Since moving to Romania, we’ve been praying nearly every day, “Lord, send us those who have a similar heart to us. Send us those willing to reach this city for You. Send us people not afraid to reach Gypsies, the homeless, street kids, college students, young families, or whoever God sends our way. Send us those who aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty!” And God has been sending people to us.
A few months ago, we met Robert when we were visiting a big church in town. We instantly connected because Robert has a heart for the homeless and wants to do something to reach them for Jesus, and we have a heart for everyone, so we were a good match. 🙂
We’ve gone out a couple times delivering food to the homeless, but I think we’ve come up with a simple plan that’ll be really fun to keep doing consistently.
Near where Robert lives, there is a nondescript building that you would easily walk right past without thinking anything of it. Tucked in the midst of some ancient trees and an overgrown lot is an old building that serves as the base of an organization that exists to assist the homeless. On a rotating basis, the building is used as a clinic, a classroom, a counseling office, an art studio for the homeless, and, what drew our interest, a free bathroom and launderette.
Every Monday, the facility opens its doors for the homeless to come and wash their clothes, shave their 7-day-old five o’clock shadows, get a hot shower, and walk out feeling new.
“People are there all day long,” Robert told me, “so it would be a great place to give away some food.”
Homeless ministry is tough. People sometimes take advantage of you, they take your help for granted, they don’t want to change, etc. So I went in this past Monday morning with a thick hide on me.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Overall, we handed out about 10 liters of hot pasta and about 30 tracts to the homeless men and women who gathered, and everyone seemed genuinely excited and blessed to have a couple young guys surprise them with a free meal. No one scowled at us, and almost everyone’s face lit up as soon as we told them we had some homemade hot pasta. Romanians (especially in Bucharest) don’t smile for no reason like we do in America. If a Romanian smiles, you know they’re really happy. Whenever we handed out a plate of food and a tract, we told them, “Mâncare pentru stomac şi mâncare pentru suflet.” Food for your stomach and food for your soul.
My favorite moment was when an old man with crippled hands approached us gingerly and asked for food. As he ate, he told us about his previous experiences in church. After his first plate, he still looked hungry, so we asked if he wanted more. “Da,” he said shyly, so we piled on another portion. This time, as he ate, he told us, “You can pray for me when I’m done eating.” We felt honored, and we prayed with all our hearts for this man who Jesus loved so much.
I also loved the guy who came bouncing over to us, shyly asking if he could have another helping, throwing in, “This is really good. I like it a lot.” That’s Kaufland’s cheap macaroni noodles and spaghetti sauce for you.
My least favorite moment was when we ran out of food. I had carried all the pasta I could possibly bring on the subway, filling our biggest stock pot with a ludicrous amount of spaghetti, but it wasn’t enough. We scooped out platefuls of spaghetti for just over an hour, providing one warm meal to 26 hungry men and women, but it barely made a dent. Streams of people would keep coming by all day, long after we were gone, and that itself was just a small portion of the over 5,000 homeless living on the streets and in the parks and sewers of Bucharest.
Just as we finished scooping out the last of the pasta, an old man walked over. “Do you have any more?” he asked. “No,” we apologized, “we just ran out. I’m sorry.” He walked away disappointed but understanding.
Afterward, we met with the director of the nonprofit, learning more about homelessness in the city. She’s been working with the homeless for 16 years, so she knows a little about their situation here. Though the situation is varied, most of the homeless here are a result of economic problems, most tracing their woes back to the fall of Communism.
Communism was bad for Romania, but it did provide a job and a home for all. When the revolution happened, factories closed, people lost their jobs, bills went unpaid, and families fell apart through divorce and separation. Countless men and women ended up on the streets with nowhere else to turn.
With the recent economic crises worldwide, homelessness has been increasing in the city.
While we were discussing things, the director mentioned, “We’ve got to understand this problem is our responsibility. No one else is going to fix it. That is what is so hard to get people to understand.” When she first started helping the homeless in Bucharest, very few people wanted to help. Now, slowly, people are beginning to take responsibility for changing things, seeing the need to do something to help.
Unfortunately, the situation is pretty much the same in most churches, Orthodox, evangelical, or otherwise. Many homeless complain of getting kicked out of churches, even if they’re going honestly and not to beg. I’ve experienced both sides of it. I’ve been at churches where homeless street kids have snuck in and gone from one person to the next during an altar call, trying to scrounge up a few lei. But we’ve also had some good friends, who aren’t homeless but look it, kicked out of a church because they didn’t dress nicely enough. Both situations make you feel sick inside.
