I stood all alone for God in my communist high school, never dreaming that one day my teachers would ask me to share my faith.
by Martin Bernar as told to Roxana Kiss Ramont
I grew up in former communist Czechoslovakia and attended high school in a small town near the Polish border. I was raised in a Christian home.
The average Czechoslovakian under communism viewed Christians as people who “do not reason, but simply believe what they are told in a book. They also believe in their right to worship as they want, despite the laws of the country. Some of them keep quiet and submit to the government. But others speak out for what they term their rights to religious freedom. In church they are brainwashed to sympathize with the West. Obviously, they cannot be loyal to the Communist Party because of these connections.”
For a long time I thought I was the only Christian in my school. Later, I discovered “closet believers” who didn’t have the courage to publicly stand for what they believed.
Once a month we were required to attend school on Saturday. But my Bible told me to keep God’s seventh-day Sabbath holy. During elementary school my parents talked to the teachers about our convictions. When I entered high school, however, my parents considered me old enough to answer for what I believed. I went before the teachers and board members to explain my situation. I didn’t like telling them that I was different from other students, but my experience as a Christian pushed me to do it. I wanted to be free on Sabbath to attend church with my family.
The teachers approved, but they would not excuse my absences. A student could be expelled from school for too many unexcused absences. Many other students missed Saturday classes. But they were vacationing with their parents or at parties drinking or doing drugs. They were never penalized. Missing school for a religious reason, however, wasn’t tolerated.
A new supervisor came to our school. He studied my attendance record, surprised to see so many absences. “You don’t seem to be one who would miss school just for fun,” he commented, looking directly at me. He waited for an answer, while the whole class became quiet.
I began to explain timidly, “Well, I think I wasn’t as smart as other students who miss Saturday classes. I told the real reason why I do not come to school. I believe in keeping Saturday holy—I am a Seventh-day Adventist.”
“I don’t think it’s that you were not smart,” the teacher replied. “You were honest. And I hope you will be a good example for all of us.” The students were surprised. It was not normal for a teacher to acknowledge a Seventh-day Adventist as being a good person.
THE WALL COMES DOWN
After the fall of communism in 1989, most of my teachers left the Communist Party. One of them even tearfully apologized for having to mark me absent on Saturdays. She knew I was innocent.
My Russian teacher and I both liked to read about foreign countries and cultures, so we read the same magazines and became good friends. One day she got the idea of posting the Ten Commandments in the school lobby. She knew that I was religious, so she figured I knew the Ten Commandments, or at least knew where to find them.
“Which Ten Commandments, the ones from the Catholic Catechism or the ones in the Bible?” I asked.
“Is there a difference?” she asked with surprise.
The next day I brought the Bible and the Catholic Catechism and she quickly saw the difference. In the Czech language the word Sabbath does not exist, so our Bible writes clearly: “Remember Saturday and keep it holy….” In the Catholic Catechism she noticed that the first commandment forbidding images was missing and the last one was divided into two. The wording in the fourth commandment was changed from “Remember Saturday” to “Remember the sacred day,” which the Catholic Church taught was Sunday.
“This surprises me. Which one is right?” she asked sincerely.
I explained, “The Bible was from the beginning, and it was written under the inspiration of God. The Catholic Catechism appeared later and has no proof of divine inspiration.”
“Just write both of them,” she decided.
I turned the project into a piece of art. It took me a long time to write each commandment carefully and nicely. On one side I copied the Bible’s Ten Commandments. On the other side I copied the Catholic Ten Commandments. The teacher made another copy after mine. She posted one in a classroom and one in the lobby. Students and faculty, a total of about 1,500 people, had the opportunity to see the difference between the two sets of commandments.
THE MIRACLE EXAM
Before graduation, in 1991, I had to take exams in both Czech and Russian literature.
We had to read a lot, mostly communist ideology. I did not read much of it. I wondered how I was going to pass these exams. On the written section I had received a C. I prayed. I did not want to fail the exam. The oral section would be decisive. We had to know over thirty topics but would be examined on only one random topic. We drew numbered questions out of a bag in front of our examiners.
At the examination I drew question 15. “I think you can pass,” the teacher encouraged me. I knew that 90 percent of the students who drew question 15 failed the exam. I had 15 minutes to prepare the answer. The question required a discussion about ethics in society and morality vs. legality.
The first book that came to my mind was The Great Controversy, a book on Christian history. Certainly none of my teachers had read that book. It contained a whole chapter about religious freedom and explained how the American Constitution is based on the principles of liberty. Slowly I started talking about the great conflict between good and evil in the universe and on Earth. “Men tried to put their own laws above the Law of God. God never forces the will or the conscience, but Satan through fear or force endeavors to rule the conscience.”
As I spoke, the teachers listened quietly. They had never heard such things. “Any questions, ladies and gentlemen?” the head examiner asked. They had no questions about the exam, only “Where can we find that book?” The teacher who lectured on communism and dialectic materialism and knew the Bible better than I did wanted that book, too. The next day I had a Great Controversy sale at school. My first experience selling religious books!
I think they liked my answers. Maybe I got an A on the oral exam and that will average my final grade to B, I thought to myself as I checked the posted scores for my final results. Martin Bernar—A. They must have made a mistake. I looked again. God had worked a miracle. I smiled, my heart overflowing with joy.
Two years later some friends from my old school told me that the teachers were still talking about the student that passed question number 15 with an A. I don’t think I was actually that brilliant; God’s truths just impressed them.
The teacher who taught communism encouraged me with these words, “If I were a Christian, I would be a Seventh-day Adventist.” God had a purpose in leading me to that school at that particular time in history. His character was vindicated despite my uncomfortable experiences.
Martin Bernar and Roxanna Kiss Ramont were both students at Hartland College when this article was written.
Taken from Last Generation, Vol. 26 No. 5. Last Generation is a vibrant 32-page soul-winning magazine published six times a year. To subscribe, call (540) 672-1996, Ext. 283.