Love in Action - Working in Moldova with Vulnerable People
The closest that most of us have probably ever been to the iron curtain and communism in Eastern Europe during the ‘70s and ‘80s are the Hollywood spy films. Images of tall grey blocks of flats, men with their Kalashnikovs and shady dealings fill the mind. Life could be difficult behind the iron curtain for anyone who didn’t conform to the communist ideology. The religious, the freethinkers or even the disabled often ended up in prison or institutions, suffering in the most terrible ways. What, then, would motivate a young Christian social worker from Cardiff to venture so far from home to some of these countries? Meet Maureen Wise, who visited many of these countries during the communist era, and continues to work closely with some of the neediest people in these countries today.
Let’s start with your work in Moldova – could you share a little about what you’ve been doing recently?
Since retiring I don’t do as much as I used to, but my main contact with Moldova is now through the work of the ‘houses’ and with the many dear friends I have out there. The houses are basically homes we’ve set up for people with disabilities who have been saved from terrible conditions in the institutions. During the communist years so many disabled children and older people were placed in the most appalling institutions, and many continue to live there. We’ve worked with the locals to set up four houses where the some of these people can gain some dignity, support and freedom, living semi-independently together.
Could you give some examples of these terrible conditions and do they continue today?
Where do you start? Firstly, I must say that the government are trying to get rid of some of the institutions for children; they want to become part of the European Union and that’s a strong motivation to improve things. But there continues to be a great need.
One woman stands out. Ina was 32, had learning disabilities and lived in an institution. When we met her for the first time, we saw that she was a lovely person, but she was desperate for attention. She was very clingy and probably got on the nerves of some of the other older men and women – every time we’d go and visit, she’d be desperate to see us, shouting through the bars of the gate! She loved singing and she would never miss a meeting that we organised for them. We loved her dearly but, one day, we arrived, and she wasn’t there. We asked where Ina was, but nobody was talking. In the end we found out that she’d died – she’d been kicked to death. Her mother, a barrister who was very high up in country, had been to take her home to bury as is the custom in Moldova. It broke our hearts, although we were comforted because she was a Christian and therefore we know that she’s now in heaven and is not suffering at all.
I remember early on in my work out there, visiting an institution for children in Romania. We’d arrived late, around nine at night, it was snowing, and we were in the middle of nowhere – as many of these institutions often are. We estimated there were 100 children in the building but only one member of staff to look after them. She was so overwhelmed she’d locked all the children in rooms. I remember vividly asking the woman kindly to open the doors and what I saw has stayed with me ever since. The smell and the terrible conditions! I walked over to some blankets in the corner of one of the rooms and I pulled them back to reveal the disfigured face of a young girl, she simply stared at me blankly and pulled the blanket back over her face. I heard of another story a little later where many children had died because they’d been locked in a room with some old wet carpets that the orphanage was trying to dry out with heaters, and the fumes had killed them. The conditions were often horrendous.
That must have been terrible. How did you cope seeing these things, especially as a social worker?
The main feeling was often one of being totally inadequate, especially when I started working and training social workers in Romania. Once the revolution hit and the countries opened, I looked for opportunities to move out there and help. I was sure that God had planned it, because my skills were tailor-made for what was needed. I started working for an NGO (non-governmental organisation), helping with the crisis that was emerging.
I saw unspeakable things. It was a lonely and tough time and I often felt overwhelmed as it was so different to what I’d seen back in Wales. It was like a great big ocean of need – orphanages like concentration camps, the daily crisis of trying to get enough food and improving cleanliness. Then the more long-term strategic things of training social workers, managing improvements and re-homing people. You can’t romanticise the work, it was grim, with death in your face all the time.
What did you end up doing?
After some time in Bucharest, I was asked to help set up a social work school to train and provide workers in the North of the country in Oradea. It was based at a Bible college. We had no books, hardly any buildings, but we had hundreds of students. They had suffered so much during the communist years, but they had this love and they were desperate to learn. What a wonderful opportunity that was! Hundreds of those students went on to become key people who helped to re-build the country and other countries. We had students coming from all over the region, and that is how my links with Moldova started.
