A letter from Liz Searles in Romania
Recently in Tulcea, Romania, two experiences have converged to transform the understandings of those who help at-risk children.
The first was an interactive conference about how to become more trauma-informed in our relations with institutionalized children. Trainer Eamon Anderson joined us in Tulcea, thanks to the help of Presbyterian Women and World Mission.
Her message was clear: “It’s not about you. It’s about the child and how he or she lives out his or her history of trauma.” The conference helped shift paradigms of interaction for 85 social workers, psychologists, teachers, and other helping professionals. The hope is that adults who relate to children of trauma gradually can move from blaming the victim toward arms-wide-open acceptance and calm, affirming, un-anxious presence.
Second, NOROC (New Opportunities for Romanian Orphaned Children) had subtitled into Romanian a stunning video called “The Science of Character.” This video and the accompanying program shares new research on how what we call “character” develops. The hopeful message is that we can make character-shaping choices, we are not victims of our pasts, and we can also help others-–especially children of trauma—develop a resilient, positive character as well. This is a HUGE message for children of poverty, neglect, and abuse, and a message to us, the workers at NOROC. We can educate for change, child by child.
Lent has offered an opportunity for us to apply what we’ve learned about trauma and transformational relationships in a Romanian cultural context. Never have I been so aware of the Lenten call to self-examination and abstinence as I have been here in Romania, where over 50 percent of the population report observing a Lenten fast or other transformational observance.
Lent follows on the heels of a heady weeklong practice of spring-welcoming celebrations—Martisor (mart-sea-shore). Although it has nothing to do with the beach, in English I can’t help hearing “March (to the) seashore” in that name. This year Martisor heralded warm days that evoked sunshine and sand, beach barbecues, or fresh goat cheese omelets in the mountains—plus 24 percent fat sour cream or 80 percent fat butter on everything!
And yet the devout of all ages fast, limiting intake as a spiritual exercise. Markets and groceries advertise foods “de Post”—Lenten fasting food. In cities with a McDonald’s or KFC (not ours) you can even find “fasting fast-food”! That means no eggs or dairy, including butter and beloved sour cream. No meat, poultry or fish. No pastries or whipped cream. Lots of thin vegetable soups.
In Bible studies and other activities with children and youth, NOROC encourages Lenten observances that point towards a spiritual (and trauma-informed and character-building) goal. After studying key Bible passages leaders challenge youth to surrender spirit-bursting behaviors and to make character-building choices—the ones our new video reveals. These learnings are so hard. Each child’s history holds a heartbreaking experience that drives their fear, sadness, blinding anger, or even hatred. And yet during these Lenten wilderness days some have shown resolve.
“I’ll try to stop fighting with B,” says A, after years of physical and verbal conflict inside and outside of the institutions.
“I’ll try to forgive my mother,” says C, who bears bodily scars.
“I’ll try to stop terrorizing younger kids,” says D, raised with institutionalized bullying and hazing.
“I’ll try to go to school every day,” says E, whose disturbed sleep and chaotic institutional life make learning difficult.
“I’ll try to stop wishing something bad would happen to my parents because they abandoned me,” says F.
In the lengthening days of Lent, youth struggle to forgive people who returned their love with unspeakable harm. For orphaned, abandoned, abused or otherwise at-risk children of Romanian institutions, letting go of terror and rage, self-blame and hurt seems hopeless or even foolish. These willing steps towards transformation are huge and healing.
Leaders turn their small groups toward the pattern of Jesus, the strong and courageous guy who was beaten up and killed by people he loved, and yet forgave. Jesus didn’t fight or hate back. Jesus didn’t lash out in anger. Jesus took what those who had power over him delivered, but then . . . the most amazing part . . . Jesus forgave..
The Jesus we share was not a coward, or a hater, or full of rage. Refusing to bully smaller ones, just like those who have bullied you; forgiving abusers, and refusing to abuse others or abuse back—these behaviors summon every ounce of courage and self-control and emotional maturity any child can muster. It’s hard—very hard. And yet we ask the children of a harsh institutional culture to stay their hands, to walk away from a fight, and to forgive every hurtful action, but especially to forgive the little guy who may be trying so hard to get your attention.
Working with children of trauma is a special challenge: having lost everything, they feel they have little to lose. And yet they have so much future to squander. Bringing safe adults into relationships that engender hope—that’s what NOROC’s work is about. The “New Opportunities for Romanian Orphaned Children” we seek to offer are opportunities for transformation and healing. Sometimes healing comes through intentional learning, sometimes through surprising loving, sometimes through emulating the good in others, and often through imitating the pattern of the life and love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
No work could be more fulfilling than witnessing to lives transformed and spirits healed. NOROC’s Grannies and tutors and friends and many healing programs help children of trauma break cycles of poverty, abandonment, abuse and neglect.
You help us in this fulfilling work of witness and transformation by your prayers and by your gifts in cash and in-kind. Thanks to generous givers, NOROC’s workers can share in deed and in word the Good News of the love of Jesus Christ. That love and forgiveness extends to each one, no matter what may be in the past, or how hopeless may seem the future.
Please keep the work of NOROC, the work of “God Bless,” in your prayers, especially during this Lenten season of hope, self-examination, forgiveness, and accepting really hard tasks. Many temptations come to plague children who are wandering in a desert of despair. Help them to put these temptations behind them, and to welcome the forgiveness and new life that crucifixion and resurrection make possible.
Leaning forward into Lent . . .
Partnered with NOROC, “New Opportunities for Romanian Orphaned Children,” in Tulcea, Romania
The 2014 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 317
Read more about Liz Searles' ministry