Walking the cycles of poverty

Just like that, her decision was made.
Just like that, her future options constricted.

“But why?” we asked her.

Her face, bright and intelligent, folded inward with shy reserve.  She shrugged her shoulders.  “I don’t know,” was her only response.

And so, another young girl decided not to continue going to school this year. This is not an unusual scenario throughout hundreds of Roma villages in Southeastern Europe— the drop-out rates for Roma children are far higher and the levels of education far lower than the majority culture—but I felt this one deeply because I know this girl, and I know in a few years she will likely be in the same vicious cycles of poverty as the rest of the village. The reasons are complex and intertwined, and yet as I am confronted with such a decision by a young girl who cannot possibly know or imagine what her future could be, I feel both disheartened and frustrated by my own response or lack thereof.

For three days last week, our team from Little Darda Church conducted a children’s festival of Bible drama, crafts, and games. We assigned some of the teenage girls to be “helpers” in each of the groups.  My assistant was a girl of 12 going on 20—incredibly smart, witty, ambitious, and holding a yet unopened reservoir of leadership gifts. This girl wants to have a different path in life—she wants to finish high school, go to college, and one day have her own apartment.  For her, this seems a pie-in-the-sky dream, and there are many difficult factors and challenges that would oppose it.

But as we worked together for three days, I could see God’s hand on her life.  I could imagine her being able to use all the gifts she has been given in the future. I could see that she felt special being selected to be a “helper” and she took her responsibility very seriously.  10682060_10152745359482755_1664665366_n

“I think it is time for the children to move on to the craft and stop coloring,” she would inform me earnestly.

But she is only 12; and her strength and courage cannot completely mask something fragile hidden carefully in her spirit. 

I acutely feel my own helplessness, although once again I am convicted that there is more I can do to serve this village.  It is easy enough to talk about possibilities and needs without the urgency of implementation.  On the other hand, it is just as easy to implement something to feel good about oneself without careful thought. But there is a sense of urgency for this small generation of young people in this village.  Of course we know that education is not the great answer to social ills, but it is a piece of transformational community development.  Of course I know my part to play is limited and that I cannot solve any of these complicated issues.  And yet, every time another one decides not to continue school or decides to marry at age 14, I feel my heart sink.

“Love the one in front of you,” is the mantra of Heidi Baker, missionary to the poor in Mozambique.  The problem is, love is not a passive word to be posted on Facebook and forgotten.  It involves action, hard choices, truth-seeking, and large possibilities for pain and disappointment.

These are things that can tickle my conscience.  These are also the things that hold me in a  paradoxical tug-of-war of wanting to either run far away or devote all my time to the village. 

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Adventures in Velebit

Oh fairy, fairy of Velebit
The pride of our nation,
Your glory is precious to us,
Croats delight in you.
from ‘Vila Velebita’, a Croatian folk song
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Recently,  a friend and I embarked on a five day adventure into one of Croatia’s largest and wildest mountain ranges stretching parallel to the Adriatic sea: Velebit, part of the Dinaric Alps.  An old Croatian folk song calls Velebit the “haunt of fairies.” One writer describes it as “a strangely beautiful place, its wind-scoured heights characterized by areas of bizarrely sculpted and weathered rock, studded with thickets of dwarf mountain pine, and pierced by some of the deepest sinkholes in the world” (Rudolph Abraham).

Indeed, some of those eery sinkholes brought a certain tremble to our legs as weIMG_2273 peered into the fathomless depths.

The whole trek is nine days long; but in five days we drank in a healthy dose of Velebit.  It wasn’t just the stunning scenery we enjoyed, but also Croatia’s “hiking culture,” which we encountered in the huts and along the trail.

“You are hiking alone?” the man asked disbelievingly, and then proceeded to ask his hiking troupe if they could adopt us for the next few days, although we assured him we were fine.  This proved to be a common question for two women hiking alone for five days, and the query was often immediately followed by gifts of rakija(Balkan spirits) and many varieties of snacks and foods.IMG_2271

“This rakija is 20 years old and made by my grandfather,” one young Slovenian man told us on top of Velebit’s highest peak.IMG_2288

“Take the bananas, take them!” another man urged although we were finishing our trip and they were just starting out.

“This is the most hospitable culture ever,” my American friend observed after we were fed fire-roasted slabs of pork over fresh bread deep in the mountains.

And of course the food was just the beginning. On our third night, we encountered the same group of men out for three days who, as they told me after I jokingly asked where the women were, “just needed some guy time.” Our feast over the open fire ended with boisterous songs around the campfire.  At their special request, I found myself belting one of the few  Country Western songs I know (complete with a wanna-be Southern twang).  IMG_2274Croatia is one of the few countries that truly appreciate my attempted Southern accent.

One day, we stumbled out of the mountains onto the sweltering hot, never-ending plain of Veliko Rujno only to encounter hundreds of people celebrating the holiday of Velika Gospa (Feast of the Assumption).   Locals pilgrimage to this location where there is a small church for a special Mass and a big picnic afterwards.  Throwing our too-heavy backpacks on the ground, I poured the refreshing water from the well by the church over my head and watched the festivities.

We were warned repeatedly about bears and wolves—but no one who warned us (I questioned everyone) had every personally seen a bear or wolf in the wilderness.  However, we were chased by an intimidating (their horns did not look friendly) group of female cows who followed us, braying repeatedly, over a narrow trail on the side of a hill.IMG_0041

Set amidst the wild peace of Velebit is a sad reminder of Croatia’s recent past: one day our trail led us through areas   still strewn with landmines and old military bunkers from the 1990s war.  Although the map and the occasional warning sign kept us abreast of their general areas, I was giddily conscious of keeping on the right trail.

Our last night we decided to sleep out of the hut and under the stars; and it was this night that we were visited by the Bura, a powerful, gale force wind that blows over the mountains and onto the Adriatic.  Following its persuasive bluster, the next day we hiked out and were swimming in the Adriatic sea by mid-afternoon.

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