Romania Reborn President Jayme Metzgar traveled to Romania this August along with two of her daughters, to help our Romanian staff put on a day camp for our children. Jayme shares the following thoughts from that week.
It's Monday evening, the end of our first day in Oradea. We'd finished our first day of camp around 4:00 and spent the next few hours resting near open windows, waiting for the fierce heat of the day to subside. Around 7:00 we finally drive down into the city, intent on getting some supper and a tour of the renovated city center. Our Romanian ministry director, Corina Caba, is eager to show us how local government and the EU have teamed up to breathe new life into Oradea's Habsburg-era winter palaces.
We're sitting at supper in an (air-conditioned!) American-style sandwich place when we get our first interruption of the evening. A young man in his 20s with restless eyes and jerky movements comes in off the street and approaches Corina. She greets him like an old friend: "Did you lose my number? I haven't heard from you in a while." Discussion ensues about whether he wants or needs a sandwich. He thinks that's too expensive but will take some groceries if she doesn't mind. Corina tells him to wait until she's finished supper with her friends. He goes outside to wait but begins talking to himself, his arms gesticulating wildly.
"You see that? He's agitated because he has to wait," she observes to us. "Well, I hope he doesn't disturb someone."
"Did he grow up in the Casa de Copii?" I ask, referring to Romania's infamous Communist orphanages.
"How did you know?"
"Just a guess. He has the look."
"Yes. He shouldn't have been this way, but see what the institution did to him. Do you mind if I go ahead and buy him something? I'll be right back."
Of course we don't mind. Corina returns 15 minutes later, and we head out the door to walk through the darkening streets of her hometown. Her pride in its restoration is obvious, as she tells us the history of each building and landmark.
But we would be interrupted at least three more times that evening by people whose lives seem rather beyond restoration this side of heaven. As we walk through the streets with Corina, beggars and prostitutes approach her with the familiarity of long-time acquaintances, which of course is exactly what they are.
The most memorable of these is a young man somewhere between 20 and 30, with his mind stuck at age four. He stands all of four feet tall, his form twisted to accommodate a severe hunchback. He's been on the streets begging all day, and he asks Corina if she can pay a taxi to drive him home. But Corina's out of cash. She stops and ponders, then turns to me.
"Do you mind if we take him to his home? What do you think?" she asks, concerned for our comfort level.
I assure her that we're happy to take him home. We walk toward Corina's car in the deepening dusk, and our diminutive friend slips between my two daughters, reaching a hand up to each. They take his hands, and he limps along between them like a happy child, grinning from ear to ear. "You rascal, you're just taking advantage, aren't you?" Corina asks, as he giggles with delight.
As we drive toward his home several miles away, Corina tells us in English that this young man, born severely deformed, spends his days begging to support his able-bodied mother and siblings. He's come all that way to the city center on foot this morning, and if we hadn't happened along, that's how he would have returned. He's being terribly used by those who should be protecting and supporting him, but it's still preferable to life in a state institution.
In Romanian, she's reviewing the days of the week with our passenger. "Today's Monday," he says. "Tomorrow's Tuesday, then Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday."
"Don't forget Friday!" Corina tells him, and he responds with an uproarious laugh. To us: "He can never remember Friday. I tell him over and over, but he forgets it every time." This recitation is repeated at least a half-dozen times until we arrive at his door. I quietly translate the childish conversation for my girls. It's just at the level of vocabulary where I can understand every word.
I'd hoped that taking my girls on this short visit to Romania would expand their horizons and open their eyes. I've had enough experience of ministry trips to know that it's often the unscripted and unplanned moments that stick with us and change us the most. It occurs to me that this evening might be that moment for them.
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells a sobering story about the judgment day, in which the King tells the righteous, "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in." The three of us are getting a front-row seat to what this looks like in real life. It's humble and messy. It's inconvenient. In many ways, it seems like a hopeless business. There's no long-term restoration here. Tomorrow these people will be hungry and need a ride home all over again.
But as we drive back up the hill toward the house through which hundreds of children have escaped this life and this fate -- children who are even now being tucked into bed by loving moms and dads -- it helps to be reminded why that normal life is worth fighting for. Even as she shows mercy day by day to those permanently damaged by abandonment and dysfunction, Corina's core work is indeed all about long-term restoration. By God's grace, what was once cracked and crumbling is slowly being made beautiful. It's hard, halting, and painful work -- infinitely more difficult than fixing up Oradea's downtown. But also infinitely more worthwhile.