The smell caught me off guard. I had already brushed off the powdery residue of toxic raindrops on my bear arms and wiped the crud off my cheeks as I came in off the streets. And now a fume that carried a sickening sense of forgottenness was scraping at the back of my throat as I crossed the threshold. This dilapidated orphanage in some backwater industrial zone of Suceava was nothing short of shocking. From no fault of its own, what once stood as a life giving infant sanctuary was now debased; spoiled by an arrogant death that smugly showed off its stench to any good intended visitor.
P%$* and s*!& came to mind before the fact I was in the company of motherless children. I felt like a bloody tourist.
I was 16 and had signed up for a Christian mission in Romania to build a church and do some street evangelism. In the summer of 1992, before the cotton wool world of risk-aversity emerged, I spent a few weeks with a Romanian family in a block of flats that overlooked the city. From this height I was expecting to see a city scape or maybe even the ominous Carpathian Mountains to the west, but instead nothing other than the thick layer of smog that covered everything. Pollution had saturated the clouds and whenever it rained it bubbled like a fizzy lemonade on the pavements. The smog acted as a oppressive reminder that nothing had really changed since the fall of communism and the assassination of Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, well at least not yet anyway. The country’s economic system had collapsed entirely, barely getting by with a GDP growth rate of -12.4%, the lowest in Romania’s recorded fiscal history. Money had no real value anymore, so many people paid with items that had a much higher value, like milk, potatoes and beans.
I had arrived in Romania as part of a mission team that carried aid like clothes and medical supplies. We also had kid’s toys, lots of kid’s toys. The UK had reacted with a knee jerk and there were lots of aid trips going over with all sorts of donations.
After spending a week digging out a trench for a new sewerage system for the church build, the team decided to take our donations to a nearby orphanage in Suceava. Aside from the smell which was just simply impossible to ignore we were told that there were 10-12 nurses on staff at any one time, for the 400+ children that were accommodated. Children from new-borns to teenagers were separated on each floor of the concrete multi-storey complex.
I remember the building feeling more like a prison than a hospital, but it had a similar layout to both. Long corridors with rooms off each side. Large windows in each door allowed you to look in on the desperate occupants. Some rooms had larger windows beside the door, so you could check more carefully without the need to enter. Light switches were on the outside of the room.
As we toured the corridors I began to feel increasingly more uncomfortable with my own life at home. I felt embarrassed that we had thought to bring toys, and even ourselves. Mickey Mouse and I were about as useful as an ashtray on a motorbike.
The smell was getting worse.
We were led up the stairs to this first floor dedicated to children aged 2 to 4. We passed a room filled with cuddly toys and unwrapped gifts, we paraded passed another containing cot mattresses. Then after a few more paces we stopped outside a room with two children in cots. One, a girl, seemingly dead, still, pale and eyes wide open, the other a boy. If it weren’t for the other boy’s crying lament I would have thought it was a morgue. The nurse checked the girl and reassured us she was breathing. The boy wouldn’t stop weeping.
I didn’t know who this boy was, what his name was, or where he was from; but at that moment I had never felt more connected to anyone else. His tears were my tears. I don’t mean in some westernised empathetic sense, the kind that signals to the virtue before the humanity, but in a sense that i was feeling lost, entirely lost. I don’t know why I did what I did next. Maybe I just felt compelled to do something, to prevent this 'feeling of being lost' entirely overwhelming me. Maybe it was the combination of the soiled mattress, the cold walls, the crying, the smell of urine catching the back of my throat, the girl laying lifeless, and Mickey Mouse in the room next door. I was nothing, I was lost, and yet I had to do something.
As the nurse turned to leave the room, I walked over to the boy and held out my hands to offer an embrace. He reached over the cot side bar and I lifted him up and out. His arms clung to me like a limpet on a jagged rock. His head rested in my neck, shaking and convulsing, hyper-ventilating. His body had resorted to a kind of physiological revulsion over the circumstance and his surroundings. He wouldn’t let go.
This was my conversion experience. The day that death died. I had come to Romania to share the good news, but I had at times slipped into thinking that I had brought Jesus with me. That I had something that others needed and wanted. The truth is I had nothing. I was lost. I hadn’t even contemplated the idea that Jesus might have already been there.
Yes, I was a Christian. I had a sense of mission. I wanted to do good and share the message of God’s love. I knew Jesus was light of the world, and that his Church was like a prism refracting his light in the darkest of places. Yet, in this orphanage I was lost, I had nothing. I couldn’t even say Dumnezeu te iubește, God loves you.
This boy. In my arms. He was like Christ to me. I’d read about Jesus appearing to Paul on the road to Damascus, I had heard about the fisherman being called out of their boats, and how Thomas had seen the wounds of Christ and believed. I didn’t think it would happen to me.
This boy was Christ to me. I had nothing, and he held on. I was lost, and he found me. Most of the time humanity hates and attack what it has good reason to love. I hated poverty, I hated the stench and my lostness in it. And yet, in a worldly sense, this boy I held and every other child in that orphanage was more lost than I will ever be, and more hated than I will ever be – hated so much that their lives are seen as burden. But in that embrace and my conversation to really let Jesus into my life, I remembered that hope is not some vague belief that all will work out well, but as Richard Rohr puts it, ‘biblical hope is the certainty that things finally have a victorious meaning no matter how they turn out.’ Now I believe in generous justice, a God who met us in the poverty of Christ and spoke to us in the terminus between dark and light.
I have always wondered about that boy, where he is now, what he's doing. In my searching for him, I keep finding Christ.
If you want to know how to respond. Speak to your nearest Christian about Jesus, and/or lookup www.whitecrossmission.com
Revd Jeremy Putnam
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.