Monthly Archives: August 2011

An Inside Outsider

I spent a week at a Croatian Christian family camp on an island in the Adriatic Sea. The camp was a relaxed affair; the only programming was a discussion group after lunch and an evening speaker.  This open schedule, in contrast to the jammed-packed programs that we Americans love, brings to mind the old adage, “Americans know how to work, Europeans know how to live.”  Days drifted by in a comfortable rhythm of eating, sleeping, swimming, and reading.

Underneath this pleasant reality, I was also experiencing a separate, deeper narrative, one familiar to anyone who has lived in a different culture.  Since my Croatian is still at the simple conversational stage of, “I slept well last night, ” or, “I went swimming this afternoon and the water was nice”,  I was unable to participate in the community bonds that were deepening all around me.  The week held large doses of the familiar since it was a Christian camp, but I was keenly aware of my movement in and out of the community. For example:

Out:  I couldn’t participate in the small groups because of the language barrier.  They told me I could join in the teenage group because it was being led in English (to be translated) by the only other foreigner at the camp.  After two awkward days of sitting to the side of the teenage group (“What is that strange American woman doing here,” I imagined them thinking), I began to sneak off by myself to take a swim during that time.                                                              

In: Meal times, often a community’s most important times for bonding, were no problem.  Someone would always see me looking around after I picked up my food and would motion me over.                                                                                

Out: The women would gather for a makeshift “cafe” in the afternoons, drinking coffee and telling their testimonies.  My mouth began to hurt from all the smiling and nodding I was doing during these times, but could rarely follow the story.                                                                                                                                                 In: Most of the worship songs were translated American or Australian tunes, so I could participate in the very familiar camp experience of singing songs around the guitar.                                                                                                                         

Out: I couldn’t follow the evening speaker; this was particularly difficult when he either told a joke and everyone laughed, or when he seemed quite passionate about something—What was he   saying?                                                                   

In: I did bond with my roommates, but it was partially because they spoke good English and would often talk to me in English in the cabin.                                         

Out: Camp announcements, delivered through a staticky microphone, always kept me guessing: “Mmmm…I hope that announcement wasn’t important because I could only understand the words, ‘dinner’, ‘t-shirt’, and ‘go'”.

It was in these moments, acutely aware of being on the outside and yet sharing the same spiritual orientation toward life as the other campers, that I began to reflect on the unique point of view that such a dissonance creates. Uncomfortable yet comfortable.  At home yet feeling so foreign.  Longing for community and yet appreciating the vast amounts of alone time my outsider status allowed me.  Conscious of my human desire for belonging, for the safety of being known and accepted in a group, and yet appreciating the opportunity to see things differently.    In our globalized day of widespread immigration, both forced and voluntary, how many people’s daily reality is exactly this? And even so,  my experience is still not nearly so difficult.  By virtue of their language, Croatian Protestants seem to take seriously the fact that we are all brothers and sisters in God’s family.  “Sister Melody has returned from Zagreb, ” my pastor announced after I had been gone for a month.  “I met with some brothers for coffee,” someone will mention to me.

I am an inside outsider among Croatian Christians—accepted as family, and yet held back by the formidable barriers of language and culture.  So who are the real outsiders?

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From curse to covenant

As we turned the corner leading into the Roma village, we saw a massive sea of yellow-shirted kids sprinting toward our vans.  “Oh my lands!” I thought, already tired from the morning activities with over 200 kids.  I was volunteering at a children’s festival in a Roma village— three long but rewarding days with irrepressibly exuberant children learning about Jesus in a message contextualized for their particular culture.

This  small Roma village in Eastern Croatia  is a complex fusion of various Roma languages, spiritualities, and politics:  Roma clans from Kosovo and Turkey with Muslim overtones are not well-received by the other Roma groups who have an Orthodox background.  According to one Roma man,  each group has its own language and asserts their language as the “correct” Roma language.  Because of these tensions as well as perhaps other reasons, the police are frequent visitors to this village.

The Bayash, one Roma group which is the particular focus of the ministry sponsoring the festival,   is burdened with an oppressive history.  Enslaved in Romania for 400 years, they eventually gained their freedom near the end of the 19th century.  Their nation’s musical anthem is perhaps a picture of their self-concept, proclaiming that they are cursed by God since they stole a nail from Jesus’ cross.  Consequently, one of the festival’s themes highlighted God as their refuge who is for them and not against them. 

On the last day of the festival, a visiting Roma music group from Romania performed a concert for the adults in the field.  Roma worship  is a very charismatic affair, and as the concert went on, the people pressed closer and closer to the performers until they formed a tight circle.  Some people were just staring bemusedly at the singing and preaching, while others were obviously very engaged.

At one point, the music stopped and one performer began passionately and loudly praying.  Suddenly, a rainbow phenomenon appeared over the sun against the blue sky.   I have seen rainbow sun halos before, but this was more like bright rainbow colors slashing through the sun.  It was so startling that everyone began pointing  and looking at the sky and some kids began running across the field shouting, “It’s Jesus Christ!”  I could see something happening in the front of the crowd: some adults and children were weeping, and the Romanians were praying for various people.

Coincidence or not, what to make of the timing of this sun phenomenon?  Would such an event only feed superstitions for a people whose worldview is at least partially crafted by their own folk religions mixed with pieces of Islam and Orthodoxy? Or, if it was interpreted as a supernatural sign, could it help illuminate a true glimpse of God?  Most of the festival volunteers did not really know what to make of it, fearing to “over-spiritualize” and yet recognizing it as a unique and beautiful occurrence.

As for me, there were a few seconds— when the kids were grabbing my arms and pointing at the sky, and I turned to look—there were a few seconds when time seemed to slow and I felt something descend on the crowd as I squinted against the sun’s rainbow glare, a something that filled me with a moment of involuntary awe and sent goosebumps racing up my arms.

Later, as I was leaving the festival, I was struck by the thought of the Biblical meaning of the rainbow, the meaning of which the kids had learned just two days ago when they heard the story of Noah and the ark.  A covenantal promise between God and all creatures on the earth—a promise that inherently opposes a curse.

To find out more about this Roma ministry, click Roma Bible Union