We’ve been having a difficult time lately in Romania. We finally got to go visit family and friends back home in America after 4 years away. It was wonderful, refreshing, and all you would expect from a 4-year reunion with those you love.
And then we got back to Romania and it felt like all hell broke loose on us. We all got stomach flu, the car died, we got bed bugs and our daughter broke out with blisters all over her body, our one church (Biserica Sion) was kicked out of its building, our other church (Biserica Piatra Vie) was losing its meeting place because the landlord was lying, stealing, and threatening us, eventually physically assaulting me… and then today.
What happened today? Well, we just started to see some victories in all the aforementioned areas. Our stomachs recovered, we found a mechanic to fix the car, we started a chemical war against the bed bugs, we found a new location for Biserica Sion, and we found a new, much better location for Biserica Piatra Vie.
It looked like we had started to overcome again, like we were gonna win the battle.
But then today happened. We had invested a lot of time, energy, money, and hard work into repairing Piatra Vie’s new location the past few days… and then today we found out that the building the rental unit is in… is condemned due to seismic risks! It’s illegal for us to use it, and it’s illegal for the landlord to rent it to us. If any police catch us, we’ll get in big trouble and either us or the landlord will have to pay a $13,000 fine. And the police station is right next door. Not to mention the fact that if there is an earthquake the building could collapse and we might all die.
So we’re back to square one, looking for a new meeting location. With our small budget, the immensity of the city, and the problems of operating in a culture and language that are still foreign to us, this is a lot harder than it sounds.
After losing our amazing meeting location, again, for the second time, all I felt like doing today was getting away with God. So I grabbed my Bible, my camera, and the car keys, and I decided to take a drive to sort some things through.
I had heard about a certain quiet place along the Danube River, just south of the small town of Prundu, that there were some beautiful and remote beaches there. I was interested in bringing my family there sometime, so I thought, “Hey, I want to go for a drive, so I’ll check out the route to one of those remote beaches and see if it’s worth bringing the whole family sometime.”
And off I went.
As I drove, I prayed and thought and prayed some more. What are we doing? This is ridiculous. How could we not have known the building was condemned? Why didn’t we look before committing to rent it? How could we be so foolish? Why didn’t the landlord tell us? Why did God seem to confirm we should rent it when He knew it was unsafe and we’d leave in a couple days? Why did he let us work so hard, waste so much money, only to walk away from it?
And then I was in the town of Prundu.
And then the road diverged, so I took the one less traveled by.
This road left the small town behind and went off into the woods and fields far into the distance. It was constructed of a lot of dirt, a little bit of gravel, but mostly holes as far as I could tell. Looks good, I thought, and ventured forth in my faithful Opel Zafira.
The road was really rough, the roughest road I’ve ever driven on. There were deep muddy tire ruts gutted by tractors, giant rocks that threatened to crack important metal things on my car that I’m sure have names but I’ll be darned if I know what they are. The wheels spun a few times in the dirt and mud, but I kept chugging forward.
Then I saw clouds coming.
It’s going to rain, I thought, and when it rains, this road will be a real mess.
Turn around or keep going? I kept going. I needed to see where this road went. Worst case scenario, I calculated in my mind, I get stuck somewhere in the mud, can’t find help, and have to spend a night or two sleeping in the van and waiting for the mud to dry. I can survive that.
Eventually, it started to rain. Just little drops, but by the look of the sky, I could tell they were heralds of something much more menacing.
The smart thing to do at this point would have been to turn around. Admit defeat. Play it safe. Walk away. Come back and try again some other time.
But I could see the end of the road up ahead… so close. And I had come so far already. How could I give up now?
So I kept going, despite the steadily increasing rain.
Once I reached the end of the road, I had a great time reading my Bible and just talking to Jesus.
Unfortunately, the clouds also had a great time sending down more and more rain, and so eventually I realized it was time to go. And thus I began the long, sloppy trek back. The car slid, bounced, crashed, and rammed its way through the ever-muddier path. Finally I understood the appeal of ATVs and dune buggies.
But I was not in an ATV or dune buggie. I was in a minivan. And pretty soon, about halfway through the minefield of mud and rocks, that minivan got stuck. Real stuck. Hopelessly, unmistakably stuck.
