Thursday, December 14, 2017

Time for Action

I want to give a big thank-you to all of you who came along beside us as we cared for Rebeca* as she had brain and spinal cord surgery. The expenses were great, mainly do to the never-ending bribes we had to pay the doctors, nurses, and technicians in order to have each facet of Beca's surgery taken care of: the surgeon, the daily hospital care, and we even had to go out and get Beca new bandages ourselves. Even though the stay in the hospital was *technically* free, all of the under the table costs, which are completely normal in Romania, added up to quite a lot, about the same as a stay at an American hospital, but without the same health and cleanliness standards.

I have been using the first person plural, "we" (or "noi" in Romanian, for you amateur linguists) even though Joe and I have been in the United States on holiday, regrouping for our return. Nadia has been invaluable (she always is, it's just her nature) in caring for Rebeca and commuting to the hospital the two hours from our city to the bigger city, staying in hotels when needed and doing every other conceivable aspect of intensive, basically parental care. Rebeca herself is hanging in there. I can tell it's taken a toll on her, the surgery, if only from the photographs.

I've been in a similar situation. When I was fourteen, I had a posterior spinal fusion, a surgery that cut me open from the top of my spine to the bottom. I spent five days in the hospital, reacted badly to morphine and had to relearn how to walk, doing laps around the unit. I remember being greatly disoriented and not only weepy, not only highly irritable but an overwhelming combination of both from the aforementioned morphine. I had a large amount of discomfort even in the weeks following my release from the hospital, and developed a series of stress-induced migraines during my first year of high school. Major surgery is not fun.

Beca's particular reason for her surgery is something she'll have to carry with her for the rest of her life. The surgery prevented it from getting worse, but she will still surely have challenges in handling the more complicated aspects of life. We understand that we may have to be here to help her for a very long time. Her parents have had little to no role in her surgery or her recovery.

Before we started noticing Rebeca was having trouble, before we took her to the doctor and had tests done, we were struggling financially. Now, after ensuring Beca had the best care as she was hospitalized and as we continue to be committed to her recovery, we are struggling very much, even more than before, to function on our limited resources. But our resources do not have to remain so limited. I really, really hate asking for money, and I haven't been writing very much (I know) but we really need that support from all of you who have been on the fence about supporting or who haven't made the jump to donating yet.

If there was ever a time to give, if there was ever evidence that what we do matters and that the money you choose to donate will be going to a worthy cause, I'd say that it's pretty obvious by now.

To donate straight to our main fund that provides for Rebeca, please check out our main page.

To support me as I go back to Romania, which I rely on to minister to our kids, you can visit my fundraiser.

Whatever you choose to donate and however you choose to do it, you will be making a true, incredibly powerful difference in the lives of Rebeca and the other kids who rely on us as their family, and together we are a family protected by Jesus Christ. Whatever happens, we will keep going. But we would so love to have you along for the ride.

Much love and many blessings.

*Rebeca is a pseudonym, used for her privacy

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Real Missionary

It's been striking me as funny, today, to see that at least some of my former college classmates also seem to be growing and changing, still, just two years later. No one tells you that while college does a lot of things, it doesn't really complete you. You emerge from the college world a lot like how you'll be for the rest of your life, but not exactly. Your sense of self, your intellect, and the things you like are still subject to change after you graduate. Maybe these things will change dramatically.

This may sound silly and reveal that I am still green in the ways of the world and in the seasons of life, but I guess that this is my admission, that I hadn't known that the world as presented by many of my professors would not be the same as the world I have since discovered. Specifically, I did not really know what life as a missionary would really be like, in spite of my best efforts to learn precisely that.

To be fair, I was given a lot of ideas and mental pictures of what different missionaries around the world do. Current missionaries and retired missionaries all told their stories, of the tribes they were welcomed into, of the life lived without modern conveniences, of the work accomplished. Idealizing this ministry was something most storytellers couldn't resist. To do these things, you need love, and you naturally want to share this love. I heard a lot of people tell their tales. So over time, I thought I had it down.

No one told me that I might not get culture shock. Culture shock was a necessity. A given. But to this date, I haven't really reached the end of my rope, after over seven months away from the States. Thank God, this rope just keeps going and going.

People like to talk about work in tribal settings, since it is so novel, but no one tells you that you might have a problem with people crashing into three of your vehicles, on three different occasions, trying to pass you on the highway. Okay, yeah, no one is going to be that specific, but you get the idea. First world problems happen in more countries than you would think. No one can address every problem, but it would be nice if practicality and modernity could be spoken of as much as high drama and the savanna.

I never heard anyone tell me that persecution is, above all things, a giant roadblock. It's really not romantic. If I can't do the work I set out to do, the work doesn't get done. There is no award, no plaque that says, "Congratulations! You Have Been Persecuted." If we can't work with our kids, we can't work with our kids. If I can't see them, I can't properly be in their life. This is why we try to avoid persecution, not pat ourselves on the backs when we spot it.

Here is what I have learned about being a missionary since being on the field here in Romania for a total of ten and a half months.

It is ordinary. I wake up, I make coffee, I put my laptop in my backpack and walk to Joe's apartment, where I work on social media. It's better than being in an office, and I could never go back to office work, but it's a part of my job here.

Kids come over. They do what they want. This is their home. If they're like Florin*, they'll sit on the couch and watch television. If they're like Mirela* and Georgiana*, they'll talk loudly and flit about the room. Everyone lets each other do as they please.

Nadia often cooks and we'll set the table and Joe, Nadia, Florin, Mirela, Georgiana, and I will eat lunch. This is a BIG part of our every-day ministry. We don't talk about the Four Spiritual Laws as we eat. We don't tell the kids why they should be doing x,y, and z. We might offer wisdom. Nadia might because she speaks Romanian, Joe might because he's Joe. But basically, our work is our home and our home is our work. And we handle this balance with a lot of love and care.

Sometimes being a missionary means you wash all the dishes. You just walk into the kitchen, see the pots and pans and plates piled up, and without a word, start washing. You do this without expecting to be thanked. You do this even though you can't really talk to anyone as you do it. Is this ministry? Are you a missionary even when you're washing dishes?

I was taught that missionaries do big things. Brave things. Missionaries preach and learn to speak Swahili fluently and then preach in Swahili. Missionaries witness to German punks on the street and climb volcanoes in Indonesia for the heck of it. Missionaries go on adventures. Surely missionaries don't minister by cleaning up after others.

Missionaries certainly don't need to worry about social drama. That's all American stuff. First world concerns. Missionaries don't have stressful dreams about their aging cats back in California. Missionaries don't daydream about eating sushi and tacos and pho and pad thai.

I really do wish we had been instructed about interpersonal drama a bit more than we were. It was made to seem that if you preached the truth, people would flock to you. If they did anything else but that, you could chalk it up to "persecution." It was as if we were taught that if everyone in your circle is a follower of Jesus, then conflicts among you would just work themselves out. I now know that is not true. How I wish it was.

When we make the missionary world look so drastically different from the real world, we should realize we might be getting a few things wrong. What we do is really more about growth than glory. We are still growing, ourselves. We do everything out of love for God and love for others. But we know even this love is in process.

I'm a missionary but I'm still a twenty-something who likes to take selfies and make people laugh. I listen to alternative music and I've recently purchased sour gummy worms at the supermarket. I'm a missionary, but before that, I'm human. But I'm a better missionary because I realize I'm human.

Thanks for reading, and please check out my fundraiser for my apartment for orphan young women. We're almost there!

Friday, September 15, 2017

Livin' Forgiven

Wow, I apologize for not writing sooner. I've been up to my neck in photos from our beach trip but now I actually have a moment to write about said beach trip.

Joe, Nadia, and the rest of the Next Generation crew packed up our stuff and headed to the hippie beach town of Vama Veche at the beginning of September. We stayed for six days and had a lot of fun. Our theme this year was "Livin' Forgiven." Joe gave a message during the quiet times of the days when we were all together at the campsite, when we weren't all out on the beach soaking in the sun.

Living in a group setting, whether in our tents or in our apartments back in Piatra, can obviously lead to hurt feelings and conflicts. Maybe someone lost someone else's belonging. Maybe someone didn't clean their part of the tent. Maybe another person didn't shower enough. Whatever the issue, once the problem has been addressed, there is only one conclusion. Forgive.

Forgiveness doesn't mean the offender gets to avoid dealing with the consequences of their actions. Maybe they'll receive a talking to and be admonished to right the wrong, or clean up their mess, or whatever it is. But the problem, being resolved, is absolved. Even if it happens again. The person who was offended lets go of their offense, and everyone is back on the same level. Or at least, that's ideally what happens.

