Today was my oldest daughter’s birthday, so we spent a good part of the day at one of the parks here in Bucharest, eating lunch, getting ice cream pops, and playing. While at one of the playground areas, I was pushing one of my girls in a swing when a high school-aged boy sits in the swing next to hers with a couple of his buddies by him. He must have heard us speaking in English, so he asks, in fairly good English, where we are from. (Always every new person’s question to us.) When I tell him that we’re from America, expecting to hear the usual “Wow, America,” I am not disappointed. (After you get asked that question and receive that same response so many times, you come to anticipate it, not in pride, but just in a this-is-how-nearly-every-conversation-I-have-with-a-new-person-goes kind of way.)
Then all three boys started saying with this dreamy, far-off kind of voice, “America. It’s so beautiful there.” (I doubt they had actually ever been there. I mean, have you driven hours upon hours through cornfields of Indiana?)
Always amazed at how people put America on this pedestal of being the ultimate paradise while being totally ignorant to the multitude of problems there–there are problems everywhere, and America is not excluded–I reminded them of beautiful places in their own country, how America has several big, ugly cities just like Romania has Bucharest (I’ve grown to like Bucharest, but it does have a sort of depressing architectural theme to it.), and how America is not perfect and has its own problems, that Romania is not unique in that.
Dumbfounded, they asked, “Like what?” Clearly, they don’t watch CNN International and BBC News like I do to keep up with what’s happening back in the States. When I mentioned that where we used to live in Milwaukee, we could hear gun shots when our windows were open, that there were lots of problems with drugs and gangs in that city, they were shocked!
But then they went back to bewailing how terrible Romania is, especially Bucharest with all the “gypsies” here. Every time I hear someone rant or complain about the gypsies, it strikes a nerve in me and hurts. I think of our gypsy church near our house and of how generous and loving those women are to me and my children, how they give things to our kids when they themselves have so little, how they really want to live good lives. They’re like family to me; well, really, we are all in the family of God together, and those women are my sisters in faith. So, hearing someone throw out brash comments like that, generalizing and stereotyping a whole group of people based on racism and prejudices, is really bothersome.
Before I go further, I will note that the main speaker of the group of boys held a two liter plastic bottle of cheap beer in his hand and was obviously not sober. When I commented once on how good his English was, he said only when he’s drunk can he speak it well. I tried not to press the conversation too much, because of the awkwardness of the situation: a mother of four at the park with her kids, talking to an intoxicated high school guy is just a little weird, but I digress.
Later on, the boys asked about there being many black people in America, only they used the “n” word! (Ok, I must interject a side note here. These kids obviously didn’t use the “n” word in a derogatory sense, and it’s not the first time one of us has heard a Romanian refer to a black person with that word, and it’s never been used in a mean way. We always correct them and urge them never to use that term, for it is extremely derogatory in American culture.) They went on about how they have no problem with black people and wonder why others do, because, “They’re just people, like you and me.”
“Yeah, kind of like the gypsies. They’re just people, too,” I said. They tried to make excuses but failed, and I had to leave to go rescue my toddler boy from some high up place he’d climbed up to. But when they left later, the main guy admitted, among other things, that he is, in fact, half-gypsy. Sometimes, I really have no explanation.
But, I’ll leave you with some wise words from Naomi. “Why do some people not like the Gypsies? They’re just people with different color skin. That’s stupid to not like someone because of that.”
Every week we visit the drug addicts at Vasilica’s, we never know who’s gonna be there or what they’re gonna say. A few weeks ago, we walked in and were surprised to see a young, well-dressed, bright-eyed man in his 20s. He stood out from the normal wild-eyed street junkies that we normally find there.
And then he spoke in fluent English, something that threw us for even more of a surprise.
Stefan (not his real name) introduced himself and explained his history with heroin addiction. He had been on heroin since he was a teenager, and though he had tried to quit a number of times, he kept returning to it and just couldn’t break free. He then launched into a tirade about how things are hard in Romania, that life is better everywhere else, that if it weren’t for the government or his parents or his friends or his bosses, his life would be good. “God is unjust and doesn’t care,” he concluded. “God has made these problems for us.”
“Well,” I stopped him, “the problem is not God’s fault, it’s ours, it’s the sin we give ourselves to. Until you take responsibility for your own rebellion against God, nothing is going to change. God didn’t create the world with evil, but we continue to allow evil to win, first in our own hearts and then in our families, our cities, and our world. You’re so busy pointing at everyone who’s wronged you, but meanwhile you’ve taken the life God gave you, and you’ve given it to drugs and selfishness. You’re the one to blame for the problems in our world, not God.”
“Me?” he gasped. “What have I done? I’ve done nothing!”
“Yes, you,” I continued. “God created you to bring peace and love and healing to this world, but you’ve abandoned Him and instead given yourself to selfishness and rebellion.”
