Tuesday, April 23, 2013

It's when you're sitting in the back of an uninsured car filled with gypsies blasting Roma praise music.  It's the specific moment when the Roma pastor next to you recommends that you pray that we don't get pulled over.  It's at this moment that you begin to question every life decision you've ever made.

And I can imagine my conversation with the police, as I would desperately try to use my broken Ukrainian to explain that I come from a good family, I translate Shevchenko, and I'm just a little bit lost at the moment.  I had planned a rather conventional trip to visit my District Superintendent and then to cross into Slovakia to spend a few days with a mission team.  Pastor Volodya recommended that we get out of the train early and take a bus the rest of the way.  It would save time he promised.  Three hours and thirty dollars outside of my plans, we finally arrived at the District Superintendent's house.  I was exhausted and almost in tears.  

I don't understand Roma culture.  I don't know when I'm doing something wrong.  I'm so at home in Ukrainian culture - it fits like my own skin and I wear it well.  I'm so out of place in a gypsy home.  Nothing fits for me there.  I feel like I'm back in India again, I feel like a spectator.  I feel more like I'm walking around a zoo than enjoying a forest.

After another difficult day of travel I made it safely to Slovakia.  I'm having a great time, but I am apprehensive about these upcoming days.  I feel like visiting gypsy camps in the company of five other Americans will only intensify my feelings.

I read this article recently about Ministry with the Roma.  It made me nervous.  I feel like anytime we build a building far outside of what the worshipping community could afford that we are not being in ministry WITH those people.  I am nervous about the building plans we have in Lviv for the same reason.  Please continue to pray about both situations.

On the train, a gypsy came in and played a broken fiddle - each note less comforting than the last - and then walked the path expecting our change.  When he saw the gypsy man in a suit sitting in first class, he stopped and began yelling at him in Romani demanding money.  Pastor Volodya was clearly embarrased but, he didn't have any money to give.  He didn't make eye contact.  He looked strait ahead until the man left.  He looked at me, and said, "I don't know how some people live like that."

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pastor Volodimir preaches from under the arch that separates his kitchen from the living room.  It serves as an altar of sorts, and his sermon feels a bit like a Martha Stewart cooking show as he reaches into drawers to pull out objects to help make his point.  The kitchen cupboards are lined with stuffed animals, animated faces peering out over the congregation like a spirit-filled choir - they fill the cupboards that should be filled with food.

Volodya's sermon is a string of Bible stories with few notes of explanation.  He tells one Bible story after another and strings them together.  At the morning service we hear about Jesus and at the evening service we hear from the Old Testament, literally just telling the stories.  If I preached in this way in the states, I would be fired in a heartbeat - but the congregation leans in to hear every precious word.  Only 10% of the adults in his village can read.  This is the only time they will interat with these stories.  That afternoon, his daughter proudly stated that she could read, and opened the Bible to pick out the three or four letters that she knew.  At eight, she is in her first year of school - and well ahead of the curve in scholastic feats.

I sat with the "gadjy" teacher the day before, and asked if it was hard for a non-gypsy to teach in a Roma village.  She replied, "That's a hard question."  Which is probably the right answer.

I never think about the color of my skin.  My family doesn't celebrate any ethnic heritage - although we do blame our stubborn streak on different ancestral lines depending upon the season.  The children would push one another toward me and scream "o gadjo." "He is a  not-gypsy."  I routinely have interactions in Ukraine, where the person I am speaking to doesn't figure out that I'm a foreigner until part way through the conversation.  Oh, my accent is painfully strong - but a lot of people here talk funny in their own way.  It's only when I mix up some gender or case that it become obvious that I am an outsider.  In Seredne, I am absolutely an outsider.

The "gypsy camp" was founded almost 70 years ago by some counts.  Some families can count six generations who have lived there, but generations move quickly.  Every time I meet some young man with a child or two crowding around his knees, I can't help but ask him how old he is, and try to remember what I was doing with my life at his age.  The oldest single person I met was nine.  I didn't ask the age of any 10, 11, or 12 or 13 year olds.  The youngest married person I met was 14.  I asked one man how many grandchildren he had and he answered 56.  Thank God I was able to figure out that he hadn't heard me and gave me his age.  He only has 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.  We were at a party and there was a lot of noise.  Pastor Volodya had promised that there would be 10 people.  With more than sixty people bursting the seems of the two room house, I counted the adult men - all 10 of us.  10 people.  

Volodya had explained that their congregation had to make many difficult decisions.  He couldn't preach over the noise of the children.  Only half of the adults could come to worship, and the other half had to stay home with the children.  They are praying for the money to build a new church so that they aren't meeting in the pastor's home - they need around $1,000 total.  Total.