Teaching our young people to forgive is one of the best things we can do for them. This world is not based on forgiveness. It's based on performance. But if we can instill a love of God and a love of others in our young people, we can begin to change the world from the inside out. And primarily, we are equipping our young adults to treat everyone with respect and grace. We care about these young adults and how they live their lives. The least we can do is love them and teach them how to love in turn.

Lately, I've been thinking about heaven. There's an examination of heaven in the end of Dallas Willard's masterpiece of Christian literature, The Divine Conspiracy. Willard pictured heaven as a place of boundless creation. He saw life after death as joining with God in creating and reigning over all eternity. Are we ready for such an existence? Willard pondered whether everyone who enters heaven will walk through the gates in the same spiritual state they were in when they died. Have we prepared ourselves for the next life to the point where heaven and all that it is will be paradise to us and not unbearable?

I'm guilty of this type of thinking and you may be, too: I look forward to heaven as a time to be vindicated. I want everyone to know my story and see where I've been. But if that even happens, it will only be a part of life in heaven and chances are, I will be corrected even more than those who have done me wrong. On earth, we know our story, maybe the stories of a few people close to us, and that's it. The giant interwoven web of lives and events is beyond us here. But one day the truth will come out. And until then, we can't be sure there aren't aspects of the truth that reveal how small we are.

What I'm trying to say is, rather than holding grudges, rather than meticulously keeping tabs on our scorecard, rather than wasting energy caring about how right we are, maybe we also need to learn to forgive. I don't think any of us in this life will be revealed to be faultless, and when we get to heaven, I'm pretty sure no one will want that gold star anymore. Because, after all, it's better to be offered love and forgiven, than to never need anything at all.

Thanks for reading, and click here to donate to my apartment for orphan young women.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The European Dream

I'm long overdue in telling you all about how my two weeks in language school went. It was really good, actually. I learned a few more verb tenses which have helped me convey more concepts in Romanian and I feel more comfortable with the language. I'm also understanding more. There are now more words I can recognize, so I at least have a chance to respond now. We'll have to see how much more time it will take before I get close to fluent. That's not anytime soon, though.

We had class every day for two weeks, with the weekend off in between. Lessons occurred from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm, and there were activities in the afternoon, like tours, films and "immersion courses," which were a time for practicing Romanian in conversation. If you don't already know, I did this same course last year, so I repeated the city tour and the museum tour, but a whole year had gone by, so it was still worth it. I felt more comfortable with getting around, which was good seeing as I was on my own this year.

Sibiu is one of the most beautiful places I have been in Romania. Some people complain that it is too "tourist-y." One of our classmates was trying to get our teacher to tell us where all the hidden clubs were located (she wouldn't divulge her secrets). But even though it lacks a night life, Sibiu still takes my breath away. And the high density of tourism means there are plenty of gelato stalls and places to buy gogosi (donuts).

I have a lot of memories from last year attached to places in Sibiu and I've attached a few more, this year. I got to know several of my classmates and had a great time eating with them and talking about our occupations, books, and, of course, Europe.

It might be possible to say that I now know twice as much about Europe today than I had known before coming to Sibiu. I got to be a part of conversations about immigration, education, language, politics, and everything in between. My fellow classmates included Germans, a Polish guy, a French guy, some folks from the U.K., and there were others not in my particular class that I got to talk to, as well, who were from other parts of Europe. It turns out that I stopped in three hometowns of three different people from classes, including Mannheim/Heidelberg, Cologne and Strasbourg, as I went on my vacation last month. There aren't many things as remarkable as being able to connect with someone in such a way.

The thing is, though, traveling is common in Europe. Super common. It's what people do. Europeans get more vacation than Americans (I heard that an acquaintance of mine gets...28 days of vacation? I think?) and every country is so close together that traveling is  no big deal, and kind of necessary to really have an enjoyable vacation if you're in any way adventurous. It's a normal thing to travel to another country, even one where you can't speak the language, and really do your best to communicate and live life the way the locals do.

Everyone has an opinion about the countries bordering their own but mostly the attitude is one of shared understanding. The world wars are still very much remembered and history lives all around. I wish Americans had this same sense of shared space, that the land we occupy does not belong just to us here and now but to everyone who set foot and lived or worked or died on it. America could benefit from sharing experiences and culture, by considering a different kind of dream for once. I certainly have been inspired by this new thing, the European dream. It's a good thing I'm here to stay.

To donate to my apartment for orphaned young women, click here.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Friend in Need

Yesterday I made my way from a doctor's appointment to Casa Next, our apartment on Independentei street, walking about a mile and a half through the city with which I have become very familiar. I had no idea what the rest of the day would have in store, but as I've learned, anything can happen at any time.

At the flat, I hung out and studied some Romanian for a little while. Joe was helping Nadia write out a recipe for jambalaya. She's gotten into the biggest reality cooking show on Romanian television, Chefi La Cuțite, and needed to have some recipes written out, on top of a lot of photos and her personal story. To my great disappointment I will be in language school in Sibiu when she goes on national television in Bucharest in a few weeks. I've wanted to be there since before she even applied but I'm just glad she's getting to do this.

Then, amid these events at home, Nadia revealed a new project, beginning immediately. Nadia had been told of a young woman living with her baby and five-year-old in a house with no windows or doors, no food and hardly any possessions, just a bed and a stove. We immediately began going through the kitchen, collecting food and mugs and cooking utensils to give to the family. We would be going to deliver them that evening. I clarified my dinner plans with my roommate Cristina and with that resolved, helped carry out bags of food to the car. Mirela was outside her apartment so we invited to her to come along and she agreed. We jumped in and headed for Club Next.

Sadly, Club Next will be one of the first things to go as we begin saving money and batten down the hatches, as it were, in the aftermath of some changes. Arriving at the Club, we went through several large sacks of clothing, picking out women's clothes and clothes for babies and small girls. We also threw in some plastic cups, cleaned out the trunk to fit everything in and went off to the large grocery store in town, Kaufland.

Nadia, Mirela, and I went into Kaufland where we selected various food items and an industrial sized sack of potatoes that is normally used for refilling the potato bin but Nadia assured me that the young woman and her girls eat lots and lots of potatoes. I picked up a croissant for myself and an ice cream bar for Joe to repay him for haivng driven me to the forest on Saturday, and I bought a lip balm, choosing the cherry one at Nadia's recommendation. The cashier had to call a man to tell her how much the sack of potatoes weighed, since it could barely be lifted by two people, let alone put on a scale. It was only 37 lei for that giant sack of new potatoes, or $9.25, a great deal. We headed out with our haul. Joe was talking to a guy I recognized but to whom I hadn't yet been introduced. I realized I had seen him at church and we met officially. We all talked for a little while and then said goodbye and put everything in the car and headed off for the village where the young women and her daughters were living.

Mirela hadn't been talking much. I had gone a long time without seeing her, so at the Club I asked her about how she was doing and she told me about how busy she's been with her job at a children's radio station. On the way out the city, she told Nadia that once we would go through a certain village, it would be nice to drive slowly so she could find a certain house. I was confused about the significance of the house but eventually made out that it was the house of her biological mother. Mirela had never met her biological mother, not once. Yet she knew which house she lived in, and had seen pictures of her, so on our way through that village she asked if she could take five minutes to meet her, and if Nadia could take video and pictures of her. I was still confused as to how this would happen but soon I would see.

We pulled up alongside the road where two women were seated outside on a bench. Mirela got out of the car and walked up to them. She began talking to the younger woman who I learned was her mother. Nadia filmed and took photos as promised, and then Mirela's uncle came out from the house, and another older woman. It was a remarkable thing to see happen but it all felt strangely normal. There were smiles but no shrieks, happiness but without hugging or kissing. We stayed for only four minutes. But Mirela was clearly affected by this encounter and as she said, it was a huge moment that she has wondered about extensively and I'm sure it will remain a milestone for her.

After this brief experience, we continued on and eventually did find the right road to the young woman's home, and then the house itself. It looked the way it had been described. The front door, the doors inside and all of the windows but one had been forcibly ripped out, stolen by the rear neighbors, I learned. The house had been vacant, for how long I'm not sure, but everything worth taking, and some things that probably weren't really worth it, were stolen. The house belonged to the young woman's family and was her only place to live. She had made some bad choices but had been treated much worse than she deserved. Her parents were now trying to help her, as we now were.