After our conversation, Robert and I were interviewed by a Bucharest newspaper about what we were doing there. The interview lasted about an hour, and at one point, I was asked, “Why are you doing this?”
I thought for a minute and answered, “Honestly, the reason I’m out here is because Jesus said to be out here. He told us to love the poor, to give generously, and to treat others as we’d want to be treated.” I recounted the story Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-46, about those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, and clothed the naked. He tells them, “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
Ultimately, God’s heart is not Communism, a forced equality where some are more equal than others, to borrow from Animal Farm, but He does expect us to take responsibility for the hurting, the poor, the hungry, and the naked in our lives, bringing healing, help, food, and clothing.
And, most importantly, bringing the message of Jesus.
Robert and I plan to keep going every Monday morning to bring plates of food, but ultimately, our prayer is to get a Bible study going for these guys. If they’re not comfortable (or welcomed) at churches, then we’ll just bring church to them.
Pray for God to use us, not just to alleviate a little hunger, but to bring the Bread of Life that satisfies every craving, the Water that never runs dry. And pray for the other 4,974 homeless in Bucharest who we didn’t get to meet this past Monday.
A young man who’s been helping us with translation, Robert, has a heart for the homeless in Bucharest. He’s got a wild life story, and I’ll share it sometime, but for now, just now that he grew up much like most of the homeless in this city but then, through the grace of God, has completely turned his life around and hopes to have his own business some day. In the meantime, he’s finishing his PHD and has made himself available to help us with some of the work we’re doing.
Robert is a great guy who loves Jesus more than anything else, and I hope you all get to meet him someday.
Last week, we were talking with Robert and he mentioned that he’d like to bring food to the homeless sometime. “OK,” I said, “when would it work for you?”
We decided to go out this past Saturday, hoping to find some people in need of a bowl of soup and the Gospel. We didn’t really know where to go, not knowing the big homeless spots in the city yet, so we asked God to guide us, like Abraham leaving Haran for the Promised Land.
We were on our way to a place that, according to Robert, is usually packed with the homeless on Mondays. We weren’t sure what we’d find today, being Saturday, but we thought it’d be worth a shot.
On the way over, suddenly I had a picture of Titan Park pop into my head. I had a memory of being at Titan a few weeks back, when there were handfuls of homeless hanging out in the woods surrounding the park. “Hey, we’re near Titan. Let’s go there,” I suggested, so Robert took a right turn and brought us to the park.
When we got there, we grabbed our giant pot of soup, some bowls and spoons, and some tracts, and we started walking through the woods looking for homeless people. None in sight. What do you do when you’re looking for the homeless? You can’t really just start shouting, “Homeless guys! We’re here! Come out, come out, wherever you are!”
As we walked and looked for the homeless, we saw a group of three guys sitting on an old concrete slab. “Hey, they might be homeless,” we thought, so we cautiously started meandering over indirectly, trying to look inconspicuous with our giant pot of soup.
“Should we ask them, ‘Hey, are you homeless?’” one of us joked.
As we neared, we saw they were nicely dressed, clean-shaven, and definitely not the homeless guys we were hoping for, so we veered off in search of real homeless people, not these frauds.
Ultimately, we didn’t find any homeless at Titan that day, but as we drove down the street, suddenly Robert pulled over. “I saw a guy back there! Let’s get him some soup,” he shouted. Before Ben and I could get our seatbelts unbuckled, he was talking with the man asking him if he was hungry.
His name was Marian, and though I didn’t catch most of what he was saying about his life, I could tell he was extremely grateful for the soup, and surprised that God would lead us specifically to him. Before we left, we prayed for Marian, that God would protect him, lead him, and reveal Himself to him, and Marian thanked us for the soup and the time.
He also told us about a place where most of the homeless he knew tended to gather. He said it was basically a garbage pit swarming with hungry, poor, homeless men, women, and children. We didn’t have enough soup with us that day to head in there, but we’ll find it one of these days, when we have a lot more soup with us, and maybe some more Romanian speakers along to help out.
After talking with Marian, we met another homeless guy, and while we were getting him soup, a man walked out of a store. “Are you here to feed poor people?” he asked.
We explained how God had put it on our hearts to bring soup to the homeless, so we were just going wherever He seemed to be leading us and serving as He opened doors.
“Follow me,” he said. “There’s a poor family in back that really needs some food.”
As we approached the trash-covered house where two families and five kids lived, we got a picture of the flip-side to homeless ministry. “A lot of born-again Believers come here,” the man told us. He began naming churches we knew who had sent teams of people with food, prayer, and the Gospel to these families. “They come from America, too. You can take pictures. Everyone takes pictures.”
