Ministry Profiles / Refugees / Timisoara, Romania

Obstacles and Opportunity

There are few certainties in life, but one is the unequivocal guarantee of obstacles. Whether or not we encounter them is not for us to choose. What is, however, is the way in which we view those obstacles: as impenetrable barriers or a chance for new opportunity. You may find that maxim cliché. Clean, pithy words on a page can be hollow. Yet, something changes when you see it lived out. When you see the profound measure of power and grace in such a perspective. And that is why I want you to meet Kathleen.

I remember the first day Kathleen Wintter drove Andrew and me to see the refugee compound in Timisoara, Romania. I saw the fence first; its sharp barbed wires encircling the property to ward off unwanted visitors like the ones we happened to be. I saw the guardhouse, positioned prominently and watchfully at the front of the compound along a dusty dirt road. And I saw the gate, its unyielding iron bars blocking the entrance. Everywhere I looked, I saw obstacles. Looming barriers.

“Here we are,” said Kathleen in her characteristic Alabama drawl as we stepped out of her car. She motioned for us to follow as she crossed the road and headed toward the gate. I stepped forward with some trepidation, feeling out of place. Kathleen walked as if there was no gate at all.

“Hopefully we’ll be able to get you in here,” said Kathleen as she came to a stop, resting her hand on the bars and gazing inside at the rows of single-story, white-walled buildings that lined the property. “We just gotta keep praying.” Maybe my faith was too small –it nearly always is– but the barriers I saw that evening somehow left me doubting that Kathleen’s hope would come to fruition. Yet, while I saw barriers, Kathleen saw something very different.

It’s not that Kathleen is naïve to the obstacles of reaching the refugees in Timisoara with the gospel. After 18 years of ministry in Romania, the past three of which have been focused on reaching refugees, Kathleen is all too familiar with the difficulties. As we drove away from the compound that first night, Kathleen explained more about the Emergency Transit Center (ETC), the official name for the refugee compound on the edge of the city. The center acts as a sort of holding tank, she said, a place for U.N. refugees to wait for an average of 4-6 months before they are relocated to another country. However, tight security makes access to the refugees difficult, both in regard to entering the compound as well as bringing the refugees outside its walls. But access is not the only challenge. The language barrier is also a significant hurdle to effective ministry, not to mention the relatively short time frame available before the refugees are relocated. “There are just a lot of limiting factors that make ministry hard,” Kathleen explained.

As I listened, I couldn’t help but think that many would label the ETC a non-ideal ministry location. It certainly wouldn’t be hard to conclude that limited time and resources might be better maximized in some other field. But then Kathleen turned in her seat and with a deeply earnest look said, “Here they are, brought from who knows where to Timisoara and kept right in our backyard. If we don’t do anything with them, then we are missing out on a huge opportunity.”

And that was when I started to see what Kathleen saw. Not the barriers, but the opportunity.

*                      *                      *

Of all the people who would readily credit Kathleen Wintter with a refreshing perspective for opportunity, I imagine Kathleen herself would be among the last. Rather, she would simply laugh and tell you “It’s the Lord, not me!” And when you hear just a bit of her story, it’s hard not to agree.

It was Kathleen’s close friends in Timisoara who first discovered the ETC nearly three years ago and began to pray about how to reach those inside. The idea of teaching English classes arose as the best means of meeting a real need and thereby gaining access. However, Kathleen was not directly involved. That is until one specific conversation took place. “I’ll always remember what my friend told me,” Kathleen said one day as we sat and ate lunch together. “She said, ‘Kathleen, every time I think and pray about it, I see your face in my mind. I think you should be the one to do this.’”

To say that Kathleen was well prepared for this new avenue of ministry would be an understatement. Not only did she have years of experience in teaching English already, working with a Christian ministry in Timisoara that runs English camps and classes year-round, but she also holds a masters degree in education. In addition, she had also recently finished teaching youngsters at a Montessori school, something she has since realized was perfect preparation for teaching refugees, many of whom do not even know the English alphabet.

Between Kathleen’s qualifications and her friends’ connections with those who manage the ETC, gaining access to the refugees was simple. “I really had no problem getting in,” said Kathleen, expressing how rare and remarkable that actually is. “It was like the way was paved for me. I feel like all those years and all this experience has brought me to this point and prepared me for this.”

