Linda Gyrsting Elkan is a freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, Matthew and their disabled son Jack, whose adoption from Latvia was inspired by their trip to Romania with RCE.
“The principal is here! We can start.” The small classroom in Arad, Romania, crowded with chattering teachers and aides, suddenly became quiet. A visiting camera crew started filming. All eyes and lenses were focused on eight disabled schoolchildren. Some of them were orphans abandoned to horrible state institutions and rescued by RCE; some were local neighborhood kids with disabilities that made access to local public education impossible.
I faced the children standing before me in a semi-circle, one seated in his wheelchair, each clasping a hand chime. They looked slightly terrified, but ready to play. Smiling reassuringly, I pointed to a series of bold numbers I had written on large half sheets of cardboard resting on a music stand. Slowly, sweetly, sublimely, the children played, ringing out the unmistakable strains of Silent Night, a tune that crossed the cultural borders effortlessly.
As the music filled the room, I thought back to my home church, Fourth Presbyterian in Bethesda, Maryland, where it all began. Listening to the enthusiastic exhortations of a visiting pastor during a Missions Emphasis Week, I remembered a dream I once had of becoming a foreign missionary. But I quickly concluded that with three small children and a husband committed to legal work investigating fraud on the US commodities markets, it was unlikely God was asking me to leave my home and become a foreign missionary. Wistfully, I admitted there were some aspirations I would probably never achieve, but surely there was work I could do right in Bethesda. Wandering around a few Sundays later, I noticed a room full of disabled adults having a special Sunday school hour with a few dedicated volunteers. When their lesson finished, I introduced myself and asked if they would like some music in the class. With instructions from a video I discovered, I learned to re-write hymns using symbols familiar to my students so that without any musical training whatsoever they were able to play recognizable pieces. The Special Blessings Hand Chimes choir was born, and was soon invited to play twice a year in the sanctuary as well as for occasional special events.
Six years later, in the spring of 2008, I sat in church amazed to see a young woman, Nicoleta, who had been rescued by RCE, adopted, enrolled in school and now brought to Fourth Church to help raise awareness of God’s work at RCE. This young girl, once abandoned, with legs crippled from botched surgeries, discovered by RCE workers tied to a crib in a psychiatric institution, stood in front of our huge congregation playing her flute. The notes, halting yet clearly the melody of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, shattered all erroneous preconceptions I had had about the limitations of the disabled orphans of Romania.
I approached Mary Ann Bell, founder of RCE, about bringing hand chimes to the Sunshine School and we eagerly planned a trip for the fall. There was even a set of chimes in Arad, a gift from Fourth Church years earlier.
We decided to make it a family missions trip. My daughter and I worked all week at the school, showing the teachers how to transform a hymn into cardboard sheets suitable for the children to follow and rehearsing with the students, while my husband and sons worked in the Poverty Prevention Program, cleaning and building a fence around the yard of a local poor family. When my fourteen year old son, still fuming that we hadn’t yet bought him a cell phone, blurted out, “Dad, my bedroom is bigger than their whole house!” we knew the trip had been a life-changing blessing to our whole family.
My thoughts returned to the eager little faces of the children before me. As the last note rang out, the room erupted in applause, with hearty congratulations to the children and hugs all around. The proud smiles on the children’s faces unleashed enough power to revitalize any weary worker laboring to educate, care for, love and maybe even adopt one of these fragile little souls. I smiled too thinking that maybe I was a foreign missionary after all, even if only for a week. “Hast thou not seen how all thy longings have been granted in what he ordaineth?” Praise to the Lord.