There is a moment in my life that has haunted me for 22 years. Each time this memory has floated through my mind, and it has visited a fair amount, I wish that I could alter it. I have longed for a do-over. A do-better. But memories aren’t wishes. Memories are life lived, decisions made, and actions taken.
I was 22 years-old and serving a mission in Romania for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. As missionaries, we had many rules. We had rules about what time to go out, what time to come in. We had rules about studying, sleeping, eating, and traveling. We followed a dress code. I saw the wisdom in all of the rules and tried my best to follow them.
But, of all the rules that we were given as missionaries, there was one rule that was hard for me to follow. This was the rule that we were not supposed to give money to beggars. There were good reasons for this rule. Part of it had to do with our personal safety. Another part of it was because of our unique role as proselyting missionaries. We were there to share a spiritual message about Jesus Christ, not to respond to humanitarian needs with money or supplies. Our Church had other people assigned to meet humanitarian needs. I understood all of this logically. And yet . . .
I was lucky to have been raised in the kind of home that taught me that when you see someone in need, you help them. If you have more than someone else, you share what you have. I love these values and my parents were wonderful examples of these ideals. Living with an impulse to be generous had served me very well in my privileged life in a privileged country.
But as a young missionary, to find myself in post-communist Romania where I was confronted on a daily basis with profound need–needs that were well beyond my ability to fix or to solve–was completely overwhelming. My daily experience included seeing children who lived on the streets and slept in the sewers. There were no social safety nets for the very old who sat wrinkled, dirty, and shivering on the pavement in their threadbare clothing, asking for spare change.
Our service days were spent at orphanages. We would bring a box or two of Pampers and change the diapers of the babies. These babies laid alone in their cribs on their backs–with so much time spent in this position that the backs of their heads became flat. The diaper rash that each of them had from spending so much time in urine-soaked clothes was fire-red and horrific. To me, passing beggars on the street seemed callous. To ignore the requests of street children in the subways seemed cruel. I felt pain every time I was asked for something that I could not give.
And so sometimes I broke the rules. Sometimes money found its way out of my pocket and into someone’s hand. Or sometimes I bought fries at McDonald’s and gave those away–because food isn’t exactly the same as money, right? But I wanted to be a good missionary who followed the rules. So I never went overboard. I always held back.
“Will you buy a flower, Doamna?” The question was accompanied by a tug on my coat. I looked down to see a very young Roma (gypsy) girl–she was maybe 4 or at the most 5–and she was carrying tiny bouquets of flowers in her hand that she was selling. She was beautiful and small, with long curly black hair and vibrant blue eyes. I knew the realities of Roma children. I knew that she would be expected to sell the flowers in her hand before she could return home for the day. If she did not, she would likely go without food or possibly be beaten. This girl seemed especially young to be out on the streets with this task.
My companion, as we called our missionary partners, was distracted. I quickly fished some coins out and, smiling, said, “Yes, I will buy a flower.” I took my small flower bouquet and felt pleased that I was able to slip in a little covert good deed for the day.
But she did not leave. “Please, Doamna,” she asked, with deep pleading in her very young eyes, “Will you buy all of my flowers?” She then took my hand in both of hers, pressing the remaining flowers into my hand–trying to get them to belong to me. It was afternoon, and the sun would soon set.
By this time, my companion had finished with whatever task had been occupying her attention. I could see the disapproval in her eyes, and I felt I had already gone too far by buying my one bouquet.
“No, I’m sorry. Just one today,” I said, hoping to quickly end the conversation and leave the situation.
“Please, Doamna,” she said again. She was so earnest and innocent–and although by this time in my mission I had witnessed all manner of manipulative displays–this was no act.
My heart, moved upon by the Holy Spirit, told me to buy all of her flowers.
“Let’s go, Sora,” my companion said.
“I’m sorry,” I said sincerely to the little girl, and walked away.
For 22 years, I have been haunted by my memory of that sweet little Roma girl and her flowers. I have wondered what happened to her that evening when she went home. I have wondered what happened to her in the days and years that have followed. Not buying all of her flowers when I was prompted to do so is one of the biggest regrets of my mission.
A few weeks ago, I made my way back to Romania. As we were leaving the grounds of the Orthodox church, a young Roma girl sat at the gate selling flowers–little bundles of flowering basil. I walked up to her and asked her the price of her flowers. As I was getting my money out, she quietly asked, “Will you buy all of my flowers?”
I caught my breath at her words.
Reading these two stories you might think that in Romania I was often asked by Roma girls to buy all of their flowers. But no. Just twice. The first time was 22-years ago and I got it wrong because I didn’t yet understand God’s hierarchy of laws or the role of His Spirit. And the second was at a church gate just a few weeks ago, when God decided that He would give me a second chance.
I looked at her with tears in my eyes. “Yes, I will buy all of your flowers,” I said. She happily skipped away, thankful to go home for the day, and completely unaware that she had just healed a little piece of my heart.
For more of my thoughts on spiritual things, see Life Weeds.