I sat at my laptop, thinking about the many ways I’ve changed by looking at the world through cultural lenses. One thing’s for sure: I couldn’t remain the same.
I’ve experienced love from people who valued relationship over agenda, who wouldn’t hesitate to give up their plans for the day to spend time with me. I’ve been humbled by hospitality, receiving the best from those who had so little to give. I’ve learned to be content and not wasteful, watching people repair and re-use what they had, not demanding bigger and newer and better.
I’ve learned that all people are the same. Everyone wants to be loved, to do something significant and to protect and provide for their children. Everyone is created in God’s image and carries a God-shaped vacuum in their heart.
As I thought about what story to tell to capture this, I realized I’ve already told it. And so, I will include an excerpt from my book, We Wait You. My sojourn abroad began in Romania in 1990, just months after the revolution that overthrew Communism, and ended a decade later in Hungary. This story is from the beginning.
“Sundays in Bucharest were joyful days of rest. Romanians loved to express their newfound freedom of religion. Some attended church out of curiosity. They wanted to understand the faith of their ancestors, most of whom had been Romanian Orthodox.
“It’s not that all churches were closed under Communism. Priests who touted the party line, praising Our Father Ceauşescu, seemed to be unaffected. Spies planted themselves in congregations of the few Bible-believing churches left open, recording the name of each person who entered. Many of those people mysteriously lost their jobs the next day. Sometimes the outspoken ones simply disappeared, never to be seen again.
“I attended one of the persecuted Protestant churches, named Popa Rusu for the street on which it stood. The building was very plain and hidden between other buildings. Nothing about the exterior marked it as a church.
“The interior was a whole different story. People crowded onto each bench, unencumbered with Westerners’ need for personal space. The ones who couldn’t squeeze onto a bench stood in the aisles, pressed against each other. Hundreds crammed into any space they could find. The windows were closed, because Romanians firmly believed that colds were caught through drafts. The room felt quite warm, but not as warm as the passion of the people.
“The depth of faith in that room humbled me. Many of these believers had suffered for years, never faltering in their belief that living for Jesus was more important than anything. They didn’t demand that He give them good health, good jobs, money, safety, or freedom — willingly laying all of that aside. Yet, they were truly free, even the ones who had been imprisoned, harassed, or had loved ones tortured or murdered because of Christ.
“Others in Romania had warded off the despair by clinging to the ember of hope that the Americans would come someday to save them. Some succumbed to the hopelessness, resigned to never escaping their bleak existence, every day the same. But these dear followers of Christ held firm to the confident hope that Jesus will return for them one day. The change in political system didn’t make their faith any stronger; it just gave them more to praise God for. Their joy had no bounds. I had so much to learn from them. They knew how to wait on God.
“Trying to be separate from the world, they had some strict practices. Men sat on the left of the sanctuary and women on the right. Married women wore scarves on their heads to symbolize their submission to their husband and to God. None of the women wore jewelry or make-up. I didn’t think it was a sin to try to look pretty, but I didn’t want to offend anyone. So I scrubbed my face clean and shiny before church. It was a very small sacrifice to make.
“One of the first church services I attended was the Thanksgiving service in October. It had nothing to do with Pilgrims or turkeys, but focused on giving thanks to God. As usual, everyone greeted each other by saying ‘pace’ or peace.
“A young girl, about 12 years old, ran over to me when I entered. Her name was Adriana, and she reminded me of the Romanian gymnasts from the Olympics. ‘I translate for you,’ she said. She stuck to me as though attached with velcro.
“I sat on the women’s side, next to Adriana and her mother. One lone man sat on our bench, probably in his eighties. He was blind, and his wife took care of him. I caught his wife’s eyes. They positively twinkled.
“She stretched her scrawny arm around several people to reach me. That’s when I discovered those arms were far from weak. She grabbed my neck and pulled me over to her, covering my face with kisses. I could feel her whiskers. All through the service, she kept peeking at me and sparkling, radiating sheer delight in our presence.
“‘She kiss now,’ Adriana said, loudly.
“Her mother gave her a reproving look.
“Adriana whispered. ‘She kiss now.’
“We prayed, we sang, we listened as the pastor preached and the a cappella choir lifted glorious voices. I didn’t understand many words, but the love and joy rang out loud and clear. One after another, people stood up to share or to pray, with melodic words and expressive faces. Even the men cried openly, unashamed.
“‘He cry now,’ my young translator said.
“The word I heard the most was one I already knew. ‘Mulţumesc.’ Thank you.
“Mounds of bread, grapes, and apples were piled onto wooden paddles and passed down each row. We were sharing in the bounty of people who had so little and thanked God for providing all they needed. ‘We eat now,’ Adriana said. When the baskets were passed for an offering, I noticed that everyone threw coins in. No one was too poor to give something back to God out of hearts spilling over with gratitude.
“Small children sat still the entire time. If anyone started to wiggle, a mother or grandmother would just look at the child and he would stop.
“The service lasted three hours. I knew it had ended when Adriana said, ‘We go now.’
“I had already named the old lady on our bench The Kissing Lady. As everyone stood talking in the courtyard, she spied my teammates, grabbed their necks, and covered them with kisses too.
“The pastor came and introduced himself to us. He spoke perfect English. ‘I see you have met our beautiful lady,’ he said. ‘She is deaf, and her husband is blind.’
“He went on to explain that The Kissing Lady was born Jewish and barely survived the Holocaust. In the concentration camp, she learned about Jesus and gave him her life. After the war, when religion was banned in Romania, she grew in her new faith through underground prayer groups.
“He told us that believers would arrive at a certain apartment every 15 minutes, over the space of several hours. Black shades darkened the windows so no one could possibly know how many people were crammed inside. Each prayer group would have a different book, torn from one Bible. After they finished studying and memorizing it, they would pass it off in secret to another group, in exchange for their book. Not many people in Romania had ever seen a whole Bible in one piece. In fact, the pastor said that Bibles that were sent from Christians in the West were confiscated at the border and turned into toilet paper.
“My brothers and sisters in that courtyard had learned how to hide God’s Word in their hearts. They did not take a single precious word from that Book for granted.
“The Kissing Lady gave us all one more round of sloppy kisses, and then we went home, forever changed.”
Excerpted from We Wait You © 2010 by Taryn R. Hutchison. All rights reserved. 2nd Printing 2014. Trusted Books is an imprint of Deep River Books. The views expressed or implied in this work are those of the author. To learn more about Deep River Books, go online to www.DeepRiverBooks.com.
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ISBN 13: 978-1-63269-092-0
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2008900195
This was a joy to read! I smiled at being reacquainted with memories and emotions from my own time in the early days of post-communist Eastern Europe. Taryn has a gift for capturing the heart and personality of the people and culture, expressing both their charm and challenges in a way that makes you feel part of the experience. This is a great reminder that having a stance of humility and openness can lead to not just appreciating other cultures, but really loving the people and learning from them. Can’t wait to read the rest of the book!