“You have to forgive us,” said Adrian, “Romanians don’t quite know who they are. He went on to point out that for centuries his country had been controlled by other people. Most recently this small fish-shaped country in Eastern Europe had been under communist rule. It was only twenty years ago, in 1989, that a revolution ended this stage of Romania’s history. It also ended the lives of the communist dictator, Ceausescu, and his wife.
Under Ceausescu’s policies, birth control was banned, so families naturally had more children. Ceausescu wanted to increase the Romanian workforce so that the country could pay off its debts. What actually happened is that many children were sent to orphanages because their parents could not afford to feed them. Yet neither could the orphanages. Ceausescu’s next plan was to give these orphaned children blood transfusions to strengthen them. What he didn’t count on (and neither did anyone else) was that some of the blood was infected with HIV. So now Romania had two problems: lots of orphans, and orphans whose government had unwittingly infected them with a fatal disease. With this type of leadership, it’s not surprising then, that Romanians, in some sense, don’t know who they are.
Romanians might not know who they are, but neither did I, at least not when I first had the chance to go over there. People I barely know have called me brave for what I did. Maybe some part of spending three months in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone, or speak the language, is brave, but I never thought of myself that way. I didn’t even think of it as my decision in the first place.
Getting Hit on the Head
When I went to Romania, I didn’t go to evangelize or to help the kids or to offer encouragement to those who were already there. I went for one reason and one reason only–I believed that God was directing me to go. I have heard of people being called by God, or saying that God “spoke” to them, and I don’t doubt that this is possible. But that was not my experience.
My first experience of Romania was in the winter. There were eight of us then, on a mission trip to train leaders in Romanian camps. I didn’t fall in love with the country, like some people do, but I did enjoy parts of it: long walks in the countryside, fried dough dipped in cinnamon and sugar, and train rides that reminded me of the Harry Potter movies and books.
We passed by snow-covered trees on those Harry Potter–like trains and then hiked up to visit one of Romania’s many castles. Broken-down stone walls and ceiling-less rooms made it seem as if the sky was a built-in feature of this fortress on a hill. Ironically, it was in that very fortress that my sense of security was breached. Maybe you have this type of security too, that you are in control of your life. My world all neatly aligned; my assumptions rock-solid and immovable.
Just as the sun was setting we reached the top of the castle. Several of us stuck our heads out of the castle windows so we could see the city below us. What happened next could have happened to someone else or to no one at all, but for better or worse, it happened to Sarah. As she looked at the city below her, smiling and joking with us, the heavy shutter (which had been inadequately secured) crashed down on her head. We swarmed her immediately, but the damage had been done.
I understand what it’s like for Romanians to not know who they are. It’s hard when your country has been occupied by outside forces for years and years. It’s hard when your life has been controlled by things that don’t define it.
Sarah had a mild concussion after her encounter with the castle shutter. This meant that on our last day in Romania she and I (because I gladly volunteered to stay with her) took naps. After a few hours, I lay awake on top of the down comforter. Sunlight streamed into our room and over my face. I prayed, talking to God with an unusual openness and peace. I asked what I should do with this life I’d been given. After a while of no audible answer from God, and no real clarity in mind, I went back to sleep.
A few hours later I found myself hearing these words: “Have you thought about missions in Romania?” Our trip leader, Ed, had invited us to go for a walk and now he was saying this stunningly fresh and unexpected thing to me. He had noticed something that I had been completely oblivious to: “You seem interested in the culture,” he said, “You seem to be more alive here.” All I thought was, God, I really, really hope You want me to do missionary work in Romania, but I am so afraid that what You have for me is not as exciting as that and I’ve misread the signs.
Reading the Signs
Back home in the U.S., the next few months were filled with more signs to read and misread. It turned out our translator, Letty, knew some Romanian missionaries who would let me live and work with them. Was this a sign that I should go? There were other considerations too: 1) I would be in a country where I knew practically no one and didn’t speak the language 2) I would have to leave my family and friends, and 3) I would have to sacrifice a summer’s worth of earnings, and what little savings I had, to buy an expensive airplane ticket. I debated the pros and cons endlessly, desperately desiring to choose the right thing.
I almost thought I had an answer when I received a letter with the cryptic words scrawled in the margin: “I’ll Fly Away.” That must mean I’m supposed to fly away on an airplane to Romania! I thought. My certainty was dashed when I found out that several others had received an almost identical letter. I returned once again to a state of confusion and anxiety as I tried to figure out God’s will.
Even after multiple people had persuaded me that it was in my best interest to go to Romania, I still wasn’t sure if it was what God wanted me to do. I asked him for his opinion of course, but rarely did I wait for an answer. Instead I would run off to debate the merits of my options with someone fleshier.
Just as I was about to deepen the rut of my pattern and run to someone else, God reminded me who I was. It was all in a letter I had written to myself in the prior year; a letter about who God was to me and who he had shown me I was. It was God’s deep truth and love speaking to my heart that softened me enough to trust him and take a small step of obedience. In light of God’s love, I could not not go to Romania. God loved me too much to keep me from risking myself.