Kathleen now spends every afternoon teaching classes inside the compound, a rare opportunity that gives her virtually unlimited access to the refugees and allows her to reach out to them at this strange and difficult time of life. The ETC is by no means a scene of desolation and despair, as some refugee camps are. Those in Timisoara are well cared for with food, beds, and reasonably well-maintained surroundings. Yet for most, the loss of their homeland and the deep hardships that brought them to Timisoara are burdens they continue to carry. Their time at the ETC therefore becomes a strange period of limbo, as they drift through aimless days in the wake of traumatic experiences, waiting for a set of papers that will dictate their new life in a foreign land. The truth is that many are eager to come to English classes if for no other reason than to add some kind of purpose to their days,

But Kathleen is able to do more than simply offer classes. She views what most would call a language barrier as an opportunity to build relationships around the Bible. Last year, an Iraqi family of seven arrived at the camp and as Kathleen developed a relationship with them, she offered to teach them English by studying the Bible together. “They were very interested,” Kathleen said, “so we went through the book of Matthew and once we were finished I asked them what they wanted to study next.” Kathleen looked at me with a gleam in her eye as she said, “You know what they told me? The book of Romans!”

“I tell people I have two passions in life,” Kathleen explained. “Teaching the Bible and teaching English. Sitting in the room studying the Bible with that Iraqi family, I was doing both!”

The more time you spend with Kathleen, the more you understand her desire to seize each opportunity she is given. In her mind, the refugees’ time at the ETC is a blessing, though they might not see that now. From all corners of the world, even those that are closed to Christianity, people are brought to Timisoara where Kathleen has a brief but beautiful opportunity to demonstrate Christ to them, open a Bible with them, and hopefully plant seeds. An opportunity she sees as too precious to be wasted worrying about obstacles.

*                      *                      *

 We prayed and we waited, but after several days we were informed that our request for access to the ETC had been denied. It was with disappointment, but not defeatism that Kathleen told us the news. Once again the barriers loomed large in my mind as I wondered what was next. But Kathleen was determined. In fact, before we even arrived in Timisoara, Kathleen had arranged an opportunity for us to meet a few of the refugees by bringing them out of the camp to a place where we could play soccer together. “If you can’t go to them, then we’ll just have to bring them to you,” was Kathleen’s sanguine mentality.

I won’t forget that day. The one where Kathleen’s red car pulled up to the side of the dirt road and out poured a handful of Nigerians, Iraqis, and Somalis, with grins on their faces as they looked toward the grassy pitch. We played soccer for hours that evening. We played until we could no longer see the ball. And in between the games, we talked.

“When did you and your family decide to leave Baghdad?” I asked one 17-year-old named Roodi. “It was after my dad was kidnapped by the rebel militia,” he told me. “They finally let him go, but after that we knew we had to leave.” The others from Baghdad told similar stories as we sat on the grass in a circle. “So much violence,” a man named Adel said. He looked at me earnestly and added, “But still, I miss Baghdad. It is home, you know?” Adel and his family will soon be relocated to Chicago, the city that I have called home all my life. But to them, it is a foreign and strange place. And so as we talked that evening, I tried my best to make Chicago, their new home, just a bit less foreign and strange.

And all the while as we talked and played, there stood Kathleen. Watching. Smiling. Simply enjoying the way this opportunity had unfolded. On the car ride home she told us how well she thought the evening had gone and how it had given her an idea for the future. “I think we could do something like this on a regular basis” she said. “Maybe with guys from churches in the area. I think it is a great way to connect with the refugees.”

Kathleen doesn’t know how long her ministry in Timisoara will revolve around the refugee community. She says her job is simply to look for the doors of opportunity that the Lord opens. “I’ve honestly never felt so fulfilled in my work,” Kathleen told us as we drove to the airport on our last day in Timisoara. “But I’m only one person. And that’s limiting.” But it isn’t a barrier. Just something Kathleen prays for, hoping to see the refugee ministry in Timisoara expand as the Lord brings others alongside to join her in the work.

When I think back to that first day at the refugee compound on the edge of Timisoara, I no longer see a barbed wire fence. Nor do I see a guardhouse or gate. I think now I see what Kathleen sees: people, needs, and the opportunity to sow seeds of truth. That is how Kathleen chooses to live her life; it makes me wonder what might happen if we all looked at our surroundings with such eyes.


Candles illuminate a room inside one of Timisoara's largest Orthodox cathedrals

Candles illuminate a room inside one of Timisoara’s largest Orthodox cathedrals

 –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –       –

 Please pray for Kathleen Wintter, that the Lord would show her how to best move forward in her ministry with the refugees in Timisoara. Pray for wisdom and patience as she looks for those small yet significant opportunities to share Christ wherever she can. And pray that the Lord would lead others, particularly those with an inclination toward teaching English, to partner with Kathleen and grow the ministry there. If you feel inclined to learn more about Kathleen’s ministry in Timisoara, please do not hesitate to email Kathleen here.

(Click HERE to read the story of Eric: a Nigerian friend who has been impacted by Kathleen’s ministry)


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