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 functions.
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 friends.
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
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 world.
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
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 that truth.
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 might respond.
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 accidental meetings!
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
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 breakfast!
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 "Christian Pentecost."
Ralph V Harvey
Missionary in Austria, 1964-2003