Europe’s Most Hopeless People

Europe is a hopeless place, filled with hopeless people.  That’s something that most tourists have no clue about.  They come from places where there are jobs and plenty of money.  They see the majestic Eiffel Tower, the famous tower of Big Ben, the historical Colosseum in Rome, and the romantic canals of Venice.  They take pictures and go home thinking that they have seen Europe.

Trivia: Few have actually seen Big Ben because it’s the name of the clock’s bell

Trivia: Christians were fed to the lions in the Circus Maximus, not the Colosseum because it was a bigger venue and open to all, so it served as a warning not to join the Christians.  The Colosseum was only open to the nobility and was where the Gladiators fought to the death.

The tourists might have had their pockets picked or seen (or most likely tried not to see) beggars in these beautiful places.  If they were brave enough to ride the buses, trains, trams, or subway, they may have smelled someone near them who doesn’t use deodorant.  These tourists go home thinking that they have seen Europe, too.

But the reality of Europe (or any place for that matter) can only be truly known by living here.  Life in Europe is hard, and it’s hardest on immigrants.  Americans must learn how to navigate ancient bureaucracies that are full of rules that make no sense—that’s just the way it’s done.

The Europeans have a love/hate relationship with America.  They love our movies and TV shows, and the fact that we come in and spend money here, which boosts the economy.  But they hate our loud and often obnoxious presence.  America is the land of comfort and convenience, the land of efficiency and practicality.  Most of Europe is none of those things.  So when Americans come and complain loudly about the realities of Europe, it angers Europeans, who may wish that you would just quietly spend your money and go back to America.

The biggest difference between America and Europe is that Americans are an optimistic bunch.  Even the most pessimistic and negative American is more optimistic than the average European.  In a word, Americans have hope.  Europeans have mostly given up hope.  This hopelessness is what makes Europe “by far the most secular, least Christian” continent on earth, (Operation World, page 79).  Europeans love our optimism, love the fact that we smile a lot, but they consider Americans naïve.

Here are some of the most hopeless groups of people in Europe (and probably in the world):

The Roma

There are Roma (gypsies) throughout Europe, and they are the most universally hated group of people by far.  The Roma are not all lazy beggars and thieves, as most people think.  In fact, they are quite industrious.  However, because the majority of them have no legal documents, they cannot materially participate in European society.  They can’t get jobs, so they create their own work.  Some Roma are business owners, employing their family members.  Others pick and sell flowers, wash windshields at traffic lights, or play music on the subway—all of which are forms of begging.  Some of the gypsy girls visit the alley door of restaurants and shops, begging for food or money in exchange for sex.  Some sit outside of churches, grocery stores, and cafes, begging.  Some have broken and set their legs in crazy ways or amputated their legs, giving themselves a “beggar’s pay raise.”  And, yes, some of them break into houses and steal whatever they can carry away.

Most of the Roma could not integrate into the rest of European society even if they wanted to.  Their lack of legal documents also means that even if they have the money, they can’t buy or rent property.  So they live in camps at the edge of town.  Some camps are worse than others, but none of the camps are a place you would want to go, much less to live.  Roma hygiene is practically nonexistent, even if the facilities are available to them—and often they are not available.  Every Roma camp is the third world.  Just outside the beautiful European cities that attract so many tourists are Roma camps: Paris, London, Rome, and Venice all have their Roma camps.

But the biggest barrier to integration is the Roma family, itself.  At the head of every Roma family are the patriarchs, the grandparents.  All family issues are decided by the patriarchs, and all money is brought to the patriarchs to administer.  Roma family values are so foreign to the rest of us that it makes them a frightening mystery to most people.  Understanding Roma family values will help you understand the Roma.  In a nutshell, the family is everything to the Roma, and you serve the family, the patriarchs, by bringing them money.  You might think, well my family is important to me, too.  But here’s some examples of Roma family values at work:

  • Sending your daughter (or son or wife) out to sell herself as a prostitute brings money to the family, so that’s a good thing.
  • Paying to ride the bus, train, or subway takes money away from the family, so that’s a bad thing.
  • Passing your children around among the adults of the family to be used like sex toys trains them for prostitution, which will bring in money, so that’s a good thing.
  • Passing up an opportunity to steal something when no one is looking won’t bring money to help the family, so that’s a bad thing.
  • Selling your child either to traffickers or to black market human organ dealers brings money to the family, so that’s a good thing.

