By Jess McGuire
Let me set the scene: It’s a hot, sunny afternoon in the middle of a Romanian summer and I’m making my way down a dusty, beaten old road. I’m sixteen and with a group of about ten others from the Christian school that I went to, as well as some teachers and volunteers too. We’re all sporting the same green collared t-shirts emblazoned with our school logo and we stick out like a sore thumb as the group of English kids in the midst of the locals. The heat is sweltering, sweat is dripping down our backs, and we’re all dying for a drink. We’re anticipating what is to come next, so the chatter is idle and the atmosphere is clouded with the unknown.
When I reached my last year of school I was offered the opportunity to go to Romania to do some work in a church in Mangalia, a city in the southeast of Romania, and the surrounding area. Of course I wanted to go, and knowing that some of my very best friends were going too was enough to make my answer a definitive yes. We spent the year learning Romania phrases, planning our activities, deciding what our responsibilities would be for the week, reading from the Bible, and practicing making balloon animals (somehow that job fell into my hands, although if you asked me to make something now the best I could offer is an attempt at a dog, alongside some wonderful facial expressions to convey the fact that bending balloons until they’re ready to burst sets me on edge.)
We had an amazing week. We spent a lot of time of the beach face painting for the local kids, singing songs we’d learnt for the occasion (in Romanian) and of course, playing our own games too. We ate a lot of pasta that week which became a joke in itself as three of the lads became known as the Carbonara Kings after confessing some questionable cooking methods that had us all in stitches. We ran a kids club, cleaned up the church, and got to know a local family. We were genuinely happy to be there doing what we were doing.
On our itinerary for the week was a visit to the local gypsy village in Mangalia. I’d heard the stories about this from groups that had gone to Romania in the years before us and to be honest, I was nervous. Why? I couldn’t really tell you. We had a translator, we were in a big group, and we already knew a family that lived there as they had been accompanying us on many of our activities during the week. But I felt on edge.
On that day, when we walked down that road together, we arrived and were greeted by a family. Children from the village stopped and stared, their bare feet padding along to road closer to us, then away from us. We shielded our eyes from the sun to scan the area. When I registered who stood in front of us, my whole body deflated. Standing there was a guy who’d spent the last week with us, teaching us odd Romanian words and joining in our songs and games. He became known as Lampard as every time we saw him he was wearing an old England football shirt with the name across the back. I guessed the woman he was stood with was his mother. I recalled seeing her earlier the same day at the church we were staying at. She had a mop in one hand and a bucket in the other. I’d gone out of the back door to sit in the shade and do my daily devotion, as we were all asked to do. I watched her for a minute and as she looked up, briefly stopping her duties, I gave her a shy smile and in return gave me a huge, friendly smile. How could I have known that this is where they lived?
We were taken into a one floor house that was made up of two rooms and a hallway that connected them both. One was a bedroom with a double bed, wardrobe and a window at the front. The curtains were drawn so as to keep the heat out, but it was too strong and the room felt stuffy. The hallway was dark and furnished with a small cooker in the corner which none of us even noticed until it was pointed out to us. We quietly walked down the hallway and into the bedroom at the back of the house, silently taking in everything we were seeing. We didn’t really talk amongst ourselves, we were quiet and respectful. It was still swelteringly warm. The room had no windows but three bunk beds to accommodate the whole family. As all fifteen of us crammed into that bedroom, my emotions were on the brink of making an embarrassing display.
“Would someone like to pray?”
There’s something about the solidarity of a group of people praying. To see them all close their eyes, listen to the words being spoken and reach for the hand of the person next to them. To all unite in what is being said and felt and thought is remarkable. That day it stirred something within me. Maybe I’d been expecting it all along, just waiting for something that would finally make the tears fall. Maybe it caught me off guard because there were a thousand other things that day that I thought would set me off and I didn’t expect the prayer to be the breaking point.
I closed my eyes, listened to that prayer and urged for it to be heard. The tears dripped down my face and I hung my head so they wouldn’t be seen.
I was shocked at how much time we’d spent with the family not knowing what they went home to every night. I also felt a huge surge of hope and relief as we were told afterwards that the money we raised as a school was helping to build them an extra room. I felt sad and proud at the same time. I’m glad there was something we could do to help but it made me feel massively ungrateful for the life I led. I never took a moment to appreciate the fact that I have my own bedroom or that every room in my house is decorated so generously with light. I never took a moment to appreciate that my kitchen is decked out with appliances that make meal times an adventure. I never took a moment to appreciate that I can control the temperature in the room I’m sat in. There is an abundance of things in my life that I didn’t even realise I took for granted, and the weight of that naiveté and ungratefulness came down on me like a ton of bricks that day.
But sometimes those moments are the best moments. The moments we realise that we have so much to be thankful for and so much that make our lives easier, more practical, and comfortable. The moments that wake up us to an attitude adjustment that helps us get more out of life. The moments that teach us that there is so much more to the world than the space we occupy. There’s so much more we can offer and there’s so much more we can do.
Even if it’s just taking a moment to stop and smell the roses.