“You see, now I know a lot more about Romania, and I’m not sure I can love it.” We had hardly got our orders in at Starbucks, and as we walked to our table I wondered what these words would mean. The young man had been at the American Studies Program two years ago when I lectured one day, and a week ago wrote me from his home in Romania asking if we could get together when he came to Washington this week.
And so we did. I wish I had recorded it, because he was so quotable– so thoughtful about his life and work, his time and place, his hopes and fears, his education and vocation. Unusually so for a 25 year-old.
But in the two years since we met, he has worked for a political campaign in Minnesota, studied in Honduras, worked in the West Bank of Israel, labored in the education department of Romania, worked for the prime minister of Romania, and now has a long-term position with an international lobbying firm that has an office in Bucharest. Yes, he’s been busy.
Rarely have I met someone so serious, intellectually, morally, and politically– but sometimes I do, and I am drawn in. So after an hour of hearing about the sausage-making which is the Romanian political culture, “in spades” as he put it—trying his best to account for the systemic corruption of his society –and his own yearning to be different and to have a different life and future, I told him that I would be serious too. If he would commit himself to me and to a serious conversation over time, I would respond.
One of the most surprising parts of the two hours with Robert was this: almost 15 years ago my daughter Eden spent most of a year in Romania working with Dana and Brandi Bates in their New Horizons Foundation. In post-communist Romania, torn apart by three generations of totalitarianism, a deep-seated cynicism had developed, so much so that Eden described it this way: when you walk down the street and meet someone, the assumption is that they have already screwed you. From top to bottom the society was a complete mess.
What could be done? The Bates’ had decided to give themselves to the next generation, and imagined into being a remarkable work among adolescents to begin reforming the country. Much more could be said about them and their work.
Listening to this young man, I could only smile– with a great heart-felt “thanks be to God” –when I heard that he was one of those kids who had been invited into the tutelage of the Bates’ and their helpers, hoping that these young people would relearn what it meant to be human and Romanian.
Ten years later he is now a young man who has seen a much wider world—and knowing his country much more intimately, he is struggling with the very question that is the heart of the book that is being born this weekend: “Can we know the world, and still love it?” It is not a cheap question, and there are no cheap answers. Time will tell what will happen with Robert; I’m open to knowing more of him, and walking along with him into the future.
It is a vision of vocation that is being explored, seeing life and labor as common grace for the common good. While that is the calling for all of us, yesterday afternoon it seemed especially so for Robert and for Romania.