The young woman, I realized, was probably younger than me. She was quite beautiful, with light brown skin and a pretty nose. She held her baby constantly, and the baby was adorable and had this remarkable wise-beyond-her-years look. I got the baby, who was about a year and a half old, to smile and she laughed when I did peek-a-boo.

The five-year-old was full of mischief and fire and then some. She seemed to know how to get into trouble but was generally very happy. She was very physical with us, a little too physical, and one of her favorite things to do was to point her finger at me or Joe or whoever and laugh at us. "Ha ha ha ha ha!" I earned more respect by picking her up and twirling her around, and she enjoyed being overly scared by me whenever I stepped in her direction. She was very delighted when we opened up a bag with little rain boots and she discovered not only that a pair fit but that they lit up green on the soles. She ran all around the yard, lighting up every step.

Nadia talked with the young woman and Mirela checked out the few rooms in the house. Joe had walked off to the field behind the house, and when I saw the little girl go after him, I decided to see if I could keep her at bay. Joe had found a cherry tree so we all ate some sour cherries. Then a man walked up to us. When Joe told the man his name, in Romanian, the man looked at Joe like he had a horn growing out of his head. Then he turned to me, and as I introduced myself in Romanian, stared at me with big eyes in the same way ("The same way, but a little different...." Joe would later say). The man followed us back to the home and proceeded to talk to the young woman and walk into the house. He peered at all the bags of food and clothing we had brought. Later, I would overhear Nadia explain to Joe that he was one of the neighbors who had stolen the windows and doors and that he would probably come back later that night to steal all of the things we had just brought.

I could scarcely believe it. What would this man want to do with a bunch of clothes for women and children and a few sacks of groceries? Maybe the frying pan we threw in was worth taking, but how could someone do that? "Some people steal just for the sake of stealing," Joe told me.

After the neighbor had left, the five-year-old was wiping the rain off our car with her hands and then took the pink knit hat off of her head and used that, to my protest. "It's dirty already," Joe told me. Then she wandered off to the well and within the minute the little girl returned to us, hatless, and distressed because, of course, she had dropped her hat into the well.

Joe walked calmly to the well and began lowering the bucket into the water with the crank and the chain. I held my hands on the little girl's shoulders as she looked down at her hat far below, trying to keep her from falling in herself. "That child is a prime candidate for falling into this well," Joe said as he worked. Believe it or not, once the bucket had been lowered and Joe did a little fishing, I could see the very wet hat in the bucket. Up and up came the bucket and the hat, and before the girl could reach it, I grabbed the hat and rung it out. "The hat's clean now," Joe observed.

Nadia, at this time, had continued talking to the young woman. Part of why we came so promptly to deliver the items was because child protective services was on her case and threatening to take her girls away. One thing was clear and that was that the young woman was intent on keeping her children with her. 

 So Nadia told us that she needed to walk with the young woman to a neighbor's house where Nadia would read a letter from child protective services to her, so that she would understand what she needed to do. Meanwhile, Joe and Mirela and I would wait in the car outside as it began to get very dark. All was peaceful until the little girl came out of the courtyard and asked if she could get in the car. Two minutes previously Joe had just said that we at least might keep her out of the car to keep from getting little bootprints on the ceiling. But it was dark, so Joe let her in. She proceeded to attempt to push every button. "Don't touch," Joe repeated again and again in Romanian. Then she couldn't decided if she wanted to be in the car or out, so she opened the car door and shut it over and over. I couldn't do much being in the backseat but tried telling her to stay put a few times. Finally Nadia and the young woman came out of the neighbor's yard.

The young woman and her daughters were going to spend the night at the neighbor's small house, for safety, and we all helped carry the bags of groceries to the neighbor's for safe-keeping. We then bid them goodbye and drove back to the city, and I wondered about the people in the dark houses that we passed, if they were better off or maybe as bad off as this young woman. How many people stole things like those neighbors? How many people had nothing? Do other stories like the young woman's happen? Do the stories get told? What does Jesus think about all this?

I don't know the answers to these questions but I know that at least I can share this little bit with you. Thanks for reading.

To donate to my home for orphaned young women, please click here.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

What People Get Wrong About Missions

I've been doing missions for about three years now, with some breaks in between. First was India in 2014, and now Romania, where I'm planning to stay. But actually, you could back it up further to when I was going to Mexico with my church in middle school, plus visits to Skid Row, and of course my first two trips to Romania at 14 and 16. So I've had over ten years of dipping my toes into this field.

And I suppose I need to mention my education in Intercultural Studies, in which I obtained a bachelor's degree. And yet, experience and education are two very different things.

What people tell you about missions, especially from a pulpit or a podium, may not corroborate what you might actually experience if you happened to go out on the field yourself.

For example, I was told that as a traveler I would experience culture shock and re-entry stress. I have experienced neither between my 2 months in India and 3+ months at a time in Romania. Sure, I have struggled to adapt. There are difficulties with culture, language, food, and the one thing people don't emphasize enough: other people. But I haven't had anything I would call culture shock, nor any re-entry difficulties to speak of.

Okay, so maybe I'm weird. But there are many other examples of misconceptions about missions that I will go into more extensively here.

One problem, or not quite a problem, just a caveat, I guess, is that there are so many different kinds of missions. Missions varies depending first of all on what area of the world you are working in, and then it is different according to the missionary's goal, and then of course the individual missionary or organization is unique in itself. People tend to have a certain vision in their head of missions: young women in colorful skirts hugging Zambian children, let's say. Or someone leading an underground church in China. Or maybe a pastor preaching at a tent revival in Brazil. There are countless ways of doing missions. But people do seem to cling to a certain idea that preexists in their mind's eye.

So even though there is such a wide variety of missional situations, people cling to whatever they have been most exposed to. This results, unfortunately, in some people applying the limited vision of missions that is in their heads to any missional organization or individual missionary they come across. This isn't just a missions problem; it could apply to any number of areas. Yet, it is extremely pertinent to missions because of a few different factors.

1) Missionaries often rely on donors. We need people to understand our unique job in our specific country, at least enough for them to feel that they can trust us to do God's work.

2) People are often very opinionated about missions. Let's assume those opinions are favorable. There is still a lot of possibility for a person to be judgmental rather than willing to learn when they come across a new kind of missional focus/situation.

3) I cannot magically transport my family, friends, and acquaintances to live in Romania with me for a few weeks to show them our challenges and our specific opportunities. I cannot video tape and now I can't even do much photography. So I write. But lately, our challenges are not even ones I can put into writing with much detail.

So you can see the nature of our difficulties in regards to trying to engage people and show them what we are doing. But how different are we, really? What about missions in Romania differs from, say, missions in Indonesia? Let me try to paint our picture.

Romania is a post-modern European nation, and we work with young adults, so amplify that post-modernity by 10. Romania is also post-Communist but far enough away from it that people worldwide no longer view Romania through that lens. Also, Romania is predominantly Orthodox Christian. Most people have been baptized sometime in childhood. Religion is a big thing here. And yet, for us as a Christian organization, we face a significant amount of distrust and persecution.

That creates a cocktail that is something along these lines: young people may either cling to Orthodoxy (which is not necessarily our enemy, just to be clear) or they may reject Orthodoxy so much that they are hostile toward any religion, or at least toward Christianity. And of course, there is middle ground. But my point is that people here have very strong preconceived notions about Jesus and the Bible and church. We're not walking into any situation in which Jesus is unheard of. And that can actually be a disadvantage.

If you witness to someone who has never heard of Jesus, you have a little bit of an advantage, I'd say, because you are more in control of how Jesus will look to them as they form an idea of him in their minds. Yes, you may be coming against Krishna or Buddha or an ancestral spirit, but at least you can present Jesus rightly. If you don't let yourself get in the way, that is.

In addition, even though Romania is a vastly Orthodox nation, the state is actually pretty hostile towards us. Not all aspects of the government are out to get us, but things have become increasingly difficult as we have faced unwarranted opposition. "Principalities and powers" refers to more than strictly spiritual, demonic activity. The powers that control the kids we are working with would rather like us not to, and they are doing their best to kick us out.

People have asked me why we haven't done many baptisms. The answer is, most people here already are baptized in the Orthodox manner, as I mentioned. So you can imagine it is difficult to tell someone that they need to be baptized again, without making it appear that they must choose between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. We are not out to oppose Orthodoxy. We are just introducing people to Jesus who may not have truly known him before. Furthermore, the Orthodox baptism emphasizes inclusion while the baptisms we have done emphasize rebirth, to put it in basic terms. One baptism means one thing, while another has a different emphasis.

