A rare hush fell over the group that morning. The normal murmur of softly giggling children and squirming bodies had stopped suddenly as 25 curious ears strained to listen. Even little Florin and Marcu ceased their usual tussling to turn dirt-smudged faces and dark round eyes toward the front.
David’s question still hung in the air.
“What did he say?” asked Pastor Matt, his Bible story of the prodigal son suddenly interrupted by the 12-year-old’s unsolicited inquiry. Elvira, who stood in the grass nearby, translated little David’s question from Romanian to English. It was simple, just four words in fact. But the unexpected depth, cloaked in a child’s innocence, seemed to surprise everyone.
“Why are we here?” he had asked.
David’s question stayed with me throughout that week as we gathered each morning on the edge of a park in Grenoble, France to host a day camp for local gypsy kids. It’s a question I imagine nearly everyone asks at some point as they try to reach out to the gypsies –or the Roma as they prefer to be called.
If ever there was a forgotten people group, those that are deeply needy yet difficult to love, it is the Roma. They are the epitome of the truly homeless: wanderers and squatters wherever they go with no nation in the world that will call them their own. Many associate the gypsies with Romania, yet they are no more accepted in that country than any other, only more tolerated perhaps. The system in France seems set against them: men and women are denied the opportunity of employment and police raids keep clusters of gypsy families constantly on the move. But altering the public attitude toward them is difficult when the Roma are stigmatized –with more than some warrant– as an unscrupulous people, often known for thieving and fighting.
But maybe, just maybe, the story might be different for these kids.
Each morning we walked to an old abandoned warehouse near the park where 20 or so gypsy families were squatting. Even before seeing the place, one could smell it. On that first day, I was hardly prepared for the mixing scents of body odor and excrement that filled my nostrils as we drew closer. There in the entryway to the warehouse stood an elderly gypsy man, his balding head reflecting the sunlight as he bent over a broom and cleared the concrete slab of gravel and debris. Yet I thought little of his sweeping until I stepped across the threshold.
The sordid conditions I saw within suddenly made the notion of sweeping seem absurd. Mattresses lined the edges of the warehouse floor, separated only by an indistinguishable mixture of sundry family belongings, trash, and clothing piled on the dirty ground. One mattress per family, it seemed. Perhaps two for those with many children.
As we entered the warehouse, those inside stared at us questioningly with bright, striking eyes that are characteristic of the Roma people. I recognized a number of the men and women, lying on the mattresses, holding babies, or wandering about the warehouse. Many were individuals we had met in June while visiting the squalor of a gypsy trailer park just a few miles away. However, that “home” had been destroyed by the police two weeks earlier.
You can witness the depths of need and poverty time and time again, but somehow you are never quite prepared for it. I looked around that day and wondered which is worse: That these people are forced to live in such horrendous conditions or that they are desperate just to stay. I glanced back to the entrance where the elderly man was still sweeping and suddenly it didn’t seem so absurd. I suppose we all grasp at those things that give order to our lives, especially in the midst of chaos. For that man, a front step and a broom were his to control that morning, even if nothing else in this fractured and fragile world was.
“Why are we here?” was the question I asked myself that morning and each one after. “What can we possibly do for these people?”
As we walked back from the warehouse to the park each day with 20 to 30 kids in tow, I couldn’t help but notice their feet. Little Christi tripped now and again because of the sandals he wore, made for feet at least twice his size. The cracks and holes in Marcu’s shoes left his six-year-old feet exposed. And little Naomi had no shoes at all. But regardless of their feet, they scurried and scrambled, teased and tussled all the way back to the park every day, eager to play games together for a half hour before the songs and Bible lesson began.
Throughout the week I struggled to understand what love looks like for these kids. Their small, dirty hands clawed, punched, and pushed others away, just to hold mine. They pinched and struck me as hard as they could as I tried to play with them, which usually provoked a feeble and ineffective scolding from me. Yet the next moment they would throw their arms around my neck and hug me tightly. “You know, they show love very physically,” Elvira, our Romanian translator, wisely pointed out to me one day. “Hitting or poking may be the only way they know how to say I love you.”
One day, little David proved particular troublesome, fighting and raising a ruckus everywhere he went. After giving him repeated warnings, we finally pulled him away from the Bible lesson, kicking and screaming, and began to carry him back to the warehouse. Halfway there, he pulled away and continued on his own. “I’m never coming back!” he yelled through sobs as he ran away. Once again, David’s own question came into my mind: What on earth are we doing here? What can we possibly do for these kids?
But one hour later David returned. I watched him closely as we sat around a table doing crafts with the kids. But this time David was different. He didn’t yell. He didn’t fight. He simply came up to my table and asked for a craft. And for the next half hour, he sat there quietly. There was even a smile on his face at the end as he showed me his work.
I wondered to myself why David came back that day. Perhaps there was simply more fun to be had at camp than at the warehouse. Maybe he only wanted the snacks we gave them at the end of each day. It’s possible. But I think it was something else, something that had to do with Matt’s answer to David’s question.
It came after a long pause, the little ones still quiet and waiting for the response to their friend’s curious question. Finally, Matt said, “Let me tell you why we are here David.” He turned in his chair and looked the 12-year-old directly in the eye. “We are here because we love you and we want you to know how much God loves you too.”
I will never know if David truly understood what Matt said that day or whether he actually absorbed any of the Bible stories from camp. But I do know that David looked very much like the prodigal son as he slunk back to camp that morning. And I truly believe it had something, maybe everything, to do with the power of love. During that week I think David saw, heard, and felt real love, maybe even for the first time. For those of us who have been blessed enough to know what that looks like, I suppose we tend to forget its beauty and potency. But David helped remind me. I can only hope and pray that real, pure love, straight from Christ, touched him and every other precious kid there in a way that burns deep and lasts.
But I suppose Matt’s answer was also for me as much as it was for David. You and I may not be able to change public opinion about the gypsies today. Nor can we give them a country to call their own. Even helping them in simple ways can be complex and difficult. So why were we at gypsy camp then? Why are we here?
I think the simple answer is to show love. I don’t mean that in a feel-good, easily packaged, pretty and simple way. I’m talking about love that hurts, that makes us squirm, love that is unpopular and misunderstood. Love that makes others angry. Love without praise or recognition. Without a doubt, the gypsies are a difficult people to help and even more difficult to love. And to be honest, we likely did little to solve even a single one of the many problems that those in the warehouse face every day.
But I believe we brandished our God’s most powerful weapon that week. We may never know how deeply and powerfully it pierced those little hearts. But I suppose that is the beautiful mystery of love, isn’t it?
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Please pray for these gypsy families. Pray that the Lord would bring people into their lives that would demonstrate His incredible love. Pray that their physical needs would be met and that these kids would be safe. And pray that the French government might change its posture toward the Roma people at large so that real systemic change might take place.
(To see more faces and action from gypsy camp, click here: Portraits: A Day at Gypsy Camp