So after I had exhausted all my methods to unstick stuck cars, I got out in the pouring rain, walked through the mud and muck, searching for any signs of life. Up ahead I saw a farm, and as I neared, I approached some men on break. When I asked for some help, they directed me to talk to Calin, the boss.
With my dirty jeans and shoes weighing heavy from the caked-on mud, I must have looked helpless enough so that Calin drafted one of his men to hop in the tractor and pull me out. And that he did. He fearlessly pulled me for about 15 minutes through the quicksand-like mud. A couple miles from the end of the road, two farm workers approached and after he explained what he was doing, they asked if I could drop them off at their homes.
“Sure,” I said. “I’m going that way anyway.”
“Do you want me to drive?” asked the older one, whose name was Dumitru. “I grew up on these muddy roads. I know how to drive this stuff as well as asphalt roads.”
So I surrendered the keys and we drove together, the three of us, to their homes in the neighboring villages. When we arrived at Dumitru’s home, he told me to follow him as he grabbed a bucket of water, soap, and a brush. As I washed my hands, he knelt down and scrubbed my shoes clean, telling me it wouldn’t be good to drive all the way to Bucharest looking like I went swimming in a swamp.
As we went back to the car, he said he noticed there was something wrong with the radiator and wanted to take a look at it. So he popped the hood, looked around, banged a few things, cleaned off some mud, and got everything working to his satisfaction again.
“Here’s my phone number. If the engine doesn’t get any cooler as you drive to Bucharest, give me a call and I’ll come see what’s wrong.”
I shook his hand, thanked him profusely, asked if I could get his photo, and then drove off, one more adventure under my belt.
As I drove away, God began speaking to me. “Just keep going forward. If the road is dirty and full of holes, I’ll get you through it. If it starts to rain, don’t turn back – I’ll take care of you. If the road turns to mud, just keep going. If you get stuck in mud a couple times, I’ll pull you out. Just keep going forward.”
I like what the famous missionary William Carey said regarding to what he owed his success in India – “I can plod. I can persevere in any definite pursuit. To this I owe everything.”
I think most of success revolves around the simple idea of just not giving up. Just keep going forward. Sure, you can play it safe and stay where you’re at, but if you wanna win, you gotta keep going, through all the mud, rocks, and puddles life throws at you.
Here’s some pictures from the day:
Below is an article I wrote for Hand of Help, a ministry that reaches out to the poor and hurting in northern Romania, after visiting the orphanage in Botosani last week. If you want to support a ministry that is literally changing lives, head over here to make a donation:
Visiting the Hand of Help orphanage in Botosani is a very dangerous thing. You can’t visit and leave unchanged.
My wife and I packed up our four kids and moved to Bucharest, Romania, as missionaries almost four years ago. We didn’t have any real plan other than we felt God was calling us to plant a church in the city, so we went about meeting people, learning the language, getting to know the city, doing evangelism, anything we could think of.
One of the first people we met was Daniel Boldea, who overheard me speaking English at an electronics store and wandered over to introduce himself. He told us about the Hand of Help orphanage and suggested we pay a visit sometime.
“Wow,” I told him, “the orphanage sounds really great. Maybe we’ll visit next month.”
Well that was almost four years ago, and we finally made it up for a visit last week.
The focus of our ministry in Romania is planting a church in Bucharest, which means we spend most of our time serving in this crowded, dusty, fast-moving city, but once in a while, we just need to escape and breathe some fresh country air.
A couple weeks ago, we did just that. We booked a cabin in the mountains, hopped in the van, and drove all day to spend a week in the countryside. Afterward, we finally took Daniel up on his offer to visit the orphanage, since it was only a few hours from our destination in the mountains.
As we were driving toward Botosani, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Years ago, I had visited an orphanage in Haiti that made my heart sick. The children were thin, covered in dirt, and barely clothed. Many were obviously malnourished, others clearly suffering from sickness. There were not enough beds for all the children, so many bodies shared one mattress, and what beds they did have were filthy and covered in mold. A missionary friend explained that those running the orphanage kept most of the donations to care for themselves. She surmised the ministry was merely a convenient way for the administrators to make some money from donors whose heartstrings were pulled by the poverty they saw.
