Thursday, November 21, 2013

Cultivating Hearts of Hope

I wanted to save the best for last, but I didn’t realize it would take me almost a month to get it written. Just like everything else about this trip. GOD KNEW. He knew I would need some hindsight perspective to really appreciate my time in Romania.

In the village of Caramidari, Outstreched Hands has an amazing place called the Hope Center. This area is the most impoverished of the areas OH is working in. The children are often not cared for properly at home. The cycle of poverty and lack of education continues generation to generation.
I was fortunate to spend several of my days helping out here. The Hope Center provides kindergarten classes, a homework club, and weekly children ministry to the local children in addition to many other services for the families. In reality, they do so much more than can be outwardly measured. They instill dreams into hearts. They provide a foundation of encouragement and being believed in to stand tall on. It truly is a center where hope is cultivated.

On my first day in Romania, I was brought to the Hope Center. The kindergarten classes were in session and while I wanted to peek in and check them out, I was afraid of being a distraction. Instead, I was given a tour and learned that the Hope Center is constructed out of 45-foot shipping containers! I spent most of the rest of the day in the kitchen, trying to help where I could but also I admit hiding a bit as I didn’t quite know what to do. Around noon the older kids trickled in as the younger kids were being picked up. Lunch was served – fettuccini noodles with feta cheese. Occasionally, one of the kids would say something or ask me something (I couldn’t tell which). I used my best facial expressions and hand signals to communicate that I didn’t understand. One sweet girl came to the window and said something. I turned to get Amber and she said the girl likely wanted a hug. So I came out of the kitchen and she gave me a huge hug! She was my welcoming angel I think.

As I mentioned, I wasn’t quite sure what I should be doing so I was a bit hesitant to interact with the kids that first day. So I mostly observed, catching glances every now and then and offering smiles, especially to those little boys with long eyelashes. Melt my heart! Bringing out the camera also helps initiate interaction. Some of the kids were a little aggressive and unwilling to except no for an answer, so the camera was put away fairly quickly but the ice was broken. By the end of the day a few of the kids had already grabbed onto pieces of my heart.


The next time I visited the Hope Center, I was far less jet-lagged and ready to dive in. This time I would be sitting in on Carmen’s kindergarten class. The kids were like any other kids, guessing at answers, wanting the teachers approval, and full of so much energy. The lesson was all about autumn fruits. In some ways I felt like I was in the class too… learning Romanian words for fruits. (Grape sounds a lot like strudel, but with a g instead of a d.) I even got to do the craft project and have it hung on the wall with the rest!


In the afternoon, the older kids come in from school for homework club. They have lunch and a little time to play before settling down to get their work done. For Halloween the announcement was made that homework didn’t have to be worked on. After a half hour of play several of the kids asked if they could do homework!

Two of the girls were very behind in their 2nd grade class. I was asked to help them practice their letters and basic reading by matching some flash cards – letters to words that started with that letter. Because the words were written on the cards along with pictures I didn’t need to know Romanian. The girls took turns and in the process I learned a few more words. Once the deck was complete, another girl came over and began to quiz me on the words. I would attempt to sound out the word on the card and give my best guess. Then she would say the word right and I would repeat it. I (actually) really enjoyed it. I still remember a couple words too!

On the my last morning at the Hope Center I was asked to help give some of the older girls lice treatment. Sadly I learned that one of the girls was “less favored”. While her mom would praise her sister for her beauty and take time to do her hair, this girl was ignored. Lice and fleas are common issues with these kids. We began lathering up the first two girls, and surprisingly the other two girls wanted to make sure they wouldn’t miss out on the fun. I suppose to them it was like going to a salon.


Flori is absolutely adorable. She was one of the ones that wanted to do her homework on the day of no homework. She had a card with words printed on it (words like ma and mama), which she was to write in cursive. I sat with her to help if needed. She would first sound out the word and then as she spoke the word she would look up with those beautiful eyes for approval. When I nodded, she grinned. Then she would write it out. About halfway through she wrote a lower case M instead of an uppercase one. I tried pointing it out to her. Showing her the uppercase on the card and then the lowercase on her paper. She just kept telling me the name of the letter. So I asked Vali to explain to her that it needed to be an uppercase M. She still thought I just wanted the name of the letter. Finally, she looked up at me and back at the paper and said, “Oh!” Then proceeded to write a cursive uppercase A. Oops! She quickly corrected it to an M.

