She radiated a warmth and joy that was natural and infectious. When she saw us, she enveloped my friend N. into a hug that lasted a couple of minutes. Turns out, she had mistaken N. for someone else, but when we discovered that fact, she didn’t seem at all bothered that she had just captured a perfect stranger into a tight embrace.
After meeting V., I was reminded again that I regularly need an assumption check. How easy it is to interpret someone’s behavior through an assumed lens of why they are the way they are. If someone is struggling in life, I automatically assume that they have had a hard background. Since this Albanian woman was so joyful, I assumed that although she was regularly ministering in a very difficult Roma community, she must be living a more comfortable life.
But I was wrong.
“Do you want to see the Roma community and meet the people?” she asked us.
“Of course!” we said.
On our slow, 3 km walk to the outskirts of Tirana, Albania, where V. had been living for 30 years, we learned more about her life and her heart for the Roma.
They came into her daily view 15 years ago when they moved down from the north and erected makeshift shelters on top of the city dump which was next to her house. But it was only 3 years ago when she began to see them as “lost sheep” and developed a fierce love for them.
“I used to care only about myself, how I looked; at times I had such murderous anger in my heart toward people, especially after my husband’s betrayal.”
She told us of the difficult paths taken in order to support her daughter by herself, but in a turn of events that reminded me of Mary Magdalene’s encounters with Jesus, a full immersion into God’s grace and love had changed everything for her.
Still, I was not prepared to see the difficult circumstances in which she lives, eking out a living with her son by collecting and selling garbage. Make no mistake—it is honest work, but it is brutally hard, often dangerous, and with precious little reward for hours of manual labor.
“How much would you get for that?” I asked, pointing to a large round container filled with bottles—probably 6 foot high and with a diameter of 3 or 4 feet.
“5 dollars,” she told me.
“What?” I gasped, astounded. Surely this was 2 or 3 days of work to collect all those bottles! And for 5 dollars?
“I don’t want you to think poorly of us,” she said shyly, in reference to the piles of sorted trash they were working on in front of their house.
Poorly? If anything, I was struck to the quick with shock and humility seeing the day-to-day hardship of their lives, particularly in the context of her love for the Roma settlement.
A few years ago, her son had been partially blinded in one eye after being sprayed by some chemicals while sifting through the garbage. Actually, after they had rushed him to the hospital, the doctor predicted total blindness, but then V. prayed for him.
He came out of their house when V. brought us to visit.
I meekly reached out to shake the son’s hand, but he held out his opposite hand.
“This hand is injured,” he said, quickly showing me a glimpse of the hand hidden behind his back. I saw a flash of blackness and something that used to resemble a thumb.
“Excuse me, can I look more closely at your hand?” I said, shaken, as our interpreter translated for me.
With a smile and a comment about the Betadine he was treating it with so he could continue to work, he showed me again. I was only able to get a slightly longer look at the destroyed thumb, trying to decipher if the black was tissue death or burned skin before he waved me off. He prepared his little motor bike attached to the cart he used to collect garbage. After a few attempts of motoring up the steep hill that rose up from their house, the chain broke off the bike. Undeterred, he set off finding some materials with which to fix it.
“Please encourage him to go to the doctor again for his thumb,” I told the translator.
I knew that I was witnessing incarnational mission in a way I had not before, although perhaps not by her choice. Still, she seemed to be endowed with a potent reality of the Spirit’s quiet but radiant power.
“Come, I want you to meet some very special people, ” V. said, gesturing to the Roma settlement.