On that last point, the Roma are always happy with pregnancies because one way or another, they will find a way to bring money in to the family through that child.  Do they love their children?  Love doesn’t really enter into Roma family values.  Money is really everything for them.

The Homeless of Budapest

When I was in Budapest, I wrote about the homeless in my book Look, Listen, Love.  Budapest has an estimated 30,000 homeless people (Operation World, page 403).  The homeless people that I saw didn’t beg for money.  All over Europe, and indeed the world, homeless people beg for money.  But not the homeless of Budapest.  They have lost hope.  They sleep in doorways and in the entrances to the subway.  There are so many of them that the city seems to have given up hope of helping them.  So the police don’t chase them away when they camp in a doorway, in the park, or in the subway entrance.  I guess that’s help of some sort, but not much.

The Orphans

But the Roma and the homeless of Budapest, although hopeless, are not the most hopeless group of people in Europe.  The most hopeless people are the orphans of formerly Communist Central and Eastern Europe.  I met 1 just this week.

Mary came with a missionary family from Romania that stayed with me.  She is the nanny to their 4 children.  They are discipling her even though she hasn’t yet made a decision for Christ.  They had to be very careful talking about her because although Mary doesn’t understand English, the children are bilingual.  Little pitchers have big ears, and they also have big mouths!

What I understood between the lines is that Mary grew up in an orphanage.  Most orphanages in the formerly Communist countries keep the children under very tight control.  So they grow up sheltered, but not loved.  Mary had never seen an elevator before.  She had no idea how the thing worked, and preferred to take the stairs instead.  When I was introduced to Mary, I did as with any introduction:  I smiled and offered my hand to shake.  Mary turned her gaze from my smiling face and reluctantly took the hand.

Mary clearly loves the children, especially the oldest, Sally, who is 7.  She told the mother that Sally loved and accepted her when nobody else would.  I suspect that Mary feels safer with someone who is younger and still quite small.  Because she had never experienced love, she found it very hard to believe that anybody, the family, me, or even God could love her, only Sally.  It is very much an issue of trust.

What I know about orphanages in the formerly Communist countries is what I learned from Stella’s Voice, a missions organization that goes to Moldova and rescues orphans, and Nefarious, a documentary about human trafficking, and from talking with missionaries who work with prostitutes.  Orphans, particularly girls, need rescuing because when they reach their 18th birthday, the orphanage gives them a bus ticket and a little money, and they are left on a bench at the bus stop.  The traffickers know this and come by to take the girls and set them up into a life of prostitution, usually in Western Europe.  Since they have no skills and no life experience, the girls go along without a thought.  Sometimes the orphanage directors will encourage the girls to “be friendly” with the traffickers even before they must leave the orphanage.  In this way they learn that their only value is sexual.

With the ever-present children, I never was able to learn very much specifically about Mary’s life.  All I know is that she is 29 years old, though emotionally I would put her more at 12.  She has been with the family for 4 years.  She has heard the Gospel and attends church with the family, but has never made a declaration of faith.  The mother, who is also Romanian, told me that Mary’s inability to trust has at times made her so difficult to live with that she almost gave up on her.  But the Lord told her that he put Mary into her home for a reason.

When you think of Europe, please remember that the beautiful places you’ve seen in pictures are only a small part of the reality.  Europe is desperately in need of missionaries.  There are some countries with almost no Christian presence—and that presence is hardly Christian, being either steeped in worship of the Madonna or loaded up with traditions that include curses for sale from the priest.  Please pray for missionaries to answer the call to serve in Europe.  Pray for the missionaries and pastors of Europe who have been laboring for years to bring in the final harvest.  And if the Lord is calling you to come serve Him in Europe, please be obedient and answer that call!  God is good, but there is no time to waste.  The Day of the Lord is upon us.

