Monday, February 27, 2017

On washing dishes and being church.

I've been reading this book lately: Take This Bread by Sara Miles.  It's the first spiritual memoir I've read in a while that really resonates -- maybe in part because she doesn't try to gloss over anything or make church easy, and maybe in part because it's largely about food.  I could easily quote half of it here, although it's probably more worthwhile for all of us to just go read the original.  So instead, a story from the cantina -- and then Sara's words, better written than mine could ever be.

On Friday I made a giant tocaniță de cartofi for the cantina.  There were 17 hungry kids there, and they piled into the new upstairs room noisily, eagerly sniffing at the smell of stew wafting from the giant pot in the corner.  The other volunteers were late, so I started serving alone, trying to somehow maintain that delicate balance between authority and gentleness that seems practically impossible but desperately necessary.  I dished up stew and passed it out; I led the kids in prayer, trying to model reverence while keeping one eye squintily open to watch for punches and food-throwing.  I doled out scoops of sour cream and re-filled bread baskets, trying to fill everyone's plate and tummies while ladling out kind words and individual attention.  But mostly, I kept going back to Denisa and Emanuela to break up fights.  I'd turn my back to try and engage a shy kid who wasn't talking to anyone, and two seconds later hear a hollered, "Kelly! She threw bread at me!"  Needless to say, it was, well, only a few steps removed from anarchy.  And I was feeling far from cheery or reflective.

Eventually most of the kids were satiated and (amazingly) filtered out with little smiles and nods (or, in the case of two of the boys, by hurtling down the steps and jumping out the front door of the church directly into a big pile of melted snow-mud).  But Denisa and Emanuela stayed, picking slowly at their food and distractedly trying to get my attention.  I talked to them for a while as they finished eating their third helpings, and then said it was time to clean up.  "Can we help?" they asked.

I didn't want their help.  They'd been obnoxious and disrespectful and rude for the last hour, and I was ready to wash the dishes in peace.  But they had already run after the broom and the wash basin, so I sighed and said yes.  And soon we were tromping up the stairs, carefully balancing basins of warm water, bringing them up to the cantina room to wash the now-empty plates.  I washed, Emanuela rinsed, and Denisa wiped tables, the three of us settling into a soapy rhythm.  We chatted a little, not about anything important, and they lingered and lingered, not wanting to go home.

In Sara's book, she opens a food pantry at her church (St. Gregory's in San Francisco), and quickly people who come to the pantry to receive food begin offering to help serve.  The group is far from your stereotypical church volunteers -- mostly unchurched and poor, but faithful to this weekly Friday gathering.  Sara calls the pantry communion, the Table of Jesus, to which all are welcome to come and eat.  More than a "ministry" or "program," the pantry was church itself, God's people gathered to share and rejoice in the gifts of God.  And its magnetism was obvious, as one of her fellow volunteers said:

"... he insisted we had to keep giving people a chance to work if they asked, even if we had doubts.  'The thing is,' he said thoughtfully, 'a lot of people need to volunteer.  They want more than food.'   They wanted, in fact, church: not the kind where you sit obediently and listen to someone tell you how to behave, but the kind where you discover responsibility, purpose, meaning.  They wanted a church where they could bring their sorrows, their gifts, their entire messy lives: where they could find community."

The cantina is hard sometimes.  It's messy and cold and we still don't have a sink, or enough adults to help care well for the kids and also serve food.  I usually get exasperated and short-sighted about 10 minutes in.  But something in this caught my attention -- the sheer magnetic pull of church, for two little girls who don't step foot in Betel on Sunday mornings.  The desire to help, to give out of what they'd received, to find purpose, and to be known and loved: this is what the cantina is creating.  Imperfectly, slowly, haltingly... but truly.  Church.

Monday, February 13, 2017


Our IMPACT kids are working on a new project.  Lupeni has big problems with garbage -- there's a lot of litter, and the dumpsters around town where people from the blocks bring their household trash are almost always overflowing (partially due to dogs jumping into them and rummaging around in search of food).  There are still a few places in town where people just throw trash over the edge of a precipice (out of sight, out of mind, I guess), leaving enormous, slowly sagging heaps below.

The kids in our club want to bring recycling facilities into Lupeni.  Some of the other towns in the Jiu Valley have them, and there's a sorting plant only about 20 km away.  They have learned about recycling at school and think it's appalling that we don't have a way to do it here.  (Well, that's not totally true -- there are a few people who make their living picking bottles and jars out of the dumpsters and then carrying them on rickety carts to the sorting plant.  But it's certainly not a very thorough or efficient system, and a lot gets lost.)

