In Moldova, closed institutions for men and women with disabilities are not to be found on the beaten track. To get to one such place which we visit often, we follow a twisting road for several miles through fields of sunflowers. Suddenly, long concrete walls come into sight, a decaying building rising above them, closed off to the outside world. The noise of people shouting and screaming reaches us whilst we are still a long way off and men and women cling to the inside of locked metal gates as we approach.
Word spreads that there are visitors approaching and the din increases. A watchman, not unusually wakened from an alcohol induced slumber, slowly makes his way to unlock the gate to let us in and people rush to greet us. How pleased we are to see them! Many have cuts and bruises and the stench of the place hits us. Often dressed in a disorderly and dirty fashion, the men and women will hide food in their clothes to stop others from stealing it. Life in this place is cruel and sometimes savage. Dreadful neglect and sin abound in equal measures.
Loving the rejected
Alongside my dear Moldovan colleagues, I work with a people group who are totally insignificant in the eyes of the world. They are adults with disabilities who live or have lived in closed institutions for most of their lives. We realised very early on that unless someone took the gospel of our glorious Lord Jesus to them, they would never hear it. Many of them have spent decades or perhaps their entire lives shut away in closed institutions, with most of them never leaving the building. Across Moldova, there are hundreds and hundreds of people living in these places, where the staff are at best indifferent and at worst decadent and heartless, trying to maintain some form of order through shrieked commands in locked, smelly dormitories full of pitiful and sometimes aggressive individuals
Gathering a crowd in our wake we walk along dark corridors, from room to room, chatting to as many as we can and inviting people to a gospel meeting we are about to hold. Somehow, and very chaotically, a large number gather in a hallway and we drag in wooden benches which are immediately occupied. Many rock to and fro. There are people everywhere and it seems that everyone is shouting! Fights break out and screaming matches ensue.
We start singing. For many years, we were just three women going into these institutions: myself, and my Moldovan colleagues, Anea and Liliana. Moldovans love music and both men and women quickly join in with great gusto. Most of them are illiterate so we have tried to help them learn Christian songs with much Scripture in them. We will sing a lot, pray together and one of us will give a short gospel message, no mean challenge when the congregation is like ours! Then we will spend the rest of the day visiting individuals throughout the building, spending precious time with them, talking to them about their lives, about the Lord and how to find peace with him, and sometimes praying with them. We take food and clothes when we have them. We have so many friends in this place and we love them dearly.
Each summer we organise a summer outreach camp at this institution. This is the highlight of the year for many of those who live there. We rough camp outside the walls and go in each day with a gospel service and activities for everyone.
Over the years the Lord has drawn men and women from this institution to himself. The Holy Spirit has quietly convicted them of their sin and given them a thirst to know the living God through Christ.
Gheorghe was in his 40’s when we first got to know him. He has a mild learning disability and some mild physical disabilities. He would come to all our meetings dressed in a dirty coat that looked as if it were made from hessian which was tied up around his waist with a string. He would always be wheeling his friend Vanya in a wheelchair. Vanya had no legs and cerebral palsy in his upper body. He was regularly tipped out of his wheelchair by others and Gheorghe could always be seen scooping Vanya up in his arms and placing him back in the wheelchair. Gheorghe did not smile much in those days, he had a wistful look but he loved to sing and listened with great attention to the messages and prayers.
Over the years, the Lord has given us four houses where men and women who previously lived in these institutions now live. Gheorghe is one of them. Let him tell something of his story in his own words. ‘I was with my mother at home until I was five. My mother was thin and ill. She used to drink too much alcohol. I am sorry that she left me at the institution. I would have liked to have lived at home. They took me away in a car to a big building.’
Gheorghe goes on to describe what life was like for him shut away in the institution as an adult. ‘You couldn’t sleep through the night as there were always people coming and going. One night I was fast asleep and somebody punched me in the face. I was really scared. I fell out of bed and there was blood coming from my nose and mouth. I was alone and there was no-one to take care of me. Many people died there, of illness not of old age. So many of my friends there died. There weren’t many doctors. People used to steal my food from off the plate. Often there was no light and it was very cold. I tried to help a lot of others there. I often had bad headaches. It smelt terrible there.’
Gheorghe moved into one of our houses about 10 years ago, Casa Matei (House of Matthew). Our lives have been blessed beyond measure through him. Listen to him speak about his life in Casa Matei. ‘Here I love going to church and I love to pray. Now I understand that Jesus died for my sins and that when I die my body will go into the earth but my spirit will go to Heaven. I am absolutely sure now that when I die I will go to Heaven.’
These days when Gheorghe laughs, it is so loud and for so long that we all join in! May God be praised!
This article first appeared in Vision, the magazine of the European Mission Fellowship and is reprinted with permission. For more information about the gospel in Moldova please visit www.europeanmission.org