I have some friends in the States who are amazing singers. The whole family sang in choirs all their lives, taught music, sang on TV, headlined rock bands, that sort of stuff. One time, Jessie and I attended their tweener son’s birthday party. When it came time to sing the Happy Birthday song, I expected the usual chorus of loud, obnoxiously off-key voices that didn’t mesh together but nobody cared because it was all full of joy and fun.
I took a deep breath and Jessie and I both belted out, at the top of our off-key, ill-equipped, misused lungs, “Happy birthday to you, happy birth-” and we stopped abruptly as we realized that we were surrounded by a family of singers and we were most definitely not singers. I felt very out of place and very out-sung, surrounded as we were by these world-class vocal chords.
I get that feeling a lot in Romanian churches. Christians in America, I think, have been trained to sing poorly and quietly, our voices drowned out by loud music. You can’t hear your own voice, so you just sing really loud and glorify God with a “joyful noise” that may not make everyone so joyful if the music were cut out for a moment. All this is an oversimplification, of course. Not all Christians in America are terrible singers. Nor is every Christian in Romania a great singer (yes, you know who you are). But I’ve encountered way more great singers here than I have in American churches.
Me, Ben, and our friend Jake Martin (visiting from the States) were invited by a church in town to share a word of encouragement and talk about what we’re doing in Bucharest. After we accepted the invitation, the pastor suggested the possibility of us also bringing a song, “like missionaries do when they do missions,” he said.
I told the pastor, firmly but kindly, “Uhh… We don’t sing.”
“OK,” said the pastor, “maybe no song. But maybe a song, OK?”
At that point I realized we would be forced to sing unless I made myself even clearer. “We have terrible voices,” I said as memories of our party with the Tennies family came flooding back, “you will lose half your church if we sing.”
“Don’t worry,” he calmed us, “all our singers are gone tonight. All the rest of us are terrible singers like you. If you don’t sing, there will be no one to sing.” Pastors are terrible liars. But I believed him nonetheless.
At the meeting, the pastor came and explained the order of the service and told me when we would be sharing our word of encouragement. Before he left to open the service, he added the infamous question that was not meant as a question, “And you have a song for us, yes?”
“Yes, of course,” I told him, seduced by his deceptive charm.
As he left, I looked at Ben, “We can’t get out of it. We’re singing tonight.” Ben was moderately fear-struck but positive. He saw a guitar and decided using that would be a good way to mask our voices and make the congregation think we were cool in a Nirvana or Violent Femmes kind of way. Anyone behind a guitar is cool.
Then I turned to Jake, who thought he had simply come along for the ride. “You wanna sing a song with us tonight?”
“We need you, man.”
I don’t know how, but eventually I did convince him to join us, so we were moderately encouraged thinking that surely one of us would sing decently.
Well, that encouragement was very short-lived after the service started and we realized that, much like little David Tennies’ birthday party years ago, we once again found ourselves surrounded by amazing singers, men and women with voices that could shake mountains, strip forests bare, and cause deer to give birth (Psalm 29). That pastor was a liar. All the singers were here.
And then it came our turn. “I like to tell people,” I began from the microphone, “if you have a good voice, sing loud. And if you have a bad voice, sing even louder, ’cause all you’ve got is volume, so you might as well use it.”
We sang even louder. And I think we might have caused some deer to give birth too. Our singing sure sounded like it, at any rate.
Moral of the story is just go for it. We’ve had a ton of opportunities to face some fears here in Romania, step outside our comfort zones, do things we wouldn’t normally want to do. I don’t know if anyone was extremely blessed by our singing that night, but I don’t think we caused anyone to lose their salvation either.
A lot of folks think that Romanians are Gypsies. Maybe because the proper name for the ethnic group many call Gypsies is Roma. But, really, Roma are maybe 2 or so million of Romania’s 22 million inhabitants, and, unfortunately, they have a poor reputation among Romanians. Well, among Europeans in general. Nobody wants them and everybody hates them. Reminds me of that old Cher song…”they called us gypsies, tramps, and thieves.” There, now it’s in your head, too.
I started reading up on the Roma people, because I have been reading through The Rough Guide to Romania, and there is a section in there where the author recommends a day trip to a small commune called Clejani about 20 miles SW of Bucharest. Now, before you think hippies and free love, commune is the term used for the smallest governmental administrative unit in Romania. It is usually a collection of villages (which have no official government themselves) with a mayor in charge.
Clejani is known as the home of some of the best Gypsy musicians. A very well known band to have arisen from this town is called Taraf de Haidouks, which literally means “band of thieves.” Thieves in the Robin Hood sense. Jake and I saw this band perform in the movie, “Gypsy Caravan,” and they were amazing. YouTube Taraf de Haidouks. You’ll see what I mean. You might just start snapping your fingers and kicking up your feet along to the music.
But this great musical artform with a joyful sound has risen out of a town that looks straight out of a Third World nation. 20 miles from bustling, chaotic, modern Bucharest is this village of tiny, one room homes, run down and dirty. Now, I’m not saying this with an attitude of, “Let us Americans go help those poor Gypsies,” but just with a sadness that one group of people could be so hated and thought of as nothing more that second-class humans who happen to make good music by everyone else around them. The Romanian Roma have in recent years tried migrating to France and Spain, but, if you keep up with international news at all, you’ll remember that in 2010, France departed hundreds of them back to Romania. Nobody wants them.
They have no place to call home. But they’re people. They left India way back in somewhere between 800-1000 A.D., and ever since, they have been enslaved, reviled, mistreated, and neglected. But everyone loves their music. Yeah, they get hired to play for weddings and other events, but it stops there.
I want to visit Clejani while we’re in Romania. And I don’t want to just hear great music, leave a great tip, and leave, but I’d love to get to know the people. I’m sure there are some great stories to hear. One of my biggest prayers for Romania is to really, truly know the love of God. That love that breaks through barriers of ethnicity, economic status, and even long-held prejudices. I guess, really, that’s my prayer for every nation. Maybe I’m an idealist and have a romantic view of missions, or maybe I just believe in the power and love of God and the wonders of revival.