A Week Of Love And Joy

10 July 2016

It is exactly one week since I stepped into pastor Ion (John) Groza’s little church in Crihana-Veche, Moldova. Our team is temporarily stranded at the airport in London as a result of a flight delay for reasons unknown. I think maybe it is His way of giving me time to begin this writing.

A lot has happened in one week. A lot has changed – mainly in me, but I pray change occurred in the lives of many others as well. Although the actual travel for this particular mission trip began only 9 days ago in Whitehouse, TX, I believe the journey for me really began 10 years ago.

As I shared with our team during one of our morning devotionals, my mother’s grandfather was the last of his family line born in what is now western Ukraine – only a day’s drive from our the site of our camp near Cahul, Moldova. Ten years ago, in preparation for my parents’ 50th anniversary, I spent a bit of time online researching and knitting together some genealogy. In doing so, I was able to determine the name of the little rural farm village where my great-great-grandparents (and likely several generations prior) had lived out their lives. Thanks to the technology of Google Earth street view, I was able to view the homes and farms along that little rural road – ones that have probably seen relatively few changes in the past hundred and fifty years. Somewhere in the midst of viewing those images and allowing my mind to wander back in history, my heart began longing to see this part of the world with my own eyes.

A few short years after that, FBC Whitehouse became engaged in the mission efforts of Sweet Sleep to build beds in a number of orphanages in Moldova and Transnistria. I recall the images and stories that were shared by various team members after each of these trips, and although I was never “boots on the ground”, I hoped that sooner or later God would move me beyond the role of financial and prayer partner to that next level. My international mission involvement to that point was marked by 3 trips (’02, ’03 and ’05) just across the south Texas border into Mexico. We had engaged these people in medical/dental clinics and VBS-type activities with children. During one trip, we were blessed to be allowed a few hours at an orphanage. It is impossible for a Christian to be exposed to something like that and not be moved with compassion.

At roughly the same time that our church began its journey with Sweet Sleep’s orphan ministry in Moldova, my work in the local church began to shift from many years almost exclusively in music and youth ministry to engaging with younger groups; I began teaching 3rd grade Sunday School as well as leading a preschool choir. A decade ago, working on any sort of regular basis with younger children was perhaps the last ministry to which I felt drawn. That was just something I always thought to be out of my comfort zone. Since the early ’80s, music and youth had been my passion and calling. But God was ready to make some changes in me, and now after 7 years of weekly engagement in our children’s ministries, I cannot imagine myself anywhere else in Kingdom work.

So, after several years of watching post-trip videos and testimonies about the Moldova trips, I began seeking through prayer His timing to say yes. It truly believed was not a matter of “if”, only “when” He would call me to go. Six months ago, as Tony Black began announcing this summer’s trip, I found myself without a valid excuse on any front – whether time off work, or finances, or whatever, God showed me the path had been cleared and I could not ignore the call.

Fast-forwarding to July 1, the months of fundraising, orientation, meetings, lesson and materials preparation, prayer and packing were complete. This was finally happening. And after a day and a half of what seemed like endless travel on land and in the air, at 11:30 on a Saturday night the vans pulled into the gate at Camp Romantica. Under the cover of darkness, there was very little that would be revealed to me and the other 5 new members of our team. The fact that a handful of their kitchen crew had a late night meal freshly prepared and spread out on the table, however, gave a first impression that told me this was a people eager to show us as much love as (if not more than) we had come to show to them.

Our week at camp was filled with love and joy. These were the fruits of investing hours in getting to know and love the many children – most of whom are (or were) orphans or in foster families – as well as the foster parents, the area pastors, the translators, the camp staff and the members of John’s little church. But it was also a week filled with heartache when you paused to consider the situations in which most of these kids lived, the results of which were often evidenced by their behavior and attitudes at various times throughout the week.

Language barriers make me uncomfortable. Mission work in Mexico was not entirely encumbered in that aspect as my couple of years of high school Spanish had not been totally forgotten. This past spring, I had good intentions to learn some basic words and phrases in Romanian, but that piece of my preparation fell a bit flat. But I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the older kids and some adults, in addition to our wonderful translators, who could speak and understand enough English to put me at ease in most every situation. For the younger children (who had about as much exposure to English as I did Romanian), a smile, a hug, a fist bump or high five said more than enough.

With enough time and space, I could tell a hundred different stories about the countless wonderful encounters during the short 5 1/2 days at Camp Romantica. I could tell you about a musically talented group of teenagers in John’s church, and how they blessed us with guitar, accordion, violin and voice during the Sunday worship service, as well as throughout the week of camp. I could then tell you how much more impressed I was to learn these kids had been studying music at the church for only a little more than a year. I could tell about the scripture lessons, the object lessons, the crafts and recreational activities we used to engage these kids, the many responses that indicated they were well versed in scripture, and the few hard cases that saw breakthroughs by the end of the week. I could describe the fun songs (most with hand and full-body motions), with lyrics we Americans didn’t always understand but were more than happy to sing along, the goofy games that were often designed to embarrass their guests, the sweet prayers of 5 and 6 year old children to open our morning and evening gatherings, the skits, drama and music we shared in the amphitheater. I could attempt, but not do justice, in describing how it felt to hear a handful of these kids learn and perform a couple of worship songs in Romanian and English. It would be an equal struggle to describe the joy we felt as these people applauded our efforts to share a praise chorus in Romanian. I could try my best to describe for you the precious faces and beautiful smiles of the hundred or so children, their high fives and laughter throughout the week, followed by the hugs and tears as we parted ways.

I left Camp Romantica on the afternoon of July 8, but I can assure you I did not return home with everything I took. A part of me was left behind with a group of people I grew to love dearly in such a very short time. My utmost thanks to Tony Black for the nudge I needed 6 months ago – it is always a joy to share with him in worship and other ministries; to the rest of the Make a Difference for Moldova 2016 team for diligence in both preparation and execution of this trip; and to Stuart McAlister for allowing me to be a new ministry partner and a new friend. Most of all, I thank the Lord Jesus for His calling – I pray this was only the first of many weeks that I will spend in Camp Romantica.

Rick Martindale

FBC Whitehouse

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