The taste of life

Chișinău, Moldova

They cower in the shadow of the bridge leading across the railroad tracks, barely raising their eyes when steps approach, mumble a few words and stare at the coins in their hands. Others sit in the yard behind the homeless shelter, seeking cover from the burning sun, and wait for the long, empty day to come to its close.

Their society has forgotten them long ago. At the shelter, they receive the bare minimum care: a warm supper on plates of tin, a place to sleep, some medical attention. Hardly anybody regards them as human. They appear like props of the stage on which everyday Moldovan life is acted out.

But each of these people has a name. Each has a history, a present, and a future. There's Vitaly Adolphovich, sitting by the bridge with his buddy, a disabled veteran from the Afghanistan war. There's gentle Marina, taking care of the plants in the shelter, who tells us about her son selling vegetables in the country. Lucia, who always has a smile on her face, is dreaming about a journey to Italy. And Valery the physicist, who had his patent stolen from him by a Swiss company, is now sitting in the sun by the shelter, scribbling blueprints for new car motors onto scraps of paper.

We had the privilege to get to know some of these special people during our paXan trip to Moldova in August 2016. "paXan" is a joint effort by NYI Germany and Helping Hands e.V. where one or two teams of 10 to 20 young adults (18–30 years old) from Nazarene churches in Germany travel to another country to serve and witness to families in need.

And as in any paXan ministry, this team of 11 young adults also had the privilege to offer their new friends what their society denies them: the knowledge that they are valuable and loved.

It is Saturday night in the homeless shelter in Chișinău, Moldova. Our paXan team has worked diligently over the past week. Three rooms on the first floor are gleaming in bright yellow; the ceilings, walls, and window sills have been fixed and painted; two rooms and the hallway have new PVC flooring. The dining hall on the ground floor has received a thorough makeover: With the kitchen wall tiled, four new windows fitted, freshly painted, and properly cleaned, the room is now shining in new splendour. In the coming weeks, this hall will be used as a location for various ministries for the homeless by Sergey and Irina, Nazarene missionaries to Moldova from the Ukraine and Russia and serving as pastors of the Nazarene congregation in Chișinău.

But for tonight, a different highlight is planned. Many hours of preparation lie behind us. A hurried shopping trip to a Moldovan supermarket has been followed by hours of cooking by our paXan chef — supported by the kitchen team — and an excellent three-course dinner is now prepared. Meanwhile, the service team has transformed the freshly renovated dining hall into a five-star restaurant. The tables are decorated with tablecloths, runners, napkins, candles, and flowers and have been set with real porcelain and wine glasses (though, naturally, only juice will be served). Now it is a little after 8 p.m., the candles have been lit, soft violin music fills the room, and the kitchen and service teams are ready.

The door opens. The first woman steps into the room. Her smile dissolves into mute astonishment that breaks into an even more radiant smile. Other women follow, stare at the tables, across the room, stand speechless by the door. We invite them to take their places, where they sit and whisper. Tears are streaming down one lady’s face.

The men enter the dining room with more confidence, congregate around one table, and look at us expectantly. After some introductory words, the dinner can begin. We serve the first course at rather quiet tables. But soon the good food loosens their tongues. Happy conversation fills the room and a common joy flickers in the shining eyes of our guests.

The starter is followed by the main course: pork roast in gravy with vegetables. One lady leans over to cut the meat for her neighbour, whose hand is crippled. Solidarity and helpfulness – these may be choked by suffering and need. Yet tonight the homeless receive so much love that they can pass it on generously. By the time dessert is served, a warm, loving atmosphere has permeated the room.

Lucia, whom we've known since Tuesday when we offered a manicure for the women of the shelter, puts her joy and gratitude into words.

“You said on Tuesday that you had planned something special for us for Saturday night, but we'd never have expected anything like this,” she said. 

The others too are overwhelmed: “Nobody has ever done anything like this for us!”

For a long while after the dinner is over, the women sit on their beds upstairs and talk about the unexpected, the extraordinary that has just happened to them. One of them is an elderly woman who so far has always been mute and withdrawn, showing no interest in anything. But tonight she is transformed: Cheerfully she speaks with her roommates and listens and suddenly knows that these women are precious, just as she herself is precious.

In the meantime, we sit in the now empty dining hall and enjoy the leftovers – exhausted, but content and grateful. We know that our ministry in Moldova has been a success. We were able to open a door for Irina and Sergey to make connections that will allow them to start sustainable ministry with the homeless. Many are addicted to alcohol, and Sergey is dreaming about establishing a rehabilitation centre, a great need in a country with one of the highest rates of alcohol addiction worldwide. But beyond that we have accomplished what we as a team had hoped to do: Using our ministry — both labour and dinner — to show these men and women that they are just as precious and loved as anyone else. An evening they'll never forget: For us, that might not be much, but for these people, it is an evening on which they tasted life.

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