Monthly Archives: October 2011

A Glimpse Behind the Curtain

As I entered the dimly lit theater,  I heard the sound of an uproarious crowd anticipating the coming performances.  Kids ran up and down the center aisle, toddlers were being passed over the audience from one family member to another, and traditional Roma music blared out from behind the theater’s curtain.  “Amerikanka!” I turned to see some of the Roma kids we had visited that day waving and grinning at us from their seats. They yelled out random English words, making me laugh out loud: “Very good, very good, FBI!” they shouted. One of our Roma friends ran up the aisle to bring us to a seat. The long walk to the front row made me self-consciously realize how much of an outsider I was in the room— yet I did not feel unwelcoming eyes on me, but merely curious ones.

When I am in Osijek on Sundays, I accompany a Christian Roma family to a nearby Roma community to visit a series of  homes where we build relationships and often share the good news of Jesus.   We always conclude our visits by having lunch at the family whose mother was miraculously healed after being in bed for four years (Click here to read that story.)  There, they insist on treating us like royalty, waiting on us hand and foot and serving coffee, food, and dessert. This past Sunday, we noticed that some of the teenage girls had rags tied up in their hair (their way of creating curls), and we were invited to their cultural dance at the nearby theater house.

Even when the performance began, the noisy hubbub did not subside, making it difficult to hear the two young women describing what we were about to see.  As three men, each sandwiched between two women in brightly colored, traditional Roma dresses, emerged onto the stage, I really had no idea what to expect.  I was amazed to see their method of dancing which involves continuous, fast hopping on alternating feet while performing the actual dance.

Overcome by the loud, intoxicating music and the whirling colors,  I allowed myself to be pulled into this surprising experience. I was struck by a profound dichotomy: I had just finished visiting impoverished families in tumbledown shacks, surrounded by mud and manure, and now I was immersed in this explosion of beautiful cultural expression. These were the disdained peoples of Europe? What would happen if the redemption promised in the Good News took root in this culture—transforming the poverty and brokenness— so that the world could see the Roma as one of the many beautiful and unique trees  displayed in God’s vast garden of cultures?

I left feeling very privileged that I had been able to catch a glimpse beyond the poverty, beyond the many problems and difficulties the Roma face.  But isn’t that glimpse really how God sees the Roma anyway?

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The Night in Sniper Alley

“The shooting was right under your nose. You wondered if a missile would jump into your bed!”  Pastor D.  still seemed incredulous about his night of sleeping in “Sniper Alley”  during the siege of Sarajevo in 1995. “It was a nightmare.  Serbs were shooting on the city, and Muslims, Croats and some Serbs were firing back.  Also, NATO was  just beginning its attack on Serb positions.”

During the siege of Sarajevo, Bosnia—the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare–Sniper Alley earned its grim reputation by its inherent danger to innocent civilians (one report cited over 1,000 people shot, resulting in over 200 deaths, 60 of them children).    The street’s centralized location in Sarajevo made it a necessary route for people to travel in order to seek water and food, and its proximity to tall buildings and Sarajevo’s surrounding mountains created a haven  for  sniper nests.

Why would D. travel to Sarajevo and put himself in such a position?  D. was no stranger to life-threatening situations, bringing humanitarian aid into Romania after its 1989 revolution and enduring months of war in Osijek, Croatia. Perhaps he could empathize with  the people in Sarajevo who had already weathered two years of deprivation and torment, and so when two friends invited him to accompany their mission of encouragement to the handful of Christians there, he did not hesitate.

Few options existed to access the city, but at that point in the siege, extreme privation inspired both desperate acts and creative ways of survival. There was a secret, 700 meter passage under the airport that moved a steady stream of provisions, people, and weapons in and out the city.  There were also a few mountainous routes, and  the three men navigated through one of these roads and ended up at the U.N. French base at the Sarajevo airport.  Somehow, they convinced a French officer to let them in, and soon they were gathered with believers in Sarajevo.

Since there were some new believers who wished to be baptized, they were compelled to go find enough water to fill the baptismal tub.  There, under the dim but somehow sacred light of candles, D. and the other two men baptized three individuals:  a Serb, a Croat, and a Muslim.  “This epitomized the kingdom of God, ” D.  reflected.  A poignant picture—amidst the deafening sound of hatred and violence, three people died to their old allegiances, emerging from the water as a new creation, clothed in Christ so that oneness in Christ would transcend their ethnic identities.

As they laid down to go to sleep amidst the barrage of gunfire, D. a newly-wed,  felt fear.  And yet, “God was there, ” D. mused with certainty.

“Did you feel his presence?” I asked him.

“I didn’t necessarily sense him anymore than I sense him now, ” he said, “but we had to trust him.  Those were special times, and I believe God’s special protection was upon us.”