Georgetta was the bossy type who didn’t like no for an answer and quite independent. She was still a young girl wanting attention. I was more than glad to give her some, just not my camera to run around with. Georgetta’s greatest fascination with me had to do with the fillings in my teeth. These kids likely don’t even know how to brush their teeth. For two days she constantly asked me to open my mouth and gaze in with wonder and laughter, wanting to point it out to anyone else nearby. Finally, I asked Carmen to explain it to them. The response was a unified, “Oooh.”

The Hope Center was recently provided with an Xbox Kinect. On Wednesday afternoon all the kids were seated along the wall for a rousing game of bowling. The kids were all supportive of each other, cheering when their friends did well and sympathizing when they didn’t. It came to Carmen’s turn. The kids started to chant her name. From then on the cheer of name chants continued. I don’t care how old someone is, the sound of people genuinely rooting for you feels good. And even in a meaningless game of xbox bowling inspires you to try a little harder. I think I had my two best consecutive frames of bowling ever (you might think I’m exaggerating, but I once lost to a blind person).

I was glad to spend my last day in Romania at the Hope Center, to gather some last hugs and photos from my favorites. It was time to leave and some of my girls were still finishing up homework. I didn’t want to leave without saying goodbye, so I poked my head in the door. Vali told the girls I was heading back to the States. They all jumped up and bear hugged me, saying goodbye and they loved me, too.

Realistically, I will likely become just another face passing through to them. To me, they are treasured children. Children I hold in my heart, little reminders of God’s love for all of us.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Evicting Insecurity (weekend in Chisilet, Romania)

I had the unique opportunity to stay with a gracious family overnight in Chisilet. More than any other experience I've had in my travels, this exposed my insecurities. Yet, it became a treasured time on the trip as well. I want to say it was organic, but that sounds like it reduces it to less than it was. It was fellowship with new friends. Friends who don't "work for" a ministry, they just live lives of ministry.

My first visit to Chisilet was the day before my sleepover to help work on the church building. It was a beautiful day, sunny in the mid-70's. We ate pizza on the way out and then worked hard till dusk.

The following night, Saturday would typically be the church service, but due to a conference the service was moved to Sunday night. So Saturday night on their way home, the Constanin's picked me up to take me to their house for the night. (Amber was already out there as she had gone earlier in the day.)

On the way, Nicu asked me if I would be interested in speaking to the middle school kids in the morning. I had already been asked to do a bible lesson for the children's program. I said I would think about it. I wanted to make sure I had something to say. Insecurity rising.

I had determined to try and say yes to anything I was asked to do and not miss out on an opportunity. On my own, I didn't quite know how to fit in as a temporary piece, wondering if I really had anything to offer. It felt like my brain stopped working. Over and over again, sometimes by the hour, I had to talk myself into trusting God had a plan and would use me somehow. During the evening and morning, I had many hours on my own to remind me of how short I was falling from my own expectations of myself and what I percieved as the expectations of the others.

In the morning, we went to the market for breakfast and lunch supplies. Everyone bustled about getting things done. I wasn't sure what to do. I sat, I wandered a little, and I wrote. For breakfast we had chicken - fresh chicken - cooked on the grill out back. With the meat we had corn meal, roasted tomatos with garlic, bread and a sausage that is traditional to romania called misi (meech).

I had let Nicu know the night before that I would talk to the middle schoolers. What I felt led to share would only take about 5-10 minutes and then I would scoot out. The children and youth program are all held in the front room of the Constinin's house. After I was introduced I spoke to them about my own search for love and feelings of unworthiness. I shared about the oil being poured on Jesus feet and his unconditional love toward her. I told them about Peter messing up and then God showing him that love makes room for our failures. More than that, love is about caring for others and when we give love we recieve love. It was a tough crowd. After I left I felt like I hadn't done a very good job. Several hours later during dinner, Nicu told me that what I shared was good and went right along with what he was talking to the kids about. Again, God knew. When would I stop doubting?

As the time for children's program drew near, we split up into groups and went to pick up the children from their homes. Many of the children we went to get didn't want to come, they wanted to go into the fields with their parents.

 Depsite our low numbers, back at the house there were 47 gathered to learn about God.

I had chosen to tell them the story of Samuel as a boy. I believe that children often can hear from God much easier than we adults can. I want these kids to know that they are important to God and He can use them right now. I tried to keep the lesson simple to translate. I didn't know what stories they already knew or how detailed they usually go with the lessons. I ended up a little too short and needed to be longer, so the translator had to fill in some of the time and asked them many questions about the story. As someone told me later, each failure a learning experience to make the next opportunity better. And I had a few hours to improve.

Just before 7pm, the church was filling up. I really enjoyed the singing. There is something about worship and prayer that makes language barriers obsolete. The singing ended in a time of prayer ministry, where I was blessed to be able to pray over a couple people and take some of my insecurity demons to my Father.

Then it was time for me to take the kids for children's church. Aurel called me to the front so I could be introduced. I wasn't sure what to say so I thanked them for their hospitality. I said I was enjoying their country and would take good care of the kids. Somewhere in the next few moments , I realized that Amber wasn't coming with me this time. I couldn't rely on her. I was on my own this time. Then, I felt peace. This was going to be fun.

I knew the story I wanted to tell and how to tie it into the craft. I, my teenage helper and translator, and 25 or so kids crammed into a room with a table in it. Nowhere near enough room for everyone to be at the table for the craft, but I knew we would still find a way to make it work. I started with the story of David and Jonathon, best friends. I talked about how good friendships make our lives better and stronger - like a strong tree. Then I explained the craft, the same one I had the kids in Roseti do the day before. The kids really enjoyed it. Some of the older ones got quite creative with the process and some of the younger ones had more glue on the paper than anything else. We finished up the craft, creating a nice mess to clean with only a few minutes left until the service ended. It had worked out in chaotic perfection.

I did have one casulty. A very young boy decided to sit in the corner and cry. He wouldn't tell anyone what was wrong, so an older girl took him out to his dad. One of the older boys decided my nickname would be "chicken lady." In the end, I got him to change it to "lady fox." I found out later he likes calling people by animal names. Then there was sweet Mari.

The precious girl trying to help me understand some of the other kids but speaking the words to me in very slow Romanian. I still didn't understand because I don't know Romanian. Finally she figured out she could just draw it. Then I got it! She gave the sweetest hugs.
Back in the sanctuary, one of the boys came up to me and gave me his craft to take. Shortly after, Mari appeared for more hugs and also gave me her friendship tree. Both of them now are proudly hanging up at my desk. Not only as a testimony to the simple love of a child, but also as a reminder of what can happen when insecurity is given its eviction notice. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Daily Life & Miscellaneous Moments

Even though I spent time in a couple villages over the week, I stayed in Carmen & Amber’s apartment with them in Calarasi (pronounced like cal-a-Rosh). The outside of the building and area may look a bit run down but the apartment was quite nice. The buildings surrounded a courtyard park where people sat on benches and the children ran around playing.

Carmen teaches one of the kindergarten classes at the Hope Center and tutors as well. She is Romanian, but speaks English as well. I learned quite a bit about her journey to working with OH and passion for teaching. She was a wealth of information for me as I asked questions about the ministry and the country. She graciously listened to me when I was tired and rambling on about nothing in particular. There was a simplicity and confidence about her that made me feel like I belonged there, even though we were strangers.

Amber was my coordinator-translator-driver for the week. On our way to Calarasi from the airport, I rambled on and on as she asked questions and I added whatever else popped into my head (I’m blaming it on being tired). Might not have been the best first impression. From what I got to know about Amber through the week is that she is sold out to Jesus. God had designed her for the role she was in and as she matures, He’ll continue to do more through her. This 21 year old is special, but there is a part of her she keeps protected. I’m praying that it will (insert the American ‘actually’ here, right Amber?) become a source of strength to continue climbing even higher.

Being there on my own didn’t give me anyone else to hide behind. While it was freeing on one hand it also brought out a lot of my insecurities. I had no control over anything, except my words and actions. Looking back, I think I talked too much and did too little, but perhaps I’m being a bit harsh on myself. Some moments I felt at ease as if I had always been there. Other times I still felt invisible and as if I were just another stranger passing through. I’m still processing and getting glimpses of God’s purpose from the experience.    

Onto a few randomly memorable moments...

Why Is Traffic Stopped?

For the elephants to cross the road, of course! 

We were stopped and traffic and trying to figure out why when we saw them. The circus was in town and 2 elephants were being led into the fairgrounds. Who knew I didn’t need to go to Africa to see elephants. I only needed to go to Romania!

Knock Knock

One my biggest challenges in Romania, sadly was opening and closing doors. I had my own set of keys to the apartment I was staying at. The first time I had to use them, I could not get the door unlocked. There were 2 locks on the door. When we’d left earlier the top lock was turned twice. So I turned the lock twice, but it was still locked. I tried again. I tried the bottom lock. I felt stupid – surely opening a door couldn’t be this hard. I was just about to call Amber and ask her the secret when she showed up and came to my rescue. I still felt stupid. Later I was clued into the secret but never had the chance to redeem myself.

My second door issue was in Chisilet (pronounces Kee-si-let). I could not get the front door of the house I was staying at to stay closed. I tried pulling and pushing while turning the handle. I tried doing it softly and being more aggressive. Finally, the last time I walked out of the house I whined in frustration, “I can’t ever get this door to stay shut!” Amber replied, “Just push the handle up.” Convinced I’d already tried that I wasn’t hopeful when I did it one more time. Yeah…. Of course that time it worked.

It was a long shot, but there was a geocache listed in Calarasi. After explaining it, Carmen offered to take me to look for it on her day off. We parked and set off only to discover we weren’t very close to the cache at all. Off walking we went. It was neat to walk through what had formerly been the downtown hub, now mostly desolate.

Eventually we ended up in a park and found the area where the cache was to be hiding. As soon as we started looking around a large tree a security guard approached and asked what we were doing. (I assume that what’s he said). Carmen explained geocaching to him as we moved on to another nearby tree. This one had a large rotted out hole near the base of the trunk. A perfect spot for a cache, but I was hesitant to reach my hand in there without seeing what was in there. The security guard had become part of the search party as he turned on his flashlight app and shined it down into the hole for me.

Unfortunately, the only thing I pulled out was a live snail.

Carmen was disappointed that it wasn’t there as was I, but the adventure was still worth it.

While there, we had one day without water from midnight till about 7pm. Elephants and now no water… it was starting to feel like being Africa. I was told the shut down (of the whole city of 50,000+) is a fairly common occurrence. We were prepared, so despite some minor inconveniences going one day without water wasn’t too bad. But it did serve as a reminder to not take things, even clean running water for granted.

The Dogs are Anti-American

Amber and I drove out to Chisilet for the prayer meeting. I was excited to go out to people’s homes and pray with them. As the cultural custom, we removed our shoes prior to entering the home of a young couple. After a few minutes of sharing with them and finding out what needs we could pray for, we gathered around to pray and then took our leave.

Amber and I looked outside the door where we had left our shoes but they weren’t there. The shoes were quickly recovered in the yard as the dogs had taken them. They joked about the dogs only taking the American’s shoes. We all laughed.


Vali didn’t know the word in English, so he went and brought out the squash. He wanted to carve the squash. He cleaned it out and carved the face. I went in and finessed it. A bit harder to clean out than a pumpkin, but a lot less goop.

Halloween isn't really celebrated there the way we do here. Most of it seems to be due to Western influence. Some of the kids dressed up for school and had parties there. Mostly for them it seemed a regular day.