by Debbie Reece
Efforts by Western Christians to help Romania yield valuable lessons—not all of them positive.
Following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, shocking needs were exposed in the countries of Eastern Europe, and many Western organizations brought food, clothes, books, and many other supplies. Romania was the focus of much of the attention, and Western Christians were eager to alleviate the suffering of believers who had suffered under communist regimes. If success in relief operations can be measured by the amount of goods, then the outreach to Romania could be called a success. However, for Christian organizations with the ultimate goal of demonstrating Christ’s love, the results were mixed.
To be sure, those who were in Romania immediately after the revolution see the difference all the aid has made.
Yes, Western aid has brought much hope and cheer to Romania. Unfortunately, that is not the whole story. According to Romanian believers and missionaries interviewed in Romania, misguided giving has caused problems. However, organizations can help turn these misunderstandings and conflicts into positives.
Petru Bulica, a Baptist pastor in Timisoara, emphasizes both how grateful he is for the relief, and how easily problems can arise. “The missionaries helped us a lot,” he said. “I don’t know if we would be here now without them. But look at the problems during the time of the apostle Peter in Acts 6. There will always be problems; there are no perfect churches.”
FLOOD OF AID HURT SOME ROMANIANS
Among the problems Romanian Christians and missionaries cited were breaking promises, undercutting industry, and giving inappropriate items.
Danut Manastireanu, a board member of the Filo Calia (Love for Truth) foundation in Iasi, said some groups have broken promises by withdrawing their support. “This is a critical problem we have had for years when dealing with Westerners,” he said. “We have a saying: ‘The intelligent people make promises, the stupid people believe them.’ We have learned not to take promises at face value, but to wait until we see the results before getting our hopes up.”
Developing a studio and music group in Cluj, Timoteiu Mereu, Iosef Muresan, and Ionel Bonta have been undercut by groups with foreign suppliers. Groups that receive aid can charge a lower price than those operating as unsubsidized businesses.
“Someone without the same connections does not have the same opportunity,” Muresan said. “Then everyone wonders why what they produce is more expensive.” Christian businessmen are already fighting the mindset in Romania that “If it’s Christian, it must be free.”
“When you give to a group, if you wantthem to be here tomorrow, you have to show them how,” Muresan said. “We want to learn how to operatethestudioas a business, not as a free ministry that will collapse as soon as foreign aid stops.”
Problems also arise when gifts do not meet needs. The men in the music group cite a foreign group that donated a set of 500-kilowatt speakers to a church. “They are too powerful for the church, so they’re not used,” Mereu said of the speakers. “You need to see what’s needed.”
Being informed about the culture is important not only for aid, but also for evangelism, Bulica says. “Usually the difficulties were not a problem of sincerity, but just a cultural problem,” he explained. “Many were not well informed.”
“Many came in thinking that we were below zero in theological training,” Bulica continued. “Even the most simple churches have sought to maintain high standards of preaching. We have a long tradition of learning and culture. I’m afraid we found their teaching childish. We were very disappointed by how shallow much of the preaching was; we expected something deeper.”
As another example, Manastireanu says mass evangelism campaigns often have disappointed. “People would respond, but they were not established in churches,” he said. “They became easy prey for cults and false religions.”
GOOD INTENTIONS AND BAD RESULTS
“If it’s not covered in the media, people forget about it,” said Amy Seiple, an American working at an orphanage in Cluj. Often people give emotionally, specifying the money for a particular project. Therefore, the most emotionally appealing needs may receive a flood of help while other equally needy people continue to suffer.
For instance, Kim Loney, country coordinator for International Teams in Romania, says that although the country’s orphanages have received much attention and relief, the elderly are suffering just as desperately, butthey go unnoticed and unhelped.
In this climate, organizations can become frustrated, tempted to sensationalize, or simply eager to move on to the country that has most recently captured public interest. But by evaluating how such problems arise, organizations can meet needs and bring glory, rather than dishonor, to God.
HOW TO AVOID THESE PROBLEMS
Church members and missionaries in Romania say groups bringing aid should research both the needs and what others are already doing. Group members should develop personal relationships, plan how long they will be in the country, and establish a system of accountability with the nationals, being open to receiving and learning from the Christians in need.
Determining what is really needed should be the first step. Many groups participated in what orphanage workers call “dump and runs,” in which they brought supplies and then left. Usually, these were food, old toys, and clothes that the orphans did not need. “We needed specific learning toys and specific foodstuffs,” Seiple said. She recommended that agencies carefully plan their trips and find out what is needed specifically.
