This is a chapter from my new book "I was a stranger"
„Share Tears When Your Friends Are Down“
-- Paul, in his letter to the Romans
The little family from Serbia gets a lot of hugs and well wishes after the worship service today. Goran, Marina and their three kids have been with us for just a few weeks and for many of us it is the first time we actually physically interact with them.
I have just announced to the congregation that despite a lot of effort our new friends will be deported this coming Tuesday.
I had asked someone to pray, we have taken up a collection for the family and I have quoted Romans 12:15 and explained that sometimes, the only gift, the only medicine we have to offer someone who is hurting is to simply be present and mourn together.
Somehow in a very bittersweet way that is exactly what is happening now.
Javanna, the 8-year-old daughter, who told me only two weeks ago how much she loves school and that her German is already much better than that of her parents, serves as the interpreter.
Sven, a German teenager with down syndrome, i ntroduces 9-year old Predrag, a fellow „downy“, to everybody. The guys know each other from school.
7-year-old Alexander takes dozens of pictures on the family smartphone.
It is a beautiful moment. Northern Germans rarely hug in public, but this is all very emotional.
I am spent. My sermon that morning was about the hope that resurrection brings, how God takes the worst kind of situation and turns it into something beautiful. I explained how the early Christians were impacted by that hope, how the proof that „love wins“ encouraged them to take on the powerful Roman government and I even told stories about how I am personally impacted by Easter hope.
And literally minutes later I tell our congregation that my country has just made a decision to send this family into an absolutely scary, life threatening, seemingly hopeless situation.
And I know the statistics, and I know that it is impossible to take everybody. But these good people are no longer a statistic.
My government deems Serbia to be a save country.
Our friends happen to be Roma. Sinti and Roma used to be called „Gypsy.“ Gypsies have a bad reputation all over Europe and basically nobody wants them. Goran‘s family has endured much more than just about anyone I know.
Javanna‘s older sister has been taken from them and was probably sold for sex trafficking. Marina has been raped right in front of their eyes and Goran only barely managed to get the children out of the house before they all got killed.
And what chance does little Predrag have, with his handicap if there is simply is no school for him.
Now they will go back to the area where all this has happened.
I told our church, „Imagine you will be forced to leave your home and stuff and go to some prescribed town, with just a few hundred dollars in your pocket. How would you make a fresh start for yourself if you have nowhere to go?
We had this idea to book a hotel for a few days somewhere close to Belgrad, simply for some respite, some destination to help you get started.
A noble idea. Goran only reluctantly warmed to the concept though, because he was afraid of some kind of Mafia. “We need to get out of Belgrad as quickly as possible.“
The next problem was to find a hotel that allowed us to use a credit card to pay for them in advance. „Only the really big expensive ones will be set up to do that, but they would never allow Roma like us to stay there! It won‘t matter that you paid for those rooms, they will kick us out on the street!“
Today my Easter hope is reduced to a little less than a mustard seed. The strange thing is that the family became Christians right in the middle of this entire ordeal. Hard not become a cynic. Hard to believe in anything good.
When Jesus walked this same planet, when his picture was on most people‘s unwanted list, when people wanted to harm him and take his life, he promised a God that cried with those who cry and some kind of supernatural peace that can carry you when the rest of you screams „I give up!“ Maybe that same peace and awareness of a God that is with you can carry you through those dangerous outskirts of Belgrad as well. I hope it will.
A couple of days later, on a Tuesday, the family was deported. My colleague Daniel saw them off. There were some tears, and suddenly three TV trucks showed up.
Apparently, a major German TV station wants to make a documentary about Roma and Sinti deportations.
They took a lot of pictures, interviewed the family who said many nice things about our church and the schools the kids had been a part of.
Daniel was interviewed and the reporters especially liked the dramatic effect that he was still crying.
Suddenly, he saw the three city employees who were present to ensure that the family would end up in the right taxi that would eventually take them away. He had fought especially with one of them, convincing him to let the family stay. That was the moment when Daniel got mad. “See those three people over there!“, he told the reporter. “I bet they would love to explain to the camera why they deemed the deportation neccessary.“
To say the city workers where running away from the camera is quite the understatement. They literally sprinted into the apartment and locked themselves in.
And then Goran, Marina and their three children were taken away and flown to Belgrad.
A little bit of hope. The TV station plans to follow them around Serbia and report on their well being and their reintegration. Maybe that can ensure some kind of extra security. We hope it will.