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In attendance: Rev’d Mark Barker (Vicar), Edith Wills & Denis Wills (Charis links at St Stephen’s), Dave Douglas, Lynn Hamms, Glynis Hubble, Glynis Luff, Iz Plimmer, Nicola Stanton, Wendy Owens, Ben Sales, MikeTingey.
The purpose of the trip was to strengthen the relationship between St Stephen’s and Charis, to learn more about their work in Romania, to support that work both spiritually and practically and to sign the Memorandum of Understanding previously agreed by the PCC.
Saturday 26th October. The party of 12 left Waterloo Road at 6.30am on Saturday 26th October and flew from Luton Airport to Budapest in Hungary. This was the most direct route and by going on Saturday, returning the following Friday, from and to the same airport, overall costs were kept to an acceptable level. All travel costs, including within Romania, accommodation and food were covered by the £360 paid personally by each individual.
The journey included a 3½ hour minibus transfer from Budapest to Oradea, our final destination which is less than 10 minutes from the Hungarian border. We arrived at approximately 7pm local time, 2 hours ahead of UK time. We were very warmly welcomed by Daniel (Dani) Ciupe, his wife Mona, daughter Ema and Daniel (the younger!), formerly one of the orphans there and who now lives on the premises with them. We were immediately shown to our accommodation, comprising 1 double bed room, 4 twin bed rooms and a dormitory where 3 of the men had the luxury of sharing 9 beds. There is a further 9 bed dormitory which we did not use. A small kitchen provides tea and coffee and we shared 2 toilets and 2 showers. All in all very cosy and we quickly got to know each other very well!
We were soon called for dinner, prepared by Mona and her 2 assistants, Lydia and Doina. All meals were taken together with Dani, Mona, Ema, Daniel, + Lydia and Doina whenever they were there. Any concerns we may have had regarding what food might be served were soon dispelled, everything was freshly prepared from ingredients probably much fresher than we eat at home e.g. home grown vegetables and goats’ milk served within an hour of being milked. On two mornings the somewhat scared goats had the dubious pleasure of being milked by members of the team! During our time an “international” menu included a curry and Spaghetti Bolognese!
After dinner we met with Dani, accompanied by Ema, who throughout the week acted as interpreter when necessary, to discuss the schedule for the week, including a brief outline of each activity and what would be expected of us .We also gave Dani a Nikon “bridge” camera for which they had specifically indicated a need. We then had a short time of worship before retiring to our quarters for some well-earned rest.
Sunday 27th October. Refreshed by sleep and a hearty breakfast and welcomed to the new day by bright sunshine we were picked up at 9.30 and taken by minibus to Tinca, a village approximately 50 minutes’ drive from Charis and the home of a large gypsy community. The Gypsy Church there is supported by Charis Foundation both spiritually and practically and we were welcomed to their morning service. The music provided by keyboard and singers was loud and exciting and although in Romanian/Roma we were left in no doubt of the sincerity of the worship in which the congregation all joined. Men sat one side, women the other and all seemed to know the words, no song books were provided and they probably couldn’t read anyway, particularly the women. The service was led by the Church Pastor (Gabi?) with assistance from Dani. The 12 of us sang 2 worship songs accompanied by Ben on guitar before Mark preached on “The Woman at the Well” (John Ch4). Wendy gave a very moving testimony during Mark’s talk on how she had become a Christian and Ben gave a testimony on how his prayer had healed a work colleague. A number of women from the gypsy community came forward for prayer ministry following Mark’s talk.
At the end of the service we were given the following verse by the Pastor: Ruth Ch2 v12 “May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”
We were able to spend a few minutes meeting members of the community and their children before heading back to Charis for lunch.
