After the World Racers and their parents have been reunited with many tears and much joy, the mission begins. Over the next few days our hosts create plans for how we can help them in their mission to love their people well. It is pretty straight forward, feed the poor, care for the widows and orphans, open they eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. It is really not complicated. Love people. Many are without food and so we are sent in teams to homes of those in need, to offer food and prayer. Walking down the streets of Draganesti with my team, I am again drawn to the gates. As we walk out of the small town to the smaller backroads, we go from pavement to dirt yet, the walls and gates remain the same. Every house is walled off and closed to the street outside. It strikes me that the people we pass along our way are also closed off with faces which express no emotion. Segmented. Divided. Shut away. Without our local interpreters, there is little chance we would be welcomed. However, because we are with people they know and trust, the gates swing open to us, and inside we learn the stories.
Our first gate is wooden planks that are roughly put together. No paint, no frills, just boards hammered together. On either side of the gate stands a cinderblock wall that spans the property. We are invited inside by a young girl of 14 with big brown eyes, who knows our Romanian interpreter. Inside are two block houses, which are more like single rooms, and a shed for the animals. The family transportation is an old red bike leaned against the wall. The first house within the compound is painted blue, with red trim windows which have no panes, but are covered with sheets. The girl’s father is shy at first, standing behind a curtain which serves as his front door. He passes out anything from inside that might be used for a chair. Every person with our team is offered a place to sit, be it a chair, stool, or crate. There are numerous family members all in one compound and our interpreter explains that the man’s wife died a few weeks ago from a sudden brain aneurism.
To show us the customary veil of grief over his home, the man comes out and points to a black cloth draped and tacked on the side of his house. His eyes tear up as he tells the story of his wife. He is overwhelmed by grief and what he will do to raise his daughter. He is roughly put together, just like his gate. He seems rickety in his sorrow. He points to his heart and rests his hand on his chest, which needs no interpretation. We offer condolences and gather around them with our prayers. The food we leave is appreciated, and I find that within the walls and behind the gates the normally stoic people become open, passionate, and vulnerable. They quickly go to the deep and painful places in their lives as if sharing their hearts is the most natural thing in the world. It is another Romanian contrast…indifferent on the outside, hospitable and tender on the inside.
The next gate is made from tin. It is neatly cut and pieced together in three parts from bottom to top. Its wall looks to be a rough stucco, or concrete of some kind. Once again, we are welcomed inside. An older woman takes ladles of water and throws them on the ground to settle the dusty floors for our entrance. That way our feet will not get dusty, and since there is no grass, this is the way to care for the yard. A man and his son, who knows our interpreter, begin the offering of chairs. They redirect us into the shade of a tree in the front of the house and give us the best seats where we are most protected from the glaring sun. Again, there is more than one house and though it is unclear to us how they are related, we know each person within the walls are family. Once they have brought every possible chair, we are seated. One of our team has a mosquito bite which is bleeding, and a middle-aged woman notices. She sends her son to get water and a cloth, along with medicine. She kneels in the dirt to tend to the wound putting the needs of her guests as her highest priority.
Soon after, she begins her story. Her mother died recently, and she explains that is why she still wears the black scarf of grief around her head. She is full of emotion as she tells her story and at times, tears flow freely. A man on our team tells her that his father just died recently also and they share tears of sorrow. She cared for her mother for some years before her death and now she misses her. She is hurting because her mother was too sick to make the customary trip to be baptized before she died, and it weighs on her heart. A girl in our group paints a picture of her mother’s new healthy body being baptized by Jesus in heaven. We gather around the family for prayer and the woman looks us each in the eyes with gratitude. They ask us to take a photo to remember them by so we can continue to pray for them. They are grateful for the food and for our visit, but not half as thankful as we are that she blessed us with her story. It is carefully crafted together from the cut pieces of her life, from bottom to top, just like the gate.
Gate number 3 is a tall and strong gate. It appears to be made from iron or some other kind of metal. It was not ornate, but sturdy. We were invited inside by a little girl of about 4 who was wearing only underwear and a smile. Her face lit up like the sun and she ran to greet our interpreter, and pulled her into the gate. This family compound had three four homes inside, all cinderblock. None were painted. Rather than bring the chairs to us, this time the man brought us to the chairs, inside his home. It was the only room we saw all day which had a door. The walls were barren in the small blue room, which barely fit a couch and a loveseat. We each took our seats as directed by the man. Soon he was surrounded by his daughter, and granddaughter and other children from the family because the door stayed open, and we were a source of curiosity. He told us his story. Drinking too much and how he realized it would kill him and so he stopped. Now he works hard and he told us of his children and his 10 grandchildren. His family are migrant workers who go to other countries to find work since in Romania the jobs do not pay enough to survive. His sons live in Spain with their families because work is abundant there in the vineyards. He is proud of his home and the way he has cared for his family. He tells us of his hard work to pay for his compound. He believes that many local people who say there is no work are simply lazy and are not willing to do what it takes. He tells us all of his children are hard-working and that they all work together as a team to provide all that they have. He tells us that from Adam to Noah all men were from the same family. At the tower of Babel is where we first spoke different languages and spread out, but under our differences we are all still the same family. We are brothers and sisters. We pray for blessings on his house and leave toys for the children. This strong and sturdy man does not need food for his family because he earns it.
These are the stories of the gates. Three of them. Each one I pass on our way back to town I wonder, how many more stories of heartache and pain? How many more are without hope? How can they survive within the gates and doors that lock them away from others? Authoritarian government from years past lingers over the people still. Fear and mistrust hang in the air and yet, the gates are beginning to open. The stories are being told and hearts are opening up. Psalm 24 comes to my mind and I pray it as I pass each gate. Lift up your heads, O gates of Romania, be lifted up, O ancient doors which try to close people off. Allow the King of Glory to come in to bring hope and love. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, who will fight for you. He will fight for your family. He will fight for your life and your heart. You are not alone behind your walls. He is the Lord of hope who will make it safe to open your gates and doors. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of Glory. Precious people of Romania, you are not forgotten or abandoned. You are not alone, the King of Glory sits upon your walls, he hovers over the gates and doors waiting for them to open. Lift your heads O you gates and doors. Lift your heads to hope.