An Unexpected Lament

(see previous post for part 1)

I tried to act normal as we stood on the hill of trash, a sour smell cutting my nostrils like a newly sharpened knife.  For a moment, though, I was overcome by the sights and sensations of people living for 15 years on the city trash without running water or anything that resembles a proper shelter.

The children, caked in dirt,  ran up to us, their mischievous laughter showing their black, rotting teeth; but I noticed that one little boy flinched when V. tried to warmly hug him.  I tried to catch the eye of another little girl, hair matted in grime, to make her laugh too, but she looked at me warily, a stony expression set on her 3-year old face.

Fast forward three weeks….

I am in Oxford, England, attending a big joint church service near the main square.  The stage is filled with well-dressed people singing praises to God—I am in a completely different world. My throat clenches when I realize how long it has been since I have sung in English with other people:

  Open the eyes of the blind; There’s no one like you, none like you. Into the Darkness you shine; out of the ashes we rise; There’s no one like you, none like you.                                                                                                 

All of a sudden something strange happens to me.  Without warning, my mind soars away from the beautiful square and all the well-dressed people, the ancient buildings replete with history, architecture, and  learning, and my imagination takes me back to Albania, to that trash dump.

I am singing, but I am not singing in Oxford.  I am singing on the outskirts of Tirana, Albania, surrounded by every level of human brokenness.

Bless the Lord oh my soul, oh my soul, worship his Holy name. Sing like never before, oh my soul, I’ll worship your holy name.

I sing over the woman sitting in trash with her newborn baby, shyly smiling up at me.  I sing over  the children who think it is fun to torment puppies until they are screaming in confusion and pain.

I see His love and mercy, washing over all our sin, the people sing, the people sing…Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna in the highest…

The teenage girl who gets fed up with her brother’s torment of the puppies and starts pulling his hair and slapping him so hard that his body flies to the ground in a heap.  The woman walking by us covered in clothing, with just her eyes showing, to protect her from all the dangers of sifting trash.

Heal my heart and make it clean; Open my eyes to the things unseen; Show me how to love like You have loved me; Break my heart for what breaks Yours…

The men who are taking the money from the women working hard in the trash and gambling it away in the casinos. The children who are not going to school and are living among rats as big as cats.

Christ alone; cornerstone; weak made strong, in the Savior’s love, Through the storm, He is Lord, Lord of all.

For a few moments, it was just me, singing to God while standing in the trash, the physical sensation so strong that I could see, hear, smell, and feel that I was actually there.  And it was at that moment I realized how deeply that experience had affected me, touched a deep nerve in my soul.

I sang as a lament:

Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?
    Awake, do not cast us off forever!
Why do you hide your face?
    Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
For we sink down to the dust;
    our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up, come to our help.
    Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.

And I sang to remind God that he is Lord of that place too, and that his faithfulness must extend there:

Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
    so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
19 that he looked down from his holy height,
    from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
20 to hear the groans of the prisoners,
    to set free those who were doomed to die;
21 so that the name of the Lord may be declared in Zion,
    and his praise in Jerusalem,
22 when peoples gather together,
    and kingdoms, to worship the Lord. *

Of course, the mustard seed was already there—and it was being nurtured tenderly by V. through her love for the people.

But still…

Things are not right in the world; no, they are not right at all.

He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes,
    or decide by what he hears with his ears;
but with righteousness he will judge the needy,
    with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth.

*Psalm 44,102; Isaiah 11

She who loves much…

She radiated a warmth and joy that was natural and infectious.  When she saw us, she enveloped my friend N. into a hug that lasted a couple of minutes.  Turns out, she had mistaken N. for someone else, but when we discovered that fact, she didn’t seem at all bothered that she had just captured a perfect stranger into a tight embrace.

After meeting V., I was reminded again that I regularly need an assumption check.  How easy it is to interpret someone’s behavior through an assumed lens of why they are the way they are.  If someone is struggling in life, I automatically assume that they have had a hard background.  Since this Albanian woman was so joyful,  I assumed that although she was regularly ministering in a very difficult Roma community, she must be living a more comfortable life.

But I was wrong.

View of Tirana on the walk to its outskirts.

View of Tirana on the walk to its outskirts.

“Do you want to see the Roma community and meet the people?” she asked us.

“Of course!” we said.

On our slow, 3 km walk to the outskirts of Tirana, Albania, where V. had been living for 30 years, we learned more about her life and her heart for the Roma.

They came into her daily view 15 years ago when they moved down from the north and erected makeshift shelters on top of the city dump which was next to her house. But it was only 3 years ago when she began to see them as “lost sheep” and developed a fierce love for them. IMG_0402

“I used to care only about myself, how I looked; at times I had such murderous anger in my heart toward people, especially after my husband’s betrayal.”

She told us of the difficult paths taken in order to support her daughter by herself, but in a turn of events that reminded me of Mary Magdalene’s encounters with Jesus, a full immersion into God’s grace and love had changed everything for her.

Still, I was not prepared to see the difficult circumstances in which she lives, eking out a living with her son by collecting and selling garbage.  Make no mistake—it is honest work, but it is brutally hard, often dangerous, and with precious little reward for hours of manual labor.

“How much would you get for that?” I asked, pointing to a large round container filled with bottles—probably 6 foot high and with a diameter of 3 or 4 feet.

“5 dollars,” she told me.

“What?” I gasped, astounded.  Surely this was 2 or 3 days of work to collect all those bottles!  And for 5 dollars?

“I don’t want you to think poorly of us,” she said shyly, in reference to the piles of sorted trash they were working on in front of their house.

Poorly?  If anything, I was struck to the quick with shock and humility seeing the day-to-day hardship of their lives, particularly in the context of her love for the Roma settlement.

A few years ago, her son had been partially blinded in one eye after being sprayed by some chemicals while sifting through the garbage.  Actually, after they had rushed him to the hospital, the doctor predicted total blindness, but then V. prayed for him.

He came out of their house when V. brought us to visit.

I meekly reached out to shake the son’s hand, but he held out his opposite hand.

“This hand is injured,” he said, quickly showing me a glimpse of the hand hidden behind his back.  I saw a flash of blackness and something that used to resemble a thumb.

“Excuse me, can I look more closely at your hand?” I said, shaken, as our interpreter translated for me.

With a smile and a comment about the Betadine he was treating it with so he could continue to work, he showed me again.  I was only able to get a slightly longer look at the destroyed thumb, trying to decipher if the black was tissue death or burned skin before he waved me off.  He prepared his little motor bike attached to the cart he used to collect garbage.   After a few attempts of motoring up the steep hill that rose up from their house, the chain broke off the bike. Undeterred, he set off finding some materials with which to fix it.

“Please encourage him to go to the doctor again for his thumb,” I told the translator.

I knew that I was witnessing incarnational mission in a way I had not before, although perhaps not by her choice.  Still, she seemed to be endowed with a potent reality of the Spirit’s quiet but radiant power.

“Come, I want you to meet some very special people, ” V. said, gesturing to the Roma settlement.

We slowly made our way up to the trash hill and to the collection of makeshift shelters…IMG_0399