Birthday Becomes Ministry

This week I had a house guest—an American missionary serving in Romania.  Sandy didn’t come so much to see Milan as to just take some time off and relax.  And it’s a good thing, since everything worth seeing in Milan can be seen in a day, two at most.  So while she did do some sight-seeing, she didn’t wear herself out going from place to place.  I had only been back a day when she arrived, and as the weekend approached, I realized that it would be Pastor Fabio’s birthday on Sunday.  So I asked Sandy if she would like to go with me, since Pastor Fabio lives up in the mountains a couple of hours from here.  She said yes.  So we made arrangements and caught a train.

On the train, Sandy confided to me that it was also her birthday, and that she was delighted to spend it up in the mountains of northern Italy.  But she asked me to keep her birthday a secret.  “I don’t want to take any attention away from Pastor Fabio, since it’s his birthday.”

One thing I thought that Sandy would be interested in seeing was the church’s ministry house, La Casa.  The ministry house is open as a refuge for marginalized people, particularly homeless people with alcohol and/or drug dependency issues.  Since Sandy works with gypsies, I thought she would find the ministry interesting and encouraging.

My involvement with La Casa began while it was still a dream in Carlo’s mind.  Pastor Fabio had sent Carlo to meet me at the train station a couple of years ago.  I hadn’t known Carlo except to see him at church whenever I went up there.  As soon as I got settled into the car, Carlo began talking to me about his idea for La Casa.

Little did I know, but he and his wife, Concetta, had agreed with Pastor Fabio that La Casa was to be a carefully guarded secret between the three of them until God gave further instructions.  Carlo had wanted me involved because of my prayer ministry.  As Carlo poured out the whole idea to me in the car, Concetta was in the backseat wondering if he had lost his mind, blathering their secret like that.  My spirit’s instant and strong response told me that this was definitely a God thing, so I immediately began praying for Carlo and his family, and for La Casa.

So I called Pastor Fabio to tell him that we were coming. When I told him that Sandy was a missionary in Romania, he contacted Carlo.  Normally I stay with others of the church, often with Pastor Fabio and his wife.  The reason he arranged for us to stay at La Casa was because there are two Romanian families currently staying at La Casa.

Most Italians are deeply prejudiced against Romanians.  They consider all Romanians gypsies, and therefore thieves who come to Italy to live off of hard-working Italians.  Part of the problem is in the name: the Italian word Rom (gypsy) sounds like a diminutive for Rumeno (Romanian).  There is a political party in Italy that advocates the immediate expulsion of all foreigners from Italy (not just Romanians, but also yours truly).  Of course it is as ridiculous to think that all Romanians are gypsies as it is to think that all gypsies are thieves or that foreigners are the source of Italy’s problems, but that’s the trouble with prejudices—they are pre-judgments before knowing the facts.

Romania is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and since Italy is close, and since Italian is most similar to Romanian, Romanians often leave their country to come to Italy and look for work.  The Romanians I know are honest, hard-working people who simply cannot earn a living wage in Romania.  Because of the prejudice against Romanians, they do not receive a warm welcome when they arrive in Italy.

So, Pastor Fabio arranged for us to stay at La Casa.  I was thrilled because I had wanted Sandy to see La Casa and to meet Carlo and Concetta.  When Pastor Fabio told me about the Romanians staying there, I knew that this was the right place to stay.

Concetta picked us up from the train station and took us to La Casa.  It was different than I had remembered—bigger.  It turns out that it’s a different house, though in many aspects similar to the other.  Now, that’s really something amazing because that day when Carlo and Concetta met me at the train station two years ago they had been a family of four living in a pickup truck style camper for a year.  They had practically no possessions, and certainly were not wealthy.  Their dream at the time seemed as unreachable as the moon on a stepladder.  But prayer works, and prayer together with a God-given dream is unstoppable.

Within just a matter of months, donations came pouring in and Carlo and Concetta had gotten the house for practically nothing.  Now they were in a second (and bigger) house, and Concetta told me that they have their eyes on a third house: one exclusively for women and children.

We met the two Romanian families: Steffy, a young woman with her two children and mother, and a young couple with their daughter.  Steffy and her mother were gypsies.  She had left her abusive husband (who was not a gypsy).  He had brought the family to Italy, where his abusive behavior had increased.  Steffy now has a good job and will soon be able to support her family.  For now they live at La Casa.

The young couple, Miriam and Lino, had also come to Italy in search of a better life.  Miriam had succumbed to the thinking of many ex-pat Romanians: that Romania was a place to be hated, never to return again.  No doubt the Italian prejudice against Romanians plus the terrible poverty of Romania has a lot to do with the ex-pat hatred of their homeland.  But after coming to La Casa and also to faith in Jesus, Miriam has done a complete turnaround.  Now she and Lino look forward to returning to Romania as missionaries.

All the Romanians were delighted to meet Sandy, and Sandy was delighted to minister encouragement to them in their native language.  Sandy also played with the children until we were all called to lunch.  Later, while Sandy was resting after lunch, I spilled the beans.  I told them that it was Sandy’s birthday.  They had already been planning on making a cake from the donated apples that were in super-abundant supply.  Instead of making one cake, they made three: an applesauce cake, an apple-chocolate marble cake, and an apple upside-down cake.  In the meanwhile, they called Carlo with the news of Sandy’s birthday, and he picked up a beautiful scarf to give her as a gift.

When dinner was ready, Sandy came and took her place at the table beside me, her Italian translator, never even suspecting that a birthday dinner was in the works.  We enjoyed a lovely fish dinner donated by a local restaurant, and then out came the 3 cakes, one with a candle in the top.  Sandy turned to me in shock.  I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I’m not so good at keeping this kind of secret.”

Over her shoulder I saw Lino, who suddenly had tears welling-up in his eyes.  Steffy explained to me in Italian that Lino was feeling emotional because Sandy reminded him of his mother.  When I translated this to Sandy, she stood up and went to Lino, who stood up, too.  She wrapped him in a hug that made all the eyes around the table well-up.  Miriam told me that in Sandy she had rediscovered both “mother-in-law” and mother.  Sandy gave Miriam a big hug, too, as Lino wiped away tears.

Although her work in Romania is administrative, it became abundantly clear that Sandy has a mother anointing.  Playing with children is one thing, and I play with children because I feel like a child more than an adult most of the time.  But Sandy’s mother anointing is quite another thing.

I was once again struck by how God had arranged all this.  My ministry of encouragements is often like this instance—encouragement happens, but not because I go with the intention of doing something to encourage missionaries.  No, it happens because I follow where Jesus leads me, and encouragement naturally just seems to flow.  This whole thing made me realize that my desire for Sandy to see La Casa had been from God, and it had been confirmed by Pastor Fabio.  It is humbling to realize that it all had very little to do with me or anything I am able to do.  The biggest thing I did—the only thing I really ever had to do—was to let go of the controls and go where God leads me.  He does all the work, and my work doesn’t feel like work so much as just fun, play, and enjoying friendships.  What a life!  God is good, so good!

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