Cultural immersion can reveal one’s own internal prejudices, fears, and questions.
At this point, I have spent many nights in Roma homes as I seek to understand their cultural framework, how they view the world and their own lives. I have been amazed by the warmheartedness, gracious hospitality, and unique reception and expression of God’s love. I am also amazed at the complicated web of poverty—impoverished houses boasting T.V.’s and sound systems while sometimes not having enough money for food.
Last night was the poorest home in which I have slept. I accompanied two friends to Serbia who were visiting their sister and her new baby. My friend warned me that they were very poor—they had a tiny home, only recently obtained running water when their church built them an outdoor spicket, and had no toilet. Of course, many homes I have visited use an outhouse, so I thought this was what she meant. Turns out, that was an incorrect assumption. The farmer’s field behind the house, which was neatly lined with the neighborhood’s trash (both Roma and Serbian) served as the outdoor toilet.
As usual, we were warmly greeted and enjoyed the amazement of seeing a week-old baby. Because I was with my friends, I was treated like family and my foreign presence crammed into the small quarters was neither strange nor resented. Daily life revolved around communal living in the small spaces. No privacy, no alone time, no concept of “mine.” Focus was on the children, family and many frequent visitors, daily survival, daily tasks, and God.
When it came time for sleep, the two couches were pulled out and one family of four folded themselves into one bed (size of a twin bed) while I luxuriated in my own bed. The room was so small that when the couches were pulled out, there was about 6 inches between them. When I expressed my concern that I had my own bed while four of them shared the other, my concern was carelessly waved off as trivial. My friends slept next door at the other sister’s house.
I marveled at this world—complete strangers could share such a small space in something so intimate as sleep.
The next day, my friends suggested I cook lunch (lunch is always the biggest meal of the day here). Immediate panic overtook me as I realized that two different pastors and their families were coming for lunch. Cooking for a large group in a foreign country would be challenging enough for me—but add to that the problems of no running water in the house, no refrigeration, cooking on a wood stove, and very limited cooking supplies.
I cannot claim that people raved over the taste of the food, but I can say it was edible and no one got sick (dealing with raw chicken brought up all sorts of questions—how exaggerated is the health code for raw chicken in America? How likely are we to get sick if I only rinse off the cutting board in cold water?). I was gratified that my cabbage salad, because I added apples, was declared to be an “American salad.”
But there was something special about that strange meal crammed into the tiny house—perhaps it was a moment of insight into God’s kingdom. Around the table, we had six cultures: American, Romany, Ukrainian, Peruvian, Brazilian, and Serbian. The richness of sharing a meal with so many cultures and languages is a tangible expression of the coming banquet with Christ. We all partake freely together, not based on our skills, wealth, or accomplishments—but on the lavish expression of God’s grace to us all.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” Matthew 5:3