It smells like poop in here.
I thought about how to say this in Romanian while I dug through a rack of used sweaters. It isn't the cleanest place, but it doesn't normally smell so bad. I pass this store every morning and afternoon, usually stopping to check my hair in the big window, sometimes dropping in to browse if I happen to leave school early. I almost never find anything, and today was no different. With only 10 Lei in my wallet ($3) I thought 18 Lei ($5) was a little high for a stretched-out shirt, even if it was from H&M.
I was about to give up when I overheard a man politely ask the store owner if she could help him find some shoes, because "vine iarna," winter is coming. It's unusual to hear a man's voice in a thrift store, so I glanced over my shoulder and was surprised to see not one, but two men. The one speaking was moderately well-dressed and clean, the other looked dirty and embarrassed with no shoes on his mangled feet. Trying not to stare at what was happening right next to me, I went back to my futile bargain hunt and continued eavesdropping. I was impressed with the generosity of this man, and surprised to hear the shopkeeper insist that she probably wouldn't have anything for him. He wanted something inexpensive but in decent shape, and all her shoes cost at least 30 Lei. She wasn't quite rude, but that's poor service even by thrift store standards. He asked that she look anyway and then followed her into the next room.
I considered the shirt in my hand, the musky smell I wasn't sure would wash out, my last few stops in the corner thrift store, the same old rejected skirts and over-priced sweaters hanging there for at least a month... I noted the unrelenting kindness of that stranger, still unusually polite for a Romanian despite the reluctance of the shop owner to help him. I thought about offering my 10 Lei, and if I'd been with someone who spoke better Romanian I probably would have, but I just hung up the shirt and walked out. Judging from the lack of stock turnover, this lady would be wise to come down on her price a bit and at least make a sale. Judging from the determination of the man, he probably talked her into it. If not, there are three other second-hand stores on that street. I should have told him that.
Sometimes I'm really not sure what to make of all the beggars I see here. I know some of them are probably professionals, but some of them aren't. I've watched them take the old bread and leftovers an old woman leaves on top of the garbage can for them. In America we would send these people to a food bank or shelter, or help them get on food stamps. In America this is our concept of helping people -- sending them somewhere else, putting them off on the government. Social programs can be good, but I wonder sometimes if we do all God would have us do. What if as Christians we took responsibility for personally helping people in need, instead of just paying taxes and expecting the government to do it for us? Would food stamps be necessary?
The episode in the thrift store reminded me of a recent conversation with a friend about what should make Christians stand out. Does God want us to be set apart more by what we don't do, or by what we do -- what we're against, or what we're for? It could be that your child is the Christian who can't dress up for Halloween, or it could be that your child is the Christian at school who is nice to that weird kid nobody likes. You could be distinguished as the one who has never tasted a drop of wine, not even at communion, or you could be notorious for taking men off the street and buying them shoes. Which is more in line with what God wants and expects from His people?
There are some things you learn about yourself when you start settling into another culture. You start to realize just how superficial your self-concept has been, and more than anything, you start to learn what kind of faith you really have. If your obedience consists only of abstaining from certain TV shows/movies/books/bad words, you'll have to find something else to avoid. If your values are seen mainly in political affiliation and what you vote against, you'll have to find something else to protest. If "not being ashamed of the Gospel" only means wearing Christian t-shirts, you'll be saddened to find that yours is probably one of few t-shirts in the country and definitely marks you as an American, although not necessarily a Christian. What's left of your faith when all of its cultural expressions are taken away?
I daresay it's the obedience that goes much deeper than 'do' and 'don't' that becomes a refuge in what might otherwise be an identity crisis, and it's this kind of faith that learns to say with the Psalmist, "Your statutes have been my songs in the house of my sojourning," (Psalm 119:54). What's more, it's this kind of Christianity that stands out in any social class on any continent, because it's been trimmed down to what really matters. Societal issues and taboos may change, but the Christ we follow does not. American or Romanian, I think we all know what Jesus would do for the man with no shoes.
Dar Tu vezi; căci Tu privești necazul și suferința, ca să iei în mână pricina lor. În nădejdea Ta se lasă cel nenorocos și Tu vii în ajutor orfanului. (Psalmul 10:14)
But You see; for You look at trouble and suffering, in order to take their cause in hand. In Your hope the poor is left and You come in aid of the orphan. (Psalm 10:14)