“Oh, because I’m a junkie, huh?” he asked.
“No, I’m not just talking about the drugs, but everything. For you, it’s drugs. For me, it was hatred and lust in my heart.” Then I shared my testimony with him, about how God convicted me of sin, forgave me, and set me free from anger, lust, and addiction to pornography. “We’ve all rebelled against God. Though He intended for us to bring good to the world, we bring evil. So if you see evil, it’s your fault for not repenting and turning away from it.”
Then he asked me more about what God was like, and I explained to him that, unlike the picture we often have of a stern father ready to pounce on us, God is loving and kind, merciful and compassionate, waiting for us to repent and run to Him to be forgiven.
“Is your father alive?” I asked him.
“Yeah, and he’s a great father. He doesn’t like what I do, but he understands. He lets me do the drugs and doesn’t say much.”
“Well, God is the best father ever,” I explained. “He’s a father who understands us perfectly and constantly gives us everything we need. He’s got the best in store for us. Yet we’ve taken a look at what He has for us and told Him, ‘I don’t want that. I want to do my own thing.’ Time and again, we disrespect our father, even though He’s so good, way better than any earthly father.”
“You would never dishonor your own father, right?”
“No,” he answered, listening intently.
“But you’ve dishonored God. You’d never tell your own father, ‘Get lost, Dad. I don’t care what you want,’ yet that’s exactly what you do to God. He died for you, but you don’t even care.”
In all, we talked for about 45 minutes, most of the time focusing on how God is a good father we’d never want to dishonor. Then we prayed together, that God would reveal Himself to Stefan as the good, loving Father He really is.
After he left, Vasilica, who didn’t understand anything Stefan and I were talking about, told us some of his background. She knows all the junkies in her “parish” very well, and prays for them constantly.
Listening to Vasilica, it became clear that God had set up this encounter on purpose. “His parents are politicians,” she explained, “high up in the government.” She told us what offices they held, but I won’t put it here out of respect for confidentiality. “He comes here often, but they’re embarrassed by him. There’s a clinic where he can go to break the heroin addiction, and he really wants to go because he’s tired of the drugs, but they won’t let him register because they’re too ashamed. They don’t want anyone to know they’re son is a heroin junky. He could get help, he could get medication to make withdrawals easier, but they’re just too concerned with their own reputations.” Essentially, his parents were willing to sacrifice their son to maintain their images.
“But he loves them so much,” Vasilica went on. “He would never dishonor his father, so he respects their desires and stays away from the clinics.” Like a good son who wouldn’t dream of bringing hurt or dishonor to his earthly father, Stefan stayed away from those who could help him kick the heroin, so he wouldn’t shame his family.
The reality is that Stefan doesn’t really want to be free yet. I don’t doubt that his parents are resisting his attempts to get help, but if he really wanted to be free, he would be. He’s not at Vasilica’s every time we visit, but when he is, he doesn’t looked good. Pray that God stirs a holy hunger for freedom inside him, a fire that won’t let up until he’s completely freed from the addiction, a fire that’ll burn even without access to clinics, medications, or programs. And pray his parents wake up and get their son some help.
We had a really weird night with the Gypsies a Mihai Bravu last night. Rather than go through all the details for you, you can read my brother Ben’s post instead.
Since I know you want to hear them, here are the rejected titles for this post: Lost in Translation, Testify Sistah!, a Mormonic Conversation, and a New Wife for Jason. Yeah, it was an eventful night, mostly encouraging but also difficult.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the discouraging aspects of the night, but I think it’s good to let you know that ministry here in Bucuresti is not all a bunch of successes. So, before I get to the awesome stuff, here’s the list of what discourages me: we lost our translator somehow, we arrived an hour late, most of our regular families were gone tonight, worship seemed heartless and dull, the praying was similarly just as lifeless, a couple of the kids at the meeting were going crazy, Lali stumbled into the meeting drunk, I couldn’t seem to say a word in Romanian…
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Jake and Ben and our Canadian missionary friend, Jason, have been visiting a couple of Gypsy communities on the west side of Bucharest for the past couple of months, and tonight I got the chance to go minister with them since Ben volunteered to watch the kids for us. Taking Isaac along with us, Jake and I headed out around dinner time and met up with Jason.
We walked a short ways down the road and then turned off into a vacant lot by the railroad tracks. Tucked back among some trees and bushes, we come upon a family huddled around a fire. In their little community, there were a few shacks with about three sides each to them, lots and lots of trash, and a bunch of kids.
While the adults there seemed very hardened to the gospel and were mostly interested in getting things from us (we brought some fruit and a bunch of bread, but later we saw many of them lighting up cigarettes, which are very expensive here), my heart broke for the baby, toddlers, and other children. How were they going to stay warm come winter time without four walls to keep out the wind chill? Do they get enough to eat or does more money go towards cigarettes?
