Pastor cites faith as aid during imprisonment
By EARLE CORNELIUS
Friday, February 17, 2017
LANCASTER, Pa. — This is all you need to know about Luminitza Cristecu Nichols' faith: She was willing to die for it.
A former nurse, she is the first native-born female Romanian Baptist pastor in the world. On Feb. 26, the 46-year-old will become the first female pastor at First Baptist Church in Lancaster, Pa. The church is affiliated with the American Baptist Church, which has long ordained women.
Frank Kautz, moderator for First Baptist Church and a member of the church's selection committee, said her passion impressed the committee.
She preached a sermon at the church on Jan. 22 and answered questions from the congregation. It was during that session that members first learned about her unique story and deep faith.
Present-day Romania is a member of both NATO and the European Union. It has a democratically elected government. But in 1989, the country was ruled by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Among the many repressive laws in Romania at that time was one that made it a crime to own a Bible — a book that is central to her life.
Nichols' story begins on the day her life nearly ended — Dec. 16, 1989. That evening, 19-year-old Lumi, as she was called, was returning from a service at a banned Protestant church in her home city of Timosoara with her friend, Sorin. A large crowd had gathered outside the Hungarian Reformed Church where pastor Laszlo Tokes was being forcibly removed because he supported equal rights and had denounced Ceausescu's dictatorship.
The pair went to her friend's home. He told her to leave her purse and her Bible behind but she slipped the small Bible into the pocket of her coat and returned to the rally, she said, to "witness history.”
Little did she know how prophetic her words would be. That night marked the beginning of the Romanian Revolution — a weeklong bloodbath that left thousands dead and ultimately toppled the Ceausescu regime.
As the crowds at the church grew that night, authorities turned fire hoses on the protesters. Nichols and her friend fled but were caught. When they admitted they had attended the protest, they were transported directly to Popa Sapca — the city's infamous political prison. She was terrified.
"You have to understand," she said as she recounted her story during an interview this week, "people don't get out of a communist prison."
Inside the prison, Nichols remembered her Bible. Realizing she might be executed if the guards found it on her, she tore a hole in the pocket of her full-length coat. The book slipped to the bottom of the inner lining, where it went undetected.
"If they had asked (for the Bible), I would have taken a bullet for it," she said. "It was the word of God."
She was placed in a tiny cell with 18 other women, all of whom were worried about their fate. And that's when she thought about Scripture.
"What I remembered was what (Apostle) Paul did in the Book of Acts, and that was sing, pray."
Although she was the youngest woman in the cell, she asked the others if she could pray for them and their country. When she opened her eyes, they were crying.
One young woman, a Hungarian, said she didn't know how to pray.
Nichols told her: "The greatest cry of your heart, God will count it as a prayer."
It was, she said, the first time she saw herself as a leader.
Several days later, as protests around the country grew, Ceausescu ordered the military into action.
"It was full-out war against the citizens," she said. "You could hear machine guns outside the prison and women screaming in the other cells."
She began to ask God for a sign that she had done the right thing by protesting, but was left with an empty feeling.
That did not stop her from singing banned church songs, one of which included the words, "Only in heaven will we know why there was so much suffering on the Earth."
The women around her learned the words and joined in. They called it their prison song. And that's when she experienced what may have been a first sign from God: The female guard peering through the eye slit could have turned them over to the military, but "she never stopped us," Nichols said.
Shortly thereafter, Nichols removed the Bible from her coat. One by one they passed it around.
"Some," she said, "had no idea what a Bible was. They had never seen a Bible."
Twice that week, guards entered the cell. One time, the women were lined up facing the wall. Several were taken away and beaten. Nichols was not. Another time, soldiers asked if there were any "repenters" — Christians — in the cell. Disregarding the pleas by her cellmates, she raised her hand.
"I didn't want God to be ashamed of me," she explained.
The soldiers ignored her and left.
Six days after the uprising began, the prisoners — men and women — were told they were free. Ceausescu had hoped that by releasing prisoners throughout the country, the revolution would end.
"When we were told that we are free ... many of the women didn't want to go. We were convinced they were going to ... execute us."
Instead, they were taken by truck to a forest outside the city and released.
She and another woman managed to find a bus. When they reached Timosoara, Nichols gave her Bible to the other woman.
Although she was walking along familiar streets, she said she didn't recognize the city of her birth. Buildings had been burned or destroyed. Trails of blood darkened the sidewalks.
Nichols returned to her neighborhood, where she was met by Elena, a friend who had first introduced her to the underground church. She discovered that while her own family was safe, two of Elena's sisters had been executed.
At home, she was greeted by her relieved family. Her father, a communist leader at his factory, had in the past beaten her because of her beliefs. He later told her he had made a bargain with God, that he would convert if she came home safely.
On Dec. 22, crowds in the Romanian capital of Bucharest turned on Ceausescu. He and his wife fled but were captured, tried by a military tribunal and executed on Dec. 25, 1989.
State-run TV announced the executions. The announcers also added two words that Nichols said previously had been banned by the government: "Merry Christmas."
The events of that week led an emboldened Nichols to seek new opportunities. Told that some American Christian universities were offering full scholarships to Romanians following Ceausescu's fall, she applied. Exactly eight months to the day of her arrest in Timosoara — Aug. 16, 1990 — Nichols enrolled at Tennessee Temple University, a Christian university in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
There she ran into another obstacle. She wanted to pursue a degree in pastoral care but the school was affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which does not ordain women. She ultimately earned a degree in nursing. While she got satisfaction out of helping people, she felt unfulfilled and often performed chaplain duties on her own at the hospital where she worked.
While in Tennessee, she met and married Eric Nichols, then an aerospace engineer for Boeing.
They spent three years in London while he pursued an MBA degree. When they returned, she enrolled at Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary — now Palmer Seminary, which does ordain women — outside Philadelphia where she earned her Master of Divinity degree.
She and her husband, a business consultant, are the parents of two children — Ana, 11, and Teodora, 6.
Nichols served an internship and was associate pastor of pastoral care at the Baptist Church of West Chester before applying for the position at First Baptist. She also is pursuing a doctoral degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts.
At the time of Nichols' ordination, the Rev. Patricia Hernandez, national director for American Baptist Women in Ministry, said Nichols' story "highlights the many ways God calls and gifts women in ministry. As we look to the future, it will be women like Lumi who will lead us into a new day."
"There are so many good things we can do," Nichols said while sitting in her North Duke Street office for the first time. "I want to be positioned where the Lord wants me to be."