Romania? In Eastern Europe somewhere: Ceausescu and Communism; Securitate and informers; poverty, notably orphanages with tormented, sometimes deranged, children that the Romanian state wished to hide; and lorry-loads of aid, old clothes and used equipment, from good Christian people.
These rather disparate fragments, I admit with shame, were once all I knew about Romania. They were gleanings from the media blitz of the early 1990s when Romania held the attention of the world, and from missionary meetings I attended.
A change was on the horizon, however, in January 2007, when a square-jawed and even squarer-shouldered Romanian by the name of Cornel Pelea joined the church I pastored. His invitations to visit Romania could only be declined politely a certain number of times, and so in October 2007 (perhaps largely for the sake of peace) a five-day stay was arranged.
The first thing I wanted to do was return home! Arriving late in the evening, I remember little about my first Romanian meal except its strong disagreement with my stomach. I passed the next 24 hours in a state of misery longing to return to the UK.
And yet, as the nausea subsided, so did my sombre reflections. In the subsequent days I found the Lord knitting my heart to the people of this land and their plight. Such are the ways of our God!
And so now, as a convinced Romania-phile (or, as friends might say, ‘Romaniac’), and as someone who runs a small aid ministry to Romania, let me tell you about this land.
Let’s destroy a few stereotypes, using four words. The first is beauty. Romania abounds with breathtaking scenery.
Not only was this summed up by a friend and first-time visitor to Romania who likened what he saw to the French Alps, but is confirmed by our own Prince Charles, who owns both property and land in western Romania.
The second is practicality. I am fast coming to the conclusion that there is little a Romanian man cannot do with third-rate building materials.
A pile of logs outside a house during one visit might, with the help of some unimpressive corrugated plastic, have become a handy lean-to by the time of the next visit; and this probably done by someone whose main job is working in a factory!
The third is poverty. Now, this is not what it was 20 years ago; a general improvement has certainly taken place. And yet, while Romania’s cost of living is comparable to the UK’s, salaries are about one-sixth of their British counterparts. Average pay is about £200 a month, and this is before you enter the Roma villages, which at times recall Calcutta slums.
And yet the fourth word is spirituality. Christian influence of some kind is everywhere. Seventeen of its 22 million people claim membership of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which is not without its problems, but makes ‘belief’ normal.
A pastor’s wife once said to me that to ask a Romanian if he believes in God is to offend him. A cross often stands at the roadside as a traveller enters a village and a second will bid him farewell as he leaves.
And, in the evangelical churches, Christians are brimming with enthusiasm and ideas for ministry, only to be frustrated by a lack of funds. This is where our aid programme, known as Romanian Ministries, steps in.
Through regular visits Romanian Ministries identifies godly individuals who wish to minister in a particular area. We then receive donations from friends in the UK, which are disbursed to these individuals in accordance with their needs and the Lord’s leading. These go to pastors, lay workers or small Christian organisations.
Here are five examples. The first is Daniel Petrut, a gracious 40-year-old who pastors three churches near Alba Iulia, in central Romania. These churches are small but crucial congregations in villages without any other form of evangelical witness.
Daniel commenced his ministry there on the basis of promised American funding which sadly failed to materialise. Forced to supplement his salary by working as a minibus driver, he admitted that his ten years of ministry have taken their toll and he has felt ‘crushed’ by his labours. It’s been a privilege to offer him regular financial help and his appreciation is a delight to see.
Iosif Ciungan, of Aiud, is a skilled furniture maker, specialising in chairs that would occupy the top end of the UK market. He also engages in a valuable ministry to inmates of his town’s prison.
The last 21 years have seen him on Wednesday mornings in Aiud Penitentiary, holding a two hour Bible study with up to ten men and providing Bibles to those who ask.
Romanian Ministries not only helps with this but also his work with necautati (never visited, literally ‘not looked for’) prisoners. Iosif says these poor individuals are delighted to receive any kind of present, even as insignificant as a handkerchief. So his gift-packs of toiletries, socks and Christian literature are greatly appreciated.
Alina Fizite, of Metanoia Baptist Church, Arad, works with street children. Many Romanian towns and cities have their own contingent of such children, aged anything from five years upward, begging on the streets by day and sleeping in makeshift shelters by night.
Forced into this lifestyle by intolerable family situations and often preyed upon by homeless adults, their lot is amongst the most miserable in Romania. Alina regularly visits state-run shelters and holds fortnightly Bible classes for these children, as well as providing food to those on the streets. It’s a great privilege to help in her ministry.
Romanian Roma selling The big issue magazines on street corners are a common sight in Britain today, but the Roma are viewed with resentment in Romania. They are racially distinct from other Romanians, originating from the Sindh region in modern day Pakistan.
A fact often overlooked is that they were enslaved in Romania until as recently as the 1850s. They were also victims of the Nazi holocaust, when up to 1.5 million of them were killed.
It’s rare to find Romanians who feel called of the Lord to minister to the Roma, but Raluca and her mother are two welcome exceptions. They run youth groups each week for Roma in their village, but lacked the resources to hold a holiday Bible club. We were delighted to help them in this, and look forward to a report on how this summer’s club goes!
Denis Zlatan is a student at Oradea Bible Seminary. The elegant seminary buildings are a far cry from pre-revolution days, when Christians received their tuition high up in the Romanian hills. They might indicate a comfortable level of existence for students, but little could be further from the truth.
I thought I was hearing things when someone told me it was not unusual for students to go to bed hungry, but this was confirmed through Denis’ story. Denis hails from Moldavia, one of the poorest parts of Romania.
Struggling to pay his fees, and working in the seminary canteen to obtain food during the week, what he ate at weekends was often entirely down to whatever he was given. It was therefore a real joy, on the recommendation of his college professors, to help this godly young man. Denis continues well in his studies today.
>These are just a few of the individuals the Lord has brought to us in recent years. Space does not permit mention of the lay preachers, church planters, seminary students, summer camp places and evangelistic events also helped. Suffice to say, Romania is surely unfinished business, an unfinished mission.
Some British Christians may still have a store of happy Romanian memories, recalling adventures there when the Lord taught and used them in helping Romania during the crisis years. If so, I would love to hear from them!
However, these needn’t only be memories. Romania is alive with needs and opportunities today. The above five examples represent an army of would-be Christian labourers.
And so maybe it’s time for you to make some inquiries? Why not acquaint yourselves with the work of Alan and Anne Penrose and their Support for Romania? Why not find out about Eric and Rosemary Barrett and 4H? Why not reconsider the sterling work of Blythswood in Romania. Or find out more about our work in Romanian Ministries?
‘I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then I said, Here am I! Send me’.