December 27, 2005
Henderson church group gets an in-your-face look at the
embattled lives of Romanian orphans and leaves their
By Christina Littlefield <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Las Vegas Sun
The Central Christian
Church Romania mission team:
* Professional musician
Chris Heifner, 27, and his newlywed wife,
Natalie, 19, a poet barista
* Production tech
manager Peter Blue, 26
* Realtor Monika
* Paramedic Tiffany
* Substitute teacher
Crystal Czech, 24
* Photographer Jose
Antonio Lopez, 23
* Bank teller Erica
* Insurance salesman
Michael Alires, 23
* Future teachers
Samantha Knight, 20, and Diane Velarde, 20
* Construction worker
Chris San Agustin, 20.
For more information
about the mission team and to read detailed
daily updates written from Romania, visit
away on the other side of the world, in a dreary gray
compound on the outskirts of the Black Sea city of
Constanta, Romania, lives a 4-year-old girl named
a sadness in her amber eyes and shy, sweet smile, and a
tinge of hope. Her pixie face still lights up when she
the smile that first drew me to her. Like many of the
180 children at the overcrowded state-run orphanage,
Florrie was thirsty for love and affection.
of a 14-member mission team from Central Christian
Church in Henderson, I did everything I could to bring a
smile to her face during our four-day visit to her
orphanage last summer.
mission was just to play with the kids and teach them a
few basic concepts: how to love others and treat them as
you want to be treated. We did this more through actions
at the orphanage were part of a two-week, three-city
tour of Romania, and we were overwhelmed by the
realities of the orphan problem in a country still
struggling to right itself after a brutal communist
capital of Bucharest, we met street kids breathing
plastic bags that contained a potentially lethal
combination of silver spray paint and glue, their
rail-thin bodies scarred from street fights and
Constanta, we spent our days with children like Florrie
who were physically better off but just as emotionally
scarred. At night in Constanta, we visited Turkish kids
who lived in Third World villages, ostracized from the
rest of Romanian society, and teens crippled since
the northern city of Oradea, at the tail end of the
trip, we also found hope in a Christian community that
is placing abandoned children into loving, caring
for humanitarian reasons and journalistic curiosity,
wanting to understand what a Christian mission was all
about and to see whether they did any good. Like many of
my fellow travelers, I came back with more questions
than answers, my worldview skewed and my life choices
suddenly seeming shallow.
months later, I still can't get the image of that cute
little face out of my head.
* * *
United Nations estimates that Romania is home to nearly
80,000 orphaned or abandoned children like Florrie.
mountainous problem can only be solved by chipping away
from the bottom, by trying to help one child at a time,
said Matthew and Estera Duru, the husband-and-wife
Christian ministry team who guided us during our time in
Romania. The economic hardships that led parents to
abandon their children date back to former communist
dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's regime, and it will take
generations to fix.
you to wrestle with a problem that's bigger than you can
solve," Mike Arnold, Central's young adults pastor, said
during the last leg of our 24-hour journey into
Bucharest on July 26. "The response should be that ...
there is not anything I can do to solve the problem on a
huge scale, but I can be a part of the solution."
the seventh trip to Romania for the laid-back, lanky
Midwesterner, of whom one team member joked resembled
more of a used car salesman than a pastor. Arnold said
he brings teams to Romania to support the work of the
full-time missionaries, but also to break his team
members out of their American bubbles.
year's team included a mix of 20-something professionals
and college students, including a musician, a production
tech manager, a real estate agent, a paramedic and a
handful of future teachers.
goal was to push us to serve others beyond our capacity
to serve, and to do it out of the wellspring of our
"Ultimately, this flows out of a love for Christ," said
Arnold, 32, who moved his family to Henderson in
November 2004 after eight years as a college pastor in
Akron, Ohio. "It's not just a humanitarian cause.
problem we can't solve
orphanage in Constanta, many of the children have
developmental delays, learning disabilities or emotional
issues, primarily from neglect during their first few
years of life.
day, they swarmed us just to shake our hands, hug us or
play with us. They fought each other to have their
pictures taken or to have their faces painted. Enamored
with team member Chris San Agustin's tattoos, they had
us draw identical crosses on their arms too.
most of our time playing games or doing crafts in the
Romanian countryside. The day trips, complete with a
barbecue, are a rare treat for the kids, Matthew Duru
said. State-run orphanages usually don't let outsiders
in, but Arnold's previous teams had made an impression.
orphanage director "said she would not trust these kids
to other people," said Duru, a Nigerian transplant to
Romania. "She trusted our ministry because she has seen
we have played a big role in the kids' lives."
Questions we can't answer
night, we ministered in some of the darkest corners of
Constanta. We visited the impoverished Turkish
neighborhood, which looked like it came straight out of
a "Save the Children" commercial, and the children's
hospital, where many abandoned children suffer from
lifelong mental and physical disabilities caused by
neglect. We bribed our way in by donating diapers.
graphic sight was a 2-year-old girl with a head the size
of a watermelon. She didn't get the surgery she needed
to drain fluid from the brain, the hospital director
said, without much elaboration. It was probably a
combination of economic hardship and lack of adequate
patients in the final room were the toughest to look at
-- teenagers stuck in cribs their entire lives because
no one ever picked them up as infants.
were permanently paralyzed because they never got to
crawl or walk or even flip over as infants, and their
muscles were never able to develop. Their minds were
cribs not quite long enough for their limbs, their
bodies looked like those of kindergartners. But their
arms and legs were much longer, twisting and veering off
in strange directions. When it can afford them, the
hospital keeps them in diapers.
why the room always smells, the hospital director said.
