Asbury Park Press_Rev. to be honored by Estonia president (March 8)
By ZACH PATBERG, TOMS RIVER BUREAU March 8, 2008
For preserving homeland's culture
Estonian Thomas Vaga realized he would spend the rest of his life serving God when, at age 28, he found himself praying for his country's Soviet occupiers.
"I knew something happened to me because I started praying for the Commies," he said.
Now, at age 70, the pastor of the Lakewood Estonian Church also spends his days trying to preserve his homeland's culture, language and traditions 17 years after the tiny Baltic country claimed its independence.
For his work, the president of the Republic of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, on Sunday will award Vaga the White Star IV Class, Order of the White Star, the nation's main civic service honor.
Consul General Jaanus Kirikmae of the Estonian consulate in New York City said the president was handing out 268 White Stars this year, ranging from the highest, I Class, to the V Class.
Vaga, of Howell, is among the small minority of Estonians receiving the award while living abroad. His wife, Airi Vaga, received the White Star V Class two years ago, Kirikmae said.
Thomas Vaga fled the Soviet occupation of Estonia by boat in 1944 at age 6 with his mother and two sisters to live as refugees in Germany.
"I remember leaving the harbor of the city I was born in, standing on the deck of the ship and saying to myself, "Well, in two years I'll be back,' " he said.
But when his family was finally allowed to immigrate to the United States in 1949, Vaga found himself going to high school and picking beans in South Jersey as part of a refugee program by the giant frozen food producer Seabrook Farms.
He got his psychology degree from Rutgers University in 1960 and worked for the Middlesex County welfare board until his fellow Estonians sent him to study in Finland.
There, at age 28, for the first time since he was 15, Vaga attended a church service. He soon started holding his own underground Estonian Lutheran gatherings. After being ordained, he served Lutheran refugee congregations in Sweden and Vancouver, Canada, until 1987, when he "was called back to where my American roots are — New Jersey."
Some 500 to 600 Estonians live in Central Jersey, Vaga estimated.
Looking back on his country's evolution since the days of Soviet domination, during which thousands of Estonians were executed and abused, Vaga is content with the progress, having witnessed its independence in 1991 and its entry in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2004.
"It's great," he said. "It's better than we can imagine."
His friends and associates point to Vaga as a main contributor in preserving his country's identity abroad. The pastor has stood beside Estonian presidents and written letters to American politicians while preserving Estonian traditions as a Boy Scout scoutmaster and vice president of the only Estonian archive in the United States.
First and foremost, though, he remains a man of the church.
Tonu Vanderer, 74, president of the Lakewood Estonian Association, remarked, "I'm on the social end, he's on the spiritual end."