I felt like a pawn in some homeless-feeding system, my generosity and heart to serve being taken advantage of by professional beggars who were themselves used to being taken advantage of by well-meaning Christians seeking an outlet to feed the poor, snap some photos, upload them to Facebook, and feel better about themselves. Well, the kids were cute and the family was hungry, so regardless of whether we were being taking advantage of or not, Jesus led us here, and He told us to feed those who have no food.
So we poured bowls of hot soup, and they scarfed it down like people who hadn’t eaten all day.
Then Robert shared a word from God, telling them how we were led here today by “coincidence,” proof enough that God cared about them and valued them highly. When we left, we promised to come back, because we want to establish a long-term relationship with this family, not just blow in, snap some photos, feel better about ourselves, and then move on.
And, case in point, no, we didn’t take any pictures.
A post from my brother, about our tram ride to Missio Dei Church this past Sunday. I suggest playing “Oooh That Smell” by Lynyrd Skynyrd as you read:
On Sunday, we were on the tramvai on our way to church when a smell which I can only describe as Satan incarnate crept up. And, yes, it was creeping, for this smell was surely something alive. But by “alive,” I mean that life that is in a zombie, not the life that’s in a cute little bunny rabbit.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw what was certainly no cute bunny rabbit. There, taking his seat just a few feet away was the most bedraggled homeless guy I’ve ever witnessed, complete with crazy muttering, scraggly hippy beard, and blood-smeared shirt. But it was the smell that was killing us… perhaps literally…
Click here for the rest.
I’ve been listening to veteran old-guy missionary Otto Koning’s series The Pineapple Stories lately. Really good stuff, and I highly recommend it. Koning and his wife and children were missionaries in New Guinea, where they saw God bring hope and life to scores of head-hunting cannibals who had known nothing but a life of paganism, idolatry, and fear. The series is half cool testimonies of what God did and half humorously painful stories of God dealing with Otto on his own stinginess, frustration, and selfishness while on the mission field. He’s a great speaker, really funny, honest and fun to listen to.
Anyway, in one of the sermons, Otto mentions the very real power of God that was present in their services, despite the fact that he wasn’t seeking dramatic supernatural manifestations or even aware that stuff like that could happen. Last week, I just finished listening to him tell stories of how God began killing people who defiantly mocked the Gospel. Witch doctors who cast spells on the Christians, natives who came to the services only to disrupt and mock, preachers he raised up who took the name of Jesus only to abuse and mistreat their churches… God was killing so many people that Otto joked all he had to do to quiet a mocker in any village was to tell them, “Remember what happened to Ojombwai? Don’t mock God.” Instantly, the remembrance of God’s dramatic power to take away life would silence the opposition.
Now, it’s possible to have an unhealthy fear of God, where you’re convinced He’s out to get you and is just waiting for the chance to sneak up and send you into Hell, but I think most of us don’t have enough fear of God. The Biblical reality is that God has the power to give life and take it away, and we see Him even in the New Testament killing people who treat Him too lightly (Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5, Herod in Acts 12). It’s only through the blood of Jesus that we have any hope in God’s presence. Without Jesus’ blood covering us, we’ve got no right to expect anything but death when God shows up.
Regardless of your theology on all that, the evidence in the Bible and history is clear – God kills people.
We go every week to visit Vasilica, a Gypsy woman Jason knows. Vasilica loves Jesus, and every week we meet with her she invites along different people she’s been ministering to. A couple weeks ago it was Dumitru, a homeless guy with no legs who sleeps at the tram stop nearby. It’s freezing this time of year, so Vasilica has invited Dumitru into her home, giving him the couch to sleep on, cooking him food, and telling him about Jesus. We shared the Gospel with him and prayed with him that Jesus would deliver him from drunkenness, because he loved his alcohol and didn’t want to give it up. We encouraged him to follow after Jesus and come next week because we would talk more.
Well, there was no “next week” for Dumitru. I was sick with a cold, so Ben and Jason went to meet with Vasilica on their own. When they got there, they asked about Dumitru and she tearfully told what happened. A few days previous, Dumitru, drunk and ranting at God, wheeled his wheelchair out into the alley with a bottle of liquor in hand. Vasilica followed and told him to leave the alcohol and let Jesus set him free. He shouted back at her, mocked her faith, laughed at Jesus, leaned back, tipped over, cracked his head on the cement, and died. All in about 30 seconds’ time.
Did God kill Dumitru or did he die of the natural consequences of his sin and unwillingness to repent? I don’t know, but it didn’t really matter when I heard the news. It broke my heart. Not the fact that God could allow this to happen. He’s good and never makes a bad decision, even if it looks like that from our side of things. What hurt was that Jesus was so close, so easy to grab ahold of, yet Dumitru didn’t care, persisted in his mocking, and died within arms reach of the one who was ready to rescue him.
