I really need to get more creative with my titles. Giving titles is always my least favorite part about writing something. Maybe that’s why I was drawn to dramaturgy, a field where I could write a program note and just call it “program note.”
I returned to Ukraine last Wednesday evening and spent most of Thursday sleeping. This should not surprise anyone. However, I did feel a little guilty about sleeping until 2pm, so the next day I got up at the respectable time of 8:30am and joined Marielle for her Friday work at the Reformed Church-run nursing home. Welcome warmer wind greeted us on our walk, melting the hard-packed ice-walks, which had inconceivably become even slipperier while I was gone. On the night I was out searching for the Orthodox Christmas Eve service (I really don’t know how I lost it), I nearly landed on my back about 7 times.
The nursing home was built by the Dutch Reformed Church, and it houses around 10 elderly folks. Each person is known quite individually, and Marielle chatted with everyone while we changed sheets, swept, and washed dishes. I did my best on the language front. Sometimes Marielle and I just sang Taizé songs .
There’s an old man who comes to the home frequently to lead services – he used to hold some sort of bishop-like position, I believe – and it was his birthday that day. Marielle told me that he had survived 7 years in a Soviet concentration camp, and now he is celebrating his 87th birthday. On the table in the dining room was a birthday cake to rival some wedding cakes, and we all drank very sweet champaign to his good health. We shuffled about the place in blue house-slippers and white smocks, and I found myself wanting to know each person’s story. Many of these people have seen Transcarpathia change hands and political systems at least 5 times; they have switched their country of residence without ever leaving their homes.
When I returned to Kriszpont that evening, I was surprised to see about 15 other young people bustling around the place. At first I was thankful – I had spent the previous evening bemoaning the empty house and hearing all sorts of phantom noises – but when the number of young people doubled and tripled, I felt the introvert in me creeping up. I’ve never been one to feel comfortable in large groups of people; I feel a little lost. But when my communication abilities with said group of people is hampered, I feel gagged and blindfolded and without Theseus’ red thread.
Soon there were some structured events – worship and then dinner – and I soon fell into a rhythm of participation. Later in the evening, there was a time of prayer. We were divided into small groups for the ostensible purpose of sharing our prayers more personally. I say ostensible because I actually didn’t understand what anyone was saying; I was just going off experience and observation and making things up as I went along. Sort of the way I live my life every day over here.
My group sat in a circle, and we began giving prayer requests to the group leader, a young women who I would guess is about my age. I finally got up enough courage to add my own request, also adding that I don’t speak much Hungarian. When everyone had given their requests, the leader gave a few instructions, which were lost on me, and then we all bowed our heads. I quickly noticed that we were going around in a circle, and that my turn would come soon. Never in my remembrance have I been shy about praying in public; I’ve never worried about what words to say or felt nervous about speaking out loud. Never. That demonstrates, then, how much my empathy has now grown when I say that, as the prayer continued to move around the circle, I was absolutely terrified.
I knew that I could pray in English and that no one would care. But I wanted to respect the language that surrounded me, and I wanted to be accessible. A veritable Gordian knot grew in my stomach (with no Alexander to solve it), and I had to calm my breathing. By the time it was my turn, I had formulated a small introductory sentence in Hungarian: Uram, Köszönjük hogy Te erted minden nyelvet. Lord, We thank you that You understand every language. I spoke that sentence as confidently as I could then proceeded to say a few words in English. When I finished, I felt such a rush of released nervous energy I had to open my eyes to steady myself. As I say above, this experience has enlarged my understanding.
After the prayer, the group leader and her husband began speaking to me in well-studied English, and soon the whole group was engaged in translated conversation. Most of my conversations here have either been wholly in English or wholly in Hungarian, and it was a delight to have every party involved feel fluent and understandable. We discussed learning languages, cultural differences, and travelling. The weekend organizer came in at one point, and at the end of the conversation, he asked me if I would give my testimony later on in the evening. I agreed, not entirely sure what I would say.
The contents of that testimony will come in another post. For now, I leave you with the assurance that the whole evening, which began with hesitation and not a little panic, reminded me that God never leads us somewhere without showing up in the people around us.