On the road again at 3.30 we arrived at the other Gypsy Church supported by Charis, in Telechiu, at about 4.30 for their 5pm evening service. This is a much smaller, more compact community, than in Tinca and once again we were given a very warm welcome. The Church building itself was also somewhat smaller and it soon filled with gypsies of all ages. Sami, a young lad aged 6 or 7 immediately sat next to Glynis Luff and spent the whole service with her, singing his heart out. More loud worship accompanied by keyboard and accordion, and with everybody clapping along with the last song. Mark preached as in the morning, again with songs from the “St Stephen’s Minstrels” and testimonies from Wendy and Ben. Again prayer ministry was received by a good number of gypsies, this time both men and women. At the end of the service we spent a short time meeting members of the congregation but it was dark by now so, somewhat reluctantly, we had to leave. There was a marked contrast in the two congregations, we all felt much more accepted by the Telechiu community.
At the end of this service the Pastor gave us the following verse: 1Thessalonians Ch5 vv 22-23 “Avoid every kind of evil. May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”
Dinner was followed by feedback on the day, reflecting on where we had found God during the day’s activities and more sung worship accompanied by Ben on his borrowed guitar.
Monday 28th October. This morning commenced with our first short time of Morning Prayer (with which we started each weekday) led by Mark. After breakfast we headed off to the various tasks allocated by Dani for our day of work at Charis. The projects were to paint the metal structure of an old greenhouse so that it might in future be used as a meeting/conference area. Edith, Glynis H and Mark (who had been suffering with a bad back and was therefore relieved of heavy duties) spent the day splashing on the red oxide paint, some of it went on the metal work but their own hands and clothing did not escape the treatment completely!
Meanwhile, others were involved in the various elements of laying a concrete base for a basketball court – moving concrete blocks and stones, mixing concrete, laying and levelling concrete. This was physical work for all involved but especially so for the star of the show, Ben, who spent all day wheeling a very heavy wheelbarrow overflowing with concrete. Hard work for all but very rewarding! We worked in four shifts with breaks for coffee/tea, lunch and again for coffee/tea. All of the work was undertaken with enthusiasm and good humour, Daniel became affectionately known as ‘Big Stones, Little Stones’ in recognition of his orders to the cementing crew!
The evening followed the usual pattern – dinner, a time of worship together with Daniel and Ema, and, after they left us, a period of reflection on the day’s work. Mark then introduced us to Joel Edwards’ “The Jesus Agenda” – he had intended us to watch a DVD he had brought with him but unfortunately when he opened the case “the cupboard was bare!” Happily he was able to download it from the internet so we used part of this some evenings to help us consider how we can speak up for the poor and speak out against the evil of extreme poverty.
Tuesday 29th October. Today would be a day of contrasts.
After Morning Worship and breakfast we left Charis at about 10 am to visit an old people’s home at Dumbrava. This would prove to be a humbling experience. At the outset we all felt that the 2 hours allocated would be more than enough to spend there, wondering how we would be able to communicate with the residents and to be honest how we would tolerate the conditions they were living in. We were met by the man who established the home some 8 years ago. He explained that he had felt called by God to provide comfort and dignity to the homeless who are so often left on the streets in Romania. He receives no support, financial or otherwise, from the state and it is only through God’s provision that he and his wife have been able to fulfil this selfless mission. There is very little social welfare available in Romania and any that does exist ceases after a short period. Although called an Old Peoples’ Home, it was really more of a refuge for society’s misfits. Many men and women find themselves homeless, often through no fault of their own, – illness, no family to support them or disowned by them – or sometimes as a result of their own actions – following release from prison for instance. Life on the streets is hard, temperatures regularly drop to -20 / -25 C during the winter months and with no protection frostbite soon sets in. The rats follow, biting and eating the frostbitten limbs. Amputation is then a certainty. Patients with nowhere to go and no family support are simply left on the streets, ultimately to die.
