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.
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.
I (Jessie) haven’t posted much on here lately, but Jake asked if I wanted to write the blog post tonight, so I decided to reflect on my observations as a mother from the United States here in a big city, in a different country, on a whole new continent. The truth is, after a little while of thinking back on our (almost) four weeks here, I realized a lot of things are not so drastically different from those back in the States.
Well, the first thing that would cause many overprotective mamas to cringe are the wild dogs. The situation is not as bad as it used to be, but for sure, if you visit here, the random, mangy looking dogs walking around all over the place will grab your attention. Our middle daughter Mae is pretty scared of dogs, so being here is forcing her to deal with that fear on a daily basis as we go out and walk to the grocery store, metro stop, bread shop across the street, and parks. She’s handling it better than I expected, but when a big ol’ scroungy looking animal comes up to you in the park while you’re eating, it’s a little frightening to a little kid. Kids should be able to have fun at a park, especially in a giant city like this, and not have to worry about stray dogs biting or chasing them. And there’s really nothing you can do. I guess a few years ago, the Romanian government proposed a euthanasia solution to the problem, but animal activists from elsewhere in Europe put up a big stink and the “solution” was only in effect for about a day. Ya know, I don’t like animal cruelty, but the 60,000 wild dogs that sometimes form packs and kill people here and bite dozens of people a day seem like good enough reasons to put a permanent “solution” in effect. The kind of lives these dogs lead are pretty pitiful anyway.
Ok, just one more thing on the dog rant. Jake shared this link that has a map of Bucharest with indicators of where all the wild dog packs hang out in the city. Apparently, one of the guys running for mayor created this and put it up online, so it’s probably not totally accurate, but funny, because every time there is an election, there are tons of promises from candidate about cleaning up the dog problem. But no one ever does.
Besides the dogs, our kids have gotten used to cramming onto buses and subway trains, crossing crazy busy streets where cars stop only inches from your legs (at least it feels like), playing on random little playgrounds scattered throughout the city streets (these are usually covered in graffiti but we’re used to that from Milwaukee), and playing outside late into the evening on hot nights. Sometimes we even cram our whole family into the backseat of someone’s car when we need a ride to IKEA or church. I guess, technically, we are supposed to have car seats for at least Isaac, but the rules aren’t too enforced here. They are adapting so well, with just a little timidity. We try to do special things with each kid occasionally, like take one with us to the grocery store, take another one to the bakery, go on a prayer walk with a couple of them one night, or take all of them for ice cream bars down the street. I can only imagine what’s going through their minds being so far from everything familiar.
Some differences I’ve noticed. In the States, we homeschooled. And we are continuing that here, even though it’s practically unheard of. There are a few families here in Bucharest, mostly from a Baptist background, who homeschool, and we hope to connect with them some time. In America, a city this size would have tons of homeschooling families, as it is becoming increasingly popular there. But here, with help from HSLDA, some families are finding ways to do it legally. You can read more about the situation through the HSLDA website. (I would link to it, but I cannot access the site right now for some reason.)
Along with that, not many mothers in general stay home with their children. The government offers new mothers the option to stay home with their child for up to two years and receive a percentage of their salary while they are at home. But after two years, most return to work, because it is very difficult to afford to live here on a single income. This is a hard thing for me to see, because I love being a mother and staying home with my children. It is an honor and a delight for me, and I’m thankful to God every day for this opportunity to pour into my children’s lives, to get to know them, to share the love of Jesus with them all day long as we go about our days, to instruct them in their schoolwork and tailor it to their specific learning styles and interests, and to just be with them. Though children are loved here in this culture, most families have only one child. That’s not even enough to replace the mother and father someday, and statistics are showing that the population of Romania–and Europe in general–is declining and aging. But that’s all for another post someday.
Some wonderful things I’ve seen as a mother here: the food is much healthier overall. The produce and bread we get is fresh and inexpensive and not covered in chemicals while being genetically modified in a factory somewhere. We can take the kids along to the market–where the older women gush over them saying “frumoase, frumoase” over and over while smiling and blowing them oodles of kisses–and they can help pick out the food grown here in Romania that we will eat later that day! Our girls, even though we live in a big city, get to walk a lot. We don’t have a car, so we walk to the bus stop or the metro stop, to the grocery store, around the mall across the street when in rains and we need to get out. There are puddles EVERYWHERE when it rains, so they can be kids and splash in them when we go out with umbrellas. There are several huge parks located near metro stops, so we can feel like we’re escaping the city and the kids can run around freely. And there are great museums where we can learn about the culture and life of Romania!
Overall, I’m enjoying my time here as a mother and wife and missionary and homeschool teacher. I’m excited for my children, my MK’s to grow up in a new place, learning a new language and culture, and have this experience with us. I can’t wait to find out even more!
A lot of people have been asking us, “Why are you moving to Romania?” They usually follow that up with “Is it because you’re nuts?”
So here is our (well, my) top 10 reasons we’re moving to Romania:
10. A totally selfish reason, but the scenery is beautiful, as you can see above. Not every place looks amazing, and there’s plenty of ugly scenery in the cities, but mountains and seaside beaches exist, and for that, I am happy.
9. Another selfish reason – we’ve always wanted to do long-term missions, and we’re not getting any younger. If we don’t leave now, we may never go.
8. We were growing somewhat comfortable in inner-city Milwaukee, and I want to be in a position where I’m not comfortable, where if God doesn’t move it’s all gonna fall apart. I want to depend on Him and Him alone, and I want to see Him move. Getting up and moving half-way across the planet, to a nation where we don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture, and don’t know very many people, seemed like an effective way to do that.
7. I love mercy ministry. Though things are improving in a lot of areas of Romania, there are still 6000-plus kids living on the streets, there are still some 30,000 orphans, and there are still 1-1.5 million Gypsies living in poverty and squalor. The world may not think much of Gypsies and orphans, but Jesus does.
6. Sex sells in Romania – human trafficking is a problem, prostitution, though technically illegal, is on the rise, especially among college students, sexual immorality and provocative dress are the norm. Unless they find real freedom in Jesus, the younger generation will no doubt continue down a road of increasing addiction and bondage.
5. Though the economic situation is not as bad as it was, especially in Bucharest, the spiritual situation is worsening. Like the rest of Europe, Romania is turning toward materialism, secularism, and post-Christian philosophies to guide their lifestyles instead of looking to God. Missions experts and theologians are calling Europe, “the new dark continent” because of the quickly increasing secularism. While other places are poorer or maybe less Christian in name, the church in Europe is very weak.
4. There are many places of Romania without an evangelical church and many who have not heard the Gospel. Many of the younger generation are practicing agnostics. Though they were probably baptized in an Orthodox church, will do their wedding there, and may even attend services for Christmas and Easter, they don’t read their Bibles, don’t have a relationship with Jesus, and are not born-again. They may have an amount of religiosity, but it’s not a saving faith in Jesus.
3. The city of Bucharest has a population of 3 million people, and only 2100 (0.07%) are estimated to be born-again. The current US average is 100 times that amount. So there are plenty of people in Bucharest who don’t know God yet.
2. The Bible says to take the Gospel to all of creation. Last I checked, Romania is a part of that. So, to be faithful to the Great Commission, we’ve got an opportunity to go, so we’re going. Related to this, and to keep my points at 10, Romania’s geographical location is ideal for sending missionaries out throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. We’re excited to eventually raise up missionaries and church-planters who will go into Europe, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, Russia, and beyond.
1. God made it very clear He wants us to go, so we’re just gonna obey. A lot of times, it’s hard thinking of leaving, and there are tons of needs right here in America, but God told us to go, so we’re going, alright?