“Our challenge is to give things that will truly make a difference,” said Richard Crespo, a professor of community health care at Marshall University in Huntington, W. Va., who has traveled to Romania and Albania for International Teams. “We need to give what’s needed, not what’s easiest to give. That’s hard because sometimes it can turn off donors.”
Manastireanu says many missions need to develop relationships with the needy and teach them how to help themselves. “As the old saying goes, we need to be taught how to fish so we can survive economically without foreign aid or subsidies,” he said.
For their studio and music group, Muresan and Mereu have developed a bartering system, working for materials they receive from foreigners. “That way we can learn to stand on our own two feet,” Mereu said.
The two cited their relationship with Terry Gill of International Teams. “He brings us equipment and teaches us how to improve,” Muresan said. “We buy supplies from him, and sometimes heis able to use his contacts to buy them cheaper. We work together.”
Giving out of relationshipsworksbecausepeople are not as likely to withdraw help from those they know are still suffering. Romanians, or people in any country, who find themselves abandoned may feel that those who came to help saw them as a problem to be resolved rather than people about whom to care.
Many Romanians have told Pam Meadows, a missionary in Timisoara, that a lot of foreigners have made them feel like just another cause. “They don’t think any of these people are really interested in or care about them as individuals,” Meadows said. “They come here and say, ‘I love you all,’ and the Romanians think, ‘How can you love me? You don’t even know me.’”
Similarly, Crespo urged giving based on good relationships. “Just giving does no good, often harm.” Amy Seiple agrees. “It’s more than plopping something on the doorstep,” she said. “Time has to be invested. . . . When you have the individual face and name of someone who needs something specific, it makes it more meaningful for everyone involved.”
Developing relationships in meeting physical needs can also help meet spiritual needs, Crespo says. “The good relationship that effective giving is based on is also the best doorway to spiritual help,” he said.
Andy Whitelock, an American missionary working at the orphanage in Cluj, advised first asking those involved in a situation of need, “How can we serve you?” He cited an Irish woman who stayed at the orphanage for a couple of weeks. Together, they came up with 10 specific needs, and the lady returned to Ireland to raise money for those needs. She plans to return with the requested supplies.
Before they come, groups also need to be committed to helping over the long term. Part of this means determining how best to work with others already in the country and within the national culture. “First, you haveto get a good perspective of what’s already happening,” Muresan said. “Talk to the people you want to help. So many come here with a list of what they want to do and often end up duplicating the efforts or undermining those already here.”
Bulica concurs. “Those who came in here wanting to help should have realized that Romanians are the ones who can operate most efficiently in this culture,” he said. “The groups’ efforts can be more efficient if they integrate.”
However, many groups that used Romanians as guides and distributors overlooked an important spiritual principle: “Don’t muzzle your ox as he treads the grain.”
Bulica cited the example of a friend who guided a group of Westerners around for a few days as they distributed aid. Once they were finished, they simply said “good-bye” and “thank you” without giving him a thing. “I did it for the Lord,” the man told Bulica, “but it hurts because I know I have a child at home who needs some of the things they were giving out.”
“The foreigners did not understand,” Bulica explained. “They brought aid for hospitals, churches, and orphanages. They wanted the personnel to be correct and to distribute the food, toys, and other things they brought; but they didn’t see what was happening in people’s hearts. The orphanage workers knew that their own children did not have any oranges, bananas, and toys, yet these children were getting so many. The groups need to realize they are working with humans, not demigods.”
Because of the temptation inherent in channeling so much aid, accountability is vital, Manastireanu says. “Unfortunately—even among Christians—because of our economic, social, and political history, many have a very flexible approach to ethics. When a group builds accountability into its program, it makes things clearer and easier on both sides.”
With a system of accountability and partnership, a group is able to learn from those they want to help and alleviate any frustration or anger before it causes permanent damage. A group sensitively listening to Romanians could have eliminated difficult distribution decisions by following Bulica’s suggestion thataid be in similar packages.
Aid given in the right manner, with the proper attitude, canbenefiteveryone. Thosewho give will begin to experience the truth of Acts 20:35: “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Then they will allow the people they have helped to return the favor any way they can.
Cornelia Stoica, an English teacher and longtime Christian, stressed how much she and her family enjoyed being able to share with those who had shared with them. When a visiting American had all of his clothes stolen, they were able to provide him with extra clothes, although he was not comfortable being the recipient rather than the giver.
Even if groups and individuals coming with aid do not receive materially from the people they help, Stoica stressed the importance of being open to receiving spiritually. “The Americans who come here give us many things, but it’s a time that can help them, too — to grow spiritually as practical Christians."
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