Missions is messy, Part I

Day 9, July 25

Slavonski Brod, Croatia

If I have learned one thing in 4 decades of ministry, it is that ministry is messy. The church is messy, missions is messy, people are messy, and the world is messy. Of course, hovering over all of this mess is a God of order, power, and authority. But he has determined that the restoration of order to his Son’s universe be conducted in the midst of chaos, disorder, rebellion, germs, and misunderstanding.

Let me say right at the start that the people we have met in Croatia – long-term missionaries, short-termers, Croats, Serbs, various strains of Roma (we try to avoid the term “gypsies” since it is perceived as derogatory), Hungarians, Americans – all of these have been exceptionally gracious and generous. But if you think that such a mix of people and languages and cultures is easy to navigate, think again. Mike and Josh and I are in a constant state of bewilderment as to what language is being spoken, what ethnicity the speaker is, and what country he/she is from. The bare minimum for survival here is that you must speak at least two languages, and most move easily between 3-4 languages without missing a beat.

If I could possibly remember all of the messes that we have encountered in 3 short days in Croatia, I wouldn’t possibly have the time to regale the readers with the details. Of course, not all messes are bad, just messy and confusing and remarkable.

Take Jeannot and Juliana Randimbiarison (try pronouncing that!). This amazing couple is with Pioneers missions agency but have been seconded to the Roma Bible Union (RBU). They live in Budapest, Hungary. Juliana is a Hungarian who was born in Serbia who speaks Hungarian, English, and Croatian.

Juliana’s husband, Jeannot, is brown-skinned man and was born and raised in Madagascar. He speaks Malagasi (the language of Madagascar), French, English, Romanian, Serbo-Croatian (now separate languages), is learning Bayash (a Roma dialect), and knows enough Hungarian to survive in Hungary where he and Juliana live.

Jeannot started out studying pharmacy in Romanian before ending up in fulltime missions. He is an accomplished musician, who loves the Beatles (immediately endearing himself to Josh) and the Rolling Stones. He has written 4 children’s songs which have been translated from Croatian into Bayash. He wrote the UNA anthem and gave it a distinctive Bayash flair so that the Roma would embrace it as “their kind of music”.

Currently there are no adult Christian songs in Bayash but Jeannot is hoping to change that by convening a late-August music workshop to kick-start a movement of ethnic musicology that will hopefully result in Christian music that has Bayash lyrics and rhythm that can get any good Roma clapping and smiling.

Jeannot and Juliana have a daughter, Tina, who is in her second year of biblical studies at Columbia International University, Columbia, SC.

Then there are the bad messes that one finds in every culture. There is no shortage of these things when one strays from the orderly, germ-free, ecologically agreeable culture of the west to wend one’s way eastward.

For instance, finding a usable bathroom on the two hour drive from Zagreb to Slavonski Brod. This small problem got us started down the road to culture shock after several days in neat and tidy Germany. (I’m going to be kind and spare you the details of the port-a-pots we peeked into along the highway.)

While I am on this topic, may I confess that I am a germophobic shower freak who likes clean hands, clothes, sinks, toilets, bathtubs, dishes, silverware, and fresh air. Though Croatia in these categories is light years ahead of other countries that I have visited (e.g., India, Nepal, Viet Nam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Jamaica), it is a step behind Germany and the USA.

The result of my hang-ups is something I really dislike about myself (true confessions). I spend much of my time on missions trips dreaming about my next shower, searching for a clean toilet seat, wondering who around me might have lice, and wishing I had brought some hand sanitizer along. I often feel like I’m the only westerner who has these thoughts as I observe other Americans diving headfirst into touching people, hugging children who live in a home with no water and no bathroom, sitting on the ground, sweating profusely without apparent discomfort, and having a seemingly magical ability to navigate public bathrooms without batting an eye.

When Mike and I checked into our guesthouse, my first comment to him was: “This guesthouse is good example of why it’s better not to bring Kathy (Mike’s mother) on missions trips.” His response was to say to Josh: “I’d love to see how Mom’s loathing of bed bugs would fit in with staying here.” Now don’t get me wrong! I have stayed in far worse places than the guesthouse where we are residing. It’s the nature of travel and missions trips. The guesthouse is perfectly suitable for our purposes here and I am grateful for those who arranged it for us. But I know very few American women who would unpack their suitcases in this place without a second thought about hygiene.

I’m just getting start on this messy theme and haven’t scratched the surface. But I must stop and use Lysol to scrub my laptop, then disinfect under my fingernails, and go shake the bedbugs out from my sheets. More messiness tomorrow….