Right around a year ago, I guess it was now, when I went to take the garbage out, I saw a girl rummaging through our dumpsters. I recognized her immediately from a distance. She's actually no longer a girl but a young woman now, probably about 20, but I met her as a girl. Her name is Lenka and she is a Roma (more commonly known as gypsy in English) girl. She wore a tattered, thick, heavy black coat with lots of layers underneath. Her hands were swollen and red, telling me that she was most likely living on the street. She looked more like 40 than 20. She didn't recognize me until I looked her in the eyes, and then it registered. She gave a slight smile and I hugged her and asked how she was doing. She answered something along the lines of ''not good,'' so I asked what I could do for her. She said, ''give me something to eat.'' I told her to wait just one minute and ran upstairs and quickly prepared her three rolls with salami, butter and vegetables. When I returned I asked if she had something to drink and she nodded yes as she held up a mostly empty two-liter bottle of Pepsi she'd, no doubt, found in a dumpster. She stood there and looked at me, silently like she was waiting for me to do or say something. I felt awkward. I didn't know what to do. People usually say ''I'd better be going now,'' or ''I'll see you later,'' but she just stood there. I felt kind of panicked and made some kind of small talk to excuse myself from the situation. Then I went home.
And over the last year I've never stopped thinking of that day. Through countless circumstances and, most recently, through reading Katie Davis' book about the unbelievable work she's doing in Uganda among the orphans and the destitute, God has been speaking to me about giving. About taking care of the least of these, the heart of His gospel. When I first became a mom, I went through about a five month period where I was paralyzed with fear. It's scary enough becoming a parent and suddenly being responsible for another life, but doing so in a country not your own is even scarier. Slowly it got better and when Rosy was born it wasn't nearly as bad, but still, I found that I was doing everything in my power to keep them safe and healthy. That's not a bad thing, of course, but it is when it's your highest priority. I was very scared of sickness and found that my prayers always seemed to center around safety and health. I started realizing I was hearing that word in my head over and over and over again...safe. Meanwhile I was reading about how Katie (who at 20 years old was a single, adoptive mother to 14 little girls and founder and director of a nonprofit that feeds and pays for hundreds of kids to go to school) was constantly inviting the sick and diseased to come live with them while she nursed them back to health. And I'm not talking a cold or the flu, I mean lepers, people with tuberculosis, babies with HIV. And then there it was, the verse that hit me like a ton of bricks. Matthew 16:25 "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.'' As with everything about Jesus, this is so counterintuitive. It is natural to want to avoid pain and sickness, and to want to preserve ourselves. To live. But ironically, in order to do this we give up truly living. I see this illustration in my head of a guy clinging to a pole which represents health and safety, and therefore has no limbs available for doing anything else.
But back to Lenka. When I first came to Slovakia in 2003 I had my first introduction to the Roma community and quickly fell in love with them as a people. The children, in particular, were so welcoming to us and embraced us excitedly with open arms. I befriended a group of girls, all around 10 or 11 years of age. I took their pictures, tried my feeble Slovak out on them, wrote them letters and sent them gifts after I returned home. We reunited summer after summer as I returned to Slovakia. They were easy to love. They were cute and bright and smiley. Lenka seemed to me to be something of an outcast. Most of the other kids had obvious friends who walked together, stood in groups etc., but she was always just kind of around. She had a funny, home haircut. She smelled of chemicals, typical of people who huff glue or other chemicals and her speech was often kind of slow and slurred. Simply put, she had the look of someone, at best, neglected, but more likely abused.
And ever since I saw her at the dumpsters, no wait, I would actually say long before that, she has been coming to my mind very often. And I'm finding out that when people come to mind, it's usually not a coincidence. How many times have you thought of someone you hadn't thought of in a long time, only to find they'd emailed you or called you or sent a text? So anyhow, I'm reading this book about helping people and this girl just keeps coming to mind over and over and over. And it could have been anyone. I know probably 50 gypsy kids by name. But it wasn't just anyone, it was her. And one night while reading the book I read these words,
I have a young friend named Maria. The truth is that Maria had never had a bath before I took her home and gave her one. The truth is that Maria has no one who cares for her. No one who tells her she is loved...and no one in Uganda wants to touch her or help her or cares that she is sick. The truth is that Maria is just like you or me. A person. Real. A child of the King...The truth is that there are children like this all over the world, sick, starving, dying, unloved, and uncared for. The truth is that the 143 million orphaned children and the 11 million who starve to death or die from preventable diseases and the 8.5 million who work as child slaves, prostitutes, or under other horrific conditions and the 2.3 million who live with HIV add up to 164.8 million needy children. And though at first glance that looks like a big number, 2.1 billion people on this earth proclaim to be Christians. The truth is that if only eight percent of the Christians would care for one more child, there would not be any statistics left. This is the Truth. I have the freedom to believe it. The freedom, the opportunity to do something about it. The truth is that He loves these children just as much as He loves me and now that I know, I am responsible.
