The Romanian sun was setting in a golden blaze as we pulled up to the last house in the town of Ramnicu Valcea. Squinting, I stepped out of the car and looked toward the partially constructed house perched on the hillside before us, its half walls and support beams glowing in the setting sunlight.
“Well, here it is,” said Mike, gesturing toward the house as he stepped over a broken portion of wire fencing into what would one day be a yard. “It still has a long way to go, that’s for sure.
I followed Mike and his wife, Elvira, as they walked across the property, festooned with pieces of wood and metal pipes, and up the front steps into the first floor. As we walked about the unfinished floors and gazed at the exposed ceiling rafters, I could only imagine the mixture of proud ownership and overwhelming exhaustion that Mike and Elvira must have felt in some measure. Room by room, they explained their dreams for what those floors and walls will become: a home and a haven, both for their life and the ministry they hope to start in the city of Ramnuci Valcea. Sighing at one point, Mike placed his hand on one of the freshly stuccoed walls and looked around the large room on the main floor. “It’s taken a lot longer than we thought,” he said, perhaps as much to himself as anyone. “But one day…”
As I looked at Mike and Elvira, standing together in that room pierced by shafts of sunlight, I was struck by how much a half constructed house was a reflection of their story. The past few years have been a struggle for Mike and Elvira Babcock, and they will be the first to tell you so. We might like hearing neat, feel-good tales of success when it comes to Christian ministry around the world. Shining hilltops and glowing redemption. Finished houses with white shutters and a manicured lawn. But that is not the story of the last several years for Mike and Elvira. Their story is about the valleys of ministry. In many ways, their dreams are still made of half-built walls and exposed support beams. And that kind of story is seldom told. But perhaps it is the kind of story we need to hear most.
This coming February will mark 13 years in Romania for Mike. The journey began in 2000 when he joined with an organization called Food for the Hungry, leading youth camps up in the mountains near Curtea de Arges (CdA). During those first three years, Mike saw the ministry flourish, thanks in large part to a dynamic partnership with a church in CdA. For someone who had graduated from college with a degree in parks and recreation management, leading a growing camp ministry seemed the perfect fit and confirmation of God’s will for Mike. I’m sure at times he wouldn’t mind ending the story there.
But things changed when Mike and Elvira found each other. She began working at the same church in CdA in 2002 and as they became interested in one another and started dating, their relationship with the church’s pastor unexpectedly began to deteriorate. “I’m guessing he had intentions for me to marry his oldest daughter,” Mike said. “But I’m really not sure.” It was not long before both Mike and Elvira were the targets of angry outbursts, slander, and gossip throughout the congregation. “It was really unbelievable,” Mike told me one day, shaking his head and laughing a bit. He can laugh now, but not back then.
In 2005, the pastor of the church finally informed Mike that he was no longer allowed access to any of the equipment that they had slowly been accumulating over the years to run the youth camps. The decision effectively ended Mike’s ministry, and he and Elvira, who were just recently married, officially left the church that same year. To make matters worse, Mike’s sending organization, Food for the Hungry, was in the process of dissolving due to financial struggles and by 2006 Mike and Elvira were essentially left without a ministry and without an organization.
The couple joined with International Teams in 2007 and began working with various youth-oriented ministry programs in CdA while they struggled to understand the best direction for the future of their ministry. It was 4 years before Mike and Elvira finally felt the Lord drawing them toward a fresh start in a fresh city. They decided to move 35 km to the west, to the city of Ramnicu Valcea, where Elvira grew up. It was then that they also decided to build a house, a haven from which to start afresh. Even the uncanny means by which the hillside property fell into their hands at just the right time seemed to be an exciting confirmation of this new vision.
They grew even more excited when they met a Romanian couple in early 2011 that were dreaming of starting a church in the northern part of Valcea. The more they talked and dreamt together, the more Mike began to believe, “You know, I think we can do this.” With this wind in their sails, Mike and Elvira traveled back to the States at the end of the year to raise support for the new endeavor. “It was three months of promoting this guy and lifting up this vision to our supporters,” said Mike.