So where do we go from here? Well, for starters, I’m not gonna mock God. He’s good, too good to allow us to mock Him and defiantly rebel against Him. He’s so patient, so good, so merciful, but He will not endlessly endure our mocking (Galatians 6:7). God is not safe. He’s an unquenchable fire. We can’t control him, manipulate him, use him, or fool him.
My prayer has been that God would use Dumitru’s death for His glory, which I know He’s eager to do – that He would deepen a Biblical fear of God in my life, that He’d open up Vasilica’s neighbors and family with the reality of His presence and the urgency to grab ahold of Jesus, and that He would burn in my heart a zeal to declare the Gospel in season and out of season (2 Timothy 4:2), to all He brings my way. Dumitru didn’t need handouts, a couple of lei, or a roof over his head as much as he needed Jesus, and if we don’t reach guys like him, who do you think is gonna do it?
So things have been going kinda’ nuts meeting with Vasilica, an older Gypsy woman who recently became a Christian. Our friend Jason shared the Gospel with her and baptized her last year, and we all started meeting together just recently. She’s the only Christian in her little Gypsy community, and you can read more about her here and here.
Recently, things have been nuts because her husband, Mircea, who dropped heroin cold turkey for a few months and let us use their house as a base for a church meeting, is now back into the drugs, which means he doesn’t want us to meet in his house anymore. So while he and his friends smoke heroine inside, “chasing the dragon” as they say, we meet outside in the alleyway, talk about the Bible, and pray for Mircea and his friends to wake up and cry out to Jesus for help. It’s cold out in the alley, it’s dark, not that many people want to join us, but it’s all for Jesus and Vasilica relishes the encouragement.
Last week, while we were talking with Vasilica, a young man of maybe 20 or 25 ran over rubbing his red eyes and angrily yelling about something. When we asked him his name, I couldn’t make out what he said, but it was something like an Italian form of Jeremy. I’ve been calling him Geronimo whenever I pray for him or tell people about him, so that’s what I’m naming him here.
“Are you OK,” Vasilica asked.
“No, my eyes are burning. Some police just pepper-sprayed me,” Geronimo told her.
Geronimo is homeless. He showed us his couch in the alley that he’s been sleeping on. He’s got no blanket, no pillow, no protection from the cold. Just a couch to sleep on.
We prayed for his eyes, explained the Gospel to him, and asked God to free him from the drugs he’s become addicted to recently. They’re mild “natural” drugs that used to be legal in Bucharest but now are simply sold black market.
When we asked him why he was pepper-sprayed by the police, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of teeth. Then he reached into another pocket and pulled out a lower jaw with some teeth still in it, more teeth from another pocket, and finally he pulled out a small tube, opened the top, and poured out another handful of teeth to show us.
Aaaah, I thought to myself, so he must be a dentist. Not.
He held the teeth up to us proudly, so we could see the specks of metal glittering in the dim glow of moonlight. “I had to dig up four bodies to get these.”
Yes, clearly a dentist, I thought. Not.
Then he laughed and smiled at us. “No, I’m joking,” he said. “I was digging in the garbage behind a dentist’s office when they came and just started spraying me in the face. But at least I got these. Do you think I can sell the metal? It might be silver.”
Please pray for Vasilica to remain steadfast in her faith. Pray for Mircea and his friends to get fed-up with the drugs. Pray for Vasilica’s kids and grandkids living in the drug house. And pray for Geronimo the dentist. We headed back to his couch a few days later with a sleeping bag, some food, and winter clothes, but he wasn’t there, so pray we’d be able to find him again.
I don’t pretend to know everything about beggars in Bucharest, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of what I’m about to write is wrong and I’ll one day have to retract it all, but one thing you’ll notice if you come out here to Bucharest is that there’s plenty of people begging on the city streets. It’s not swarming with beggars, but there are enough here to make you notice.
It’s not like going to parts of Africa or Haiti, where almost everyone you meet is dying of malnutrition, desperate for a bite to eat. Begging in Bucharest is sometimes easier to deal with and seems almost light-hearted and carefree in comparison, but it can show up in forms that are a lot darker, more sinister, and just plain heartless.
Milwaukee begging came in various forms, but they were always pretty tame and everyone generally assumed beggars would use whatever you gave them to buy cigarettes and alcohol, even though this wasn’t always the case. You’ve got your drunks who approach everyone with a different story each time, you’ve got your homeless guys who are hungry but definitely not starving, you’ve got your musicians who put out a guitar case and play music for spare change, and you’ve got the guy stuck in a bad situation who just needs a little help to get him over the hump.
