“Did you shower?”
“Did you use soap?”
Looking puzzled, “Yes, on my head.”
This was the conversation between a caregiver and an orphan child at a camp in Romania. My husband and I took 2 weeks off from our jobs to help run it 12 years ago. The context of this conversation was between one of the Romanian nationals helping to run the camp and a Roma (gypsy) kid who was attending. The camp leader noticed the child had showered but had gotten out after a quite obviously less than thorough scrub. We would normally interpret this as a very normal, eager young boy ready to get back to his friends rather than wanting to shower thoroughly. However, this was not the situation at all. This boy had never been taught how to shower or how to use soap. He thought that cleaning the top of your body was what a shower was for—and he was nine. He was nine years old and had never been taught how to properly clean himself. Our hearts broke.
As the years went on, we always wanted to return, yet for multiple reasons, we never got the opportunity to do so. There was life, work, and a new baby growing inside me. Yet, our desire to make God’s heart known to the broken, forgotten, mistreated, and vulnerable grew.
Fast forward 12 years to this past summer, when I had the opportunity to go to Bulgaria to complete a requirement for my degree. I was able to join missionaries who have been working there for four years with Roma people. Again, I was struck by simple phrases.
For the price of a horse
Allowed in town only on government approved days
They marry at 14
The parents may be three blocks over, but the kids live on the streets because their parents do not take care of them
This road is one of the top thoroughfares for trafficking in Europe
These are a few simple words that make up short phrases, yet they tell a much longer story. In Bulgaria among the Roma families, they often rejoice at the birth of a young girl because they know they will be able to sell her for the price of a horse. The Roma people live on the outskirts of town in what is called the “Mahala,” only allowed in town on government approved days. In many of the villages of Roma, the unemployment rate can be as high as 90%. They simply do not have the same opportunities others have, because they face severe discrimination in multiple ways. Many young people get married at fourteen years of age. When opportunities for education and employment are simply not available, cycles of oppression and hopelessness continue on.
Children often roam the streets unprotected and vulnerable. Their parents may live a few blocks away, and the children may even know who their parents are, but that is the extent of the relationship. This leads to another systemic problem. While we were traveling there, my stomach was constantly in knots. I felt nauseous and felt a spiritual battle raging in the air. Later, I would be told the road we had been traveling on was one of the main roads used for human trafficking in Europe. Young Roma girls, unprotected and uncared for, are easy targets for being kidnapped from the Mahala for the purposes of trafficking. These young girls live in constant fear. Our hearts broke, once again.
These are the phrases. These are the stories. This is how my husband and I have been led by invitation from the Lord to uproot ourselves and our three girls (ages 8, 10 and 11) and move—to Bulgaria. Twelve years after our first encounter with the Roma people, the Lord has brought us full-circle. Though we will be serving in a different country this time, we will be serving the same people group.
This process has been long and winding. We have had healing of our own that we had to choose to walk through. We have had thousands of small moments when we said “yes” to God—all of which have led us to this point. We have prayed for discernment and for the Lord to “establish the work of our hands.” And for now at least, we feel He made it clear that He wants us serving with the Roma.
Why? Two words: access and exposure.
The Roma people do not have access to all the wonderful resources we do. They cannot simply decide they want to be educated and then do it. They cannot simply decide they will leave and go find opportunities elsewhere. They cannot come out, so we must go in.
They need people to speak into oppression that has ruled them for thousands of years and say, “God’s heart is for you!” They need those from the outside to speak words of life, healing and worth. They need the gospel—all of it. They need those who are not afraid to walk through the trash outside the village to come near. They need access.
They also need exposure. We learn new ways of doing things by exposure to others who operate in ways that we do not. Often, families continue negative cycles because they do not know there is a better way. My husband and I and our three little girls are absolutely not perfect. We have a long way to go in our journey of God forming us into the likeness of His Son. However, part of what He is calling us to do is to just be.
We are called to be who we are as a family and invite others into our very ordinary lives. We are called to share our stories of seeing Jesus work. We are called to expose Roma people and children to a family who loves the Lord and each other deeply, and even though we do it very imperfectly. We are striving to follow God’s design. Because of Christ, we have love to share. We are willing to sit, love, listen and learn from them as we share what Jesus has done for us. We have space at our table. The Roma do not trust easily, but we are willing to do what it takes to earn it.
Our next journey will not involve getting to go to a church and be on a payroll. Instead, we enter into the very uncomfortable world of fundraising, living by faith, and transition; because these beautiful people are so worth it. God’s heart for them needs to be communicated. It will be hard. It will be frustrating. It will be heartbreaking. But it will be worth it. It will be full of Him.
“But how can people call for help if they don’t know who to trust? And how can they know who to trust if they haven’t heard of the One who can be trusted? And how can they hear if nobody tells them? And how is anyone going to tell them, unless someone is sent to do it?” Romans 10:14-15 (MSG)
Hollie Wells is a first time contributor to the Soul Care Collective. Thanks, Hollie! You can find out more about her family’s upcoming ministry in Bulgaria by visiting their website here!