I peered through the slats of the haphazardly made fence; inside was a strange chaotic world of junk piles. Rotting wood, wrapped with fraying tarps, was stacked to form little teepee shelters, stuffed animals and nick-knack artifacts were perched as sleepy guardians on the different piles, and a small pathway weaving between the junk led to the leaning shack which was the home.
I called out; my friends appeared and waved and shouted that they were almost ready. The woman came out first, her face beaming with excitement; I was taking them to a small village to see one of their daughters who had been taken away by social services—a daughter they had not seen or spoken to in 3 years.
Watching the transformation of this couple over the last three years has been extraordinary. They are now the most faithful couple in our church, coming to every event, regularly cleaning the church, assisting us with leading the children’s programs. Her face, once filled with a painful shame and reticence, is now open and alive. She prays fervently in church every Sunday, particularly for her 10 children, ranging in age from 7 to mid 20’s who are now scattered throughout Croatia since their removal from their home. She couldn’t talk about her son—also a member of our church, serving a sentence in prison for a crime committed a couple of years ago—without her eyes glistening with tears.
We arrived in the small village unannounced; my friends told me that this was a “surprise.” As we walked up to the door, I noticed the carefully manicured gardens in front, the bright flowers that were planted in every available space. The house was clean and well-maintained—it spoke of order and a simple beauty.
I watched the reunion between my friends and their now 19-year old daughter—the mother clung to her daughter, weeping through a big smile and kisses planted on her face.
We sat on the patio for the next hour, sipping juice and chatting primarily with the Croatian foster mom. The girl sat quietly, her sweet face and bright blue eyes looking much younger than her years, her only comments to her parents were a shy beseeching to “greet her brothers and sisters.”
At one point the mother leaned in and described their new life in God; how much they loved the church community, how they served the church, how God helped them with every little thing. Her face was eager, full of light, trying to convey what was in her heart.
The daughter sat with the same sweet but vaguely disconnected expression on her face. The Croatian mom whispered to me that she had some psychological problems and even though she had completed 8th grade, was unable to read or write.
At one point, the woman went inside the house to get more juice, and the father leaned toward his daughter: “Come live with us again,” he said urgently, before the woman came outside.
The parting was difficult and painful to watch, the mother crying freely as she hugged her daughter. I turned my back so as to give them some privacy.
“She wants to come back to us,” she told me in the car.
She was speaking from a mother’s broken and longing heart; but the observed reality told a different story. But there are no hard and fast rules in this reality, few black and whites, no guidebook to say what is better or worse; only the fuzzy grayness that comes when you intersect the complicated messiness of poverty and brokenness with new beginnings and redemption.