In Haiti or Africa, begging was everywhere. As soon as we got off the plane, we were swarmed by desperately needy people who really hadn’t eaten for a week, worked really hard for almost no money, and were in a bad situation at a bad time with no hope of getting out of it.
I haven’t totally figured out Bucharestian begging yet. On the one hand, you’ve got the standard musicians who play music for money. I haven’t seen as many as in the States, but they’re here. And you’ve got your regular drunk homeless guys who’ve made a mess of their lives and refuse to take any responsibility for it. They say they want to change, but by the way they live, it’s clear they really just want their alcohol. Pretty normal so far.
And then there’s the “happily homeless” people, mostly men. They sleep on benches, in parks, in abandoned buildings, under bridges. They could get a job, but they just don’t want to. They tell you how much they enjoy the freedom of living for themselves, not worrying about anyone or anything else. Police don’t seem to bother them much, everyone buys them food, and they’re enjoying their privileged status in life, mooching off the earnings of others. They don’t bother anyone most of the time, but they may make a random drunken statement or try to grab at random women who walk too close.
Marian sits on a bench outside our apartment most days. Sometimes he sleeps there and sometimes he’ll walk around to the back, where it’s quieter, and sleep by the stray dogs. He’s always happy, usually has a bottle of beer in hand. God has given me a real heart of love for him, so I try to buy him food, sit down and talk in broken Romanian, and pray with him any chance I have. I confess, when I’m in a hurry, I’ve given him money instead of buying food for him, but I don’t like doing that because I know how much he loves his alcohol. I pray for him a lot, and one day I hope Marian will give his life over to Jesus and be completely changed, but right now, I’ve shared my testimony and challenged him to live for God, but I’m waiting on the Holy Spirit to do His work.
On the flip-side of this happy-go-lucky picture of begging I’ve seen here, I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve told me about groups of beggars who are kept as slaves, and here is the darker, more sinister side of begging in Bucharest. I don’t quite get it all yet, but I’ve heard it’s such a serious thing here that the government has warned everyone to not give money to beggars because it’ll likely just support the slaveholder (or pimp, or whatever you wanna call him). The pimp controls and manipulates the beggars, takes all his earnings, and forces him out on the streets day after day.
One day, near the subway, a mom and her four kids sat on a blanket, looking defeated, faces of hopelessness and gloom, eyes sunk back in their heads from hunger. They didn’t say anything, just looked at me with broken, vacant eyes. About fifteen feet away stood a well-dressed man with gold chains, keeping a close eye on them. I watched for about ten minutes and he never let his eyes off them. Was he their slaveholder, their pimp? I don’t know, but the whole thing was disturbing either way.
That same day, I walked past an old man with no legs, laying on a mat, staring vacantly at a wall, ribs sticking out from his body like a mountain range pulling up from the valley floor beneath it. He didn’t say anything, just stared at me with vacant eyes again. He had a handwritten sign that said something about being hungry.
The most disturbing was the burn victim with almost no hair, lumps in the place of feet, a badly disfigured hunchback, and a vacant stair of pain and hopelessness. He didn’t look at anyone, just lay curled up on a piece of cardboard and stared at the ground.
The pimps will enslave homeless kids too, like in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I’m sure they prefer it, because who wants to see a kid starve? You could probably get a lot of money by sending groups of kids out begging for you. We’ve heard about groups who live in the sewers alongside their pimps. A friend of ours gave a few lei to a kid who was begging one day, because he looked really hungry. As soon as he had the money, the kid ran to a well-dressed man who stuck his hands in the boy’s pockets, pulled out wads of cash, and placed them one-by-one in his already well-filled wallet. Another time, that same friend gave clothes to a naked kid begging on the street. The next day, the kid was back, still naked and still begging. What happened to the clothes? I don’t know. Maybe his pimp (or his parents) sold them and kept the money. Maybe they just took them away and sent the kid out naked, because it was a better marketing strategy than a finely-dressed young man asking for donations.
I don’t know if these beggars are kept as slaves by pimps or not. Maybe they’re getting sent out by their parents who are too lazy to get jobs. Maybe they’re leftovers from the Ceausescu regime’s over-stocked and neglected orphanages. I don’t know… It makes you sick either way.
It makes you wanna catch all the pimps and slaveholders, lock ‘em away in prison, and set the beggars free to be healed and delivered from the demons of fear and rejection they’ve had beat into them through years of abuse.
Problems like these are overwhelming in this city, but thankfully we’re serving the One who told us, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) Yeah, that’s the Jesus I serve.