Our team attended the opening rally this morning at Golgota, one of the larger Baptist churches in Arad. Doru introduced us to the pastors with whom we will be paired for the week, and then both he and the other coordinators made introductory remarks and encouraged us all for the week ahead. After brief introductions by everyone attending, as well as a praise chorus sung by most of us in phonetic Romanian, we finally met our host pastors with whom we would be working throughout the week. John Hill and I have been teamed with Florin Bālāceanu, who pastors two churches: Hope Baptist Church in Agrişu-Mare, a village located 37 km outside of Arad, and Grace Baptist in Hunedoara-Timişana, approximately 15 km out of Arad. We were immediately taken to Florin’s car to drive out to Agrişu-Mare where we would stay the majority of the week.
Simply wedging our enormous luggage into the hatchback of Florin’s compact car was comical enough – he was completely unprepared for the volume that two inexperienced Americans would choose to lug to Europe – but everything became ridiculous when we also stopped to pick up Florin’s interpreter stand-in, Laurenţiu, and proceeded to wedge him into the back seat in classic clown-car fashion. This certainly started us off in hilarious style, and I quickly hit it off with Laurenţiu (who was forced to perch Florin’s 12-year-old daughter Ema on his lap for the duration of the ride; poor girl had no option but to tilt her head to the side as there was no head room for her at all). The drive was at the very least 45 minutes, and the three of us in the back seat talked the entire time of movies, music, and personal interests. I cannot thank God enough for Laurenţiu and his near-fluency in English. John and I are staying at his family home with his parents who speak no English; having an interpreter with us round the clock, and someone who is accustomed to speaking conversationally in English, is a blessing beyond measure.
We began our village adventure with lunch prepared by Cornelia Gavriş, Laurenţiu’s mom, which consisted of rice-stuffed sweet peppers in a rich, vegetable broth, accompanied by slices of bread, marble cake and two kinds of sweet cookies. I don’t know if I am simply tired or if my adrenaline has superceded my appetite, but I could barely eat the bowl of soup and three small peppers. It was delicious, but my body could not hold it. I am hoping the rest of the week is more normal for me.
A family friend had been staying at the Gavriş home, taking some R&R after having lost her employer (Laurenţiu’s aunt) to cancer just this week. The friend, Hoini, was caretaker to the woman and Laurenţiu explained that she had been staying with his parents to have some time to process. The afternoon turned into a beautiful picture of God turning ashes to beauty.
Laurenţiu took John and me with him while driving Hoini back to her village of Drauţ, a short 6 km from Agrişu-Mare. Once there, Hoini introduced us to her parents and all of us sat in their living room and enjoyed a glass of Coke while chatting (through Laurenţiu). Afterward, Hoini led us through her village to show us her church. The walk became a hike as we climbed up and down trail-beaten hills made muddy by recent rain or worn down to a rocky path by so much use. Along the way, Hoini and Laurenţiu talked like old friends, sometimes providing us with English translation but mostly speaking in their shared language. Hoini speaks no English although she can understand much of it, but she and John discovered that they could actually communicate through Spanish instead! A large portion of the day featured conversations in multiple translations, and the irony and humor was lost on none of us.
Hoini’s church was established in 1983, before Romania was free from Communism; that a church was able to form and continue during such oppression surprises and humbles me, and if given the chance, it’s a conversation I want to have with someone who remembers the early days. Hoini’s brother works on the church in a maintenance/renovation capacity, and he was busy building a foyer from large cinder bricks when we arrived. Her cousin was also at the church, and she coaxed him into sitting at the keyboard at the head of the church and performing a selection of hymns for us. After only a few, Laurenţiu’s love of gospel music got the better of him and he meandered toward the front until he finally picked up a microphone himself. Along with every song, Hoini added her own voice to the mix in a proud, clear, perfectly-pitched vocal that filled the church with rich praise. By the end of 45 minutes or more, all singing parties (and the non-singing John and myself) were circled around the keyboard and celebrating a shared love of music and our Lord. Though I understood not a word, the message was clear: God places a joy within His people that cannot be contained and should not be stifled.
On the route back to Hoini’s home, we headed to the top of the hill on which sat the village’s Orthodox church. Although the building is stunning, it was closed tight and showed no signs of life. As I think back on it now, it is an apt metaphor for what I understand about the religion of that church. For the four of us it held no sway outside its architecture. How sweet to be in the presence of God’s precious few.
We made one more stop on our trek back to Hoini’s home, a “quick” stop at her cousin’s home. Hoini’s sister was also there, and I felt so blessed to have met so many members of her family. She must have told her uncle of the spontaneous hymnsing at the church because no sooner than we sat in her aunt’s living room did her uncle and cousin begin pulling out a keyboard, violin and amplifier equipment to set up in the courtyard. Twenty minutes later we were treated to a short set of hymns performed, at Laurenţiu’s request, in “gypsy style”. Laurenţiu was amused and captivated by the fact that this mini-concert had been set up in the outdoors, and I was enraptured by the spontaneity, the immense talent, and the honesty of the moment. I am so thankful to the Lord for using these scenes as our introduction to Romanian culture.
Of the many revelations made today, I must note the following above all:
Hospitality is categorically important to the villagers we met. At each home we were invited to sit and share a beverage with them, and all apologized for not having food prepared to offer us. I continually had to respond “nu” when offered plates of fruit or the like and kept hoping to convey how full I was from lunch. It is not an easy “no” but managed not to offend anyone.
Romanian Christians, at least, are ready at moment’s notice to lift their voices in loud and rich praise to the Father and our Savior King. It is the sweetest sight yet.
In the evening I had to slip out of the room when, just after declaring my intention to hit the bed early, Ema came to visit and brought her friend, also Ema, to meet us. Soon after, the church’s deacon, Avram, joined with two other boys. This turned out to be Avram’s family. Though I ran the risk of being rude, I excused myself and became very scarce, taking a shower and staying in my bedroom to prep for Sunday. During my few trips in and out of the house, I heard the group once again regaling the Lord in song and covering the day in prayer. I’ll have to get John’s story sometime later. I simply bid them all “noapte bunâ” and closed my door. A cheerful “good night” was given in return.
continue reading: Day Four