I AM surrounded by a horde of children and young people, perhaps between 30 and 35 of them, ranging from babes in arms to older ones whose ages I cannot guess.
They are excitable, clambering, at times uncontrollable, and certainly unpredictable. They jump up and down at all angles, trying to get our attention; hands held out, wanting anything we might have. They shout out in a language I don’t know: I hear them, but am unable to answer — first, because they call out in unison, but, second, because I have no idea what they are saying. Not knowing the Romanian language feels isolating and, at times, anxiety-provoking. But I am not alone, and I feel this through and through: God is here beside me.
I am here at Negustorolui in north-east Romania with a charity, Cry in the Dark, as a leader of a group of 11 young people (aged 15 to 18) on a short-term mission trip. We come from Suffolk: Kesgrave, Woodbridge, Wickham Market, and Felixstowe.
The village we are at is remote; the people here are shunned by the rest of the nation. Most of the Romanian population want nothing to do with the Roma gypsies. They are described as not being Romanian, and they are not wanted; they are despised. Cry in the Dark has come here for many years — to show love and acceptance; to play games, and to sing; to tell them of Christ’s love, and to show it in action.
WE STAND in an area of wasteland; it is filthy with animal excrement. The children have a look of wildness, and of being too grown up. They are dressed in grubby, mismatched clothing, worn in a muddled manner, and they are not clean. Hands and feet are ingrained with dirt. The air is filled with expectation and body odour.
There is no running water in the village; every drop is brought up from the well down the hill. It is a long way. The dwellings that circle the area in an apparently random fashion are basic, poorly maintained, and seem to be little more than shacks. The whole area has a run-down and unkempt feel.
The rubbish scattering the floor includes the sweet wrappers from our previous visit, and there are items that I am unable to identify. I try to avoid looking.
It is not easy being here. A scraggy dog wanders by; and a hobbled horse, accompanied by two older lads, lunges a couple of difficult steps forward. A mother of five children — she tells us she is 18 — openly and gently breastfeeds her infant. She stands on the edge of the gathering, watching proceedings.
Beside us, a woman is draping wet washing to dry on a fence constructed of branches. We pass a smile between us.
I AM an alien in an unknown and unfamiliar land, and straddle the uneasy gap between being invited and wanted by the community, and yet held in suspicion. It feels a delicate and fragile place to stand.
The children, however, are full of smiles: they give them away freely and constantly, although this can change in an instant, and one can loudly and without inhibition turn on another. They squabble, push, grab, and hug.
Generally a tarpaulin is brought for us to sit on and to play on, because the floor is covered with unknown matter, but today this has been forgotten, and we need to get down directly on to the ground. I am hesitant, but cannot afford to look or be seen to be in any way disgusted. I kneel.
Our translator explains that I am going to tell them a story and asks the children to gather round. Surprisingly and quite unexpectedly, the heaving, shouting mass does so with little hesitation. Some sit before me; others stand peering over their shoulders. I ask my translator, “Will they know what a present or a gift is?” since I am unsure and this will open the Godly Play that is to come.
”Yes”, she replies, “they know about gifts and presents. We bring them a shoebox at Christmas.” I know now that I can begin.
NOT knowing how this will go, I take a deep breath and reach for the gold box that contains the parable of the sower and the soils.
I know immediately that it is the right choice. They will have some understanding of the land, and of seeds. It is part of their world, and they might be able to connect. I thank God for his guidance: back in St Edmundsbury Cathedral’s resources storeroom, this box — this story — was an instantaneous choice, as if it had been waiting for my arrival.
Then, apart from my voice — slow, and considered — and the echo in Romanian, there suddenly comes near-silence. As the story unfolds, I feel something tremendous happening that I am unable to describe, but there seems to be a new quiet, a hushed excitement, and a concentration that spreads like a ripple among us all.
I look up briefly: all I can see is pairs of wide eyes falling on the felt and the figures. They watch with an intensity that matches their frenzied activity earlier. When a noise comes from one, another gives a jab fierce enough to have hurt, a glare that shows great irritation, and a “Shush” that is a command rather than a request.
They are like this throughout the entire telling of the parable. Their eyes follow my hand movements all the time; I can feel their gaze as much as I can feel the heat from the hot sun that falls over the group.
They remain quiet towards the end as I pack each part slowly and carefully back into the gold box. They say goodbye to the pieces; once or twice I hear a smack on a hand that has been thrust forward to grab one of the items. It is as if the older children are saying: “This is special — it is not for you to take.” Somehow, they have come to a corporate, unspoken conclusion that this requires respect and reverence.
Without the words to explain, they have recognised something bigger and beyond themselves. God was speaking, and it was as if he was saying, “I see you there, I know you, and you are precious in my sight.”
This embeds something deep in my heart and soul. God was indeed very present, he was making himself known, and was touching us, right there in the filth and the squalor.
AS I finish, for just another moment, they remain in a state of hushed stillness, until one of the boys — one known for his aggressive outbursts and anger — steps forward and says in Romanian that is barely audible: “That was beautiful.” Then the children clap.
This was a wonderful and incredible thing to be part of. I am new to the wonders of Reflective Storytelling and Godly Play, and I might have faltered, spoken imperfectly, and veered away from the script; but for that I find myself grateful and in awe of what God accomplishes with us, and through us as his partners. I cannot describe how special this was for me and I know that it was special for the children too. I am enormously privileged to have been the one to share this time with them.
I don’t know if I shall ever again feel as I felt during those amazing moments, but it is an encounter that I will for ever treasure. When I return the gold box to the cathedral, I will always have my own precious box of memories and blessings left within me from those brief but golden moments.
The Revd Claire Ling is Associate Curate of All Saints’, Kesgrave, in the diocese of St Edmundsbury & Ipswich.