Discovering the Secret Stories of God:

by Melody J. Wachsmuth

The woman told me her story quietly as we huddled around the table in her cramped home in Serbia. She was younger than me, and yet her face bore the deeply worn evidence of hardship and struggle for survival. Like many other Romani people in Eastern Europe, she was impoverished and illiterate, and I found myself completely captured by her story. Married at 16, she had her first of seven children at 17. Both of the men who fathered her children were abusive alcoholics.

The woman told me her story quietly as we huddled around the table in her cramped home in Serbia. She was younger than me, and yet her face bore the deeply worn evidence of hardship and struggle for survival. Like many other Romani people in Eastern Europe, she was impoverished and illiterate, and I found myself completely captured by her story. Married at 16, she had her first of seven children at 17. Both of the men who fathered her children were abusive alcoholics.

But ten years ago a series of dreams began a spiritual awakening in her: in one, she saw a man talking about Jesus in the nearby town’s graveyard. In the other, a sinister man tried to lure her into frightening places she did not want to go. One day, she heard about the arrival of a Roma evangelist, so she made the trek into town to hear him—and she was shocked to discover that he was the same man from her dream. Still, she resisted and her nightmares continued. Finally, another traveling preacher visited her and she decided to follow Jesus. When the pastor picked up his guitar and wrote a song to express his joy at the woman’s decision, she was overcome by a “strange and wonderful feeling.”

Her shy brown eyes offered me her story as if it were a gift—and sudden emotion and unexpected tears overcame me. Indeed, I was in a holy moment. For me, her story was a small, but clear window into the heart of a God who reaches out to everyone, regardless of how little or how much value others place on them.

My strong reaction to this woman’s story proved to be a defining moment early on in my journey to be a mission research journalist. I realized that much was going on in this part of the world and that many people would likely never know about it. I sensed that God seemed to be doing something special among the Roma. I found that I had a passion to listen and tell the untold stories so that people could be both encouraged and challenged by God’s activity.  But how did I come to this particular vocation and find myself in this part of the world?

Training for the Journey
Although I did not know it at the time, preparation for this unexpected journey began in my first career as a 20-something wilderness instructor in a Christian outdoor program. As I led groups into the wilderness, I learned how to listen as I facilitated group dynamics, innovate in the face of challenges, adjust plans according to unforeseen factors, and expect the unexpected in terms of how God worked in people’s lives in the wilderness. Later, I realized that these shaping experiences formed how I understood mission praxis: operational flexibility, collaborative creativity, intentional listening, openness for the unanticipated, and a willingness to change strategic direction.

Although I always knew that my life would be oriented towards serving God and others, involvement in cross-cultural mission was not something I seriously considered until I started my Masters of Cross-Cultural Studies degree at Fuller Seminary. Near the end of my degree program, I wrestled with how to use my strange combination of skills, my love for writing, and my new passion for God’s mission—for which I now had language, concepts, and a deeper understanding.

One of my professors came alongside and began to dream with me, and together we came up with the idea of being a mission research journalist. He encouraged me to think about Southeastern Europe since there was little current research and stories available to the Global Church.

Thus, the concept of Balkan Voices was born: sharing research and telling stories that unite, inform, and encourage the Global Church. True and compelling stories have the potential to influence individuals and communities towards God’s purposes. Effective field research is an indispensable tool for churches and missionaries in their participation in God’s mission.

Driven by these convictions, I began this adventure in May 2011, a journey with a high learning curve and often-bumpy road, but one in which I am continually learning, growing, and refining my direction. I have come to believe that storytelling as a missional practice has two primary functions in the Body of Christ— storytelling reveals insights into the mission of God and storytelling connects the Body of Christ.

#1: Storytelling Reveals
Stories that reveal insights into God’s mission can broaden our paradigms and challenge our often “too small” conceptions of God. During my journey over the last three years, I have most clearly seen this in my involvement with Romani communities. Shortly after my arrival in Croatia, I decided to visit a nearby community with a young Roma couple that had been regularly visiting and teaching the Bible house-to-house.

At the first house, a toothless, but smiling husband and wife warmly greeted us. I tried to not gawk at the cave-like room with no indoor plumbing, constructed of makeshift concrete blocks and cluttered with battered pieces of furniture—but in truth I was taken aback to find such abject poverty in Europe. At this point, I knew virtually nothing about the Romani people except that they were almost universally derided—often even by Christians—throughout Europe.  

