrators watched from a distance.
When we gathered for the planned street
rally, policemen immediately surrounded us. We showed
them our permit and they stared in disbelief. While we
sang gospel songs and invited listeners to the
evangelistic evening, several radicals attempted to grab
our microphone. I was able to engage a couple of them in
a discussion about their spiritual needs. They belonged
to the Red Army Faction , also called the Baader-Meinhof
group which later made headlines by kidnappings and
staging attacks on public personalities. The RAF killed
34 persons and 27 of their own members were killed before
they were disbanded. .
The young guy in the center with dark
brown hair is me and the man wearing shades could be a
Secret Service agent. The girls in the photo below
belonged to the RAF.
One girl from our group recognized the
Austrian Minister of Finance with his wife and offered
them an invitation to the evangelistic meeting. They
declined, but when she looked dejected, they smiled and
showed her invitations which they had already received
from other youth. Many strangers attended that evening
and about twenty committed their lives to Christ.
The Pentecost Weekend Youth Retreat closed with the noon
meal on Monday. President Nixon had flown to Moscow.
Demonstrators returned to Germany, Holland and France.
Participants of the 1972 Youth Retreat will likely never
forget the occasion!
This experience and many others, during our four decades
of missionary service taught us that we should expect the
unexpected as part of God's networking with us. We
should never consider any meeting incidental. God may
have orchestrated it for some important eternal purpose.
This is especially true in a land where true followers of
Christ are a small minority. Our testimony - or silence,
can have far-reaching influence.
Just three months later, another experience underscored
In August, 1972, we had a team of young people from
"Operation Mobilization" to help us with youth
outreach. One girl on the team was a Jewish Christian
whose family name was "Israel" or perhaps
"Israeli", but unfortunately, I don't recall
her first name.
We regularly went out into the streets of Linz, inviting
young people that we met to visit the
"Katakombe" Youth Center. We often sang a song
or two and always left invitations, never knowing who
One evening a group of Arabs, perhaps 9-12 of them,
walked into the youth center and sat down. Few of them
spoke English and even fewer German, but we served them
soft drinks and hot dogs and tried our best to make light
conversation with them. They claimed to be Egyptians
visiting Linz and seemed happy to have found an
inexpensive place for recreation and refreshments. We
made them feel welcome and they returned every night for
about a week.
The Jewish girl was gifted in linguistics and translated
testimonies and evangelistic messages into English and
what Arabic she knew. Several of the men flirted with
her, and I pondered what their reaction might be if they
discovered that she was Jewish.
About the third evening, Israel gave her testimony in
English, telling how she had discovered the Messiah as a
Jew. I glanced over to watch the Arabs
reactions, but most showed no response. One young man who
seemed to have been more interested in the Gospel than
the others stared in obvious disbelief. Later, I saw him
again discussing the claims of Christ with several youth,
including the Jewish girl. I was disappointed to notice
that he was missing the following night and asked about
him. The men said that he had become ill and returned
home. The Arabs came one more night and then were gone.
We prayed that the Word of God would somehow produce
fruit for eternity.
Several days later, The Olympic Summer Games began in
Munich, Germany. On September 5, 1972, heavily-armed
terrorists belonging to a group calling itself
"Black September," jumped a 6-foot chain link
fence and entered the Israeli quarters of the Olympic
Village. After a scuffle, in which two Jewish athletes
were killed, the terrorists took nine other members of
the Israeli team hostage and demanded a plane for a
flight to Cairo, Egypt. German police decided to attempt
a secret attack, but the media broadcast their plans and
the terrorists learned about it on TV. They then demanded
and received helicopter transport to an airport. The
Germans bungled a second attempt to free the hostages in
the same manner. The media gave a running account of
police activities and the terrorists realized that their
fate was sealed. They killed all of the hostages before
police could get to them.
Three of the terrorists survived and were taken into
custody. Less than two months later, the German
embarrassment was complete. Two Black September members
hijacked a plane and threatened to blow it up if their
three colleagues were not released. The Germans conceded.