Seeing the children at the orphanage in Haiti broke my heart. The poverty, the starvation, the sickness… and the uncaring cruelty of administrators who would allow these children to live like animals. One young boy told me he wanted to be a doctor when he grew up. I tried to encourage him that anything is possible with God, but in my heart I knew he would never be a doctor. With caretakers like he had, I didn’t even know if he would live to adulthood.
Would the Hand of Help orphanage be the same? Would we be brought to tears by the poverty and hopelessness?
Or maybe it would be like Annie, bedraggled children scrubbing floors and singing “The sun’ll come out… tomorrow…” under Miss Hannigan’s dreadful gaze. Would the children of Hand of Help have a similar hard-knock life?
The answer to both questions is the same. No. You will not find sad children suffering from disease, sleeping four to a mattress, not sure where their next meal will come from. You will not find broken, hardened children hoping to escape the harsh cruelties of orphanage life.
Hand of Help is a place of hope, a place where children in dire circumstances, rejected and abandoned by their families, can find a family that really cares for them. It’s a place where children who would grow up to be prostitutes, beggars, and thieves really can instead become doctors, teachers, pastors, or anything else they dream of.
If you visit the Hand of Help orphanage, the first thing you’ll notice are the smiles. The kids are smiling, the staff is smiling, the leaders are smiling… everyone is smiling. This is a place of joy.
As we pulled into the grounds, instantly we were surrounded by kids. They weren’t asking for candy or hoping for sweets. They just wanted to greet us, to talk to us, to meet the visitors. One young girl pulled out some snacks and shared them with our family, then another one gave us a whole bag for ourselves. When we tried to refuse it, she wouldn’t let us give it back to her.
We spent three nights at the orphanage, we got to know some of the kids, we heard stories from Mircea about God’s miraculous provision and lives that have been rescued, we met a pastor who grew up at Hand of Help, and we saw a place we can support with all our hearts.
I can’t recommend this ministry enough. Everything they’re doing is done really well. The building is clean and in good repair, the children are all clean, healthy, and clothed normally, everyone has a bed to sleep in, the rooms are not overcrowded, the food is healthy, fresh, and abundant, the older children all cheerfully help in the daily running of the orphanage, the workers are obviously caring and loving…
“When the children are in school, we want our children to look the same as every other child,” Mircea told us, before quickly correcting himself. “No, we want them to look the best.” And why not? These are children of the King. Why should they be neglected, these who’ve already been thrown into circumstances harder than any of us will ever face? Why should they suffer not just the loss of their families but also their dignity and respect?
It’s obvious everyone at the orphanage feels the same way. They want to give their kids the best they can so they can have a chance at a normal life.
Don’t misunderstand me. When I say the kids have “the best,” I don’t mean anyone is living in luxury. You won’t see designer jeans, smartphones, big screen TVs, or palaces built for kings here. But you will see lots of happy, healthy, smiling kids who have everything they need for a normal life.
When we left the orphanage, I promised Mircea we would recommend the ministry to everyone we knew, and that as God blessed us, we would gladly pass on the blessing and support the work financially.
“Prayer,” he told us, “that is what we need the most. Just pray for us, and God will provide everything.”
Well that’s a sneaky thing to say, because when you start praying for something, before too long God tells you to act.
This morning, we got on the Hand of Help website to begin sponsoring one of the orphans we met. His name is Nicolae. I didn’t know his background when we met him at the orphanage. All I knew was that he was the smiling teenager who busily served in the kitchen, set up our meals, visited our table to make sure all the food tasted good, and advised us to eat more slowly so we can better enjoy the food.
I wish we had enough money to support him for all his needs, and other children too, but we don’t, so we figured out how we could at least do something, because we can’t just sit here and do nothing anymore.
Like I said, visiting the Hand of Help orphanage is a very dangerous thing.
Every March 8 is International Women’s Day, and in Romania that means… grannies get helped off the trams.
One of my favorite things about Romania is when you get to see some young guy stop and give an old lady his seat, help her down from the tram, carry her groceries, cross the street, etc.
