A Hug Worth a Thousand Words
I sat in the middle of the floor tonight in a hovel, sobbing uncontrollably. I stayed there about fifteen minutes, completely overwhelmed and unable to move or speak aloud as the tears slid down my cheeks and into my beard. You might think it was homesickness or fatigue. You might think it was spending the last four days with Romanian orphans, from the youngest of babies to the snarkiest of teenagers. But you’d be wrong. It was my new friend Ionica.
Ionica isn’t a baby or a toddler. He’s not learning to read and write or do arithmetic. He’s not learning how to drive or what it means to live through puberty. Ionica is 25, a product of the Romanian orphan system, too old to be inside the orphanage walls, but still very much alone. He speaks very little English, and I speak even less Romanian.
It’s funny how two grown men, who have little more than body language, can communicate so well about the eccentricities of girls.
Nevertheless, this afternoon, over balloon animals during a birthday party at an orphanage, we bonded. It’s funny how two grown men, who have little more than body language, can communicate so well about the eccentricities of girls who, like a herd of lemmings leaping off a cliff, suddenly all want a balloon heart and announce this shared desire in a collective whine that transcends even the deepest of language barriers. We smiled. A lot. We laughed. A lot. And as if it were planned, he slipped easily into an assistant role, handing me balloons and explaining what the next girl in line wanted twisted into the latex in his very broken English. Then we laughed more, because every request was the same. We laughed still more at the two girls who came back no fewer than six times, each visit requesting another balloon and trying their best to convince us why they needed just one more.
Outside the orphanage, Ionica and I chatted briefly and since I thought we were about to part ways, I shook his hand and gave him a quick hug as we waited for the rest of the group to finish inside the orphanage. Then, to my surprise he hopped into the car with us.
We took off and in what turned out to be the second failed attempt in as many days, Ionica attempted to teach me to count to ten in Romanian. German, Spanish and French (who knew I understood any French numbers?) kept creeping in and the numbers 4, 6 and 9 never did stick. He was convinced I could do better counting backwards. He was wrong. But it was no matter. We laughed more.
We drove Ionica to a small street-food vendor, bought him some sausage and I sat down beside him at the table. He finished his three sausages in the same time I finished my one, grateful for the food and for the company. He taught me to spell his name and we talked about our birthdays. And, glancing over at the greedy sparrows fighting over leftover breadcrumbs around our table, we laughed again. And just like that, almost before we had arrived, it was time to go.
In that moment a lifetime of friendship, conversations and love was shared between us.
He hugged my Romanian friend, who he has known for years, and reached over to grab me. As Ionica’s arms wrapped around my body, I squeezed my own over one shoulder and around his back. In that moment a lifetime of friendship, conversations and love was shared between us. I looked at my other friend besides us, and my mouth formed silently the words “he won’t let go.” It was true. We stood there on the streets of Bucharest hugging for over a minute. Our arms firmly grasping around each other.
It was then that it hit me, this man is no different than the eight year old boy who snuggled beside me yesterday as we drove to visit castles around Romania. His heart longs to be known and to feel an embrace like the one a father gives his son, proud of his ball game, or the swaddle a baby feels wrapped tightly against her mother’s breast. He is grown up in calendar years, but he is still an orphan. Perhaps that is what struck me so hard tonight. The reality that each of the 80 or so boys and girls I encountered this week would one day be like Ionica. Grown up, but still longing for a family and facing the daily reality that one doesn’t exist for them, at least in the traditional sense.
I understand that he is a brother in Christ and so, in that sense, he isn’t an orphan at all. In that sense we are family.
It is safe to say I love this man – a man I hardly know – and it’s not because I am some compassionate sap (though I may be). I understand that he is a brother in Christ and so, in that sense, he isn’t an orphan at all. In that sense we are family.
I prayed over him before we parted ways, on the walk home and on the floor as I cried. I pray that God would send him community and faithful men who will disciple and encourage him in his faith journey. I pray that he would feel the love of God fresh and vibrant each morning. I pray that he would see God’s provision and grace even in the midst of the loneliness. I pray that God’s glory far outshines the sorrow and pain that he may feel.
God is joy and love. He is provision and belonging. Today I saw God in Ionica’s eyes, eyes that have seen their share of trials, but still glimmer with the hope of Jesus. I am thankful that one day I will get to be beside Ionica worshipping our creator in heaven, and I pray that before then I will get to hug him again—a nice long hug, even longer than the last.
– Eric Lee
originally posted on www.ericblee.com, used by permission