Help! I’m Stewing in a Bureaucratic Caldron!

I spent my summer vacation this year much like I did last year:  hosting missionaries in Bob and Jill’s beach house that I was watching for them while they took their kids back home to the UK.  While others were baking their bodies in the sun all day, I finished my book, which is what I did last summer, too.  At about six in the evening, when the sun was lower on the horizon, I would put on my swimsuit and go float in the sea for a while.  Thus, the days passed in creative effort and relaxed play.  I could never have imagined that ministry would be such a pleasure!

Then I returned to the US to help my mom move to another state.  The move went very well, and as problem-free as any move can be.  Moving is always an exhausting chore—and if you don’t know that, then you’re one of the fortunate few that has probably never moved house at all!

Last spring I sold my house in Texas.  I figured that since I live in Italy most of the time, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep a house there.  When I sold the house, I told Mom: “Wherever you are is my house.”  She was delighted, and actually started looking for a place to live close to my brother.

My brother had moved into my house when his burnt down in a Texas wildfire.  All the people and pets were saved, but they lost virtually all of their possessions.  After my nephew graduated from high school, my brother moved to another state—one with a more hospitable climate—one where wildfires don’t happen.  Their new home happens to be only about four hours away from my sons and my baby grandchild.

Mom found a retirement center just half an hour from my brother’s new home.  They were running a special that she could have a second person live with her for free, but that person had to be at least 55 years old.  Since I’m 56, Mom got a two bedroom unit, and prepared to move.

So, my new legal residence in the US is in a seniors apartment with my mom.  I have to admit, it was weird at first, but most of the people there are so nice, so kind, so friendly that they have actually taught me a valuable lesson.  They have taught me to stop seeing people by age or infirmity, and instead to see them by their character.  Notice that I said that most of the people are nice, kind, and friendly.  Seeing people by their character also means that my discernment has been sharpened, so that those people who have spent their lives chasing money or seeking esthetic beauty (instead of inner beauty) reveal themselves as the small, shriveled souls that they are.  At the same time, those who have spent their lives cultivating a good character reveal a beauty that age or infirmity cannot diminish.  The discovery of this marvelous truth was like finding a gold nugget in the trash, and I believe that it has actually beautified my own soul.

Before booking my flight home to help Mom move house, I prayed for guidance, and immediately I felt like three weeks was enough time to get the move done, and to get her settled-in.  In fact, three weeks was exactly right, not just for Mom, but was right for me, and the things I needed to accomplish in the US before returning to Italy.

One thing I needed to do, but also wanted to do, of course, was to see my sons and my grandbaby.  We had a really nice, though brief, visit.  My younger son asked for my help in getting a document from Italy that he needs in order to get financial aid for university.  He needs a background check from his last three places of residence.  He tried to ask for it online, but for one reason and another, was unable.  The difficulty of obtaining this document is only matched by the absurdity of its requirement.  He was a child when he lived in Italy, and moved back to the US two months before his eighteenth birthday, so even if he was some sort of child prodigy criminal mastermind, his records would be sealed.

Dealing with the Italian bureaucracy is unfortunately unavoidable if you live in Italy, so with eleven years of experience under my belt, I prepared the requesting documents and went to the Procura (the equivalent of the District Attorney) of Milan.

First Visit to the Procura

Monday – The office of the Procura was on a street I had never heard of.  I arrived just two minutes after nine in the morning.  It turns out that the office is actually inside the Courthouse, not just near it.  So I had to go through screening.  I always carry a camera with me because you never know when you will come across something interesting that you want to remember.  I was told that I cannot enter with a camera, but that there is a coffee bar across the street where they will hold it for me.  So I had to exit, get rid of the camera, and go through the screening process again.  Luckily there was not a line to get in.  By the time I got to the right door and took a number, my number was 50.  The sign showed that they were working on number four.  Twenty minutes later, they were still on number four, and an officer came out and announced that they were shorthanded, and that nobody need bother to wait past 10:30.  All the people there rushed her and began peppering her with questions.  I left.  It didn’t take a genius to see that they would never get to my number by 10:30.