Since the establishment of the home at Dumbrava hospitals and police regularly make contact to see if individuals can be accommodated. Currently 123 people of various infirmities are housed in 2 communities, the one we visited and one in a nearby village. 65 were resident at Dumbrava in two separate blocks, the first for those of greater disability, some physical, many mentally ill and unstable, and perhaps in greater need of care. The second is for those perhaps more socially aware and able. Some simply come here to die from terminal illnesses. Facilities are sparse, no flushing toilets, only earth closets, and in any case many are unable to use them. In some cases mental illness means that they do not recognise the need to use the facilities and they either soil themselves or do what they have to do wherever they are.
Staff comprises 12 “carers” working in shifts of 6. They are paid – as the head of the home said, who would volunteer to do such work? Deaths are frequent and there have been 60 already this year.
As a team we were able to interact with some of the residents (Ema and her friend Dana were there to interpret for us), to hear their sad stories and to sing a couple of songs to them. Whatever we had been able to do for the residents seemed so little, although Dani had been able to purchase supplies with money we had sent out in advance and we had helped to unload box after box of food, vegetables, cleaning agents etc.
At the end we all felt we would have liked to spend more time there and wondered how the time had gone so quickly.
We left in a daze and much subdued but enjoyed a picnic lunch by the roadside on the way to Felix Spa. At Felix Spa we relaxed with an ice cream, a beer or a coffee before a short time of not very successful retail therapy and sightseeing. One or two were tempted by but did not succumb to the thermal spa. We then moved on to Oradea where we enjoyed a stroll through the pedestrianized streets and visited 2 churches, one Roman Catholic and one Romanian Orthodox.
Again after dinner we spent time together in the usual manner, although Mike had picked up a stomach bug and was unable to join us. There was much for people to say about the deprivation we had witnessed and a real desire to do ‘something’ in the future for Dumbrava.
Wednesday 30th October. Today was a work day at Tinca Gypsy Church where we were to paint the interior walls. Sadly Mike and Edith were both unwell and unable to be with the team, staying at Charis to rest and recuperate.
We set to with eagerness and once again were blessed with wonderful weather. Coffee, tea and water were provided by Mona, as was lunch, and we worked through the day applying two coats and generally smartening up the appearance of the Church interior. At lunchtime and after we had finished our work we interacted with gypsy children and youths, playing football, with the ball that had been donated, and giving sweets and other small toys to the children. The young people of the Church also came in the afternoon to receive bags of gifts again purchased by Dani with money we had sent out. Adi (?), the youth pastor, was on hand all day helping when he could and together with his wife they made us very welcome. There was a little disappointment that none of the community had joined in the work, however the Pastor also came to see what we had achieved and he was very pleased and grateful for our efforts. The youth pastor and his wife live next to the church and had a flushing toilet… a great relief to some!
We needed to return promptly to Charis for an early dinner as Ema’s group from Hope Church and another group came to meet the team and share fellowship with us. By now Denis was also feeling unwell and missed both dinner and the evening fellowship.
As there were about 35 extra people who joined us for the evening, we drew back the curtains and used the extension that some of our tithe from Phase 2 had enabled to be built. It is a really useful and attractive extension to the Charis centre and it was great to be able to worship there and see it being used. There was a group of about 16 young adults (mainly students from Ema’s homegroup) and the rest were mainly couples from Daniel and Mona’s homegroup. We had a time of worship, singing in English and Romanian. Daniel gave a short talk and Wendy repeated her testimony and one of the young Romanian men also gave his testimony. Ema translated when necessary. In conversation following this it transpired that one couple had been very moved by the testimonies as each one, although very different, had particular relevance to their lives at this time. God was certainly speaking to them!
The evening concluded with some delicious refreshments provided by Mona. Then the younger ones went off to play snooker while the” more mature” among us played a few very competitive rounds of Shove Ha’penny!
Thursday 31st October. Another bright sunny day saw the team travel to Telechiu to paint the outside of the Gypsy Church and the new fence. This time it was the turn of Denis and Glynis L to miss the trip owing to illness. Another day, another mini bus journey! John and his son, yet another Daniel, had been our drivers for the week, it would be fair to say that their driving, in fairly well used vans, was at times erratic! This was particularly noticeable when either Glynis or Nicola sat up front with John as he faced them to respond to the questions asked in their very impressive Romanian.
