Here is my column from today's edition of Small Town Newspaper. I sent it in before leaving for Romania, so I can only trust they actually printed it.
Oh, and one more thing while I'm gone—TODAY IS MY BIRTHDAY!!
June 21 is World Handshake Day, named so because Ivan Zupa of Austria wanted to do something global to commemorate the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed scores of people from fourteen countries. His hope is that if everyone would exchange an international handshake, we could create a wave more powerful than any tsunami.
Of course, Zupa isn’t suggesting we literally shake hands with someone from another country on this particular day—he’s thinking a more figurative gesture might do the trick, an introspective acknowledgement and acceptance of the rest of the world to foster a sense of brotherhood or sisterhood. In his poetic style, Zupa writes, “Put your hand in the sea and shake hands with the world.”
Even those of us who are land-locked can understand the symbolic significance of touching the oceans in order to touch the world, and for so many of us, that may be the closest we’ll come to leaving our own borders. For my daughter Emily and I, however, we have an opportunity to actually go to another country, and we’ll be literally shaking hands with someone from that country on the evening of June 21.
Emily and I will be spending two weeks volunteering at an orphanage in Valea Screzii, Romania, a village so remote it’s a mere speck on even the sharpest Google map. We’ll be working on behalf of United Planet, a non-profit organization that sends volunteers around the world for short- or long-term projects. Volunteers can choose construction work, healthcare work or teaching work as their skills allow. For us, we’ve chosen orphanage work because the project requires no special skills. We’ll be walking in with nothing but a handshake, you might say.
The orphanage was built by Father Tanase, an orthodox priest whose passion for reducing the astonishingly high abortion rate in Romania led him to provide for unwanted children. He has found foster homes for hundreds of children in nearby villages, and his orphanage cares for around 30 children at any given time. The place survives on donations, and volunteers provide much of the labor.
Each day, we’ll be given a work assignment—one day, we may have kitchen duty and will help prepare meals as instructed by the full-time staff. The next day, we may be on a cleaning crew or asked to help the older children perfect their English. We’ll also have arts and crafts assignments, be asked to pull weeds in the garden or learn to feed the goats without squealing like inexperienced city women. And on some days, we may have nursery duty and will spend the day in a room full of babies all in need of feeding, rocking and diapering.
The list of chores we might be given looks like a list of life skills to me, not skills one might learn in specialized training, but there is so much I don’t know. I can’t speak for my daughter, but so much about life in a rural and remote part of a European country is unfamiliar to me that I may be rendered useless. I certainly am not expecting to march in with any sense of superiority, ready to show off my expertise in washing pots and pans or drawing with crayons. In fact, if the babies wear cloth diapers, I’m going to need a lesson before I can change one.
As part of its mission statement, United Planet defines its programs as “designed to expose our common human bonds, generate respect and appreciation for our cultural, racial, and religious diversity, and enrich lives of our neighbors worldwide.” This sounds remarkably like the goal of Ivan Zupa with his World Handshake Day, one of generating a mutually respectful connection where there would otherwise be a harmful gap.
I’m hoping that by arriving at the orphanage without an armload of special skills but with open and willing hands instead, we’ll be free to make that respectful connection, to humbly enrich the lives of our neighbors and be enriched in return. And in all of that hard work assigned to us, we’ll be free to shake as many hands as may be extended.