But one little girl stuck out to me the most: Lavinia. She is nine years old, and in the third grade and came bouncing up with a giant smile about ten minutes after we arrived. She said she has faith in Jesus, loves going to school, and really wants a Bible to read with pictures in it. The hardness of those around her and of her circumstances had not broken her joy and innocence, and I’m praying it never does.
After we prayed for them, gave them some coats, hats, gloves, and bread, we headed out to visit Vasilica. I’d heard a lot about this Vasilica from Jake, Ben, and Jason, and I was excited to meet her. She recently decided to follow Jesus and is now crazy about following Him and seeing others around her do the same. She is the grandmother, bunica in Romanian, of about six little kids and several older ones. Most of her children are heroin addicts and don’t take care of their children, so it is up to this grandmother to raise them, feed them, discipline them, and teach them about Jesus in this tiny one bedroom little house.
Her living situation was definitely better than at the other place by the train tracks; she has electricity, a washer, a sink, and a refrigerator. But there is a lot of darkness there as well. However, she is a light. And I felt a glimpse of God’s love and delight in her while there ministering, praying, and sharing from the Bible. Before going, I felt like God wanted me to encourage her with the verse 2 Timothy 1:5, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.” Paul wrote this to Timothy who went on to do great things as a minister of the Lord. But Timothy did not have a family of believers growing up; he had a grandmother and a mother who loved God and imparted their faith to him.
We encouraged her to not grow weary in doing good, to be a light, to train up the children in the way they should go. She was visibly moved, crying and praising God. We also prayed for one of her granddaughters to be healed of a painful toothache. We prayed and nothing seemed to happen right away, but a few minutes later she went from groaning in agony and holding her jaw to smiling the biggest smile and praising God! What a beautiful God we serve!
Vasilica doesn’t have a church she attends regularly, and it is difficult for her to leave all the children behind to go, because she lives in a dangerous area filled with addicts and prostitutes. So, I felt very humbled and thankful to be a part of bringing church to her. My heart was aching with the love of God for the people of this city so many times today, and the burden to pray and intercede for it is even greater.
The weather suddenly dropped the past couple days, which meant we had to pull our normal outdoor meeting with the Gypsy families along Mihai Bravu indoors last night. We started meeting every Monday night with a small group of Gypsies near our house, they’ve been telling their friends, a few people have given their hearts to Jesus, people are growing closer to God, and the meetings have grown to about 10 families and 35 people, including us Americans.
We don’t speak Romanian, we don’t really know what we’re doing, and sometimes the Gypsy culture really, really confuses me, but God is building something here and we’ve been put in the middle of it.
When we came to Romania, we had no plan other than to follow where God led us. Well, one of the places he’s brought us is here, to these Gypsies who live along Mihai Bravu. We didn’t know what would come of the meetings, and they kinda’ just came together out of nowhere when Jason, a fellow-missionary and now a friend, met a Christian family and mentioned we would be interested in doing some prayer and teaching at their place. They said that’d be OK with them, but they didn’t seem really excited or anything.
So we met with the Gypsy family but still weren’t pushing to “start something” there. Well a couple weeks later, Irina, a young Romanian woman who goes to Missio Dei Church told us, “I want to work with Gypsies, and I see that you’re working with Gypsies. Can we talk about all you’re doing? I need to get involved.”
At that point “getting involved” meant nothing because we were still just meeting people and following God’s leading day to day, so there really wasn’t anything solid to “get involved” with. So we invited Irina to get together with Jason and us and brainstorm a plan.
A couple weeks later, we had regular weekly meetings going with the Gypsy family along Mihai Bravu, and now that group is pretty solid and growing in both numbers and maturity. There is still so much work to be done, but God is building something here and I’m humbled to be a part of it.
So normally we’d been meeting outdoors, but with the drop in temperature last week, we were welcomed into Lali and Mandra’s house for the rest of the fall and winter. It was warm and cozy, heated by a glowing hot spring attached to bare wires coming out of the wall, coiled inside a brick. Less people than normal came because it was cold and rainy, but we worshiped and prayed together, we shared some food, and Ben taught on baptism in the Holy Spirit. When we asked who wanted to receive more of the Holy Spirit’s power in their lives and be prayed for to be filled with the Holy Spirit, every person came forward.
So we prayed for everyone, and honestly I was hoping for a replay of Acts 2, tongues of fire, people speaking in unknown languages, people falling on the floor or starting to run around crazy, filled with the joy and life of the Holy Spirit, but it was a pretty mellow affair and I’m not really sure what all happened. Pretty normal for cross-cultural ministry. 🙂
I left a little frustrated because nothing much seemed to happen on the outside, but then God reminded me today that every person in that house came forward for prayer to receive more of the Holy Spirit, and that there were maybe 20 people gathered that night despite the rain and cold, and God had built a team of 3 Americans, 1 Canadian, and 1 Romanian all devoted to reaching the Gypsies of Bucharest, and it all started by random chance encounters and following His lead to take a step when He showed one to us.
