I had no idea their stories were so dramatic, so intense, so excruciatingly difficult—if I were to write it as fiction it might be dismissed as too unbelievable. As I sat across from them in their roof-sagging house (were they worried the roof might collapse in the next big snow? No, they shrugged, they weren’t), I felt incredulous about who Biljana and Đeno used to be. I marveled at such a profound transformation in a couple whom I have come to deeply respect and admire over the past year and a half while working with them in Darda.
Forced into marriage by their families at ages 14 and 15, the first decade of their married lives were marked by such things as dire poverty, war, violence, physical abuse, mutual hatred, homelessness, and begging. It was the kindness of a Croatian pastor’s wife which led Biljana and then Đeno to Jesus in 2004 and 2006.
But I was fixed on the image of Biljana out in the streets with her four children, begging, subject to either people’s good will or scorn. “Insulting and humiliation from the people in the street didn’t bother me at all, I got used to it…I was always treated this way,” she wrote in her story. “In school, kids called me all kind of names because I am Romany… and then my own mother, she would say that even my own father didn’t need me…one time she even forbade my sisters to talk to me because we are not sisters by birth, because I’m a bastard who is needed by nobody, [not even] my husband, so insults in the street were something normal to me. I became a person without feelings, who couldn’t be offended or dishonored.”
This morning I went for a walk in the fresh snow blanketing Osijek. I reveled in the sharp purity of trees outlined by snow against the sky— but still I was haunted by the image of a dirty and miserable Biljana, begging on a street corner. I envisioned myself encountering her as an anonymous beggar to whom I might throw a passing glance, drawing the steel coat of my emotional defenses a little tighter around me as I continue walking. My eyes filled with tears as I realized there is a good chance I would have walked past Biljana, that I would not have emulated that Croatian woman who, through kindness, wooed her into a new life.
“But Jesus,” I might argue, trying to defend my behavior, “If I would have known the plans you had for her, I would have stopped and helped her.”
The feeble emptiness of my justification reveals my inadequate grasp of the Good News, that God is simultaneously able to see us as we are—poor, wretched, miserable, and naked—and see us as he created and can transform us to be. And because he is God with us, he joins us in our begging, our poverty. That is why Jesus insists, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink…”
The last couple of weeks, I have listened to several stories of Roma who were brought to God simply through people in a church drawing them into their love, feeding them, clothing them, and blessing them. And yet, I have also listened to converted Roma tell me how they used to steal, do tricks to get what they wanted, to manipulate and lie.
So how do we know what kind of beggar it is we are passing on the street? Is it the kind that deserves our help or is undeserving? But of course this is exactly the wrong question to ask, and it lacks an experiential understanding of God’s unconditional love. I do believe we need to be wise in this world—but I can see how often our wisdom is foolishness to God. The wisdom of God is to seize the poor, the liars, the wicked, and the marginalized who are spattered in their own mud-stained lives— and to wash and dress them in new clothes.
Last night, Biljana and Đeno radiated joy as they described how it felt to start this new church—to serve God by serving their people. “God has used all the terrible experiences in my life so that I can understand everything my people have gone through,” Biljana told me. Last night I saw two people who love and serve Jesus with their whole hearts, and this morning the snow came to remind me that God’s mercy is unfailingly new every morning.