The hospital can't afford to change the diapers more
than once a day.
Overwhelmed but trying to put on a strong face, Monika
Callahan, a 26-year-old real estate agent, smiled at one
18-year-old girl and rubbed her arms. The vacant look in
her eyes immediately changed to one of awareness, and a
gurgle of a laugh escaped her lips.
the hospital, we were all filled with grief and anger.
all that in one day puts your faith into question," said
Michael Alires, a 23-year-old insurance salesman. "Here
I am on a mission trip, and I'm wondering where God is
and why isn't he here."
others, the anger was directed at the people
children with problems and issues are pushed away and
hidden," said Peter Blue, a 26-year-old freelance
production tech manager. "People aren't faced with it,
and the attitude is that it's not my problem, I don't
have to deal with it."
situation seemed hopeless, but I thought of how Callahan
brought a smile to that one 18-year-old's face. To her,
that one moment was worth the trip.
it's just one life that I can change and bring hope to,
then that's entirely worth it to me," she said.
can paralyze you, Estera Duru said. The more you try to
help solve the problem, she said, the deeper you realize
the need, and it can overwhelm you.
don't have this huge ministry with huge resources," she
said. "It's just us. We've realized that you don't need
to move mountains to have an impact on someone's life."
and Matthew strain financially and struggle to find
volunteers. Few people want to work where they work.
That we would travel across the world to play with the
children touched everyone at the orphanage, Matthew
gives us a beginning to share more of the life of
him whether he'd rather have the money, the $37,000 we
raised to go over there, instead. (In the end, about
$4,000 will go directly to his ministry.)
tell you money can do everything, then I am telling
lies," he said. "For you to come here speaks more
he noted, "we are in need of money."
Durus stressed the importance of connecting with the
children one to one, and I thought about that as we made
our fourth and final walk to the orphanage. We've been
hugging every kid in sight, but have we made any lasting
thought of Maria, a 15-year-old girl I met on my second
with dark, curly hair that she kept pulled back in a
baseball cap, Maria spoke English. She sought me out
that last day and told me more about her parents, who
live nearby but can't even take care of themselves.
them," she said again and again, tears rolling down her
cheeks. She kept telling me that she will miss me, that
she didn't want me to leave. At some point, Florrie
crawled into my lap, and as I sat stroking her back and
holding Maria's hand, I wondered what would become of
these two girls.
I could take you both home with me," I told Maria, who
translated that to Florrie. Florrie's face brightened
and I hesitated, then plunged in further. "Would you
want to come?" I asked, and Maria, saying yes herself,
translated for Florrie.
nodded, flashing that sweet, shy smile. And I wanted to
kick myself. "Tell her I would if I could, Maria. I
would if I could."
* * *
Constanta full of questions, but in Oradea we found one
possible answer to Romania's massive orphan problem with
a Christian organization called Caminul Felix.
by a Swedish priest right after the revolution, Caminul
Felix recruits Romanian couples to raise up to 15
abandoned children each.
them to be a model in their society," said Dan
Butuc-nayer, one of the house parents. "I'm dreaming
that one of those kids could be president of Romania."
already seeing success in some of the first kids he took
in. His adopted son Zoltan Deak, 18, wants to become an
architect and a pastor, creating new Caminul Felix
villages wherever there are kids who need homes.
toured the Caminul Felix sites in early August,
including a teen transition center we would spend three
days working on, we were all struck by the differences
between the Christian organization and the state-run
orphanage. The Caminul Felix kids didn't swarm us. They
weren't desperate for attention.
were stable," said Chris Heifner, a 27-year-old
professional musician. "They had Christ as the center,
and even if they didn't believe, they had hope."
Felix has "what the state has backwards," Blue said.
tells the children of Caminul Felix that they are the
future of their country. Every year when he flies into
Romania with a new team, Arnold said he hopes that they
won't be needed.
prayer that one day, when I bring teams here, that you
will be the ones teaching them about Jesus," Arnold told
the children on our last night. "You will be the ones
week, while helping with an annual Christmas party that
Central's young adults group hosts at the church for
local orphans, it hit many of us who had traveled to
Romania how much of a mountain there is to move in Las
hurt and pain here too, Arnold said.
we could see into the eyes and souls of the people at
Merge (Central's group for college and young adults) to
look beyond their physical demeanor," Arnold said.
They are broken people. I think if we looked inside
them, we would see kids with huge heads and kids
crippled in beds."
Christmas party on Dec. 17 was one of several regular
functions Callahan organizes through Central's young
adult group for emotionally disturbed children who are
wards of the state.
with the children, we decorated gingerbread houses,
munched on pizza and sang Christmas carols. Then Santa
appeared and presented each child with a decorative lawn
bag full of presents from basic necessities to remote
on their faces as Santa appeared was priceless, but it
just made us want to do more.
helped one 12-year-old girl with her gingerbread house,
she told me she wished I could adopt her.
if I could," I told her. "I would if I could."
Christina Littlefield can be reached at 259-8813 or at
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