However, when they returned to Romania, they were surprised to find that the couple had taken none of the steps that all four had previously agreed upon. That was the first warning sign for Mike and Elvira, and it only grew worse the deeper they went. “I began to suspect that they had bought into the health and wealth gospel,” Mike said. “I asked him about it and he didn’t say yes, but he didn’t deny it either.” As 2012 began, it was becoming clear to Mike and Elvira that the differences were simply too deep and too many. They felt misled and deeply disappointed and knew that the partnership needed to end. So with that, they parted ways. Mike grimaced a bit as he told me about having to send all of their supporters the news.
That was six months ago and it isn’t hard to understand the feelings of frustration and exhaustion that filled Mike and Elvira. How do you point to God at work from the bottom of the valley, surrounded by the ashes of broken trust and two disintegrated ministries? Not to mention the frustration of setbacks that continued to delay the construction of their house. And all of it combined with the challenge of raising their one year old son.
As I listened to Mike and Elvira’s story, I realized that the Lord may not have lifted them out of the valley in these past six months. They still live in a small apartment rather than a beautiful new home and there is no vibrant ministry to point to and smile. Yet, in the midst of it all, the Lord has given Mike and Elvira exactly what they needed most in this time: rest, perspective, and a fresh vision. Perhaps we often mistake the tangible for evidence of God’s provision, when in fact it’s the soft whispers that we need the most.
For Mike and Elvira, those subtle blessings have come in the form of a Romanian couple, Mihail and Donna, with whom they have grown increasingly close over the past six months. Looking back, they realize that it was only through those previous disappointments that they met even met the couple. Early in the spring, Mike and Mihail joined a Bible study together, which helped spark conversation about ministry and church planting. “We started going to back to those initial ideas we had of starting a church, just brainstorming and dreaming together,” Mike explained. So much of what had been missing or troubling with the previous couple was altogether different here, and in the late spring, the four decided to take the plunge.
I sat and listened one day as the two couples explained their vision for ministry in Ramnicu Valcea and the hope of eventually starting a church. First, they plan to start right in their community, offering English classes and youth clubs in the hope of building relationships. “Something like English classes can be a very mutual help,” explained Mihail. “It can give you the chance to really relate to people.” Through those relationships, the couples hope to find avenues for sharing the gospel and building a core community of believers that could one day become a community church in the northern part of the city.
But it will not be easy, and both couples will be the first to admit that post-communist Romania is tough ground for church planting. “It’s a very difficult context,” explained Mihail, who has helped plant two churches in Romania before this. In part, it is due to communism’s enduring impact, but also the pervasive influence of the Orthodox Church throughout Romania. The rivalry between the Protestant and Orthodox Church is remarkably fierce, particularly in Valcea, which has the lowest percentage of protestant churches of any city in the country. “It’s going to be very difficult,” Mihail said again as the three others nodded their heads. “But something needs to be done here.”
That new vision has given Mike and Elvira the perspective they so deeply need to look back over the frustration of sunken ministry efforts and push ahead. “You know, I think God used those previous difficulties to bring our hearts to the point where we were even ready to consider our ministry being about starting a church here,” Mike told me one night. Only one who knows their story could understand how remarkable that perspective is today.
And I remembered that as I looked at Mike and Elvira standing on the unfinished floor of their house that evening, framed by the light of the setting sun in the distance. I thought about the unfinished work that all of our lives are, complete with half built walls and exposed rafters. I thought about the valleys that show us who we truly are and the God that promises never to abandon us.
I thought about what Mihail had said too: “We might not see the fruit now, but we will see the fruit one day in heaven.” On that day, I believe the valleys and mountaintops alike will all make sense as they form the breathtaking tapestry of God’s grace. Mike and Elvira may not have that complete picture now, but the truth is, none of us do. For now they have what they need: a fresh vision, and an exciting goal, and a faithful God who gives one thread of the tapestry at a time. Maybe on that evening, the threads of a golden sunset and a half-built house were enough.
Please pray for Mike and Elvira, that they would see the Lord work in powerful ways as they take the first faithful steps toward starting a ministry in Valcea this fall. Pray for encouragement, stamina, and continued perspective as they move ahead. And pray also for Mihail and Donna as they come along side and that, together, both couples would seek the Lord in all they do.
See more of Mike and Elvira’s vision unfold here: Portraits: The Last House in Ramnicu Valcea