When I meet a woman in Bulgaria named Stoyanka, she reaches out to shake my hand, and I catch a glimpse of the tattoo etched up her arm in defiant ink:
These are polarized days and we’ve all been feeling it and I want to tell Stoyanka that I get it:
When you’re desperate to not lose hope, you might permanently ink Hope right into skin.
You can see it blazing brave in Stoyanka’s eyes:
Without hope — there’s no change within.
I refrain from reaching out and tracing the word on Stoyanka’s arm, but there’s no stopping thinking about how those productivity gurus can say all they want that Hope is not a strategy, but Hope is an essential strategy to winning anything.
If we lose hope for any of us — we lose our own way.
Stoyanka tells me in this thick accent that she is Roma.
What’s derogatively known as Gypsy.
Why profile any human being instead of being pro-human? Period.
Why believe stereotypes instead of being the type who always love?
What if instead of reinforcing prejudices, we reinforced a broken world with Presence?
With solidarity and loving charity and hopeful possibility.
I squeeze Stoyanka’s hand tighter, shake that arm tattooed with Hope a little longer — like the power of hope can somehow transfer between the two of us.
Standing there with Stoyanka on a back street of Sofia, Bulgaria, this little Roma girl’s pressing into Stoyanka’s leg, quietly looking up at me — and I kneel down to gently cup the little girl’s cheek.
And there it is:We are all reflections of each other —- because we all reflect the image of God.
What if this little girl ever learns that there was a time Romas could legally be killed in areas of Europe without any consequence, like open hunting season that didn’t even require a license?
Why make assumptions about people — instead of making room for people?
I memorize the little girl’s eyes and thank God she has no idea that the European Commission concluded that “children from poor Roma communities, are particularly vulnerable to trafficking,” and traffickers in the UK and France exploit uneducated and vulnerable poor Roma children for “sex, begging and petty crimes.”
Why do we disrespect, dismiss, and devalue each other instead of declare each other’s dignity?
Our work in the world is to see the worth in each other. To see the imago dei, — God — in each other.Our calling is always to answer everything in the world with love.
Trafficked women in the Roma community don’t talk of it, about being once sold and bought by men who line up to use them like a soulless container that exists to fulfill men’s biological urges. A bed for unending stream of men, how many of these women have no bed to come home to?
But Stoyanka, she showed up on a Christian’s doorstep who, in turn, said they would pray for her. Stoyanka didn’t turn, didn’t miss a beat:
“People can say all they want that they will pray for you — but I can’t sleep on your prayers.”
And I try to breathe through the piercing conviction of her words, try to will her words to overwrite a thousand excuses I’ve dished out.
Instead of telling others that they are in our prayers — what if we let ourselves be inserted into those prayers — as the answer to that prayer.
Stoyanka — her name, in Bulgarian, means: “to stand, to stay.” And she’s standing there in front of me, little Roma girl clinging to her leg, standing in the midst of the rubble homes of Roma families that were bulldozed down right in front of Stoyanka, as if bulldozing Roma homes into heaps of trash might underscore how society sees them: like garbage.What if the meaning of being a human being— is to affirm lives of meaning for other human beings?
Those Christians Stoyanka reached out to — they did more than pray for hope — they pursued hope and they partnered with A21’s founder Christine Caine, and Stoyanka found healing, literal new hope, a transformed future, and I’m witnessing it first hand, Stoyanka, now a leader in the community, walking through the devastated Roma homes with Caine and a few of her team, and I hear Stoyanka talk about how literal hope has to show up here before before snow blows in too deep, before more trafficker sweep in here, hard on the scent of desperation.
It’s like microcosm of some of the world’s worst brokenness — to look around at the Roma families living now in the rubble remains of their lives and realize:
A storm did not cause this destruction.
Poverty did not cause this destruction.
Deep-seated racial discrimination and dehumanization — and one group of human beings — did this to their fellow human beings.
What if the meaning of being a human being— is to affirm lives of meaning for other human beings?
I look over at Caine.
She’s searching Stoyanka’s face and it’s who she is — a woman of promise, a woman of the Word and her word: “So we figure it out…Hope. Before the snow and all kinds of deep freeze sets in here.”
Hope in the form of six bright, modern, furnished, insulated wood homes with complete plumbing and electricity. Caine and Stoyanka are both nodding — a head shake of their commitment to hope and somewhere behind me —— there’s — singing?
I can hear Selena singing.
Selena’s singing to a circle of hushed, grinning Roma girls who’ve asked for songs they knew by heart and it’s like the heart of the Father’s descending for His dismissed and forgotten daughters — and who knew angels can sound like the warm, intricate voice of one girl’s whispering vulnerability?
Or maybe it’s the other way around, and this one charming girl of tender humility, with a Roma baby in her arms and a heart after her own Father, sounds like a whole host of carrying angels?
Your heart can burn when it witnesses the tenderness of light meeting dark — igniting love.
And I lean a bit to hear it: The voice, the song, enfolding the rejected like a whispering of a different refrain, and this is a witnessing.
All I want to do is take my shoes off:
A ministry of Presence sits down with someone so they feel the presence of God come down. A ministry of Presence makes the unseen feels like God’s seeking out their presence. Wants them.
Selena laughs softly, reaches out to draw a young Roma girl in, and I’m blinking it back:
Quiet acts of reaching out — is how we all reach a better place.
For both the reacher and the reached.
I’d only later hear the story how Stoyanka had once refused to self-identify as Roma — because of years of relentless abuse and discrimination she’d suffered at the hands of a disdaining and desecrating world.
But then one night, in this dream that seemed larger and more vivid than life itself, Stoyanka found herself standing in front of a tear-stained, neglected little girl.
Much like the little girl whose face I’d just cupped.
And when Stoyanka had turned in the dream to ask, “Who is this child?” —— Stoyanka had heard another warming Voice whisper something so distinctly, the reverberation of it unmooring her:
“This is you.
You were this little Roma Gypsy child.
And I love you — as I love her.
And she needs you.
And you need her.”
And my heart aches — cracks open wide with the immensity of hope just in this…
We need to show up for each other — because, if we honestly look — it’s glimpses of our own selves that show up in the other’s face.
We need to show up for each other — because there is no other — there is only us.
We need to show up for each other — if we ever hope for God to show us Himself strong.
We need to show up for each other — because we all need to be shown the hope of another way.
The Way — that leads to life.
And when the Abolitionist grins fiercely at the whole bunch of us, the freed woman, Stoyanka, she nods and reaches out with an arm of Hope to shake her hand, and the brave activist with the voice of an angel, smiles and kisses a Roma Gypsy baby in the middle of her forehead.
And there are holy moments that sing over a hurting world like a benediction —
that makes you believe that Hope can show up here and now.
Join us in bringing hope to the Roma people
They are currently living in makeshift structures on top of the rubble heaps of their bulldozed homes with no water or electricity. And now there’s a threat to destroy even these makeshift structures they call home.
A21 has committed to help them purchase land, rebuild their homes, and provide education, training and life skills to enable them to thrive and flourish because this is what the Church does. They show up and restore hope.
“We make the community livable again.” (Isaiah 58:11-12)
• Purchase a plot of land which can accomodate seven container homes
• Furnish the plot of land with homes for seven families
• Provide electricity and water for the homes on the land
• Provide the families with furniture and other supplies for their new homes
• Purchase one additional plot of land for further development
• Continue our efforts to provide tutoring, job training, and life skills to the Roma Community in Sofia