A Difficult Choice
by Zhaneta Todorova
How could I choose just one? At the end of September 2001, I was sitting in front of 50 letters from various schools, orphanages, and nursing homes. Each contained the same thing-a description of a difficult situation and a plea for help. Having recently started working with Nazarene Compassionate Ministries (NCM) in Bulgaria, I didn't feel I had the skills and experience to make the right decision in responding to the many needs represented in the letters. But I did have God.

I held the letters in my hands and prayed, "God, they are all yours. May your will be done." Then I drew one. The letter came from school personnel in a village called Vidrare. After locating it on a map, I asked Jay Sunberg, a missionary to Bulgaria, to join me on a visit to the village.

The next morning we were on our way to Vidrare to see how we could share Christ's love in a tangible way. Surrounded by the beautiful Balkan mountain range, this town of 500 residents is located northeast of Bulgaria's capital city of Sofia. The region is famous for being a stronghold of communism. The former communist leader, Todor Zhivkov, born in the nearby town of Pravetz, ruled over Bulgaria for more than 40 years. Today, the Pravetz region is still communist-oriented. People are suspicious and don't believe in God. When we arrived at the one-story school building, the director approached us with a smile and warm welcome.

What I saw inside the school shocked me. Cold dark rooms with tattered desks and broken blackboards made me wonder how the teachers could instruct-and the students learn-in such dismal surroundings. Jay and I learned that 90 percent of the 65 students in the first- to eighth-grade classes were from Roma, or Gypsy, families. About 8 percent of the Bulgarian population is Roma, and often these people are not well-educated or employed. In order to provide for their families, many steal and lie, and few pay taxes. Because of this, the Bulgarians didn't want to help the school.

 A third of the students came from the surrounding villages. They would stay at the school dormitory during the week and go home only for weekends and holidays. The dormitory was in as grim a shape as the school with old, damp bedrooms, no shower facilities, and broken beds without sheets. The teachers provided basic food supplies-potatoes, beans, flour, oil, and lentils-from their own homes. No one could afford to buy fresh fruit and vegetables for these children. In spite of the difficulties, the teachers believed that if they worked hard enough, the situation would change.

When we introduced ourselves, we told them we were part of a Christian organization and that we believed in Jesus. In Bulgarian schools, a person cannot talk openly about religious beliefs, so by making such a statement we risked expulsion. Our presence was not questioned, however. We knew God was guiding us to work with this school and we began to build relationships of love, care, and friendship. With assistance from German Christians in the winter of 2001, we bought 10 stoves and wood for the school building and dormitory.

During the next two years, regardless of our help and hard work, nothing seemed to change. Attendance was slim. Since education wasn't a priority, parents would keep the students home to work or to look after younger siblings. Honesty was a problem when the children were at school, as seen in their lies about homework, parents, teachers, and classmates. They would steal everything, from school pictures to their classmates' food, money, clothes, and pencils.

At first, I had a hard time determining lies from truth. Teachers were distressed. They had invested great effort without seeing tangible results. Still, we took care of the students' physical concerns. We prayed, knowing the children needed more than physical warmth-they needed God's love to warm their hearts and change their lives.

Time passed and in August 2003, I showed a friend who was visiting from Germany our various compassionate ministries. When we went to Vidrare, the director shared about the students' behavior and asked for help. With joy, I offered to start weekly Bible studies for the students and she agreed. In October 2003, a German Nazarene youth team came for two weeks. During the day they remodeled the school building and schoolyard, and at night they helped with Bible studies.

We didn't know how the children would react to the studies, but they responded positively. Their behavior started to change. Eventually, the stealing and lying tapered off until the reports of it were rare. Class attendance increased 90 percent. Some of the teachers began attending the Bible studies. I invited the school director to our Nazarene district assembly in November 2004.

During our journey to the assembly, she accepted Christ as her Savior. She told me that we helped improve not only the classrooms and the dormitory, but best of all, the Bible studies were benefiting students and teachers alike. These studies built Christian values in the children and she felt they also offered a better future for the society.

Near the close of 2005, I talked with the person responsible for education and religion in the entire region. Although she was a communist, she saw the changes in the Vidrare school and asked me if we could start a similar program in one of the high schools in Pravetz. So through the ministry in Vidrare, we became part of a government program called "Developing Non-Discriminatory Quality Education for Roma Children." If I'd known about Vidrare when I first read that letter asking for help five years ago, I would have considered it to be a challenging place for the gospel. But God chose Vidrare for our ministry, and He is showing His glory.

Zhaneta Todorova is Nazarene Compassionate Ministries coordinator for Bulgaria.

Holiness Today
, September/October 2006
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