Of the hundred or so buildings in the village, only six have finished plaster exteriors.  Two are churches, two belong to the Baron of the region, and two are pastors' homes.  And I can't escape the reality, that I spent a lot of time in the village thinking about how I, or a team of my friends, could make things better.  We could build a church, we could put plaster on the church and make it look beautiful.  We could teach these kids to read.  The reality is that outsiders made the decisions to plaster the churches and pastors' homes.  This might be why they are full of children, but few adults attend.  The government made all the decisions about what the school should look like, and that's a big part of the reason why education doesn't get the respect it needs.

Everyone in the village invited me inside for tea.  The women would prepare a meal - bringing water from the only well in the village, killing and cleaning the chicken, slow roasting it over the firewood they chopped themselves, etc -  and then watch as the men, or sometimes only I, would eat.  I don't think I've ever felt more uncomfortable than when eating in front of an audience!

When pastor Volodya told me that he was the only one in his family who could read, I really couldn't understand.  I remembered the feeling of helplesness that consumed me for the first few weeks in Korea before I learned to read Korean.  I just stared at him, because I couldn't process the idea of not being able to read and being fine with that.  I couldn't get it.  I couldn't understand.

On the way to the train station, Volodya and I apologized to one another for the ways we had offended the other.  I don't know how many times I did something offensive, but I'm sure there were plenty. We laughed and talked some more.  At the train station, I push started his car and watched him drive away - drive back to his wonderful life without the distractions of the internet and stress of the 9-5.  I couldn't help but be a little bit jealous.    

Sunday, April 7, 2013

I have this memory as old as my first car, lost and rusting away somewhere. We sat in the front yard of the dilapidated house, our clothes, hands, and hair stained white by days of paint. We ate squished sandwiches, bruised apples, and patently American snacks brought with us for the journey. We had to drive the thirty miles to the closest place to buy paint for the trim, and we were trying to decide what color to buy.

 I remember the whole conversation- each person on our team voicing a different idea about what color the shutters and door should be. My mother had chosen brown shutters for her white house, so it seemed a natural choice. In the end our group decided to buy black paint.

It was my first mission trip, and I had let the leaders in on the secret that I wanted to grow up to be a missionary, so they gave me lots of extra responsibility. The old woman who owned the house baked an apple pie, and I along with our team leaders where the only ones invited to join her for it. We talked about faith and about the Methodist church.

She reminded me of Issy our next door neighbor who put coffee in my baby bottle. I wanted to plant a flower garden to surprise her, but mom insisted that surprises are the leading cause of death among the aged and made me ask permission first. She didn't want a flower garden. Years later when she was in the home, she wanted to buy a school-fundraiser candy bar from me for us to share - but it didn't seem fair to take money from someone in a home so I paid for it and let her eat half.

I rode in the old green van with the leaders to buy the black paint. We got a bit lost, and stopped to ask directions of some teenagers in a truck. As they rolled down their windows, smoke billowed out and later I learned from our leaders what the word "hotboxing" meant.

We brought back the black paint, and I was put in charge of leading the trim work. It was a big responsibility for a teenager - and the house looked stunning when we were done.

On our team's last day, the old woman's daughter came by. She knew my mom and invited me inside. I was sitting on the brown-knit sofa (the same style that my great-grandmother had given to my family when she went into the home) when I overheard the daughter-mother conversation.

 "Why did you have them paint the shutters black, mom?"
"Oh, I didn't know they painted them black."
"Why didn't you have them paint the shutters green like they always have been?"
"Oh ... They're not green anymore?"

 At the end of the day, we led the woman out into her yard so she could see the good work we had done. The house looked much better, and she was clearly thankful - but I could see her eyes scanning each shutter, squinting to see if the color was really different than before.

I don't know why we didn't ask her what color to paint the trim. It never crossed our minds.

Years later, when I had made the paper for something, I received a card from the older woman. Although she lived more than two hours away, she still subscribed to The Kane Republican to read about her daughter and grandchildren when they made the paper. She thanked me for doing such a great job, and let me know that she had joined the United Methodist church in her small town, and wrote that it had been fun reading about all of my accomplishments in the paper over the years.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Eight months ago, someone stole the keyboard from our church.  We knew who the individual was, and he claimed that it had been his keyboard all along because he had been the musician at one point. 

The pastors of our church and I prayed, fasted, and negotiated for the return of the keyboard.  We fasted for three or four days at a time while praying to get the keyboard back.  On more than one occasion, I felt like giving up and buying a much cheaper replacement keyboard.  The one that had been stolen cost somewhere between $500 and $1000 new. 

Over and over we went back to God in prayer for wisdom in how to deal with this situation.  Although all three of us were frustrated beyone belief, I am proud to say that none of us ever lost our temper and screamed.  We never cursed or did anything unloving. 

Last Thursday, the teenager from our student ministry who plays piano played along with the worship band on the keyboard.  God returned it to our ministry safely.  The person who stole it came back, apologized, and said that he felt awful for what he did.

We don't celebrate these little miracles enough.  This was a huge act of God, and we need to celebrate it. 

Would you do something special to celebrate this small miracle with us?  Eat an extra piece of cake, spend a bit of time in prayer of thanksgiving, tell a friend about what God is doing here and in your own life.