After this initial visit, my writer’s curiosity caught a whiff of something happening, an instinct that was furthered by the scattered rumors I heard: miracles, dreams, and visions in Roma communities? The largest evangelical church in Serbia was Roma? Whenever I was not traveling, I regularly began accompanying the Roma couple on their house visits. In the beginning, I went simply out of curiosity. However, my friendship soon began to grow with the couple, and I began to glean profound personal and missional insights. Two years later, I realized I was hooked because I began to deeply love all the people.

During these years, I began visiting numerous Roma communities throughout Southeastern Europe. I discovered that each community is different, but I also began to see certain common themes. I am convinced that God’s mission to the Roma is like a slow-growing tree that will suddenly burst into bloom, taking the world by surprise. Because of their often difficult history and adverse present circumstances, I believe transformed Roma communities will act as a prophetic witness pointing to the Kingdom of God in a unique way.
 
#2: Storytelling Connects
Discovering themes and patterns emerging from numerous stories over a given region points to the other important function of storytelling: this strange vocation can serve as a kind of connective tissue for the body’s major limbs and organs. I have seen this happen in several different ways.

1. Since I travel over a whole region, the research and stories can fill in information gaps and connect people who are working along similar lines. Sometimes, I find individuals who have very little idea of what other ministries exist in the same city, country, or neighboring country. Usually, once people hear what is happening, they are eager to network with those who share a similar ministry vision.

2. Stories can cross the invisible “boundaries” that rigidly separate Christians in different traditions, denominations, and ministries. For example, in this part of the world there is a mutual suspicion existing between the Catholic Church and Protestant evangelicals—a skepticism arising from a historical fusion of ethnic, national, and religious identities. But in my research and story collecting, I have found numerous accounts emerging from the Catholic world which challenge stereotypes that Protestants often hold—stories that tell of charismatic experiences, serving the poor and underprivileged in the name of Jesus, and an openness and love toward Protestants. Stories like this can subvert people’s tribalisms, doctrinal and denominational boundaries, and expand their vision of God’s multifaceted works. In this way, everyone can gain a more complete picture of God’s mission in a particular region.  

3. Listening to stories can reveal patterns and issues that are happening at a regional level. For example, I began seeing patterns of difficult relationships between local believers and missionaries. I have listened to local believers’ stories of past hurts with missionary organizations and individuals, and the missionary community’s frustrations with local believers. How can some of these stories be told in a way that brings healing so that our participation in God’s mission, marked by love and unity, becomes more fruitful? In collaboration with national friends, I have tentatively and sensitively begun writing about this issue to see if by bringing the issues into public dialogue, we might take steps toward reconciliation.

The Journey Continues
Pursuing this vocation is not without its difficulties. It is an ongoing challenge, for example, to find appropriate outlets for the stories and research so that they can properly serve the Church. It is sometimes difficult to discern what should be my focus, and sometimes I realize I am doing too many different things and not going deeply enough into any one of them.  Finally, although there are many advantages to not being part of a large mission bureaucracy, I must also be intentional about fostering relationships that keep me accountable, connected to others, and that care for my own soul.  

But relational cooperation across all kinds of lines and traditional boundaries is part of twenty-first-century mission. Staying flexible and ready to shift direction in accordance with evolving circumstances has been critical for this vocation. I must be willing to partner with and be accountable to the people God puts in my path. Mission practice is now interdependent, concentric circles of people sharing resources, knowledge, and service. It is thoughtful, lightweight, flexible, collaborative, and fluid.  

God continues to surprise me with new twists and turns on the journey. My role as a storyteller took on a new dimension, for example, in the fall of 2012 when the Roma couple decided it was time to start a church for the handful of new believers in the village where we had been visiting. At this point, our friendship naturally evolved into a leadership partnership and now there are four of us who are leading the new church. I was surprised to find myself, the storyteller, suddenly woven into the story itself so that I am not just writing about the people, but also participating in the narrative God is writing within this Roma community.

The secret stories of God change us. Telling the whole story—even the unpleasant parts—expands one’s paradigm, particularly when it is accompanied by thoughtful analysis. Stories have made me more wary about judging others or arrogantly dismissing their ministries. I have become more willing to listen carefully, learn from others, and adjust my ideas and praxis accordingly despite differences of theology, denomination, and culture. I hope that the stories I write and the research I share will continue to build up, connect, and challenge the Body of Christ to new ways of understanding and participating in God’s mission. I would like to create for the reader the same sense of wonder I experienced when I heard of God’s relentless pursuit of an unknown woman living in the heart of rural Serbia.

….

Melody J. Wachsmuth has been a mission research journalist living in Croatia since May 2011. Her work has appeared in Christianity Today and the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. She blogs regularly at www.balkanvoices.wordpress.com.

EMQ, Vol. 50, No. 4, pp. 350-354. Copyright  © 2014 Billy Graham Center.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

 


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