Tuesday – The following morning I had an appointment at the Russian Consulate to apply for a tourist visa to visit Moscow in October.  I figured that was just as well, since all the people who hadn’t gotten into the Procura this morning would be there bright and early the next morning.

My appointment at the Russian Consulate wasn’t without its challenges, too.  I had requested the appointment online, and the address given was, of course, way over on the other side of town.  As always, I allowed plenty of time for searching for an unfamiliar street in a part of town I hardly know.  I studied the map before leaving the house, jotted directions for myself, and headed out.  It did take quite a bit of searching because what the map didn’t show is that the street changes names a few times en route.  I stopped a man and asked directions.  He pulled a GPS out of his briefcase, put in the address, and showed me how to find the Consulate.  I have never known an Italian to be so helpful to a stranger.  Perhaps he was just not typical or perhaps he was an especially kind person who was put in my path by God or maybe he was an angel.  Who knows?

Despite having gone slightly off-course, I still made it about fifteen minutes early.  The big Russian guard that appeared at the door was rushed by people who waved papers at him, speaking in Russian.  I stood nearby and waited.  He brushed them aside when he saw that I had an official appointment paper.  Perhaps they hadn’t had appointments, who knows?  He studied my appointment paper, and conducted me inside, telling me in Italian which window to go to.  I went to that window, and the woman said, “We don’t do tourist visas here.”  She shoved my papers back at me and indicated a man sitting at a table with a sign that said Assicurazione (Insurance).  She had already turned her back and was talking to someone else before I could ask anything.  So I went to the insurance table and waited as he finished dealing with a family.  Confused, I showed him my papers.  He said, “You need to go to this address,” and he wrote an address on a sticky note with the name “Italconcepts” in bold print.  He assured me that it was close by, “Left out the door, right at the end of the block, then right at the roundabout.”

As I walked out, I was feeling somewhat discouraged, especially after the fiasco of that visit to the Procura.  But then my spirit rose up within me and said to me, “Look!  If God wants me to go to Russia, then no power on earth can stop me!”  And with each step I grew more and more confident that I would indeed get the visa to Russia.

I followed his directions, and found the roundabout about a kilometer away (about half a mile).  Then I found the address was another 100 meters or so, but my confidence had started to fade.  What remained was a sort of numbness, and that’s better than worry or fear, but falls shy of confidence’s exhilaration.

The agent was an Italian, and the first person that morning to smile at me.  Don’t underestimate the reassuring power of a smile.  He looked over my papers and said, “We don’t need this.  We don’t need that.”  Then he pointed to my invitation and said, “We can’t use this.”  He explained that because it was a photograph of an invitation, they would not accept it.  He interrupted himself to ask the receptionist a question.  Her name was Olga.  When he turned back to me and saw the disappointment on my face, he quickly added, “But we don’t need this invitation because we will invite you.”  I was confused, but I figured that Italconcepts must be some kind of facilitating agency that works with the Russian Consulate.

And Facilitate he did.  He explained that the online form for inviting Americans is four times longer than that for citizens of other countries, so he filled it out for me, asking me the pertinent questions.  When he got to the question “Organization,” I said that I wasn’t with an organization.  I told him that because as far as the Italian government is concerned, I am living here as a retired housewife, which I am.  There was and is no reason to complicate things by bringing the ministry to their attention, since I earn no money in Italy.  He said, “Come on, aren’t you with an organization of some kind?  A church, perhaps?”  I said, “Well, I do have a church here, and I told him the name of my Italian home church, which is Ministero Sabaoth.  I was about to spell it for him because Italians don’t pronounce the H, but to my astonishment, he spelled it perfectly.  Then he smiled at my shock and said, “I’m a Christian, too.  I know your church and your wonderful female pastor.”