Please pray for the Gypsies along Mihai Bravu, that God would build something solid and lasting among this group. Gypies are transitory, they come and go as they please, but pray that God would anchor them down and build a community here that can change Bucharest for His glory.
Also pray for another meeting we’ve started with Valentina and her family, in another part of Bucharest. She’s the only Christian in a really dark area, but she’s got a huge heart to reach the drug addicts, prostitutes, and thieves living around her, so she’s been inviting them to her house to worship, pray, and hear from the Bible with us. Who knows where God might take this meeting? He’s a big God, and He’s got big plans.
I’m just really humbled to be wrapped up in what He’s doing, and I can’t wait to see what He does next.
Get off the metro at Lujerului and walk a couple blocks. Pass by a Cora hypermarket and head toward the mall at Plaza Romania. On your left, opposite a small park with a playground, you’ll see a large vacant lot, some train tracks, and what appears to be a junk yard. Walk into that stretch of scraggly bush and trash and people will start popping their heads out of makeshift homes built from whatever odds and ends residents can get their hands on.
These are the Gypsies of Lujerului.
This plot of land used to be a big Gypsy haven, but now you won’t find more than 20 or so on a given day, and usually there’ll be a lot fewer around. Whoever does happen to be around is usually covered in dirt, missing teeth, and wearing whatever clothes have been donated to them recently.
A couple weeks ago, Ben and I headed over to Lujerului with our friend Jason to do some worship and prayer, share the Bible, and see what God would do. I just bought an acoustic bass guitar, so Ben and I practiced a few songs and then got ready to see God move.
When we got there, the crowd was substantially lower than we expected. Only one family was around that evening. Everyone else, we were told, had decided to go watch a movie in someone’s apartment instead of stick around to worship God with us.
Well, God isn’t concerned with numbers, per se, so we sat down with those who were there, an old woman with arthritis and her family – her son, also having arthritis, her granddaughter, and her granddaughter’s 3 young boys. We sang some worship songs, talked about how Jesus defeated every power of the enemy for us, broke every curse of sin, and came to set the captives free, release the prison doors, heal the sick, preach good news, and declare that God’s favor had come. Then we prayed and prophesied over anyone who wanted it.
Though nothing fantastically amazing happened that night as far as we could tell, I know God was happy because we did what He seemed to be telling us to do. Please pray for the old woman (I forgot her name) and her son, that they would be completely healed of arthritis, and pray that both they and their kids would encounter the life-changing love of Jesus. And pray for us, that we would be good witnesses to these people who’ve heard so much of Christian religion and so very little of Jesus the Deliverer and Savior.
Tonight, we spent the evening making friends with a community of Gypsies who live near our house. At any given moment, you’ll find anywhere between 5 and 25 people hanging around this plot of land. A friend of ours we met in Bucharest, Jason, has a pretty good relationship with them, so we decided to head over there with some mutual friends, a gypsy family from another part of town, and have an impromptu church service.
Most of the Gypsies in this particular community are Christians, some only recently making the change, but they need way more solid Bible teaching.
So me and Jessie and our four kids, Tiberiu and Sorina and their three kids, Ben, and Jason, all made the 10-minute walk to the corner of Calea Vitan and Mihai Bravu, to build some friendships, share the word of God, spend some time in prayer, and just enjoy the common bond we have as Believers. Tiberiu and Jason both preached in Romanian, Ben and I shared some short messages via translators, and we all prayed and sang some worship songs (in English, Tsiganeasca, and Romanian).
We had a really great time, and, as usually happens when I hang out with Christians in Romania (Gypsy or otherwise), I was once again blown away by their generosity. One of the men, who finally found a job after being without work for a long time, saw our four kids and tried to give me his day’s pay because, as he put it, it’s hard to feed so many mouths, especially when you’re in a new country where you don’t speak the language and don’t know anyone. At first I thought he was asking me for money, but when I finally understood what he was trying to do, I was embarrassed for my misunderstanding and humbled by his generosity.
We’ve had so many people show us so much generosity in this city, and sometimes it really humbles you. It’s sometimes been simple things, like some Gypsies who make almost no money pouring glasses of soda for us. Sometimes, it’s bigger things, like friends we’ve known for less than a week invading our house to make a surprise birthday party for Naomi, complete with balloons, cake, fancy snacks, and gifts.
I think generosity is one of God’s greatest gifts. When you give, it forces you to trust God instead of yourself, and God blesses you incredibly. When you freely receive, if forces you to humble yourself, get rid of your pride that says, “I don’t need others to help me,” and God, again, blesses you for it.
Well, here’s some photos from the evening with the Gypsies along Mihai Bravu: