Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Racism and Roma

     About a year ago I saw a sight I will never forget.  I had been living in Bucharest for about 2 months and was still adjusting to life here.  I was growing more accustomed to seeing beggars scattered throughout the city in high traffic areas.  Many times beggars will do their best to make eye contact with you and then pour out their pleas with vigor.  Other times beggars will do whatever they can to appeal to your humanity to help them.  
     This particular morning I saw a women begging in my neighborhood with a young boy about 2 years old asleep on her lap.  This scene touched my heart very deeply because I had a son almost two years old and another son about 5 months old at the time.  I was heart broken for this mother and her child.  
Hours later that day I returned home to see the same scene.  A two year old boy sleeping on her lap, yet now I saw it differently.  I knew how much energy my 2 year old son had.  I knew there is no way he could just lay on someones lap for hours without moving.  A thought came into my mind, “That is not normal.  Kids don’t do that.”
     A month later I started seeing another women with her son who was about 8 years old sitting at the metro entrance near the center of town.  I would see her several mornings a week as I was going to study Romanian with my language helper.  I would occasionally buy them some food or water.  Seeing them week after week wore on me.  Why is this mother not taking her kid to school?  What type of mother would have her kid just sit there all day?  One day I was so shaken up by it I starting talking to my team member about the situation.  He said, “Yeah, it is difficult to see.  In the past they would drug kids to get them to stay still all day.”  Then I remembered the lifeless 2 year old boy I saw in my neighborhood months before.  He continued, “Sometimes human traffickers steal kids away from their parents and partner them up with someone else who isn’t their parent.  That way the trafficker gets leverage over the parents to do to what they say and they get more sympathy for the beggars because people feel sympathy for children.”  
     “That is terrible.  That is disgusting.  Who could do that?  What type of human being could do that to another human being?  To a child none-the-less!”  These were the thoughts that began to go through my mind.  My heart began to feel disdain for these beggars.
     About that time I heard a story from a school here in Romania.  I was talking a staff member about the school and the difficulties it faces.  He told me that last year the school had two twins about 8 years old.  Part way through the year one of the children just stopped showing up.  After a couple weeks the staff contacted the parents to see why the second child was no longer coming.  “We need someone to go out and beg for us to feed our family.  He is the cuter of the two so we choose him to go beg.  Why does it matter to you?  We are at least allowing you to teach one of our kids!”
   Once again I had a though, “What type of human would do that?”  These emotions began to be stirred up every time I walked by a beggar on the street.  Besides that, I began to notice that most, if not all, of them were Roma.  I began to hear more and more stories about atrocities like parents purposely maiming their own children to be more effective in begging.  So, I began to make a conscious effort to avoid eye contact with beggars.  I began to completely ignore them.  
     What I did not realize was what was going on in my heart.  I had continually asked myself “what type of person could do that?”, yet my implied answer was, “None.”  To explain that thought a little, I was basically looking at their actions and saying, “You are not valuing human life or living with a sense of human decency.  Thus, I am not going to treat you with decency either.”  In doing this I was making a decision to treat a human being created in the image of God as less than a human being bearing God’s image which is ironically what I hated about them.
     However, as I had thoughts of disdain and hate towards different people I began to feel conviction.  “They are the ones who are doing all these things.  If I help them in any way then I am encouraging the way they are acting,” I started to tell myself.  So what was happening?  I was feeling the Spirit of God tell me that I was not treating them as I should but I justified it by saying, “But they did ____!”  I had hardened my heart towards a massive group of people, but it didn’t stop at beggars.
     When I first arrived in Romania I was amazed at how racist many Romanians are towards the Roma people.  One instance stands out at one of the first small group Bible studies I visited.  I told a young man that I was going to work with Roma and he replied, “Really?  Do you like Roma?”  He then followed the questions with, “Do you actually know any Roma?  They kind of steal stuff all the time.”  Another instance was a language professor I had that taught me a phrase in Romanian that meant “I won’t tolerate that.  I won’t put up with that.”  Her example phrase she taught me was, “The dogs don’t tolerate the Roma.”  Caught off guard I said, “Excuse me?”  She seemed surprised that I might have challenged her statement and said, “It is the truth.  The Roma put off a stench that even the dogs can smell.  Whenever a Roma walks by a dog they start barking at him or her because they are so put off by the stench.  It is the truth!”  Then there was the time that I met with a Romanian Christian working with Roma who told me that the Roma should never be a pastor in a church because they could never have enough character to do it well.  When challenged, I once again heard, “Mark, it is just the truth.”  
     “How can someone be so racist?” I asked myself.  My answer was revealed to me through the stories about the beggars.  I saw human beings do terrible things I began to have thoughts about these human beings that did not honor God and were not based in love.  It began with me feeling the normal emotions, but then as I processed those emotions my heart was filled with disdain and eventually hate.  “BUT, it’s just the way they are acting” I told myself.  What I was saying was, “It is their fault that I am allowing hate and disdain to settle in my heart.”  I was justifying my own sin for treating them with prejudice by blaming it on what I saw them doing.  
     It happened quickly, and I didn’t even know I was doing it.  Less than a year after arriving in Romania to work with Roma I was already harboring a racist and sinful heart towards the people I was here to love and serve.  
     Now imagine those who have grown up here and have so many more stories and experiences than I had.  Think about how many negative thoughts one might have had and how many times that person could justify those thoughts by blaming the people they see doing atrocities.  The heart of racism is, “It is their own fault that I am treating them like this.”
    This month I was shown my sinful and unloving heart.  It can happen to all of us so easily and in ways we don’t know it is happening.  Most of the time we don’t consciously think about what is happening inside us on a heart level; we just act based on our emotions.  Let us never forget to continue striving to search out the depths of our hearts and conform it to the love of Christ.

Jeremiah 17:9-10
“The heart is more deceitful than all else
            And is desperately sick;
            Who can understand it?
   I, the LORD, search the heart,
            I test the mind,
            Even to give to each man according to his ways,
            According to the results of his deeds."

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A Taste of "Culture Shock"

our bloc apartment building

Today I find myself struggling to find the encouragement to study Romanian and to pursue relationships with those whom God has called me to work.  I speak a different language, grew up in a different culture, and have lived a far different life from Romanians and Roma.  Although I have been critical of American culture in the past, I now see very clearly how much I am an American and how much I miss my own culture.  It is difficult to struggle to find words in conversation, but more difficult for me is not understanding others.  Lots of people talk so fast that their words blend together making it extremely difficult for me to understand.  After two or three times of asking someone to repeat themselves it becomes embarrassing to ask again.  When a lack of communication takes place it is hard to feel truly connected to people. 

I have never been an amazing speaker by any means, but until I starting trying to preach in Romanian I had never had people in a church snickering at me because of language mistakes.  The more time I spend with Roma and Romanians the more different I realize I am.  The interesting thing is the harder I try to become more fluent in the language and spend time with nationals the more different I feel.  As I become more fluent in the language I get put in more difficult language situations that stretch me.  As I pursue more friendships I get put into more completely foreign situations to me. 

Trying to learn a new culture and integrate into it, to use an illustration from the move Shrek, is like an onion.  There are layers after layers of discomfort.  You get through one layer only to find that you are experiencing the shock of the culture on a deeper level now. 

There is great excitement and joy in being a missionary.  Living in a different country, learning a new language and eating different food are all exciting.  Yet all of them wear on you after a while.  Once the excitement wears off all the fun things become uncomfortable things.  Because of language and culture barriers it becomes easy to never really feel connected in relationships with nationals.  It is like there is an invisible wall between you and them that keeps you from truly understanding each other.  Many a experienced missionary told me before I moved here to guard my heart to not become embittered against nationals.  The path from seeing their culture as different to BAD can be subtle but quick.  I am grateful for this advice because I fear without it I would have gone own that path already.

So this is where I find myself today.  Feeling different.  Feeling uncomfortably stretched.  Missing the comfort of America.  Missing friends.  Missing home.  But, praise God that we have a better home waiting for us with the Lord and we can be confident that our obedience to Him will not be for vain.

Hebrews 13:14
For this world is not our permanent home; 
we are looking forward to a home yet to come.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Land as Dark as Darkness Itself

Job 10:22
A land as dark as darkness itself, as the shadow of death, without any order, where even the light is like darkness.

     Most of us will never experience suffering in our lifetime that is even close to the level of Job.  He lost his kids and all he owned.  His body was tormented with boils and sores.  At one point in despair he cries out, “Why is light given to him who is in misery, and life to the bitter of soul?  Who long for death, but it does not come, and search for it more than hidden treasures; who rejoice exceedingly, and are glad when they can find the grave? (Job 2:21-22).  
     Just two weeks ago a Swedish newspaper published an article about a neighborhood in Bucharest.  The title of the article is “Livezilor, Bucharest—A Place for the Living Dead.”  It highlights the intense darkness of this community and how many feel, just like Job in his suffering, that death is an improvement.  One lady in the article had already bought her coffin which now sits in her living room.  If you click the link, you can watch a short video of the journalist walk down Livezilor Street showing the piles of trash, the dirty syringes used to inject cocaine, and hear the stories of how parents send their kids out in the piles of trash to retrieve the needles.  It is an existence many of us have heard about, but never experienced or seen.
     To my knowledge, the street “Strada Livezilor” is the most notorious drug, crime, and prostitution ridden street in Bucharest.  The irony of that is the translation of “Strada Livezilor” is “the street of the orchards”.  It is hard to picture apple orchards growing in this community, but that is what the Gospel does.  It brings life to dead bones just like the prophet Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 37:1-14).  That is what we want to see God do in this neighborhood.
     A perfect example of how we want you to pray for this neighborhood is found in this poem by a man I met at my mission’s divisional conference this summer, Eric Proebsting.  Our seaside hotel was battered one night with a terrible storm.  The massive concrete barriers which were placed to keep the sea back were tossed about as if a piece of wood in a wave.    He portrayed this well in the poem.

There is a storm in the distance
Power in the sky—
Lightning in the clouds

A Blood Red Moon sits—
Over the lighthouse that shines on the other shore

As the warm winds blow—
Ripe for Rain—
Waves break between
Rock and concrete
       Down along the shore

Again and again—
They chip away along the sea—
Rising and falling with the tides

Change is happening slowly—
Wave upon wave
Year upon year
Pushed by the currents and atmosphere

But with the storm comes power,
In the wind is strength,
     Flashing in the distance-
      Change can come swift

Pushing barriers aside;
Pouring water in places
              it won’t usually go.

Carving a new face along the margins.

Thunder booms—
Lightnings Flash

Rain –- comes -- down,
Strong and swift in the night;
Bringing a new sky and
Shape to the land.

When the morning comes;

The mist is cast aside.

Heavy air becomes light—

Showing now Mountains in the distance,

standing firm, against a clear blue sky;

Reaching up high-----

       Toward heaven.

“Strength in the Storm”

Eric Proebsting

The picture I want you to think about from this poem is this:

But with the storm comes power,
In the wind is strength,
     Flashing in the distance-
      Change can come swift

Pushing barriers aside;
Pouring water in places
              it won’t usually go.

     With the Gospel come power and strength.  Change can come swiftly and push aside the barriers keeping people from believing in Christ.  Once the barriers are removed, the Gospel can pour into new places.  This is how we want you to pray for Livezilor Street and the Ferentari neighborhood.  That God would unite His Body to pray that the barriers preventing the Gospel from pouring into this community would be pushed aside.  That His Word, His Gospel, and His Son Jesus Christ would pour into the street “for the living dead” and turn it into an orchard growing the fruit of righteousness.  We want to see God bring a new shape and a new identity and a new future to this community.

In Isaiah 62:6-7 the Lord says, 
"I have posted watchmen on your walls, 
Jerusalem; they will never be silent day or night.
You who call on the LORD, 
give yourselves no rest,
and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem
    and makes her the praise of the earth."

In the same way we want you to join us as watchmen on the walls of Bucharest.  Watchmen who will pray continually that God would unite the Body of Christ in this city to seek His will and that the Gospel would penetrate new areas spreading God's kingdom and bringing God glory.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A difference between the Romanian and American Cultures

     First of all, as always not everyone in a country will completely act in line with the culture.  So please don't read this as "all Romanians" or "all Americans" when comments are made about the culture.  That being said, this is something I have learned recently about a difference between 
the American and Romanian culture.

     I recently had a great opportunity to get a great cultural insight into the Romania culture.  It came while I was studying the Bible with one of my Romanian friends.  We were studying Philippians chapter two verses 1-5.  When we came to verse three I noticed a difference in our translations.  In English the verse starts with, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit”.  In Romanian the verse says, “Don’t do anything from the spirit of argument or vain glory.”  
     I then asked my friend to clarify the verse because in my mind “selfish ambition” and “the spirit of argument” are not the same thing.  He explained that people are connected in community.  The example he gave was a husband and wife.  If a husband does something for himself then his wife will feel unloved.  For example if the husband has a hobby that does not include his wife then his wife will feel unloved.  Under communism people did not have hobbies or a “personal life”.  People were connected in community, and one person couldn’t do something independent of the community without affecting the community.  As in every culture this isn’t true for all Romanians, but it is a big part.  We witnesses this at the part all the time.  It is just expected that every kid can play with all the other kids toys, and if a mom has food for her kid she will offer it to the other kids there too.
     Some other examples my friend gave are if his kids where hanging out with other kids, he would not give his kid any food or a piece of candy in front of the others unless he had enough for all of them.  If we were riding in a car and someone wanted to chew gum he would need enough to offer everyone in the car some.  If someone wanted to eat a banana while traveling, he would only eat his banana if he had enough to offer everyone in the car one.  If he were to eat his own banana in front of everyone else without offering them some it would be considered the “spirit of argument”.
     This was foreign to me as an American with our notion of a “person life” and the idea that I can do something for myself that may or may not affect someone else.  Our American culture values personal space and personal things.  Community is much more limited to who we choose to be in our “circle”.  But here, our neighbors at the park are in our circle by default.  

Please continue to pray for us as we learn the Romanian language and culture.  We have a long way to go!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Quick Update

Two weeks ago I had the privilege to sit in on some Roma pastor and church leader training.  It was a great opportunity to practice language, meet Roma church leaders and to hear Biblical teaching in Romanian.  Many of the church leaders did not speak English which was a great immersion experience for me.  The most important take away from the week was the relationships I built and the connections with various Roma and Romanian churches that God is beginning to form. 

So what is the next step?  Right now I am trying to reconnect with some of the church leaders who live nearby and get to know them better.  I have a lot to learn about culture here and a long way to go before I am fluent in Romanian.  Also, many of the Roma speak Romanian and their own language (Romani).  This possess the question of when I should start learning some Romani.  This week I will  be traveling by bus to a city a little over an hour away to meet with a church planter.  The plan is to spend the day getting to know him more and praying with him to see what are the ways we can partner with Him.

To give an update on Jamie, she is currently in-between language instructors.  One of her teachers had a baby and cannot teach for a while, and she needed to stop going to her other instructor.

Please be praying for us to having wisdom in:
  • Finding a new teacher for Jamie
  • Finding a babysitter to help out with the boys during the week
  • For wisdom to know who to invest time with and how to proceed with language learning.