Made for another world

"If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in the world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." C. S. Lewis

Monday, October 29, 2012

All For Friendship

I went to Serbia to make friends. It may seem an odd goal to have, flying across the world, to engage in friendship. But I hope that's what I did.

Bob Goff says, "Some people will always be skeptical of extravagant love. Give them something to talk about." (If you haven't read his book Love Does, you really should) I could have gone to Serbia to start programs, to preach, to document a situation, but I believe friendship is more powerful than programs any day. 
View from the Seminary we stayed at in Novi Sad.
When I landed in Belgrade on October 18th with my friend Nichole I was prepared with months of prayer, the support of some amazing family and friends, and many weeks of email exchanges with the staff of the mental institution. I had also been in contact in the previous week or two with a few Christians in Novi Sad, and Nichole and I had even found a Theological Seminary to stay at. 
A typical street outside of the city center
While that seemed like plenty of preparation when I got on the plane, it was a completely different story when we got off! I can't say that the Belgrade airport has spent sufficient money on making a first impression to those arriving in their country for the first time. I wonder if they get a lot of international travelers, it was hard to find someone who spoke English, and we felt not like Americans but two headed aliens. In short, as we stood waiting on the sidewalk for the bus to take us the hour and a half to Novi Sad, after some challenging communication about currency exchange, and with Nichole's phone battery drained, the inevitable wave of 'what are we doing here' washed over me.

Is an email exchange with someone in another country, someone I've never actually spoken to, someone who knows we're coming to find out information about their institution that has a not so nice reputation, is that really enough grounds to have bought two very expensive tickets just so we can show up? For a moment I wanted to cry but God reminded me it wasn't just Dom Veternik I was coming to see, it was his glory. For the last few months my prayers for the disabled, warehoused in a mental institution, had changed to prayers for the entire people of Serbia, that they would know God's glory expressed to them in mercy. There was no turning back now.

When we stepped onto the curb outside of the Novi Sad Theological Seminary friendship began. Relief washed over us and gratitude rose up from our hearts. Ladislav Repic, a member of the Seminary staff, met us warmly, and our time at the Seminary was graced with comfort, great conversation, and the bond of Christ. Later in the week we met up with Gordana, I've mentioned her in a previous post, we had been connected on facebook through a mutual friend. We knew God was involved in orchestrating the beautiful connections we had with Novi Sad's Christian community. Everything I've ever written about sisters here on this blog was evident in our meeting with Gordana, and others. I love when Jesus in me resonates with Jesus in another heart, and that certainly happened as we opened our hearts and relished God's grace with Gordana.
A group of young adults with mobility issues
On Friday the moment had come for us to see with our own eyes the truth about Dom Veternik. We were a little nervous because we had heard that the director was concerned about our visit. The MDRI, a human rights group, had released a report the weekend before that was less than favorable in it's description of several institutions, including Dom Veternik, and that had put him on edge. When we arrived we were welcomed warmly and were able to address their concerns and state our true reason for coming; that we wanted to see with our own eyes their needs, and to be friends. Of course that sounds strange when you say it out loud. The inevitable questions, "who sent you, what are your qualifications, who do you represent," are bound to be asked. I'm getting better at answering those questions they've been asked so many times!
Children on the floor for immobile and mentally disabled , they are all over 10 years old
Over the next several days I think, I hope, they came to see our motivation. The staff took us everywhere, not holding back the most troubling sights, answering any question, expressing their needs and hopes. I knew I would come to care for and love the kids, I was surprised by how much I came to care for the staff. We were making friends. Serbia is less than 1% evangelical, most people identify with the Orthodox church, so I knew that expressing our purpose in coming (to express the love of Jesus, the ultimate friend) might sound weird. I'm getting used to sounding weird though. Most cultures can understand the language of friendship I think, compassion, empathy, love. The staff just wanted to be understood. It had hurt them that they have been painted in reports and media coverage as unfeeling and unkind to the residents. It was obvious to us that the men and women who work with the 600 hundred residents of Dom Veternik care a great deal about their well being. It was also obvious that their care is not enough. 
 Painting a poster of peace with a group of disabled children

We saw workers put in straining situations, limited by resources, working hard in some cases just to keep people safe and alive. Three women for almost 50 profoundly disabled immobile children and adults is not enough. Or how about three women for 75 profoundly mentally disabled children, children who can walk, some can talk, get into trouble, hurt themselves and each other, who need hugs and stimulation and therapy. Three women. I can't imagine three women for 75 healthy children, forget about 75 very needy children. The shortage of staff isn't Dom Veternik's fault, the government sets the ratio of workers to patients, and it's not the governments fault, they are struggling to rebuild their country after difficult times and in a challenging economy. It's the nature of life, there are always poor, helpless, and weak people, there are always people trying to help without enough resources. It's a waste of time to look for who's at fault. Better to pitch in and help.
Anna, me, Jana, Nichole, and Marina at Dom Veternik
And that's what I want to do. Because now Zoran and Srdjan, Anna, Marina, Jana, Lubitza, and Dragana are our friends. They work in different roles in the institution, administrating, teaching and caring. Nikola, Borin, Petra, Luca and many others are also our friends, they live in different spaces, with different needs, inside of Dom Veternik. Love doesn't judge, love helps, love finds the good, love sees God's mercy extended to all of his creation and joins in. God is obviously not finished with Serbia and neither am I. These friendships are just the beginning. Now it's time to pray harder, love deeper, and work more! Who's with me?
Srdjan and Nichole shopping for Dom Veternik
I'm working on the next steps and I'm excited about what God is going to do. Nichole and I have lots of ideas! The first thing I need to do is begin a non-profit organization. And to do that I need a name. I want you to help me! What do you think would be a good name for an organization partnering with the disabled of Serbia to help give them hope, dignity and a better life? Give it your best shot and leave your suggestions in the comment section below. If I choose one of your suggestions I'll send you a Starbucks gift card!

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