To many in Wales it may sound odd, even wrong to combine social work with religion – how would you explain a social work school linked with a Bible college?
All the students freely enrolled on a joint course studying Christianity and some other practical element of study – education, social work or even music – music is very important in Eastern European countries. The leaders who set up the college had a big vision. They saw that there was a great need and that the country was in a terribly difficult situation, and they saw as Christians that they had a major role to improve things.
You might expect that having experienced so much suffering and persecution over so many years the Christians would want to concentrate on themselves once freedom came, but they had this love. A love that was real and worked its way out to care for others and change society for the better. It was the most natural thing for them to combine their faith with their everyday lives and care for people both in a spiritual and a material sense. You could literally touch their love!
It sounds as if these Christians have had a big impact on you?
Oh – I wish you could meet them! Their faith is real – they’ve experienced God in a special way. They’d come out of a context of a very oppressive system where being a Christian meant living a very difficult life. After communism collapsed, it didn’t really get better – there was a lot of corruption and it was costly to be a Christian, but thousands of people became Christians. God moved – that’s the only explanation, because it was costly for the people to change. You’d have churches of thousands of people out there, and although they had very little, they had what counted, and it was wonderful to be with these Christians. It’s odd because it was the same within the institutions, they’d have little, if no links, with the outside world, but we’d often go in to try and help and people would be coming up to us to ask what they needed to do to be right with God. God was real and people knew that they needed to sort out their relationships with Him.
It was the basis of the work in Moldova. I was asked to go over to help a little by some of my former students, and when we saw the need – on every level – we just had to do something. People needed help and they needed to know God. I quickly fell in love with so many of them – they became my family.
How did all this start?
I had an interest in Russia and did basic Russian as a student in Bangor – my Dad was anti-religious and liked the teaching of Karl Marx, so I think that sparked a little interest. But what really sparked the burden for the communist countries was a prayer meeting that I went to organised by a very dear man called Mr Taylor. We’d meet regularly, read letters and news from Christians who lived in communist countries and pray that God would look after them. This burden grew, it was like an inescapable weight, and in the ‘70s I started helping with a charity to support Christians in communist countries during my holidays. We’d be driving with cars full of Bibles and literature to smuggle resources to Christians in many different countries – Russia, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), Poland and Bulgaria. It was scary sometimes. I remember once being caught, strip searched and thrown out of the country. But it wasn’t as dangerous for us as it was for them, and we forged such strong relationships.
It sounds as if your faith is important to you and a basis to your life – how did that happen?
I grew up in London on a council estate and had very little contact with Christianity, but I remember in sixth form looking out of the window at some trees and I started wondering who made them. I found a Bible at home and started reading it and I just knew it was true. I had a deep sense of dissatisfaction with who I was, but the more I read it the more Jesus became everything to me. I wasn’t going to church or having any input from anybody else but I felt I was coming alive. I remember reading a sentence in the Bible that explained how I felt at the time: ‘If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation’. Over the next few years I realised that the dissatisfaction with myself was God opening my eyes to see how perfect he is and how much I needed his forgiveness. That is why Jesus came to live the perfect life and die on the cross to take the punishment we deserve. This wonder has grown throughout my life and I live my life for Jesus and want to please him.
So many people think that Christianity is something that you do – but it seems from your personal experience and from what you’ve seen in others, that Christianity is something you’ve experienced. Would you agree?
There’s so much unbelief around today and what people need is for God to show them his power. When somebody sees the purity and goodness of God and is aware of their rebellion against him but then turns to trust in Jesus, life is completely changed. It concerns me that faith is being pushed out of public life – in my experience that is what people need more than anything. I was able to share so much when I was a social worker in Cardiff and Tredegar in the ‘70s, and it’s been the basis and motivation of my work as a social worker. People need God, like the desert needs the rain, both out in Moldova and here in Wales.
First published in Ask Magazine August 2019