And as I read those last three words, they rang in my head like a gong. I tipped my head back, eyes open, tears flowing, and prayed. I didn't even pray in words because I didn't have any. There was just sort of a sentiment of ''Help me'' and ''What are You asking me to do?'' And where before that moment the recurring thoughts of this girl could have been kind of swept aside, they now came bearing down on me like a runaway train with flashing lights and honking horn. I hadn't willfully been disregarding them, I was very much taking notice, but I hadn't done anything about them either.
The very next night after Tomáš got home I went to get milk and I told him I was gonna run into Tesco to look for a spring jacket for Lily. And as I turned the corner by the milkmat to walk toward the square there was one lone figure in front of me. They were walking more slowly than I was so I caught up to them and within 200 feet I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt it was her. Lenka. But actually I knew the moment I saw her. I had not seen her since the dumpster incident a year ago and there she was. And here's the part of the story I wish were different. I wish I could tell you I called out to her. Talked to her. Hugged her. But I slowed my pace and walked unnoticeably to her. And to add insult to injury, she even turned around and looked at me and I did nothing. I told myself if I saw her again in the store I would talk to her, but I didn't see her. And when I got back home and started thinking through it all I asked myself what I was actually afraid of. And I still don't know. I am not afraid of giving to her financially, whatever that might look like (food, clothing, medicine, etc.) And I am not afraid of the social stigma of befriending a gypsy, of that I am certain. The only thing I can come up with is that I'm afraid of getting involved in what would certainly be a messy relationship. She, no doubt, has big, big problems. Baggage, the likes of which I have never experienced. Couple that with the fact that I have no idea what God will ask of me and my hesitation is a little more understandable. Understandable, but not acceptable. And I've been wrestling and wrestling and thinking through what this might look like and what it might cost me and part of me wants to run for my life but a bigger part of me says ''I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing," (2 Samuel 24:24) and I cry for how long my faith has cost me nothing and how I've sat here in my comfortable chair and frittered away this one precious life I've been given and allowed people to go on hurting when I've had the means to help them all because I. am. scared.
And then I read this, ''I shudder to think what I could have missed in life because of my disobedience.'' And it cuts me like a knife because this incident on the square was not an isolated incident, but practically the norm. And if that wasn't bad enough, God gave me another chance the next week when I met Tomáš on his lunch break to do some paperwork, and upon leaving him I saw her again. She walked right across my path. And again I did nothing.
But I tell you this. God is not sitting up there in heaven, looking down on me, shaking His head (or fist), disappointed in me (or angry). I believe any disappointment He might be feeling is because He wants so desperately to bless me with the joy that only comes from overcoming fear with love and walking in the boldness that only comes from believing in Him and His promises.
In reading this book, and as so often happens, I feel like it was written just for me. For such a time as this. Here's what I underlined in the introduction before any of this happened, ''I have learned I will not change the world. I can, however, change the world for one person...and I look at the life of my Savior, who stopped for one.'' (Italics, mine). ''So I keep stopping and loving one person at a time.'' And this, ''People often ask if I think my life is dangerous, if I am afraid. I am much more afraid of remaining comfortable...Jesus called His followers to be a lot of things, but I have yet to find where He warned us to be safe.'' And then, ''I cannot imagine being happier...the most joyful places I could imagine.'' And lastly, ''I believe that we were each created to change the world for someone. To serve someone. To love someone the way Christ first loved us, to spread His light.''
And even as I reread this and get ready to hit publish, my heart goes up into my throat. Which tells me it is crucial that I do so.