Almost every day, I’ll see young guys flexing their chivalry muscles for the older women in the city. It’s one of those really cool, old-fashioned kind of things that I wish would happen more often in America and more “prosperous” nations.
So it’s not unusual to see young guys go out of their way to give deference to older women, but International Women’s Day was a real treat. In the space of 45 minutes, I got to see 3 women helped off the trams, one carried in the arms of two young knights in shining armor, one woman helped across a puddle, five women who had doors held open for them obscenely long amounts of time, and countless others who were given free flowers from McDonald’s as well as some other business courting new customers.
Sometimes, Bucharest is a mystery to me. In the same city where random drunk men will grab at women’s bodies and whistle cat calls, where you can watch the guys undress the girls with their eyes, where women are encouraged to pursue “jobs” in massage parlors, prostitution, and web cam modeling, where sex trafficking is a very real issue… you’ll find guys holding doors for women, helping them across puddles, and giving up their seats on the bus.
People are complicated.
Last week, I had a meeting with a good friend of mine, Camil. He’s one of my favorite people in Romania, because he looks at life differently and has a unique way of thinking about God. I guess we all have our own unique way of thinking about God, but I like Camil regardless.
While we were thinking and talking and discussing, Camil brought up three words for “love” in Greek thinking – eros, philios, and agape. “Eros is the base, sexual, physical kind of love… Philios is the comforting, friendship kind of love… But agape is the epitome of love, the most advanced form of love, the love that Christianity brought to the world, God’s kind of love.”
“Agape, this is the love you’re trying to bring,” he said, looking at me. “This is the love you’re talking about, the self-sacrificing love like Jesus showed.”
That is the goal, yes, and sometimes I achieve it.
On my way home after our meeting, I got a call from my friend Daniel: “Jake, we will build your shelves tomorrow.”
Weeks ago, I had told Daniel I wanted to buy some shelves for our kids’ clothes, to replace the suitcases we’ve been using. “No, don’t buy shelves,” he had told me. “I know how to build furniture. Let me build them for you.”
“OK,” I had told him, “when we have some extra money, I’ll let you know and you can help me build the shelves.”
Flash forward a couple weeks. I had some extra money, so Daniel came over early in the morning, drew up the plans for the shelves, and then we both walked to the hardware store to buy everything. Well, the hardware storeS. We visited five different places to get everything we needed. By the time we were done, we had walked through freezing rain and wind carrying piles of wood, tape, screws, and tools. And we were beat. I joked with Daniel that he owed me money for letting him help, considering all the free exercise coaching I was providing him.
He left and I told him, “Let’s leave the wood here for now, and maybe in a few days we can build the shelves. When you have the time.”
So he called me a couple days later, because his Saturday was suddenly free, informing me, “Tomorrow we will build your shelves.”
We planned to meet at 3pm. Daniel got there at 2:40pm. I got there at 3:30pm. By the time I got home, he was already well on his way toward finishing, and together we built four brand-new shelves.
Now that’s agape love.
Did you know you can return sub-par hamburgers and french fries at the department store Carrefour? Yes, say you buy a hamburger in their cafe, you take a bite and it seems a little dry, so you take a few more just to make sure, and then, nearly done with the sandwich, you realize that, yes, your original estimation was indeed correct and this sandwich, contrary to what you had been led to believe, was not so delicious and juicy after all, you can, if you find yourself in said predicament, go to the customer service department and demand a refund. And, if it happens to you like it did to me, you might get offered double the money back, only to tell them that they made a math error and you really only need the original amount back, not twice as much, but you appreciate the gesture.
Today, I treated a bunch of friends to dinner at Carrefour. You can get hot dogs for 30 cents and a sandwich for 60 cents, so if you need to treat a bunch of friends to dinner, it’s a good place to go.
It’s also a good place to go when the pizza restaurant you originally plan to eat at tells you, “I’m sorry, but your pizzas won’t be ready for at least five hours. We have a lot to do tonight. What? You already paid for the pizzas? Oh, yay for us.”
So we found ourselves at Carrefour eating hamburgers and hot dogs instead, licking our wounds and glad that the disappearing pizzas had at least been really cheap. As far as disappearing pizzas go and all.