As I followed the news, I could not help but ask if our
Arab guests might have been involved in this terrible
attack. Munich is only a three-hour drive from Linz. We
may never know the whole truth this side of heaven, but
God not only makes no mistakes, with him, there are no
PENTECOST WEEKEND YOUTH RETREAT, June 2-4, 1979
Every year, it was a challenge to find a good speaker for
the annual youth retreat. Speakers were sometimes
imported from Germany or Switzerland and others were
found in Austria. I was totally taken back when the
planning committee approached me to be the main speaker
at the 1979 retreat.
Linz had hosted the youth retreat again in 1978 and I was
very much involved, but I declined the invitation to
serve on the planning committee for the 1979 retreat. It
was being held near Graz and I was not even planning to
attend. Our printing and publishing operation was growing
rapidly and church ministries in three satellite
churches, in Steyr, Enns and Passau, consumed much time.
I had turned the leadership of the youth work over to a
gifted young Austrian and was less involved myself.
I accepted the invitation and was permitted to choose the
theme, which would become the conference theme. I picked
one that I felt young people needed to know more about,
the Church. I divided the subject into three biblical
examples, the Building (Form), the Body (Function) and
the Bride (Fellowship).
More than 200 youth had registered for the event, but I
especially recall one youth named Franz. He came up to me
after one of the sessions and introduced himself. I
didn't recognize him or his name, so he added, "You
led me to Christ three years ago when you had
evangelistic meetings in my town." He remembered the
chalk talk that I drew and the message that I preached,
which impressed me. I encouraged him to follow the Lord
faithfully and to consider attending a Bible school.
At that time, there was no Bible training institution in
Austria. A number of young people who attended schools in
Germany never returned. I had a great burden to open an
Austrian Bible training school.
Let's move ahead another 6 years to 1985.
We had established the Austrian Bible Institute, which
was in its second year. An evangelical Lutheran group
also opened a small theological seminary in Austria, so
we invited the handful of students to our school just to
get acquainted. One of the students was Franz, whom I had
led Christ in 1976. He said that he had taken my
suggestion to get Bible training seriously and the Lord
had called him to be a pastor. He then repeated the
entire outline and major points of the messages I
delivered at the Pentecost Youth Retreat six years
earlier! He is still serving as Pastor and I hope his
congregation can remember all HIS messages!
A HUMOROUS INCIDENT
Many people cannot imagine God having a sense of humor. I
would like to insert a personal experience of ours that
took place on Pentecost Sunday, 1998, in order to show
that he actually does.
While eating breakfast on Pentecost Sunday in 1998, we
heard the sound of a mighty rushing wind
outside! We ran to the window and looked to see where
this noise was coming from. Imagine our astonishment to
actually see people with cloven tongues of
fire above their heads!
You are probably thinking the same thing that witnesses
of the New Testament Pentecost thought. We were
full of new wine! But I am telling the truth!
The roaring sound and the tongues of fire came from the
gas burners of a large hot air balloon which passed our
second story kitchen window and landed in a freshly mowed
hay field near the house! And it was all perfectly timed
for Pentecost Sunday morning while we were eating
Pentecost is the birthday of the
Christian Church. When God created man, he breathed into
his nostrils the Breath of Life. When he created the
church, he sent the Holy Spirit! The Groom, Christ, is
now preparing a place for his future bride. He promised
that he would come again and receive her unto himself.
That fact alone is reason to celebrate!
Americans almost universally celebrate birthdays, the
foundings of businesses and institutions. In a month we
will celebrate the birthday of our nation, yet this
important event in the history of mankind is hardly
mentioned in American churches today. Few Christians know
that this Sunday is Pentecost Sunday. What is even more
tragic in my opinion, is the fact that few Christians can
tell you what is so special about it.
I have shared in this document several memorable
experiences that are connected to Pentecost, but all of
these pale in comparison to the events of that first
Ralph V Harvey
Missionary in Austria, 1964-2003