Even conversions are different here. We're not working with a society that is ruled by group-think, as in a South American context where tent meetings see many come forward. And we're not ministering to a tribe in which a tribal elder may lead the whole tribe to make a decision. We're working with very individualistic, um, individuals who have access not only to their traditional beliefs but to all that is available via the internet and with the influence of European secularism. And we're working with young adults and teenagers, who think somewhat freely but are still often under the oppressive thumb of their caretakers. It is very difficult to lead young people to trust in Jesus in this context. I'm saying that not only as a missionary with NGO but as a youth leader in a Baptist church here with an active youth group. This stuff doesn't always happen as quickly as people would think it should.

We work through spiritual matters with many of our kids. This is more difficult for me what with the language barrier, but I am trying. I do a lot more of being Jesus to our kids through my actions and forcing myself to engage in spite of my introversion. I know verbal communication about the gospel is necessary. I do it all the time in the States. And I do it here when I am able. Still, I feel like people think missionaries have to preach on street corners or turn every conversation into a "you-should-accept-Jesus" confrontation. Maybe some missionaries do that. But I can tell you, they're either a) not in Europe or b) not working long-term. The longer you are in a place, the less of an outcast you can let yourself become and the more you will need to guard against burn-out. This is real life, folks.

Speaking of real life, did you know missionaries who work long-term have to pay bills and cook and do other normal things? And even though these things are normal, the difficulty level is often higher than you might expect. The language difference combines with logistics and suddenly making a meal plan for the week takes up more time than it ever would in the States. Many short-term missionaries never have to worry about paying bills every month or feeding themselves or transportation or cleaning or even washing their bedding. Those things are often taken care of by their hosts. And that's the nature of STMs, but the problem comes when people who have only ever gone on STMs don't realize that long-term missions involves a lot more plain-old real-life stuff.

And of course, there's ministry. The way ministry works for us here is that we welcome our kids into our homes. Ministry therefore is never truly over. We do a lot of hanging out with our kids and being available and cooking meals for and with them and teaching them to drive and such. Some ministries have clear-cut boundaries regarding time and space. A pastor in India preaches, he congregates, maybe he even has lunch with some people, but then he goes home to rest. We also rest, but we never assume we'll be totally in "off" mode. If we need serious downtime, we go in our rooms, but usually even our downtime is really just relaxed ministry.

Many missionaries welcome local people into their homes, maybe quite often, but we specifically house our kids in our apartments with us. Can you imagine how stressful it would be for all involved if we preached at them all the time like some people think we should? Yikes. Imagine living with your pastor and then imagine if he delivered a sermon directly at you every day. That wouldn't even be called ministry. That'd just be harassment.

So, we pray for our kids. We arrange English lessons for them and sit in the room as they're taught. We take them out for pizza or donuts on a weekly basis. We celebrate holidays with them, Romanian style. On Easter, we attended the midnight service and then ate a bunch of special food we made ourselves. We arrange trips for our kids, when the powers let us. We make fries together, we talk about Jesus, we offer advice. We take them to church when we can. We laugh with our kids and do silly things and answer their questions. This is our ministry, but more importantly, this is our family. We are very deep into this love thing. We wouldn't be able to go this deep without Jesus showing us how. So we live like him.

This is not a definitive list of all the ways people can make assumptions about missions but I hope you can understand a little more about why every missionary is different, and that that isn't a bad thing. I'm sure there are lousy missionaries out there, but right now I'm not in a position to judge them. Instead, I'd suggest you take a minute to think about the possibility that there may be a whole lot more missionaries accomplishing God's will, in their own way, in their specific corner of the world than you may have previously thought. And then maybe you will have a little more grace for those offering grace to people you will never meet.

Thanks for reading. To donate to my apartment that I'm sharing with an orphan, click here.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Magic of Ministry

"This is lettuce," I say, peering at the picture of "White Boston" on the packet of seeds in my hand.

"Lettuce?" Diana enunciates, but I am too preoccupied to translate lettuce in my phone. I should know it, though. It's salata, but of course, my brain thinks that must only mean "salad."

"Varza," Diana says, and I nod, so varza she writes: "cabbage."

We are planting seeds into three large, black plastic trays. Hopefully with enough water, sunshine, and time, these dormant seeds will sprout and transform into edible plants to adorn our restaurant, the restaurant that is still in its infancy, much like these seeds, and sort of like my work.

Diana plants seeds faster than I do, and after placing the trays in the sunniest room of my apartment, we set out on foot to the centru, the center where Diana lives and where I will trade my gardener's hat for my photographer's.

Diana doesn't linger in the hairdressing salon that she brings me to, choosing instead to go to her room or elsewhere, maybe to do her homework or study, because she had a big practice test for which to prepare herself. But as she goes I turn on my camera, take the lens cap off, and begin my photo shoot.

Nadia is here, cutting a boy's hair. It seems she only has male clients this evening, but she does them one after another. She knows what looks good instinctively, or maybe it's a learned talent, but she is not a domineering hair stylist; she bends and allows the teenager sitting in the seat in front of her to dictate how much hair to cut off and the way he wants it to look, even if it is not entirely to her liking.

I try to get shots of Nadia's face and the face of the boy in the chair. I try to catch their faces in the mirror. I try to get Nadia smiling. I try to catch the boy looking at least moderately happy. I try to get the full front of Nadia's face, not the side, because I know by now that she doesn't like her profile. I try to avoid blurred movement, particularly Nadia's hands. My greatest challenge is figuring out how to avoid the one or two teens lounging in the room, because getting them in the picture is a distraction to the action but sometimes they really are just right in my line of sight. I try not to manipulate the truth but to work with what is right in front of me.

I also photograph Anca, who is weaving intricate braids into a dummy's blonde synthetic hair. There is an extensive row of these life-sized Barbie-like heads all along the windows, which have grown dark with the setting of the sun. I face similar challenges with Anca, getting her face and the dummy's, avoiding the kid leisurely watching the others in the room.

Nadia cuts the hair of one boy after another, taking only one break. She'd already been cutting hair before I even got there, and I think I saw about six boys get theirs done since I walked in. We call it a night eventually, and the next day I begin my work of sorting through all my shots, editing them, and uploading them to Dropbox for future use.

I was especially excited to not only meet new kids that I had never met before, but also to see some I already knew, including one boy named Petru. I had met Petru in the summer, when I first arrived, either at a trip to the woods or to the pool. He was so small and meek, so innocent and shy. When he walked into the salon the other day, I was amazed at how much he's grown. He's taller, wears glasses now and seems to have crossed that threshold of young boyhood to just normal boyhood. I talked to him. He said he remembered me. I asked him about his glasses (I also am bespectacled) and I taught him how to play thumb war. Rasvan was there, cutting hair too, and even though I was the one to also teach him how to play thumb war, he has gotten so good that he can beat me. And believe me, I never just let him win. But getting to see Petru made me so happy but so sad at the same time. It's like I missed a chunk of his life that I will never see.

On Friday I did a new thing, all by myself. I took some girls to get pizza, just me, no translator, arranged by me, everything. Mostly. I admit I got some help figuring out when and where, but I did the contacting of the girls, and I met them at the park. I'm trying to be more independent not only in living my life day to day but in leading ministry shindigs as well.

I'd say it went well. It was a little hard to communicate, though I had Google Translate at the ready, because while I am good at using Romanian in certain situations, I am still working on how to get teenage girls to relax and talk about themselves without using English. Playing the game "telephone" worked, though. Then I bought us all pizza and then the director came by with her son, so I didn't need to carry the conversation as much anymore. The director extended the girls' free time by an hour, and as we walked out Brandusa came up out of nowhere, so the four girls, Brandusa and I went on a walk until it was time to meet the director, and then she drove them back to the centru.

The next day we had our English class for four girls, three of them from the pizza snack the day before, taught by Rebecca. Since the class was smaller than usual, all the girls got to participate more, which was very good. We plan to rotate out the kids, with this quieter group some weeks, and the more lively group other times.

After going home for a little while and sweeping, washing dishes, and doing other household business, I picked up my sack of snacks and walked to my church. I am now a youth leader in the youth group at my church, so I attend a meeting during the week and have responsibilities like leading a game and bringing the refreshments. I also took photographs the week before, but this week all I had to do was the usual: set up the cookies, pretzels and drinks and get to know the teens better. It takes some effort to get to know all of the youth equally, because they do have their groups. But getting to know them is a lot of fun, especially with the ones who know some English.