When my soda came, I took a drink and realized that their soda machine was running out of syrup (the soda tasted like water). I like water, so I contemplated just drinking it and walking away content, but then I realized that if I didn’t say something and let them know their machine needed more syrup, other customers would get the same nasty soda-water combo that I got. Everyone would get bad service, nothing would change, and the restaurant would never improve.
I went to the counter and explained that I had ordered a soda, but what they gave me was mineral water, without the flavoring. In hindsight, I would like to have said, “I think your machine needs the syrup refilled, because the soda came out watery,” but I don’t know how to say that in Romanian yet.
Thankfully, the workers connected the dots. Halfway. They told me, “It’s not our fault. We got the soda from the machine.”
“It’s your machine,” I told them. “And I’d like the soda I paid for, not water please.”
After pouring me two more test cups, calling me stubborn, complaining that I was trying to get free soda, and simply ignoring me, I asked if they’d give me a can of the soda that I had ordered, since their machine wasn’t working. They said no. I asked for my money back, because I didn’t want to pay for a soda that was more water than soda.
“You can go to reception and talk to someone,” the woman told me.
OK. So I did. Me and my friend Daniel walked to reception and told them, “I ordered this hamburger, french fries, and soda, but when they gave me the soda, it didn’t have any flavoring. I just want to have the soda like I ordered.”
“It doesn’t have flavoring? Why not?”
I wanted to throw up my arms and sarcastically yell out, “It’s the machine’s fault! No one can do anything about it!”
She asked me if I had the receipt.
“No, they never gave me one.”
“You need the receipt if you want to return this purchase.” Well, I didn’t want to return this purchase. I wanted to eat it. I just wanted someone to put syrup in the soda machine so me and other people could get the sodas they were paying for instead of mineral water. I hadn’t even tried my burger or fries. They looked good, so why would I return them? And who returns a meal bought at a cafe anyway? This whole thing is ridiculous.
So I walked back to the cafe, told her politely that I needed a receipt so I could return the burger and fries and soda. She pulled out the garbage can and dug around until she found it.
“Thank you,” I smiled.
“With much pleasure,” she smiled back, as if our whole Soda War had never happened.
So I gave the customer service woman the receipt, she took the burger and fries and soda and set them by all the returned shoes, pants, and books, and returned my money. She counted wrong and accidentally handed me 14 lei instead of 7. Since I’m not into cheating stores out of their money (I just do freaky things like returning meals at department stores) I pointed out the mistake and gave back the extra 7 lei. With the returned money, I bought a couple slices of pizza somewhere else instead.
I didn’t get soda this time. I was too scared to risk it.
Lesson of the story: if your soda comes out watery at Carrefour, it’s no one’s fault. Just return your meal at reception and buy a pizza.
Epilogue… (Can you do that in a blog post?)
As I’m writing this down, I realize that the whole scenario still really bothers me. Not because I didn’t get my orange soda. I don’t care about soda. I can drink watered down soda. But I love Romania. And it’s the all-too-frequent stories like this that make people not love it here. Romanians, you’re some of the most amazingly awesome people I’ve ever met. You’ve got hearts bigger than the world even deserves. Stop giving in to mediocrity and complacency. Stop blaming everyone else and dodging responsibility and looking for the easy way out. There’s greatness in you.
In case you didn’t see it already, Jessie and I were both asked by the blog Will Travel With Kids to list our five favorite things about living in Romania.
And in case you missed it the first time around, read our interview responses from last year about moving and transitioning to life in this part of the world over here.
That’s about all I’m gonna say about that I guess. You’ll just hafta check the links out.
And stay tuned for more posts coming from us. So much has been happening in our lives and the ministry that we let the blog take a back seat for a while (I say that as if it were an intentional adjustment to hopefully fool everyone into thinking as much). But we’re still alive and kicking (not always kicking, sometimes just walking or sitting or talking to people).
So, yeah, we hope to get some posts up here again soon for ya’ll.
Living for almost two years away from the US, I can tell my perspective on things is changing. Broadening, I think; maturing, I hope. Regardless, my view of the US and the world is different than it used to be. So let me rant a little.
