Monthly Archives: January 2015

Swimming in the Deep End of Hospitality

Meat, meat, and more meat.

The Roma hospitality we experienced in Bulgaria was not just a dip-your-toe-in-the-shallow-end type of endeavor.  No, it was a get-thrown-into-the-deep-end-with-all-your-clothes-on experience.

When we arranged with a few different pastors that we would be coming to visit them in Bulgaria, we had no idea that they would take it upon themselves to ensure our safety, health, and happiness on our trip over the hills and dales of Bulgaria.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that this all-important value of hospitality is shown through two primary avenues: make sure your guests have plenty to eat at all times (and meat is the at the top of the food pyramid), and as it is a communal culture,  be with your guests as much as possible.

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This was actually a “meat-lite” meal. Delicious.

I think I probably ate more meat in a week than I have in a month.

I would try to take small portions so my system did not collapse, and just when I thought I succeeded, someone would bring another plate of meat.

“Eat, eat!” they would urge.

We were treated like two unlikely queens—especially since I know January and February are the tough months for many poor Roma communities.  Jobs are slim, firewood is running out, and the winter is still hoarding many weeks.  I knew they did not eat like this all the time—but it was to honor us.

After we left one community in the morning, I started to feel very sick, and I realized I had gotten a flu bug of some sort. 200 km  and several meetings later, we were having a meal with a pastor and his wife after a church service. The pastor of the community we left that morning called in to the other pastor.

“He wants to talk to you,” the pastor said, handing the phone to my friend. DSC03572

Apparently, he wanted to make sure that we had arrived safe, that our needs were being met, and by some extraordinary ability, he had heard that I wasn’t feeling well.

“Take care of little Melody!” he urged my friend.

This was the first of a few “check-in” calls from this pastor who has a big heart and an even bigger sense of humor.

Two women traveling alone is a little bit of a novelty for the Roma culture in this part of the world, which is why they gently handed us off one from another like two delicate eggs.

At one point, we underestimated how serious their concern to be.  After we left one community,  on a whim, we took an hour diversion, hiking up to see an old monastery.

It was a bad decision to not take our phones.

When we got back to the car, there were 10 missed calls.  Apparently, our failure to show up on schedule caused a panic between three parties in three locations.  One of our friends living south from us immediately started driving north, and another pastor started on the road heading towards where he should have intercepted us.

Needless to say, we felt horrible.

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Enjoying a kind of “pseudo” ice cream with one pastor.

In general, hospitality in Eastern Europe has completely changed my own practice of hospitality—its inviting warmth and generosity have effectively challenged my over-individualistic values as an American.

But I have to say that this experience has brought the challenge to a whole new level.

The Price of the Road to Lom

I tossed and turned all night in the colorful room of a Roma family in Lom, Bulgaria.  My sleep was haunted by the images of young Roma girls, price tags dangling from their hands, dotting the 148 km road like a dreary part of the wintery landscape between and Lom and Pravets.

Actually, my sleep starved mind was mixing up two images. My friend and I are on a week-long trip in Bulgaria, meeting with pastors in Roma Mahalas (the Roma Quarter) gathering stories and research. We really did see these Roma women waiting for truckers along the cold January road out in the middle of nowhere, likely dropped off by a pimp of some sort. Some looked as young as 15.  Our traveling chatter would drift off into a deep silence whenever we would pass another one.

But the price tags were from another disturbing conversation I had earlier that evening with a Roma pastor:  young Roma girls of certain clans in Bulgaria going to “bride-markets” and sold to the family who finds her appealing, prices mediated by a group of men who act as a “third party” to ensure everything is fair.   Of course, this is a long-standing tradition and I am admittedly speaking in ignorance since I have never been to one.  Perhaps it is, as some Roma would argue, a safe way for young people to find partners.

But I think the image of the women waiting on the long road to Lom put a filter on the way I listened to the story of the “bride markets.”   The concept of putting a price on a woman, whether for a prostitute or a bride, deeply disturbs me.

Earlier in our journey, we met with a Bulgarian woman who described the rampant sex-trafficking happening with young Roma girls; girls who perhaps have a violent home life and are lured with the promise of a few dresses and a “better life” in Germany or the Netherlands. Girls who perhaps are sold by their father or brother, desperate for some fast cash.  Sometimes, my Bulgarian friend gets a call from her contacts when someone is heading toward the airport with one or more girls, and she calls the police and races to head them off at the airport.

“What do you say to him when you catch him?” I ask her, trying to imagine the scene.

She shrugs and says simply, “I tell him that he can’t take her.”

Sometimes, she tries to get the sold ones back; but some of them don’t want to come back, perhaps because the evils they face in Western Europe are not as great as the evils at home.

But every terrible story I hear is challenged by another story of how God is actively working in these desperately poor communities in Bulgaria.  For me, thus far on the trip, this is the theme I hold like two crystal balls in each hand, gazing into them: the reality of evil, suffering, poverty, and the stories of God’s “closeness” to the suffering, manifesting in healings, dreams, and divine providence.

Roma Mahala in Western Bulgaria

Roma Mahala in Western Bulgaria

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The next generation of the Roma Church—confident and determined

The next generation of the Roma Church—confident and determined