So before Christmas, a few of the members went and talked to the mayor's office about it.  There they sat, three shy teenage girls, nervously twisting their hair around their fingers, while the vice-mayor, secretary, and environmental officer smiled kindly at them from across the huge conference table.  In that meeting we found out that the city was already trying to bring recycling services into Lupeni, but the process of finding a company who would provide it at a good price was taking a long time.  In the meantime, they pointed out, our club could do a lot to promote the idea of recycling, since simply providing a bunch of colorful containers is pointless if no one uses them.

Our kids jumped at the idea, and after we returned from Christmas break, we began planning.  They're hoping to do some promotional short videos, fun stuff like "the superheroes of recycling," to raise awareness.  They're hoping to design some posters to show people how easy it is to collect waste separately.  They're hoping to design flyers showing the benefits of recycling for the natural environment.  They're hoping to follow people around town to catch them littering and then talk about it.  (We'll see how that one goes.)  And in the meantime, they're doing petitions.

Most of the kids in our IMPACT club have a really deep-seated distrust of the local government, which I find fascinating -- it seems like an advanced level of cynicism for a bunch of 13- and 14-year-olds.  But they don't really trust that the city hall is going to keep their promise, or do it quickly, and so they are collecting signatures from Lupeni residents who also believe in the importance of providing separate collection facilities alongside normal trash pickup.  They want to bring these to the mayor's office as an extra dose of accountability and encouragement to bring the recycling infrastructure into our town.

On Thursday, the kids had a day off from school, so 10 of them came piling into the NHF office.  They had designed a really simple petition, so we printed out a bunch of copies, gave them official-looking folders to carry them in, made sure everyone had a pen, and divided into teams.  Then we traipsed outside and divided up stairwells (after I gave them a stern talking-to about respect, safety, and common-sense when going door-to-door).  I watched as the kids nervously entered the dark stairwells of the apartment building, folders clutched nervously in hand, their earlier bravado fading at the prospect of actually talking to real adults.  I waited behind the block in the cold, watching for them to come down.

The first group reappeared only about 3 minutes later.  They said they'd only talked to one older gentleman, who said the rest of the apartments were empty that time of day because everyone was at work.  They were a little disappointed, but jubilantly opened their folder to show me his signature adorning the top of the first page.  "Let's do another one!" they cried, and rushed off into another stairwell.

The next group had better luck, and almost everyone they talked to was willing to sign the petition.  "We figured out that we have to introduce ourselves a certain way so that they don't think we're selling something," the kids said, nodding at each other, proud of their discovery.  And they too rushed off to test their theory in another stairwell.

The third group took forever, and came back jubilant.  "We filled a whole page!" they cried.  After high fives all around, they explained that one of the women was on the phone to her sister, who was currently away in Italy, and her sister was so excited to hear about the petition that she asked to have the kids sign her up even from far away.  (We had to talk about the importance of everyone signing for themselves after that... but it was still fun to see the enthusiasm.)

And on it went.  Eventually I returned to the office, as the kids eagerly went through neighborhood blocks, calling me occasionally to report their progress.  In just two and a half hours, they collected more than 250 signatures, which they jubilantly reported on Facebook.  The next morning they were back again, ready to go out another time.

It's been so fun to watch the kids blossom in this project.  They aren't little anymore; they're mostly in 8th and 9th grade, so they don't need (or want) me and Jack to come with them all the time.  But they still need someone to run back to, triumphantly waving their folder in the air.  Giving them freedom to go alone, to go unscripted, to do as much or as little as they want, has been really exciting to watch -- because they're doing it, and doing it well.  It's a glimpse of their potential.  And there is so much potential in these kids.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The mountains.

It's melty and gray today, matching my mood at the political situation of the past week, both in Romania and back in the U.S.  So today I want to share one of the good gifts of life -- these beautiful, beautiful mountains.


Sometimes their bulk and beauty is all we need to remember who, and why, we are.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

God bless America.

We just got back from a trip to the US, visiting friends and families and supporters.  It was lovely and exhausting, life-giving and life-draining, fun and boring and delightful and Good.  As always.  We've been really thankful to have a budget that includes a yearly trip back to America -- it's helped keep relationships closer to friendships than to long-lost strangers.  And for that I'm really, really thankful.

But this trip felt different.

I remember when we first moved to Romania, someone told us to be "careful" because there is a "spirit of darkness" in former Communist countries.  My previous trips to Eastern Europe had all started in the vibrance of summer, so I'd never had that sense (except for the literal darkness when we first arrived in Bucharest on January 3, 2013, since I think the sun set at, like, 4:45pm).  Perhaps my radar doesn't function as sensitively as it should, but I've just never noticed a great sense of oppression, spiritual or otherwise, here.  Sure, there are things in Romania that are sad and broken and troubling.  But that's everywhere.  And on this trip back, I felt it in the US.  I am sure part of it was due to cloudy skies and rain.  But largely for other reasons, it felt heavy.  