We had been sorry not to work directly with the Gypsies at Tinca, but this wasn’t the case at Telechiu, a number of them were there ready and keen. The pastor and his wife Amelia were there all day too and Amelia couldn’t do enough for us, particularly bringing us water for hand washing – there is no running water at the church and no flushing toilet in the community.
Our job today was to paint the outside of the building including the metal fence and gates. A British health and safety inspector would suffer an apoplexy at the equipment used and the manner of using it. Scaffold towers were non-existent and the area above the porch was reached on a homemade ladder with a step ladder lying flat on the Perspex corrugated roof and only held in place by the ladder being footed at ground level! Members of the church undertook this hazardous duty very cheerfully.
Wendy and Edith painted the fence and gates whilst the rest of the team painted walls, windows or doors. It fell to Ben to get a straight line for the border on the bottom 18” or so of the walls and it was his inspiration and steady hand that painted a cross above the entrance door, beautiful!
At lunch time, after eating the packed lunch Mona had provided us with yet again, a number of us wandered around the community with bags of sweets feeling very much like Pied Pipers as children and adults poured out of buildings to receive them. Very, very young Mum’s, as much interested in the sweets for themselves as for their children, were in evidence.
We were invited into the home of one of the community who had been helping – it was he who had played the accordion on Sunday evening. We had been able to communicate with him in French through Glynis H. His story is that he is unable to get work in Romania and travels to France to get whatever work he can there. When he has amassed enough money he returns to Romania to spend time with his family, when the money runs out he returns to France to do it all over again. His home consisted of one room, with a log boiler in one corner on which a pot of water was heating, a large double bed, a cabinet with a few beautifully folded clothes, no chairs or table and no food in evidence. He told us that he has twin babies in the hospital at Oradea but they cannot come home as they don’t have any electricity. He was returning to France the following day.
Once we had finished our work there was again time to play football with the kids, Wendy had some glittery nail polish in her bag which the little girls loved too.
It was soon time to head back to Charis, each journey was at least an hour and that time was helpful for personal reflection and lots of laughter, much of it at the vicar’s expense.
After dinner Ema and Dani shared with us some videos of their own Church, Hope Church in Oradea (Biserica Speranta Oradea), and the contrast with the Gypsy Churches couldn’t have been more striking. This is a thriving Church serving God with all the modern media and communications equipment used to the full.
Friday 1st November. Our final day at Charis was to be spent on site with the Charis team. After another wonderful breakfast, including pancakes made with fresh goats’ milk, we spent time with Dani and Ema, giving Dani an opportunity to share with the whole team his experience of setting up the Charis Foundation. He operates on a 7 year plan and he described his strategy over each 7 year period since it started. 2014 will be a time seeking God’s guidance on the strategy for the next 7 years but Dani assured us that support for the 2 Gypsy Churches and the home in Dumbrava will continue. Mark and Dani then signed the Memorandum of Understanding, which had previously been agreed by PCC, setting out the terms of our partnership with Charis.
We were then joined by Mona, Daniel and Lydia for a special time of worship led for the final time by Ben and the sharing of Holy Communion. At the end, whilst we were still all together, we were able to thank each one of them for their hard work, support and time during our visit by giving them personal presents, including chocolate of his own for Charis’ own chocoholic Dani (so that Ema would not have to share hers!).
Mark, Edith and Denis then met with Dani, supported once again by Ema, to learn more about the work of Charis, how they are funded and how they operate. This is the subject of a separate report.
After another lovely meal with everybody together, the minibus arrived and we said our farewells, leaving at about 3pm. The Hungarian border is only 8 minutes away and then we were truly on our way back to Budapest. The flight was on time and it was only the closure of the M25 (surprise, surprise!) which delayed our journey, some not getting home until 1.30 am Saturday.