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.
If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest checking out Benjamin Skinner’s book A Crime So Monstrous – Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery. It’s an amazing work of journalism, brutal and intense in the reality of its subject. You can buy the book from Amazon or read a really good article about it here.
At one point in the book, Skinner describes underground brothels in Bucharest, where women are raped dozens of times every day. One pimp even offers to sell him one of his prostitutes, a girl with Down Syndrome, for the price of a used car. It’s sick and disturbing, but, honestly, when I read the book, what Skinner saw in Romania paled in comparison to the kind of slavery he saw in India, Africa, Haiti, and elsewhere, so it didn’t shock me like it should have.
One of the things that first got us interested in coming to Bucharest was to work against human trafficking. I saw myself as almost a Machine Gun Preacher type who’d come in and rescue all the trafficked women, lock up the pimps, and save Romania and the world from the evils of modern-day slavery. Now, as we’ve spent a year praying and asking God why He wants us here, I think I have a clearer picture that, ultimately, the thing that will end human trafficking is not one more awareness campaign or one more interdenominational nonprofit organization but the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When women get born-again, they won’t be duped into prostitution and sex slavery. When men get born-again, they won’t run underground brothels and massage parlors, and they won’t seek out their services. Educating people about human trafficking is a real necessity, but it will never end until the Gospel changes lives, it will only change shape and become some new form of evil.
The past few days, we’ve come face-to-face with some mild forms of modern-day slavery going on in Bucharest. If you can call any form of slavery mild. Slavery is slavery, however it’s packaged.
Pimps in Bucharest will keep men, women, and children as slaves, forcing them to hit the streets begging, washing car windows, or selling their bodies for sex. When the day is over, the slaves return to their pimps and give them what they earned that day. Pimps use violence, fear, manipulation, and threats to keep people under their control. The government has recommended nobody give anything to beggars or window-washers, because it all just goes into the hands of the pimps, not to the poor and orphaned that you think you’re helping. It’s a screwed up, messed up, perverted system, and it makes me sick to think people can be so cruel to other human beings.
The other day, we heard about an older woman who was raised in an orphanage here. There were so many girls and so little order that the whole place devolved into a Lord of the Flies kind of scenario – violence was common-place, alliances were made for protection, and gangs sprouted up in a bizarre ad hoc system of martial law. In the absence of Jesus, darkness is very dark.
Every time we’re in a car, people try to wash our windows, and we’re reminded again of the darkness of the human heart without God and the need for the transforming power of the Gospel.
Why am I sharing all this? Not to scare you or make you stay away from Romania, because Bucharest (and this entire nation) are really very safe and very beautiful. Bucharest has been called “The Little Paris” and “Europe’s Best-Kept Secret”. We love it here. The people are passionate and loving, the weather is amazing (so far), the food is fantastic, and it’s a little crazy at times but really fun.
Before coming here, we expected to find some evidence of human trafficking, but a lot of what we’d been reading and hearing from people was that the EU had helped Romania take care of things, so it was no longer an issue. I’m sure things are better than they were, but the reality is that there is still stuff going on that would make your stomach turn. Some friends we’ve met here, Ryan and Andrea Crozier, just came back from an anti-human-trafficking convention in Italy, where they met with a handful of street prostitutes, the overwhelming majority of whom came from Romania. You can read about it here. Were they trafficked illegally, or did they just choose a lifestyle of prostitution? I don’t know, but if 9 out of 10 prostitutes in Italy are Romanian, that’s a problem. Not that it wouldn’t be a problem if they were all Italian.
We’ve met some cool people here who are trying to end human trafficking. Some of them are raising awareness and gathering data, others are housing former trafficked women and helping them get back into regular life, others are speaking at schools and trying to bring all the different anti-human-trafficking organizations in Romania together… Andreea Gavrila, who gave us a ride to church at Missio Dei today, just got done speaking at a Christian school, where some of the girls came up to her afterwards sharing how they had friends who had been trafficked into prostitution. One of the plans she’s working on is to get a group of young Christian women to befriend the prostitutes, show them the love of Jesus, and help them escape that lifestyle.
Please pray for Andreea, Ryan and Andrea Crozier, and everyone else in Romania who is working to end human trafficking, prostitution, and all forms of slavery in this nation. Pray that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would go forth and do what it does best, bring transformation and change.
I’m tired tonight, so I promise that today’s post will indeed be short.
Short recap of the day: Filip and I dropped Susie off at the airport so she can visit our friends in Arad for a week, then we spent way too long trying to email forms to our insurance agent so we can get insurance here (it’s required before Romania will grant us residency). While driving around with Filip, we ran across a handful of people who were most likely modern-day slaves. It makes me sick that people can be so cruel. Pimps will force others to go out on the street begging, washing car windows, or prostituting themselves, then they’ll pocket the money for themselves and send their slaves out again tomorrow. Only the power of the Gospel can ever change the hardened heart of a pimp or heal the brokenness of a slave. I read this article today about a Romanian sex slave who recently found her freedom. People need the Gospel so bad…
To shift gears a little (OK, a lot), Jessie and I did some Romanian language practice for a couple hours, which was really good and much-needed. I wish we could just download the language into our brains and know it instantly…
We found out about a good tutor today, but she charges way too much – $15 / hour / person if you do at least 2 sessions a week. So that’s at least $60 / week, $240 / month, for only 2 hours every week with her, if we were to go with her. We’re looking and praying for better, cheaper options. We’ll go with her if we have to, but it just seems like a convenient way to take advantage of “rich” Americans coming to the city and in need of language training. I’m sure she’s a great person and a really good teacher, but at that rate, if she worked full-time with just my family, she’d make over $60,000 a year. Sorry, but that just seems ridiculous to me. Especially when a typical senior software engineer only makes $20,000 a year in this city (see here).
Enough grumbling. Just pray we’d find a good, affordable way to learn the language quickly here.
Tonight, Adiel and Simona Bunescu, the pastor of Missio Dei and his wife, had us over for dinner. They’re really awesome and have paid a heavy price to plant the church, in terms of criticism and controversy and lost friendships. We talked about revival in Romania, problems in the churches, Romanian history, how Communism affected the church, what was going on during the revolution of 1989, how to say Romanian words, theology, the Holy Spirit, evangelism, and way more stuff than I can bring up tonight. We ate castraveţi cu marar (cucumbers and dill), şniţel (schnitzel, fried chicken), porumb (corn), pilaf (a rice and vegetable dish), and clătite with gem (crepes with homemade jam). So good. Simona is an amazing cook, and we all enjoyed the time together very much. The meal was minunat (wonderful)!
I would like to say more, but I’m really tired and should get to bed. Adiel and Simona are amazing people and we’re really blessed to know them. They’re pioneering something new in Romania, paving the way for a future generation of Christians to live authentic lives before Jesus, without religiosity or empty tradition. Adiel has taken all his beliefs and laid them down before the Bible, only picking back up those that line up with the Scriptures. He’ll admit there’s still stuff he’s learning, but he’s ready to change if the Bible shows he’s wrong. I think that’s good. 🙂