The inauguration is tomorrow, and although this blog is supposed to be about our life in Romania, I would be lying if I said my head and heart will be anywhere but Washington, D.C., this weekend.  The women's march on Washington is happening and I wish I could be there; the first president I ever voted for is leaving office and I mourn that; and a man and team who seem to support much that is wrong and evil in the world are taking power instead.  I feel sad, and angry, and frustrated to be so far away.

For some bizarre reason, the old song "God bless America" has been running through my head today.  So I have been chewing on those words.  All three of them.  And here's what I have been thinking.

God: as in the triune Creator.  Creator of the universe, of the good and beautiful creation: the prairies being mowed under for new buildings and the forests being logged around our ropes course.  God the Father, the all-powerful one, who doesn't tolerate sin, and who David cried out to in Psalm 109, "They repay me evil for good, and hate for love.  Appoint an evil man to testify against him!  May an accuser stand at his right side!  When he is judged, he will be found guilty!  Then his prayer will be regarded as sinful.  May his days be few!  May another take his job!"  God the almighty, who does hold the earth in the palm of his hands, and who has already won the war (even if we lose the battle).  God who is victorious and just and will lift up the meek and the humble.

God: as in Jesus.  The one who became flesh, who walked gently in the midst of violence and Roman oppression.  The one who turned the whole idea of "victory" upside-down.  The one who suffered -- oh, how he suffered -- who descended to hell -- who knows the tears of abandoned Romanian orphans, who knows the fears of the refugee, who hears the prayers of the lonely -- that Jesus.  The Jesus who sought out the outcast, the leper, the unloved and uncared for, and touched them before it was safe, before they were healed.  The Jesus who refused power and wealth and safety, even when he could have had it.  The Jesus who took shame and pain for the sake of truth and love.  That Jesus.

God: as in the Holy Spirit.  The holy mystery who somehow gives peace amidst pain, who convicts of sin and keeps our hearts soft -- even as we laugh with the late-night comedians (how we need to laugh) and scream at the news of injustice taking hold -- and somehow pushes us back to grace.  Who rouses us to action.  Who fills us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness... and with the prophetic gifts, which are not quiet or status quo, but truth-telling and provocative.  The Spirit who moves in unexpected ways, building unexpected alliances, uprooting our assumptions and dismantling our lies.

Yeah.  That God.

Bless: as in blessed are the poor in spirit.  Those who mourn.  The meek.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The merciful.  The pure of heart.  The peacemakers.  Those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.  For they will receive the kingdom of heaven, they will be comforted, they will inherit the earth, they will be filled, they will be shown mercy, they will see God, they will be called children of God.

Bless: as in "to pronounce holy."  Blameless.  Or, "to request God to bestow divine favor."  We Americans like to use that second definition, often forgetting the first.  We want God's favor, usually on our existing way of life.  We don't so much want to be holy.  We don't so much want the Beatitudes.  We want the easy, soft gospel; we want the symbols of piety without the sacrifices of holiness; we want to "be on the right side of history" without doing anything about it.  I'm not sure we'd ask God to bless America so often if we read the Beatitudes more.

And America: we mean the United States, but we claim the whole continent (or two).  America: the land of the free and the home of the brave, the land of mass incarceration and the home of the guns.  United we stand, divided we fall -- and divided we are, unable even to talk to each other about why we voted the way we did.

Oh, America.  May God bless you and keep you.  May he make his face to shine upon you and give you peace.

May he bless you with meekness and peacemakers, with humility and hunger for righteousness.  It's gonna hurt.  We probably deserve that.  We definitely need it.

May he keep you -- not because you are a "Christian nation" (what a ridiculous notion; the whole idea was dismantled when we Gentiles were welcomed into the Church) -- but because we are a country filled with God's children.  All of us are God's children, not some more than others.  All of us are created in his image.  (This includes the Evangelicals who voted for Trump, and the LGBTQ community, and members of the NRA, and gang members in the 'hood, and Donald himself, and little old ladies in nursing homes, and your local plumber.)  God loves his children, even if we don't always love him back.

May he make his face shine upon you -- although that seems pretty dangerous, if Moses and the book of Revelation are any indicators.

May he give you peace.  Not fake peace, the unsettled quiet of burying things under the rug... but rather, the hard, gritty, true peace of reconciliation.

Oh, may he give you peace.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Beautiful things.

I was walking home from work, almost to the door of our apartment building, when I saw Diana stepping out of the bakery.  We're not close -- we go to the same church and are friendly, but we don't actually know each other well -- and yet she walked over to me, beaming.

We greeted each other, and I asked her why she was looking so cheery.

"I've been reading the stories in the Bible of Jesus," she said to me, blushing and looking at the ground shyly.  "And I think I am falling in love with him."

It was lovely.  Diana, a shy and single woman who suffers from a serious skin condition, doesn't smile often, and when she does it's usually fleeting.  But here she was, grinning, her eyes sparkling, as she talked about her Savior.