Yesterday, I had the most recent of many conversations that went something like this:
Non-American: “I like to watch American movies.”
Me: “Yeah, you and most of the world.”
Non-American: “I like it because it shows me what American life is like.”
Me: “Well, not everything in the movies is very close to reality.” For instance, Will Smith didn’t actually ever save us from an alien invasion (Independence Day). Everyone knows it was actually giant sea monsters.
Non-American, refusing to believe that movies aren’t reality: “Is it true about black people in America?”
Non-American: “They’re so dangerous.” That’s always the word – “dangerous.”
Me: “What?! No… Maybe that’s how it looks in the movies, but they’re just people like everyone else. Some are dangerous and some aren’t.”
Non-American: “But they all do drugs and carry guns and hurt people. Why do they kill so many people? Why are they all so bad?”
I’ve had conversations like this dozens of times in Romania. Because of the influence of American TV, movies, and music, people seem to have this idea that every black person in America is a gangster carrying guns, selling drugs, and waiting to beat you up if you come to their neighborhood.
Somewhat of a side note… I’ve also been told by a handful of people, “I feel God calling me to go to the Indians (Native Americans) as a missionary.” I say, “That’s great!” and then they ask something about if I think it would be difficult to live in a teepee and ride on horseback to get everywhere. “Oh, yes,” I reply, “but at least you’ll learn many useful things about hunting buffalo and scalping white men.”
I’ve done (and do) the same with other cultures. Like my aforementioned friends, I feel God calling me as a missionary to the samurai of Japan or possibly the ancient Egyptians.
But back to the topic at hand. Now, if it were only Romanians asking me about blacks in America being so dangerous, it could admittedly be a problem with Romanians, but it’s not just Romanians – Gypsies, Africans, Middle-easterners, Asians, and Western Europeans have all asked me why “all” black people in America are so dangerous. “I’ve seen it in the movies,” they always say.
To all my black friends in Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay, I’m so glad I made it out of your houses alive. I didn’t realize you were so dangerous. I thought you were just normal people. I didn’t realize all the drugs, violence, and crime you were involved in. You covered it up so well with your jobs at Time Warner Cable, your happy families, your college degrees, insurance businesses, and hair salons. You had me so fooled. I didn’t realize you were all dangerous gangsters.
Yeah, truth is, some of my black friends came from rough lives of drugs, violence, and crime, but Jesus rescued them out of all that and now they’re different. Same for some of my white friends.
So, who’s to blame? Where are these ideas of American blacks coming from? Who’s giving all these Romanians, Turks, Iraqis, Swedes, Saudis, Somalis, and Cameroonians this idea that “all” American blacks are “dangerous.”
Hollywood. The media. Movies and TV. Music. This is anecdotal evidence of course, but across the board, everyone who’s asked me about the “dangerous blacks” in America has referenced American media as the source of their information.
So I ask you, “What’s the most racist institution on the planet?”
Obviously, none of my friends are stupid enough to believe everything just because it’s in a movie. They’re my friends, after all, so that’s gotta say something about their intelligence, right? Or not. 😐 The truth is that some black Americans are criminals and some aren’t. Some Jews are rich bankers and some aren’t. Some Muslims are terrorists and some aren’t.
Someone once said, “If you repeat a lie long enough, it becomes truth.” If Hollywood keeps portraying black Americans as dangerous, does it really matter that not every black person is, in fact, dangerous? Eventually, you just start to believe it.
I used to dismiss the people claiming American media was filled with racist stereotypes, but now I’m seeing the very real (and disturbing) effects of it in shaping world perception of black Americans. And, though I’m as white and middle class as possible, I feel cheated.
If I were a black American, I’d be ticked. I’d stop buying the degrading rap albums, I’d stop watching the movies that monetize black stereotypes, I’d stop dressing and talking and acting like Hollywood wants and expects.
I’m a middle-class white American living in Romania, so who am I to talk… but for the sake of my black friends in America, Hollywood, find a new story. We’re tired of listening to this one.
And to all my Romanian friends who are nervous about blacks in America, I know at least 12 who are nice people. There might be even more.