I’d spent a week with her, playing games with her, holding hands while skipping with her, sharing giggles with her, being a friend to her and her to me. We didn’t speak the same language but we each knew a few words that the other would understand, and it was enough. Just the day before, she’d grabbed my hand and pulled me into the little house she shared with many of her foster siblings. She was proud of the purple paint that covered the walls of the room she shared with her sister, and I did my best to tell her it was my favorite color. We sat down on her bed, legs crossed, hands moving while we chatted – just like a couple of girl friends catching up. And now, not even 24 hours later, tears were pooling in her eyes as I attempted to say my goodbyes to her without completely losing it. The lump had reached my throat and I knew it was a matter of seconds before I began to cry too; that’s when she hugged me for the hundredth time and whispered so closely to my ear, “Don’t forget me.” And the tears came as I whispered back the only two words I could get out: “I won’t.”
I haven’t done an extensive amount of traveling in my 31 years but the few trips abroad I have taken sure have taught me a lot – about new places, new people, myself, and surprisingly about what’s really important in this life. One of the most teaching trips I’ve ever been on was a mission trip with my family to Romania. We spent time in baby hospitals, in people’s homes, and out in the countryside in the shacks with the Roma, otherwise known as Gypsies. But most of our time was spent in a tiny little gated neighborhood consisting of about 6 or 7 houses, with 6-11 people per home. These homes were permanent shelters of love for children who’d once been orphans in some way or another. Each home had Host Parents and we were there to get to know them all, and to help out in any way we could. I hadn’t expected to necessarily connect with one person while on this trip; I’d agreed to go for “the experience” of exploring and learning about a new culture, a new place. I’d agreed to go because I wanted to help those who were less fortunate, and love on babies and little ones who’d already lived such hard lives.
I don’t remember how the friendship began but it was pretty instantaneous. Her name was Mia and she was about 13 years old, I think. She was Roma, a Gypsy – a label that said “outcast,” “minority” and “vulnerable” to many Romanians, but I can tell you – Mia certainly didn’t see herself as an outcast. She was straight up sunshine if I’d ever seen it and her smile lit up every room she entered.
Earlier in the week some boys of the orphanage had started a kickball game. Most of the volunteers had joined in, except for me as I had opted to sit on the sidelines with some of the younger children. (Even kickball games need cheerleaders, right?!) Mia had played in the game not even 5 minutes when she skipped over to where I was sitting and plopped down beside me, wearing that same big ol’ smile she’d sported the entire week. “You to play?” she asked me and I smiled and waved her on while saying, “No, no. I’ll cheer for you!” She scrunched up her nose and I wasn’t sure if that was because she hadn’t understood what I’d said, or if she didn’t agree with my sideline antics. She scooted closer to me and began to pick these tiny yellow flowers. She handed me a bundle of them, smiling again, and asked, “You to play now??” How was I going to say no to that?! I nodded and we jumped up together, she grabbed my hand (always holding my hand), and the two of us joined in on the craziest game of kickball you’ve ever seen in your life. There was a moment while I stood out on the dirt field and it just hit me as to where I was. I was in one of the poorest areas of Romania, playing a game of kickball with a group of young people who’d been given labels like “orphan” and “gypsy” and yet these people were so, so rich in life. And suddenly, all of my materialistic concerns I’d had weeks before while back home in the states evaporated in the pale pink, dusty sky of a country that no longer felt like a stranger to me.
These people weren’t less fortunate, not at all. They may not have had a ton of money or the latest gadget or a pretty home to call their own. They may have been born with labels and may not have had easy lives, but truly they were fortunate in so many things: love, laughter, truth, hope, zest for living – like really living. And I’d hoped that during our time there we were able to remind them that the labels given to them by their country were not of truth and meant nothing in the eyes of Jesus. Jesus says that we are His friend, that we have been set free, that we have been called and we have been accepted. WE.
I cried the entire plane ride back home to Indiana. I looked out the window and into the clouds and wondered if I’d ever see that place again. If I’d ever see Mia again. Her plea to me to remember her has been kept safe in my heart for all these years; I had promised her after all. Who knew that a trip to Romania to “do good” would in turn bring so much good to my soul? And not something that lasts only a few months once you return home, but something that lasts for a lifetime… because it’s a new part of you now.
That’s the thing about travel and experiences in new places with new people. A lot of us go with expectations of giving what we can give to that place, not realizing we’re most likely to gain so much more from that place itself. We have more to gain when we put ourselves aside and truly live to learn and learn to live. We leave parts of ourselves in those experiences, in those places, and in turn we gratefully take home new parts of all of the things that matter in this world.