Beautiful things.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016


2016 doesn't seem to be shaping up to be a great year for politics.

I'll try to keep my comments on the U.S. presidential election off the blog (at least for now), though I will simply say that we are praying hard for the November contest.  But here in Romania, we just suffered through a round of local elections that left many disappointed... including us.

On Sunday, June 5, every town in Romania held its local elections, selecting its mayors, city council members, and county-level representatives.  In Lupeni, 9 different men ran for mayor, representing a wide variety of parties: the PSD (one of the largest parties in Romania; ex-prime minister Victor Ponta was the leader of the PSD until he resigned under scandal last year); the PNL (the party of the current Romanian president, Klaus Iohannis); the nationalist Romanian and Hungarian parties (both rather extremist, though obviously in different directions); and various other smaller parties that I know little about.  One of the things I appreciate greatly about the Romanian political system is the viability of multiple parties; the country doesn't seem to be locked into the duality of the American system.  This comes with its downsides, though, as it also means that opposition votes can get quite divided.

We've written a bit before about our concerns with the former mayor of Lupeni, Cornel Resmerița, a PSD party member who was arrested last year by the national anti-corruption bureau and is still under investigation on corruption charges.  Because he was barred from running, his son, Cristian Cornel Resmerița, ran for the PSD instead.  He won.  If the name is no indication, it seems likely that the son will follow in his father's footsteps... and we are really disappointed.

Somehow it's not a surprise, though.  The name recognition is hard to overcome, especially when you have 8 other candidates on the field.  But over the past few weeks, the election campaigning has worked up to a fever pitch... well, as feverish as anything gets in a small, fatalistic-feeling town.  We don't have a TV, so we don't know if there have been ads.  But there have been posters -- rows and rows of the same poster slapped on buildings and shop windows, with the name of the candidate, a generic slogan, and a severe-looking picture of the frowning wannabe-mayor glaring down at you.  I don't really understand the logic of putting up dozens of the same exact poster, side-by-side, on the same bulletin board, but that seems to be the way things are done here.  Sometimes shops will display multiple posters for different candidates, leaving you to wonder who's really supporting who.  Beyond the posters, the only other campaigning I'd seen were pamphlets, often handed out by large groups of people who strolled slowly down the sidewalk of Lupeni, dressed in party colors, walking in a huge group down the sidewalk and pushing flyers into the hands of passersby.  (The PSD also organized a carnival in the park, gave out balloons to school children, and visited retirees in their homes to promise bags of groceries in exchange for a vote... tactics which seem an awful lot like cheating to me, but we won't get into that right now.)

What I didn't see was any sort of real dialogue about the candidates and the issues.  None of the posters had a website where you could go to learn more, and I don't think most of the candidates even had a Facebook page.  There were no public forums or debates.  The closest we got to hearing the nine candidates' positions on various issues affecting Lupeni were slogans like "People first" and "All together for Lupeni," which mean just about nothing.  And listening to people talk about the election at the market and on the maxi taxi and in the evening after church, it soon became terribly apparent: this way of doing politics sucks.

America's civic discourse is awful and ugly right now in many ways, but at least it exists.  And much of it is still productive, thoughtful, and issues-focused, even if it's the vile stuff that most often makes the news.  Here in Lupeni, the level of democratic participation and discussion hasn't gotten there yet.  These elections made it painfully obvious that buying votes with bread and circuses (literally) still really works -- and there's not yet an alternative.  On Facebook and in the streets, I hear tons of Lupeni's people saying how dissatisfied they are with corruption and apathy and the Resmerița dynasty, and yet -- without an organized opposition, without voter education and open discourse about the alternatives -- he still won.  It's discouraging and daunting and confusing, and leaves me wondering all sorts of things.  When it comes to politics (something I am pretty passionate about in the States), I wonder often about my role here as an outsider.  I wonder about trying to encourage democratic discourse, since being outsiders sometimes allows us to see things in a different light and propose new ideas.  I wonder about having opinions about politics at all, since, being outsiders, this is in so many ways not something we understand deeply enough, not our battle to fight, not our community to defend.  I wonder about the best way to show my disappointment, since the election didn't seem truly free and fair.  I wonder about the best way to keep believing in hope, when many in the community continue to make choices I don't understand.

I wish I had some way to end this post well, some lesson learned or neat end to tie up.  But I don't.  Just like it hurts to see someone you love make bad choices, it hurts to watch Lupeni -- a community I have come to love -- make a choice that I am afraid is wrong.  For now I'll be trying to pray for Resmerița Jr., and debriefing the results with our friends who are also disappointed.  And then we'll put our heads up and keep on fighting the good fight.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Some days, kids are like pandas.

Lately, a lot of our work with kids has felt like this.

Except, there's more than 2 of them.  But they're still cute and cuddly.  So that's good at least.