So I’ve been granted a visa to Russia, and as I was about to leave it started to rain buckets.  He looked out the window and said, “Did you bring an umbrella?”  I hadn’t, so he loaned me his umbrella—a nice big one!  As I was walking to the bus stop, God said, “See?  I have people in places you know nothing about.”

Second Visit to the Procura

Wednesday – This time I left the camera at home and made sure to get to the Procura about eight-thirty—half an hour before it opens.  My number from the ticket machine was fifteen.  About an hour after opening my number came up.  The woman at the window looked at my documents, shoved them back at me and in a very harsh tone said, “You need a proxy.”  And like the woman at the visa window in the Russian Consulate, she turned her back and started talking to someone else.

If this had been in English, it would not have been such a problem, but even after living in Italy for almost twelve years, it unnerves me to be spoken to in such a hostile manner in Italian.  I’ve never been able to respond verbally—at least not in Italian.  In fact, the last time it happened, I broke down and cried on the spot—which had no effect whatsoever upon the person who had evoked the tears.  Mute, I gathered my papers and left the Procura feeling like a failure.  That feeling evolved into anger as I returned home.

With nothing else to do, but get back to paperwork at the house, I turned on my computer and opened my e-mail.  I subscribe to a prophecy newsletter, and it’s remarkable how many times it speaks precisely to me and to my situation.  Here’s what Wednesday’s prophecy said:

When your focus is narrowed so that you obsess over things that are not going your way or working the way you desire, you lose perspective and vision.  Refuse to concentrate on your worries and woes and do not allow you heart to be hardened to the point of being ungrateful.  You can choose to maintain a positive outlook, which will improve your disposition and mental health, says the Lord.  Do not despair.

This is not the first time that God has reminded me of the importance of remembering to be grateful.  So, with my attitude properly adjusted, I went on with my work, catching up on my records-keeping and planning for travel in November.

I wrote to my son, telling him what the woman at the Procura had said, and pleading with him to try to find another way.  He wrote back that one of the documents he had given me was a Proxy, authorizing me to ask for a background check.  I looked the papers over carefully, and he was right.

Third Visit to the Procura

Thursday – This time I went about an hour before the Procura opened.  I got ticket number one from the machine, and waited for the office to open.  As I waited, I thought about the Proxy, and decided not to let anyone deny me this time.  Then I began to pray for the hostile woman who had spoken so harshly to me yesterday.  As I prayed for her, God showed me that she is a very unhappy person who feels trapped in her job, but dares not quit.  Prayers full of compassion began to flow out of me for her.  By the time they opened, I was ready to deal with her from a heart full of love and concern for her as a human being.  The person at the window, however, was a man.  He took my papers and looked through them, while talking to another man behind the counter.  He looked very much in his element, multitasking, conversing, and reaching for things he needed without having to look.  I looked for the woman from yesterday, and finally saw her at a desk on the far side of the office, immersed in her paperwork.  That’s when I remembered Monday’s announcement that they were shorthanded, and realized that she must have been filling in at the counter for someone who was out sick.  As I considered that, I realized that she must have used hostility as a way to cover up for not really knowing how to do the work she had been asked to do.  After all, no one likes to be revealed as incompetent—even at a job they are only filling in on.  I wondered how many people before me had confronted her and had made her feel bad about herself before I showed up at her window.

Meanwhile, the man at the window busily tapped at his computer, stapled documents, stamped them, and chatted merrily with his coworkers.  With a final flourish he hit the Enter key and the printer whirred to life and spit out the two documents I had come for.  He stamped them, signed them and gave them to me.  I said, “That’s it?  I don’t need to come back for them?”  He said, “No, you’re done!”  And he turned back to his work, filing my documents in his Out box.

As I returned home with the documents in hand, it occurred to me that perhaps God had a larger purpose in having me go through the drama with the woman on Wednesday—a purpose for me (solidifying the lesson of remaining always grateful) and a purpose for her (in my prayers for her).  Then I realized that even going through the bureaucratic mess that Italian residency requires isn’t really such a bad thing.  God is able to redeem even this frustrating, time-eating, often futile activity.

I’ve said it many, many times before: God is good!