What I Learned About Grace in a Romanian Orphan Camp
I walked with a group of about fifty children, ages 2-16, through the cobbled village streets of Săvârșin on a summer evening in 1992. We were on our way to the soccer field/cow pasture, to play with the summer camp orphans. It was just after dinner. Tea, dry bread, and an oily “beef” soup (where was the beef?), had not satisfied my hunger, and I hungrily eyed the chickens placidly pecking about in the tidy garden off the side of the path. There must be eggs somewhere in this village, I thought. There sure weren’t any in the camp dining room, nor on the empty shelves of the market. I accepted and ate a sour crabapple, picked off a nearby tree, from six-year-old Nadia.
As we walked along, various children pulled on my arms, grabbed my hands, jumped on my back, and chattered away in a mix of Romanian and English. I tried to understand. What I understood most clearly was that these kids were starving for attention and love- and I was happy to give it to them. We communicated through the universal languages of sports, hand clapping games, smiles and laughter.
I noticed two brothers in the group, both very small, and admired the sweet way the older one (age 4) lovingly, protectively, led his younger sibling along, never letting go of his hand. They walked alone, behind the rest of the kids. I reached out my hand, offering it to the older brother, wanting to make sure they weren’t left behind.
“Don’t hold their hands, don’t touch them!” the interpreter shouted at me.
I understood her words, but I was still confused. She explained that they had a highly contagious skin condition on their hands, something like leprosy, and that they were being taken to the doctor in the morning for treatment.
I’ve never agreed with the idea of withholding touch and affection from little kids. To my privileged mind, I felt the potential cost of any skin disease, which could be cleared up with a little medicine, was worth the price of making sure those boys didn’t feel unloved, outcast. I silently judged the caregivers for their (in my mind) cold heartedness, and later on, I held the hand of the older brother anyway (and I never got an infection).
It never occurred to me that the cost of the medicine could be out of reach to the caregivers or for the boys. Medical care was something that I had always taken for granted.
The next morning, the brothers were gone. The leader of our group, Steve, and one of the orphanage caregivers had taken the boys to Arad, the nearest city in Transylvania, to see what could be done. I thought about them all day. I was surprised when I found out that the brothers would not be coming back to camp. One of Romanian camp counselors, who spoke English, explained to me, though she didn’t agree with it, the stigma that’s attached to orphans in her culture, and worse still, the stigma that goes with any type of handicap. It was then that she explained that there was a possibility that the brothers would have to have their hands amputated to keep the disease from spreading. I spent the rest of that afternoon feeling sick with worry.
Finally, Steve returned with news. The boys needed medicine right away. It would have to be overnighted from Germany. The state run orphanage could not (or would not) pay for it. But our group of six American students could pitch in and donate the money that was needed. I don’t remember exactly how much it was, but it had to be cash. I want to say that it was under $200- total. Peanuts.
After Steve left to take the money back to the doctor in Arad, all those emotions that I had been holding in throughout the trip, the anger over the unfairness of it all, the sadness from what I was seeing, and the exhaustion from hunger and difficult living conditions- it all came to the surface. I knew that those two boys would be okay, but I couldn’t stop thinking about what would have happened if we had not been there to buy the medicine. As wards of the state, their hands weren’t even worth $200 to their government.
I stomped out of our hotel and started walking and crying, not knowing where I was going. I wandered through the beautiful parklands of the nearby castle. Yes, a castle. The camp was housed in the servant’s quarters of the castle, but the kids were never allowed to set foot in it. The castle sat empty and the kids lived in dirty primitive barracks.
I was angry. Over and over, my mind went back to the boys. We helped those boys, but it was only because they were in the right place, with us, at the right time. What about all the other orphans who would not get the medical care they needed, those who would suffer needlessly. Why? My sense of justice was screaming, this is wrong!
I was visiting a broken country that had just emerged from years of oppression under Ceausescu, one of the more cruel communist dictators in modern history. Never had it been more obvious to me, how unfair life could be. I was unable in that moment to celebrate the fact that those brothers, who were always holding hands, would be able to keep their hands. Now they would be able to grow up and work with their hands, to provide for themselves, and they would not suffer the stigma of having a handicap. There was great reason to celebrate, but I missed out on the happiness of that day, because of what I chose to arrogantly focus on.
That was many years ago. Now, when I think about this story, I think about another word, grace, free and unmerited favor.
Philip Yancey, in his book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, says that it is “truly our last best word. It contains the essence of the gospel as a drop of water can contain the image of the sun.”
The truth is we live in a broken world. God has promised justice, but he is patient, and in his love, he offers us such amazing grace. Grace is the message of the gospel. Grace is shown in the beautiful ways that he touches our lives, free of charge, in ways we don’t deserve. Our world is full of God’s grace: the sun shines on all people good and bad.
It was grace that put those brothers at that camp in Transylvania, so they would get the medicine they needed and save their hands.
Yes, I’m to seek justice, as much as I’m able, but ultimately, I’m to trust God that he is in control, and I’m to walk in humble gratitude for the grace that is all around me. Since I have been given grace, I am called to extend it as well. I have been set free from the oppression of sin, through Jesus Christ, and it is through grace that I am able to enjoy the rewards that only Jesus deserves. One day, Jesus will return and heal this broken world. No longer relegated to the servant’s quarters, we’ll take our place with Jesus in heaven. It’s all grace.