One guy, Alexandru, made a big fuss because apparently he had seen me in Kaufland (the grocery store nearest me), smiled at me, and claims that I looked at him but I didn't recognize him. Honestly, when I'm in Kaufland I only want to get out as fast as I possibly can, so I was probably "in the zone" and not properly paying attention to the people around me. I apologized, and endured some more playful ribbing from Alexandru until he had sufficiently made me understand his public humiliation. I then went back to whatever I was doing until the activities and studies were over, and then I helped Alexandru put back the chairs.

Why do I bother to write out the mundane details of my week? Well, other than the fact that my journaling has almost come to a halt (due to my busy-ness), I wanted to give you this glimpse into all of the things I am actually doing. I'm not standing on the corner and preaching on the street, but I'm not just sitting around eating chocolates, either. Missionary life is somehow often shrouded in mystery in people's minds for some reason, so I decided to pull aside the shroud for you.

I suppose missionaries' lives are sort of mysterious because every missionary is different. Some translate the Bible into a new language, and others plant churches, and still others teach English. There already is a translation of the Bible in Romanian, there are many churches here and I hate teaching English, so that is why I am involved in all the things I described above. This is the magic of ministry. It's composed of a lot of little moving parts, times of individual interaction (like with Diana) and times of larger-scale evangelism (like at youth group). Ministry has a way of working into one's every waking moment, so balance is necessary. But I can think of nothing else that I'd rather have dominate my time and imagination. Thank God for that.

To donate to rent for my apartment for at-risk young orphan women, please visit this link.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Everyday Missionary

In the world, especially in the United States, and even in Christian circles folks are busily climbing the ladder of success. We learn to believe the lie that success will make us happier and give meaning to our lives, and that if we are able to achieve our prestige and paychecks then we must deserve them. We can focus so much energy on our personal growth and on all that is ours. But what if we are called to something more?

Before I get down to that something more, let me give you a little autobiographical context. As a child, I was a perfectionist, at least academically. I tried very, very hard on all my assignments. I spent a lot of time on homework and read for pleasure on top of that. When I was very young, I would get overwhelmed because I thought that in addition to my classwork I was also supposed to help all the other kids at my table. Talk about an overachiever. Some people assume, for whatever reason, that overachievers aren't actually smart, that they just work hard. Well, I worked hard and I was intelligent. So I got very good grades.

I never played on a sports team and gave up the two instruments I started learning, so my sphere of expertise was always academics. I liked reading many kinds of books. I wrote poetry. And of course, I always tried to keep getting A's. I still struggle to find peace with those two B's I got in high school and the two B's I got in college. That's how devoted to my GPA I was. It's true that there were other people who were more concerned, especially among my high school friends. We hardly talked about anything other than assignments, tests and our marks. But I was still a person serving that master, the master of grades, the future, success--all the things our teachers told us. I fell for it, hook, line and sinker.

I liked excelling. I liked having a score on a test telling me that I had aced it, having a piece of paper proving my intelligence and knowledge. It was affirmation that it was okay for me to take up space in the world. It was like I could say, "Hey, I'm good at this! I'm allowed to breathe the same air as all you other people who I feel are somehow better than me!"

I began to grow out of this as I got older. College was the most worthwhile in regards to things like research, interviewing people, exploring Los Angeles--all things that can't be evaluated or tested. Or if they are, it's sort of beside the point. One thing my university gave me that was incredibly helpful was just experience. Field trips, projects interviewing different kinds of people, working with a team of peers. All the other little things that stressed me out didn't do as much good as the things that were actually enjoyable. I began to see the value in things that weren't grade-able. I began to serve the god of excellence less and less.

Oh, I still tried (and succeeded) to get good grades. In fact, those two B's I got in college were both earned my hectic first semester when I had that major depression. After that, I did even better in all my classes (though I'm not sure how I managed tennis). I identified myself less as someone who "got good grades" and more as someone who has to power to create potential for others and for myself. I didn't cling to my grades to make me feel worthy anymore. But I have to say, man, did it feel good to walk across that stage at graduation, summa cum laude.

Success can be a master, a god, and a beast. If we buy into the American dream, or even the Indian dream, or the Japanese dream, etc., we can start to believe that our worth is contingent on how smart we are, how high our position is, or how much money we make at our job. Let me describe to you how easy it is to serve the god of success.

What do our parents tell us? What do our teachers tell us? What does television tell us? What does success look like to these people who proclaim what it is we should do every day?

I feel like many times, everything boils down to money. I need to do well in school because...I want a good job because...I want to make a lot of money. Even if your Aunt Susie wants you to be a doctor, she makes it clear that you should do this'll make a lot of money.

I get it. Everyone wants a family, and the more money you make, the better you can take care of your family. We go to college so we can get a good job to earn money so we can fund our children's college expenses. And so the cycle goes.

I also understand that people have passions. Maybe you actually really want to be a doctor. Maybe it's your dream. And maybe you really want to help people. Okay, I'll give you that. I won't assume my readers are just greedy, money-obsessed scrooges. But I think I have come to the part where I tell you about that "something more."

That something more might actually look like something less.

Being a missionary is a practice in serving others. We share the gospel as we help people and we help people as we share the gospel. Some people think this is a special thing that only certain other people can do. But I think this kind of thing is something we should all do, every day.

Why is it so hard in America to serve other people? And why do so few Christians talk about their faith with people who believe differently?

The answer to the first question is, in a nutshell, that our society is so arranged that it is extremely difficult to interact with most people, especially people who are different from us. We live in big houses in neighborhoods where we don't talk to any of our neighbors very much and we go to church where we might open up, but then it's back to our suburban fortresses and then to work, where of course we wouldn't dare share our faith, and no one there needs any help, anyway (or so we think). I could go on, but maybe you get the idea. We are very insulated driving around in our "Lexus cages" (thanks, Switchfoot).

The answer to the second question is like the first. We live in our own bubbles. We hardly talk to other kinds of people about faith because we steer clear of them, for the most part. Even when we see a store clerk of a different nationality or ethnicity, we don't engage them anymore than asking where the quinoa is. We like to stick with who and what we know. Even if we aren't being stretched. Especially so that we won't be stretched.

Over three years ago now, I showed up on my neighbors' doorstep and they let me in, and I continued to show up unannounced every time I was living with my parents. I played with their kids. I tried to help Sukhjit with English. I helped Priya with her homework. I just basically hung out. I'm not exactly saying you should bow down to my incredible act of drinking their tea and eating their biscuits, but I'm offering this part of my life to you so you can see that, yes, it can be done. If I was able to befriend the Indian family next door, then you can have a conversation with the guy at the dry cleaner's. And--you can do so much more than that.

We all have the ability to minister where we are, and I believe we are also called to minister in a place where we have no business. If you want to work as hard as you can to get what you have been told you deserve, well, the path has been worn down for you by all the others before. But if you want to find the mission field where God is calling you to let go of your service to success, well, you will have a difficult time, indeed.

It's hard to do missions. It's not easy. Even doing basic things can be a challenge when you're going against the grain. But it really starts with little things. It begins with watching crappy cartoons with your little neighbor. It can proceed from have a conversation with a Pakistani associate. You can get involved in a homeless ministry. You could just start by volunteering at a food pantry. You really can begin.

I can see that what I am doing by ministering in Romania, a long way from my home, is something many people choose not to do. I say "choose" because I think many people are able to do what I am doing but the way they have chosen to construct their lives does not make it easy for them to do a 180, so they choose to stay in Wisconsin, or wherever. So I get that my position is unique. And I appreciate people who observe that and choose to contribute to my work. But I believe we all can be missionaries, everyday. We just have make the choice: is it more important to serve success, or to serve others? Which of these will ultimately allow us to serve God?

Can we chase success and be missionaries? Can we have our cake and eat it, too? I don't know. Maybe the question is better phrased, can I serve my own comfort and way of life while getting to know those who may never have that comfort and way of life? Will we want to serve success once we begin to really, truly serve others?

We are privileged. You don't need to look beyond your iPhone to see that. We are given so much teaching and we are fed so much in church that we may in fact be on the way to becoming spiritually obese. How are we giving out what we are taking in?

Feeding sheep is something we are all called to do. Sharing the gospel should be an immediate and unabashed accompaniment to any act of service we engage in. Jesus' name really should be on our lips at all times anyway. It shouldn't be a challenge, unless by stagnating in our churches we have forgotten how to witness (or never learned).

I never got a master's. It's sort of my way of sticking it to the man, if the man was academia. I got tired of studying and learning and writing papers. I wanted to do. So here I am. And maybe it's about time we all started doing, instead of storing up for ourselves what will only be withered in the morning.