So I understand what it’s like for Romanians to not know who they are. It’s hard when your country has been occupied by outside forces for years and years. It’s hard when your life has been controlled by things that don’t define it. All these peripheral things eclipse what is important.
What I did in Romania is not so important, it is more how I did it and what it did to me. After being in Romania for several weeks, I realized that what I thought was my lack of any expectations at all was really blindness to my own assumptions. For example, I assumed that if I was with Romanians who could speak English, they would speak my native tongue even if they were not talking directly to me. It only seemed polite. Because of my assumption that everyone would speak my language, provided they knew it, I felt isolated and eventually bitter when they didn’t. Turned out everything wasn’t all about me. My Romanian hosts certainly did have a right to speak their own language and once I realized that, life was better.
The “life isn’t all about me” lesson got hammered in pretty well when I went to visit a leper colony. Leprosy is a skin disease that has tended to make people outcasts in society. The history of the leper colony bears testimony to this fact. There was a time in Romania’s past when children with leprosy were taken from their schools to live in this secluded place, hidden from the public. Many times the children were kept from saying goodbye to their families. One of my Romanian friends explained it to me like this: “Romania wanted to appear perfect, without fault, so they denied the existence of lepers.”
We drove on winding tree-covered roads to reach the leper colony. No wonder no one knew about it. The colony itself is in a valley – an odd assortment of institutional buildings and houses protected by lush green hills. There is something untouched about the place, void of influences from the outside world. But it is beautiful.
When we got out of the car there were flowers and vegetable plants all around us. In front of us was a little church, a yellow stucco building with blue sky trim and a blue picket fence with peeling paint. In front of the church a whole slew of flowers bloomed, as if they could barely contain their life. Inside the church smelled like my grandparents’ church did – musty and old, but comforting nonetheless. Next to the church was a small house, almost invisible because of the garden that grew up around it. The owner of the house, Iuana, was an 80-year-old woman, with no fingers on her hands and no feet. Just like my friend had mentioned, she was brought to the leper colony from her school when she was 12 years old. It was here that she met her husband and raised her daughter.
We stood in Iuana’s garden, which was stunningly beautiful with tomato plants and peppers everywhere. She had cloths tied around the ends of her legs and to move from place to place she crawled on the ground. Iuana didn’t really look at me at first when she talked, but later she invited us into her home. There were two rooms, each half taken up by a bed. On the wall there were a few pictures. Next to the bed there was a clock and a plastic bottle. It was warm, simple, welcoming. Iuana told us her daughter sleeps in one bed when she comes to visit and the other bed is hers.
Before we left Iuana insisted on giving us something. We ended up with ten eggs, three tomatoes and two peppers, even though my Romanian friends insisted this was too much. We stood next to the garden to pray, the three of us. Iuana began the prayer, among other things, for me. She thanked God that I came and asked him to bless me and my family. And incredibly, unpredictably, she thanked God for being a leper.
If I were a leper I think I would be questioning God, not thanking him. But my Romanian friend explained to me later that for some of these people, if they had not come here to the leper colony, they would not have heard about Christ. They would not know him. And so Iuana, the 80-year-old woman with no fingers and no feet, who lives in a two room house and is an outcast in society, thanks God for making her a leper.
Standing next to Iuana I realized that her heart is probably purer before God than mine. Anyone looking at us might assume that I was stronger or maybe more blessed. And in some ways it might be true, but in another sense I cannot even compare to her. I am young and still going my own way, not fully yielded to God, not understanding so many things, still insisting on my rights. Iuana was joyful, warm, welcoming, putting others before herself. She was beautiful in God’s eyes and she is beautiful to me. I love that about God. He uses the weak to shame the strong (1 Cor. 1:26-29).
Learning to Trust
As my days in Romania turned into weeks, and weeks into months, I became weaker, unable to stand on my own two feet. More and more I had to rely on God for strength. There was no way I could control the things that I was used to controlling. Even the little things, like whether I would have the use of certain equipment for my classes, how many kids would show up for the activities we planned, and what time I would eat dinner were beyond my control. In so many ways I was powerless. I had to trust in something, or someone, other than myself.
Trust is a big thing for me. I don’t like to trust other people. If you haven’t noticed, they tend to let you down. So when Adrian, my Romanian host, said to me, “You need to trust more” I took it as both the truth and an insult. I wanted feedback about my skills and abilities and instead Adrian had cut to the core of my deep emotional issues. I knew he was right, but his words had injured my pride. Maybe I would trust people more, I thought, if they earned it.
A few weeks later, I stood with my toes on tile at the edge of a pool. Ruben, my host brother had shown me exactly what to do and now I stood poised to jump. The problem was that I had been standing like that for about ten minutes. “Trust me,” he said, and I thought back to what I knew of Ruben. Did I have reason to trust this Romanian boy, 5 years my junior and bold in his daredevil stunts? In the end, it was a choice, and not an evenly calculated sum of parts, that made me do it. I entered the pool hands first, arms above head and then the rest of my body followed in a smooth line. Cautiously triumphant, I emerged from the water. Maybe trust, like faith, is also a choice.