It was the middle of an unusually hot July and a typical Monday morning. My husband and I were in town on business for the humanitarian aid project we have been operating in Serbia and Kosovo since the fall of 1999. During our many years of serving and ministering across all the former Yugoslavia we have experienced first-hand the effects of war and sanctions on a decimated population. People had lost loved ones, homes, and possessions; even their national identities. Those who survived had oftentimes scattered to the 4 winds in search of some safe haven in the wake of the destruction and total upheaval of everything that was dear to them. Although we had met many such refugees and tried to help as many as we could, we were about to have an encounter with a victim of the Balkan wars who would have a profound effect on our lives and the way we look at people.
By 10 am it was already getting quite hot. The afternoon was supposed to be even hotter and more uncomfortable, so Jeff and I were trying to finish up all our duties by noon so we could retreat to the cooler confines of our center. As we parked our camper van in a lot not far from the center, we could see a beggar approaching — not at all an uncommon sight here since millions are still struggling to overcome the economic hardships that had befallen this country. Generally we try to always carry some sort of humanitarian aid in our vehicle so as to have something on-hand to give to someone we see in need. But I’m ashamed to say in this particular case we did all we could to avoid eye contact or any personal confrontation with the bedraggled man who was standing off from us looking to see if he would have an opportunity to approach us. Rather than acknowledge his presence, we hurried off to take care of our business, thankful that we had “escaped”.
When we returned to our van some time later, there he was waiting for us, unperturbed by our previous rudeness. This time he had apparently mustered up the faith to approach us, and since our vehicle had Italian license plates, he began speaking to me in Italian. When I told him that I wasn’t Italian but was from Scandinavia, he of all things started to speak to me in Danish! I could hardly believe it and asked him to wait a moment while I stepped inside the van to see what we had that we could give him. He must have heard Jeff and I speaking to each other in English, for when we stepped back out of the van he began speaking to us in nearly perfect English. It was obvious that this was no typical beggar.
Intrigued by who this man could be, and why someone so obviously highly educated would be looking as he did, begging, we asked him more about himself. He explained that he was a refugee from Croatia, and that he had had to flee from the war years ago with absolutely nothing, that he was homeless, and that he was living in a makeshift tent in the nearby park. He invited us to come take a look, and we were shocked at the scene. There in the city park, only a hundred meters from the main walking street area with all its shops and boutiques, was a small encampment of what appeared to be 3 or 4 tents. A small gas cooking stove and three stray dogs by the man’s bedroll testified to the truth of his story. We felt terrible for the way we had treated this obviously decent and intelligent man who had fallen on hard times, but more than that, why would we feel bad for treating an educated person in that way? Should we not be ashamed to treat ANY human being with such disdain and disrespect?
The tragedy of war had brought him and his friends to their present state, but the longer we talked with them, the more we realized and admired how amazingly well they had adapted to their extremely rough circumstances. Here they were, camping out in a city park, bathing and washing their clothes in the Danube River that flowed just across the road, and on top of that humiliation, they were having to beg for their daily needs.
We repented of our initial reaction and searched through our camper, gathering some supplies for him and his friends: food, soap and other personal hygiene items. Since we knew we had much more at home, we promised to bring them more food and some clothing later in the day. We kept visiting them regularly after that until one day they were gone, no doubt finally chased off by city authorities. But we had learned a valuable lesson.
How easy it is in our oft-times hurried lives to miss those precious moments when we can do something special for a fellow human being. We all have much to give to others. And I’m not just talking about physical things either. A smile, a touch, a sympathetic listening ear, can mean even more to someone who is down and out and discouraged. Especially in this current economic climate of global recession, with so many people out of work and possibly experiencing a state of want that they may have never known before, it’s even MORE important for us to be willing to share what we have with others so they can feel blessed of God. And they might just surprise you and have much to offer in return. Don’t let the busyness of life keep us from receiving that blessing.