Thanks for reading, and if you want to donate to my fundraiser to give orphan girls a home, please click here.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The New Place

It's a twenty-minute walk from my old neighborhood. I've divided it up into thirds in my head: from my old home to the Winnmarkt mall, to the park, and then on to my new place. Each time I pass two different Petrus, with their baked good being sold on the street. I pass news stands and flower shops and maybe ten different second-hand stores. I cross the street four different times. I pass young couples sitting together on park benches. Students walk home from school with their friends. Small children wear hats with bear or cat ears on them. I like to do something as I walk, maybe eat an apple or a bag of Krax (they taste better than they sound). This evening I listened to the five songs I've purchased off of Banks' album The Altar. I wanted to feel a little edgy, like a rebel.

Let's say I'm arriving at home. The new home, my new place. I come in the door and have to decide if I should put down whatever is in my hands or if I should take off my shoes to keep the floor clean. Usually I put down whatever it is in the kitchen and then walk to the laundry room, hang up my coat or jacket, and take off my shoes. My boots are beloved but the zipper on the left one is all messed up so I've been only unzipping it a few inches and then yanking it on and off, my foot just fitting through the hole. I bought them new, too. Anyway, I'll slip on my papuci (house shoes) and then busily begin to put away the new items I've bought for the house.

Today I bought a bunch of food. I've been buying fruit and snacks to sustain myself but I decided it was time to begin to stock the fridge and cupboard. I got a little carried away in Kaufland, picking up pasta and rice and sugar and flour and many more things. When I checked out I realized just how much I'd selected and my bags were so heavy I could hardly lift the heavier one. It's a short walk from Kaufland back to my place but lugging two heavy cloth bags made it feel much longer. Then I had to get all that up to my floor, which is the fifth. If you're a Romanian you'd only call it the fourth floor, not counting the ground floor, but in any country four flights of stairs is a lot when you're carrying pounds and pounds of kitchen essentials.

I really, really love my apartment, though. Finding this place and especially cleaning and moving in are challenges that I've had to face, but they've been surmountable. It's always nice when you purposefully do something difficult and find that you can actually do it.

Over the past week I've swept, mopped, and swiffered the floors, shook out and vacuumed rugs, vacuumed pillows and the mattresses and the sofa bed, wiped down the couch and chairs in the living room, wiped down many, many other surfaces, cleaned the toilet, washed windows and the dishes and pots that were abandoned and the bedding and towels that were left behind, and of course I've thrown away a bunch of junk. The list goes on. Brandusa helped with a bunch of the dishes, but for the most part, this has been my responsibility. It's been nice to have a project.

Whoever lived here before me loved music and books, two things that I also really love. They left behind three different boom boxes, a kitchen music player and piles upon piles of books. I've kept a few of the volumes and Nadia is going to commandeer the rest for our club. One book I've kept that I'm excited about is a Romanian to French dictionary, my two additional languages, so I can bypass English completely.

If you look down the street you can see the golden domes of the nearest church just ahead, and of course more and more apartment buildings. Kaufland is right around the corner, where I can buy basically any food, cleaning supply or toiletry that I might need. Besides the location, the apartment just feels right. It's old enough that it has a lived-in feel but it's not run-down. It could use a fresh coat of paint and maybe something could be done about the handful of loose baseboards, but it really has the makings of a great home.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about Romanian life and American life and how those compare with the life Jesus calls us to live. What am I doing to usher in the kingdom of God where I am? What am I doing that invests in what Jesus spent his life on earth doing, and spends his reign in heaven dreaming of and orchestrating?

For now, I suppose my contribution comes with cleaning up this apartment so that up to five other young women without a place to stay can move in and call this place home. The cleaning will subside, but the praying will continue and as girls arrive, the talking, sharing and learning will only increase. This home is very purposefully not just for me but for these girls. Right now things feel very quiet at home but one day, maybe soon, the fruit of new roommates will be growing right under my nose.

This is the stuff long-term missions is made of, I guess. Creating a foundation for life, for your life but mostly for the lives of others. Investing, building, meditating. Things that take time. Love takes time, too. It's easy to rush into a place and put on a show, which is how short-term missions can feel, to me. It's a new challenge to realize that the person you meet today could be in your life years into the future. How do we make the work we're doing in God's name sustainable? How do we actively love today, tomorrow, and every day after?

If you'd like to donate to my apartment for grown orphan young women, by all means click here. Thanks!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Romania Minutiae

How do I love thee, Romania? Let me count the ways.

I traveled all the way from Suburbia, California, USA to Romania to serve the tinerii, or young adults, who grew up in orphanages. I'm here because God has called me to be his hands and feet and minister to these young people, to love them and immerse myself in a place where I can use my gifts. This is the beginning and end of the "why" of my being here.

In addition, there are a lot of minutiae, or little things that don't matter on the large scale but still make up the experience of living and working in Romania. All these little things are basically inconsequential but do actually accumulate and contribute to life in important ways. These "little things" are diverse but I will try to give you an idea of what I'm talking about.

First, the food. Besides being inexpensive, Romanian cuisine is often more appetizing than American, at least to me. Polenta, sour soup called ciorba, cabbage rolls, cartofi prajiti or French fries, schnitzel, cordon bleu, sausage, great bread--I could go on. One thing I know I will miss is all the varieties of Asian cuisine, but Romanian fare is satisfying enough that it distracts me from the dearth of sushi. And then there are the snacks.

Cookies, chocolate, really inexpensive chips--they have so many varieties of junk food. My favorite brand of chocolate is called Milka. It comes in a purple wrapper, which reminds me of Willy Wonka, and someone really creative must be in charge of making new flavors and combinations because there seem to be dozens of different kinds of chocolate and cookies that I've never had before. I also like Madura snack cakes and pizza flavored Pufuleti and bacon flavored Krax. Don't worry, it's all in moderation. Also: grapefruit juice, like Cappy's Pulpy and grapefruit soda from Frutti. I never cared this much or enthused this extensively about American snacks. I don't know how widespread these brands are (like if you can find much of it elsewhere in Europe) but I'm very glad to walk to Adridan and get to choose a few things to enjoy every now and then.

One thing I really like is the proliferation of "second-hand stores," what thrift stores are called here. They're everywhere. I'm always passing at least two or three whenever I walk someplace. I bought a pair of snow/hiking boots at one for about $11 and at another I got a sweater (made partly from cashmere) that I am pretty certain is actually brand new for $6.50. I like saving money but I like being a sustainable consumer even more. I was afraid I couldn't thrift in Romania back before I got here in the summer but my fears were completely unfounded. It can be harder to find really good stuff than in the States but you can still find nice things with persistence and a touch of luck. Plus, the longer the hunt, the better those hard-won items will seem.

And then there's the weather. Even though I grew up in SoCal, where there is arguably no real winter, I actually appreciate a differentiation of seasons. When I was here in July, it was warm (though not hot to me). Then it got cool in the fall and now it is actually, genuinely cold. It's been, quite literally, freezing, and I have loved it. I didn't like it when my hands nearly froze but other than that, the cold hasn't bothered me. I have a running bet with Brandusa that in one week from today, snow will still be on the ground in front of our apartment building. She thinks it will all have melted from the warmer weather we're supposed to have over the next several days. The loser has to buy the winner a chocolate bar. I'm fairly confident there will still be at least some slush. I think I'm going to ask for a Milka.

There are a thousand other little things I love about Romania: the roundabouts and the fruit trees anyone can eat from and the amusing graffiti and the big fur hats people wear in winter and the mountains and the way the windows open and how we light our stove and the radiators and the Top 40 playing everywhere and corn on pizza and the swans and the lake and the cool old cars and I'm even getting used to military time. I love so many things here. I even love the grungy, gritty, faded Soviet-era apartment buildings that tower on every block. It looks beautiful to me. I realize this appreciation may seem fanatical, that it might mean I'm still stuck in the "honeymoon phase" of cultural adaptation. However, I'd rather love something, somewhere as much as I can, since apathy is not really a better option. Loving too much is something I have done in the past, but I have to say, it's one of the mistakes I regret the least.

Thanks for reading!

To donate to my fundraiser for an apartment for tinerii orphans and myself, click here.

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Mission

I have to admit, things certainly are "full speed ahead" over here. There are several new responsibilities which I must take care of, many of them related to living here long-term. For example: finding an apartment, filling out paperwork for a visa, getting medical insurance, finding someone to prescribe me my medication, getting plugged in at church. A lot of this is normal stuff, but not quite understanding Romanian and speaking even less of it makes things much more difficult. And this is all just "surviving as an adult" territory.

