Just like that, her decision was made.
Just like that, her future options constricted.
“But why?” we asked her.
Her face, bright and intelligent, folded inward with shy reserve. She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” was her only response.
And so, another young girl decided not to continue going to school this year. This is not an unusual scenario throughout hundreds of Roma villages in Southeastern Europe— the drop-out rates for Roma children are far higher and the levels of education far lower than the majority culture—but I felt this one deeply because I know this girl, and I know in a few years she will likely be in the same vicious cycles of poverty as the rest of the village. The reasons are complex and intertwined, and yet as I am confronted with such a decision by a young girl who cannot possibly know or imagine what her future could be, I feel both disheartened and frustrated by my own response or lack thereof.
For three days last week, our team from Little Darda Church conducted a children’s festival of Bible drama, crafts, and games. We assigned some of the teenage girls to be “helpers” in each of the groups. My assistant was a girl of 12 going on 20—incredibly smart, witty, ambitious, and holding a yet unopened reservoir of leadership gifts. This girl wants to have a different path in life—she wants to finish high school, go to college, and one day have her own apartment. For her, this seems a pie-in-the-sky dream, and there are many difficult factors and challenges that would oppose it.
But as we worked together for three days, I could see God’s hand on her life. I could imagine her being able to use all the gifts she has been given in the future. I could see that she felt special being selected to be a “helper” and she took her responsibility very seriously.
“I think it is time for the children to move on to the craft and stop coloring,” she would inform me earnestly.
But she is only 12; and her strength and courage cannot completely mask something fragile hidden carefully in her spirit.
I acutely feel my own helplessness, although once again I am convicted that there is more I can do to serve this village. It is easy enough to talk about possibilities and needs without the urgency of implementation. On the other hand, it is just as easy to implement something to feel good about oneself without careful thought. But there is a sense of urgency for this small generation of young people in this village. Of course we know that education is not the great answer to social ills, but it is a piece of transformational community development. Of course I know my part to play is limited and that I cannot solve any of these complicated issues. And yet, every time another one decides not to continue school or decides to marry at age 14, I feel my heart sink.
“Love the one in front of you,” is the mantra of Heidi Baker, missionary to the poor in Mozambique. The problem is, love is not a passive word to be posted on Facebook and forgotten. It involves action, hard choices, truth-seeking, and large possibilities for pain and disappointment.
These are things that can tickle my conscience. These are also the things that hold me in a paradoxical tug-of-war of wanting to either run far away or devote all my time to the village.