It was the spring of 1982 when I sensed the Lord wanted us to visit brothers and sisters in Christ behind, what was then called, the Iron Curtain. It was in the dark days of the oppressive regime of Nikolai Ceausescu when Romania was under the tight grip of communism. I asked the American Embassy if it was safe to visit Bucharest. Their answer was simple, “Yes, if you allow us to escort you.” And so they did.
When we arrived in Bucharest, I felt as though I were transported back to another time, another place, another era. Although the broad boulevards were devoid of flowers, and the beautiful, Baroque homes lining the streets were covered in coal dust, one could still see the faint images from days of grandeur. I was mesmerized. This was central Europe as I imagined it used to be. So beautiful and filled with history.
Through the help of the American Embassy, I was able to meet with government officials in Bucharest. I asked about the plight of people with disabilities in Romania. But the standard answer I received, whether from the Department of Labor or Health and Human Services, was the same: “Romania has no disabled people!” Even the so-called rehab centers I visited were inhabited by only a few wheelchair users, most of them injured family members of government officials.
Through Christian contacts, and the European publisher of the Joni book, I was able to speak in several churches in and around Bucharest. Actually, since we knew communist officials were looking on, I didn’t speak… I gave greetings. Sometimes, however, my greetings lasted 30 or 45 minutes!
My husband Ken and I were stunned by the enormous crowds. Everywhere I spoke, people not only filled the pews and balconies, they stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the side and center aisles! Most of all, I was deeply moved by the numbers of people with disabilities who came to our meetings. Some were dragged in on blankets, others, on wooden chairs. Several had homemade crutches, and many were carried in on the backs of family members. All of them were hungry to hear the message of how sustaining God’s grace is in the midst of disability.
I went to Romania thinking that my story might be a blessing to Christians living there. But I was wrong. I went to Romania to receive the blessing. I was overwhelmingly blessed by the stalwart faith of fellow followers of Christ. I was blessed by the perseverance and endurance of Christian brothers and sisters. And I was deeply touched by their indomitable smiles, despite living in, what was then, dreary and impoverished circumstances.
Ken and I would return to Romania several more times. And I recall with great delight meeting Iosif Malutan and his circle of friends and family members in Cluj-Napoca. Oh, what a warm welcome I received! Already, it was clear God was giving Iosif a vision for reaching people with disabilities with the good news of Jesus, and during that visit, I met many men, women and children who exhibited the same perseverance, despite their disabilities. And now, Caritatea is reaching far beyond Cluj-Napoca in the spirit of Jesus vision in Luke 14.
For more than two decades, God has been using Caritatea to fulfill the words of Jesus in Luke 14:13, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind and you will be blessed.” There are not many places in Scripture where Jesus gets that specific about who He wants invited into His kingdom, but here, He says of all the people you might overlook, do not neglect to invite the disabled. This spirit of inclusion is reflected in all that Caritatea does – especially as they partner with our Joni and Friends Wheels for the World teams, and take part in our International Family Retreats for special-needs families in Romania.
Now, 35 years later, I look back on 1982 and those early visits with amazement and wonder. I try to describe to Americans what it was like then… but it’s nearly impossible. When the Berlin Wall came crumbling down in 1989, it meant a new era of freedom and opportunity for Eastern Europeans, especially Romanians. The Romanian people have always been a resourceful population, always inventive, always looking forward to possibilities and opportunities. Especially opportunities for the gospel of Christ to go forth.
Recently I was in Portland, Oregon to speak at a church. There were many Romanian families who were attending that church, and I was surprised how many shared memories of meeting me when they lived in Romania. Several told me, “I was in Bucharest when you visited our church” or “I came to hear you in the sports arena!” There were even a few tears. It touched me deeply!
So, I pray that in the years to come, the Lord will continue to make the gospel successful among countless more Romanians with disabilities. May the torch be passed to a new, young generation who are just as passionate about reaching disabled people for Christ. And, oh, how I thank God that he used my visits in the 1980s to sow many seeds… seeds which have blossomed, grown, and produced fruit that I never would’ve imagined 3 ½ decades ago. God bless Romania. God bless us all as we continue to sow His seed. For the best is yet to come!