What I am really trying to focus on is, as Joe put it, "the mission." That is the why of my being here. I didn't just up and leave the US because I like Romania better (although I really do). I'm here because God called me to witness and to serve the Romanian people. So in all my running around to just exist, I have a greater purpose. And importantly, telling you about it is fundamental to this purpose.

Okay, so my most urgent order of business, finding an apartment, actually serves both causes. I need an apartment to live in...and so do other young people who have had to leave their orphanage. At age 18, orphans are on their own to find a place to live. That is where I hope to come in. I'm trying to find an apartment 1) in our neighborhood 2) with at least three bedrooms and 3) that isn't a dump. My Martian friend has been helping me and I hope she can live in the apartment, too. We can house up to six girls in a three bedroom flat, plus if we get fold-out sofas, we can have guests stay over, too. However, finding a flat in our neighborhood with that many rooms is proving to be a challenge. I will keep you all informed via my fundraiser page.

My actual work has become more focused on social media. I've been picking the best photos off of Dropbox for use in our social media campaign. We're already on Facebook, but I want to to expand to Instagram and Twitter, as well. Right now, I've been making gifs, which is actually a little more of an art form that I thought it would be, and I'm still working out all the kinks. But I've made several and I can't wait to share them.

We are being restricted as to how we can hang out with our kids. Without divulging too much, we can no longer go to the orphanage to visit them. They must visit us. We can work more openly with the kids who are eighteen and older since they are adults, but our involvement with any of the younger teens and with the children has been dramatically curtailed. There are many kids who I haven't even seen since I got back. I miss all of them, and can't wait to see them. We aren't giving up.

Why have things changed? Again, I can't tell any specifics, but I can say that we haven't done anything wrong. Persecution can take many forms. When someone is unhappy, organizations like ours can be vulnerable. If a missionary really is doing dynamic and groundbreaking work, there is sure to be opposition, and not just benign competition, but sometimes a genuine threat to ministry. We really need your prayers. There have been some very stressful days for us since I have been here. Things have died down a little, but we're not out of the woods yet. In fact, missionaries are kind of constantly "in the woods." This is it. This is the cost of carrying our cross. Jesus didn't promise that it would be free of danger. We are called to carry it anyway.

This information might be surprising to those of my readers who see Romania as being "advanced" enough to not persecute ministries. After all, Romania has been the focus of many missions organizations over the years, after the fall of communism. Next Generation is not alone in the call to minister to Romania. But this country is still, shall I say, suspicious of ministry activity. Part of it may be a desire to protect the kids from "outsiders." But baseless fear and xenophobia are also components.

Our kids are strong. And we believe they have the power and the know-how to keep working with us and keep seeking after Jesus. Please pray for our kids, for the Romanian authorities and for us.

If you would like to become more involved with my apartment for girls, you can donate here. Thanks a lot! Multumesc foarte mult!

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Martian

What a whirlwind. Being back feels less surreal than when I first jumped on board with Next Generation in Romania back in July, but somehow life seems to be moving faster than ever here. After my hectic arrival, I settled in and began to come to terms with the fact that the apartment that I have shared with my NGO family will eventually become a boys' apartment and I will need to find a new place to live. Possibly, hopefully, I will share a yet unknown apartment with my good friend, Brandusa.

Brandusa is not only my buddy but also my very own personal photographer. Normal walks through town turn into impromptu photo shoots. She also makes me crack up...the other day we were talking about our heritage. We talked about genealogy and how everyone originated from Africa, as they say. Then without cracking a smile, as if she were saying she was from Moldova, Brandu said, "I am from Mars."

I about lost it. Julia* was all the way across the room, which was full of people, and burst out laughing at the way that I was laughing. Meanwhile Rasvan* looked at the both of us like we were absolutely crazy. Brandusa still insists she is from Mars. It's not so bad being friends with a Martian, though.

Today I went to my Romanian lesson, which I was resuming, although I have been studying on my own very consistently, especially since I have arrived here. It's like more and more pieces to the puzzle of the language are coming together. It's a great feeling.

Anyway, while I was at my lesson who called me but my Martian friend. I called her afterward and she suggested we take another walk (yesterday was the unexpected photo shoot trip through town). I said yes at once, being excited, because it had continued to snow today and apparently I love snow. I've never experienced this much snow falling from the sky. Everything is extra beautiful. Piatra is gorgeous to me even on the stuffiest day, but now it's a winter wonderland. I went home and ate peanut butter and cherry jam on a piece of bread and then got my camera ready.

I met her outside. For once, I was out before her. I took some pictures of the snow in the trees, the snow on the munte (mountains) and the snow on the little fence. Snow everywhere. Then Brandusa came out of her apartment building, and off we went. Our destination was the lake, where we would take some pictures of swans. I was surprised to see that swans can evidently withstand the almost freezing temperature of the lake. Before leaving our street we had purchased three loaves of bread for the swans, and some sodas, for us. The walk was not long but it felt longer than normal, due to the conditions. The snow was very powdery. It wasn't good for packing into snowballs, not at all. I could barely make one. We crossed the street and took pictures of the foot-bridge but didn't cross it. Instead we walked along the creek until we got to some steps by the dam and then scaled them. Up here was the lake.

"Where are the swans?" Brandusa said as she looked around. We went off to one side, before seeing a flock of swans at least a hundred meters away.

"Don't worry, they will come," Brandusa said, and she adjusted her camera and I took a loaf a bread from her backpack. I began hurling chunks of bread into the water, torn off the loaf (which has tough crust like French bread). I plopped pieces into my mouth, too, since I was hungry. Eventually the swans started swimming over very gracefully. And then one seemed to say, "screw it," and sort of flew/leaped ahead of all of the rest to get the first pieces of bread.

Even before we took up our position on this side of the lake, my hands started getting cold. Very cold. As I used my hands and fingers to tear off chunks of bread, they somehow managed to become colder and simultaneously very numb and began to hurt. Really hurt. How I could both physically be numb and in pain, I don't know, but it's all too possible. But Brandusa was getting great shots, so I finished off the loaf. And then I grabbed the second. And then the third...

There was an incline from where we stood behind a small fence that led down to the water, and occasionally one of my smaller chunks of bread would land here. A swan, maybe the same fearless one who flew/catapulted, waddled up the incline to get some of the bread chunks, and a few more followed.

"Get them to take it from your hand," Brandu said. This came after she had earlier insisted that swan bites don't hurt. So eventually one swan was brave enough to begin taking the chunks from my now double-gloved hand (Brandu had given me hers to use as well). The swan was somewhat proficient at being fed...sort of sloppy, I guess. Its beak didn't hurt me when it missed the bread the first time. I tried tossing the chunks, like you would to a dog, but swans seem to suck at catching things. It wouldn't even try to catch them. So I went back to hand-feeding.

Then the swan bit my finger. Even through two gloves, it really hurt my nearly frost-bitten finger, because the swan was, like, trying to tear off my finger like it was a particularly tough chunk of bread or something. Ow. I think I will name this swan Charlie. "Charlie bit my finger." Why not.

My hands were freezing. Like literally, the air outside was freezing, the ground was freezing, everything was covered in frozen water that just needed some cherry syrup to be a snow cone. The freezing everything was freezing the blood and skin in my fingers and hands. No other part of me was so cold, not even my toes.

"I want to go now."

"Okay, one moment."

Brandusa took some more pictures...the swans migrated (not literally) to the other side of the lake...we followed them...more pictures...some guy who kept leaving and coming back very graciously pointed out a dead swan churning in a whirlpool next to the of that...a swan started flying but Brandu missed the shot. Then we finally climbed back down the precariously snowy steps.

My hands didn't get warmer until we had almost gotten back to our street. But finally I didn't feel like I was going to be left with stubs for fingers. Rather than going to buy proper shoes for the snow right away, I suggested we meet up a little later so I could thaw.

Two bowls of Romanian chicken noodle soup later, I was ready. We walked to a secondhand shop and the amount of shoes crammed on the racks reaching over my head overwhelmed me. Apparently when it comes to sizes of feet, here I am a 38. I found the perfect pair, not cute by any stretch, but I can use them both for snow and for hiking in any weather. They're just ugly enough (and cheap enough) that I won't worry about messing them up. I love them.

I wouldn't have found this awesome pair of shoes nor gotten to really experience the snow nor learned so much about Piatra Neamt nor gotten so many personal portraits, nor done a great many other wonderful things if I didn't have Brandusa. Importantly, I wouldn't have been able to claim bragging rights to have been bitten by a swan, and having a great anecdote is one of my truest joys in life. My Martian photographer friend who can withstand the coldest temperatures has been a definite blessing to me. I hope she doesn't mind this post in her honor since she is always doing so much for me.


Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Cutting It Close

My parents and I left the house in Ontario at 2:00 pm, to be sure I'd be checking in at the airport by 4:45 pm even if there was traffic on the way to LAX. There wasn't much, though. We were also anticipating protesters, and we'd heard that they sometimes blocked traffic going into the airport, but when we arrived there was only a small group of them in from of an entrance at the arrivals next to where I checked in to Turkish Airlines. I got an iced vanilla latte, listening to the people yelling and beating on drums. My parents and I hung out for a little while before I needed to go through security. I hugged them good-bye and went upstairs to wait in line. I'll see them again in June.

Security wasn't too bad, and I didn't envy the TSA for their need to repeatedly tell everyone to completely, absolutely empty their pockets. Somehow, people still don't believe them and go through with bits of paper in their pants. I got frisked and only confused the TSA lady when I told her I had metal rods in my back. I got through, though, and then proceeded past all of the shiny duty-free shops to purchase the biggest, cheapest bottle of water I could find. Then I listened to alternative rock while waiting at my gate, and watched the sky change from light to dark. Then we all lined up to board the plane.

In my line just ahead of me there was an attractive guy about my age with a dark, full beard. After an announcement over the PA warning some poor woman that if she didn't catch her flight soon enough her luggage would be removed, I remarked to the guy, how could it be possible to search through all of the luggage just to find hers? He agreed that he didn't know, and so we began talking. He was of Turkish descent, he told me, but he had grown up in Sweden, and so I assumed his accent was Swedish. He was flying back to Stockholm via Istanbul. He had just spent four months traveling pretty literally all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Los Angeles, plus many others. He talked about how it had been really hot in the southern hemisphere. All this traveling, he told me, had been just for fun, not for work, something for which he'd been saving up, and now the money was gone, so he was going home. He'd been traveling alone, apparently. It boggled my mind. I thought, I could never do that. But there I was boarding a plane to spend ten months in Romania.

I learned this Turkish Swede's name before we parted ways on the plane and then took my seat. By some remarkable stroke of luck or divine mercy, there was no one sitting in the space between where I sat by the window and the woman on the aisle. I stuck my sweatshirt on the seat of it, as the lady had put her backpack on the floor. We were told to turn off all electronic devices, as we were about to leave. But we didn't.

I waited. It's not unusual for there to be slight delays in takeoff. But ten minutes turned into twenty, which turned into half an hour, and then 45 minutes...

It might have been an hour before the plane finally began moving. No explanation was given. I worried about making my connecting flight to Bucharest. I hadn't thought of this on the plane but later I would remember that I had opted for the shortest layover possible, just about an hour. I had had confidence in my ability to navigate the Istanbul airport. It's just going from one gate to another, right?

The flight from LAX to Istanbul felt oddly short. Maybe I was more comfortable with no one next to me, but I still had trouble sleeping. It was night, briefly, and I slept for about two hours before waking up to the streaks of dawn prematurely lightening the sky. I woke up in a weird mood, sort of a sad one. I listened to music again and before I knew it, as we approached Istanbul, the sky darkened again and it was night. The food had been pretty good, chicken pasta with a salad. I stuck to my commitment to not drink soda much anymore. I don't know why we don't have cherry juice in the States, because it's great. We touched down in Turkey sometime after 8 pm, or as all the digital clocks said, 20:00.

I only pulled out my next boarding pass when I got off the plane. My next plane was leaving...not, had already 19:00.

Great. I'd missed my flight. After using the facilities, I went to a desk to ask what I should do. They directed me to another desk which directed me to gate 214, I thought. I went up to a lady working to get a flight to Bangkok boarded at this gate and she said, maybe mine was the next flight, with no real confidence. Sigh. I waited at this gate, all the while keeping my eyes on the display of all the flights, checking and checking again to see if "Bucharest" was going to pop up, ready to bolt to the first gate it appeared with. I waited.

I gave up waiting and went to some desk and they told me that I was supposed to go to some other desk at 214, not the actual gate itself. But it hadn't mattered that I'd wasted that time, I would find out, because the next flight to Bucharest wasn't leaving until...1:00 am. My bus was leaving Bucharest at 2:00 am, with or without me on it. Even though I'd gain an hour flying back slightly west, that was still cutting it close. But I thought I could make it. And I was now officially booked for that flight.

I was told I could receive a meal ticket. I would need to go back upstairs to the food court, but it wasn't that simple. My wild goose chase was just getting started. I basically knew where I had come from down the stairs, but I'd had to ask at least five different people how to get to the elevator. I got close when one guy whose English was "very little" told me to go to security control. "It says, 'Security Control?'" I asked, using my hands to indicate a sign. "Yes."

I saw a sign that said "Control" of some kind, but no "Security." I asked a few more people. I probably looked like an idiot, walking back and forth so much. But I needed to rely on my own discernment. Otherwise, if I'd listened to one person and gone through the passport check, I'd be stranded in Turkey right now. Eventually, when I asked a guy to take me to the elevator, he told me I just needed to have my carry-ons checked, right through here. Okay. I went through, and got back upstairs.

Then I had to get the meal ticket. This was less difficult, thankfully. I chose Popeyes, because why not. I had a chance to sit down and breathe in the food court. I noticed I was the only one sitting alone. I think Istanbul is one of those international hubs in the world where there is a conflux of people from at least three continents all stopping by on their way to wherever. I saw all kinds of people. People from Africa, from Asia, from the Middle East. Women in hijabs and burqas and for the first time in my life I saw (or noticed) women with big, colorful bonnet-like hats and colorful skirts. I have no idea where they were from but I wouldn't mind wearing that kind of outfit. They were beautiful. They were all beautiful. And somehow, in some small way, I was a part of all this, sitting there, eating fried chicken with my fingers and breaking my promise not to drink soda.

I was tired of sitting so even under my heavy backpack containing my laptop and camera among other things, I went over to stand under the monitors displaying the gates. Bucharest's gate popped up so off I went.

I easily found the gate and waited. Then I got on the shuttle bus and waited. Then I sat on the plane and waited. I prayed that I would make my bus to Roman. "Please, Jesus." I'd prayed that at multiple points throughout my adventure so far, and it wasn't over yet.

We took off on time. The flight was about an hour and a half or so. We landed at 1:18 am, Romania time. We didn't actually get off the plane until about 1:30 am, so I had a hot half an hour to get to my bus. It was crunch time.

Off the plane, I power-walked past everyone who had been in front of me. People were just standing on the escalator so I jumped up two steps at a time up the stairs, passing them all. I was the first to reach the passport check and the guy graciously asked me absolutely no questions, even though I had rehearsed how I'd tell him that I was going to apply for a volunteer visa. But there was no need, apparently, so off I hurried to baggage claim.

I had to wait a precious five minutes or more for my luggage. But one after the other, they were among the first handful of bags to be spit out on the conveyor. Then off I went. I knew where to I thought. I had instructions to just go downstairs to catch my bus. I did so, dragging my two suitcases because I didn't want to have to deal with a cart. I came to the bus stop, and waited.

It was 2:00 am. My bus was nowhere in sight. Thus began my second wild goose chase, asking a person here where to go, going there, and then finding no bus of mine, asking someone else and going wherever they sent me. I walked back and forth downstairs, then upstairs again, then downstairs once more. Brandusa texted me that my bus was leaving. I hurried even more. I was told my bus was off somewhere down the road, so off I went, until concluding it was pointless and turning back. I walked back to the parking lot and stood by the side of the road. I had to stop because I was trying not to cry and I was having difficulty breathing. On the side of the road, I stopped to finish off my giant bottle of water. I had no more ideas.

Then a bus came up toward me. It said the name of my bus company on it, but I almost couldn't believe it. It went through the roundabout and I had to get out of its way but it stopped and the driver got out.

"Pentru Roman?" I asked, and while the guy's answer was ambivalent (Roman was just one of several stops), he took my luggage and he knew my last name so after trying to give him my printout ticket I hurried up the steps, tripping and falling on my way up and swearing mildly. The phrase "hot mess" pops into my head now, but there I was, by the grace of God. I had done it. I was on my way, and on schedule.

Brandusa was there to pick me up as soon as we arrived in Roman. I can't tell you how good it was to see her. As we walked to her dad's car, the biggest flock of birds I have ever seen flew up out of the woods next to us. I took it as a good omen. Then we started talking and it was like we'd never been apart. As we caught up, I stared at the fields all covered in snow, the sky coming to life with the light of dawn.

And here I am. Thanks for reading this very long story. I thought it was worth writing, though.