Found in Translation
by Camerin Courtney
There are 43 of them. Forty-three single Bulgarian women gathered in the John Wesley Chapel of the 100-year-old Methodist church in downtown Sofia. Staring at me at the front of the room about to speak.
It's a wonder they've come. It's a Monday night. Our venue has changed in the past couple days. From what I've heard, singles ministry doesn't really exist in this country. I'm not sure there's been any real advertising, and if so, I wonder if it might have read: Crazy American Girl willing to speak to single women—come for discussion and assorted fruity cookies.
Just moments before, Daniela and the rest of her team had been setting up chairs in the small room with the wooden floor and forlorn-looking chandeliers. Trying to figure out how many chairs to set up, she turned to me and asked, "Do you believe for 50?" Then she smiled and her eyes twinkled in the way I've come to love over my past week here.
So here I stand, desperately hoping the words I've prepared will translate not just through my trusty guide, Krassy, but also through layers of cultural difference.
I introduce myself and start explaining the American singleness trends we've discussed over the past couple years on this very site. I talk about the dating drought in Christian circles, hoping I'm not dashing any hopeful notions of the U.S. as the land of plenty—hoping it will instead offer them some sort of comfort that we share some of their frustration. I've been told the lack of single men in the church is even more prevalent in Bulgaria. And with cultural pressures and post-Communist economic hardship, it's certainly no picnic for these plucky chicks sitting before me. I feel like they should be offering me the secrets of survival.
Daniela had encouraged me to engage the women in discussion. So I ask about Internet dating. Has it hit Bulgaria? Do we heart it or hate it?
Forty-three sets of eyes stare. I begin to sweat.
Finally, one brave woman breaks the silence. She says something I desperately hope is meaningful (or at least not heretical), and I wait with anticipation for Krassy to translate her words to me. When she does, it's something along the lines of, "I tried it. It didn't work." Great.
I talk about the divergent camps in Christian singledom—those who think we're supposed to sit back and wait for God to bring a mate to us, and those who think we're supposed to take a little more proactive role. It starts a great conversation about our role and God's role in finding a date and/or mate. People are talking faster than Krassy can translate. I catch only snippets. One woman encourages the rest that yes, the only thing in life we truly need is Jesus, and longing for anything other than where he has us right now is wasted time. A never-married woman in her 40s shares in English (thank you!) that she wishes Christian men would just ask women out already. A few "amens" echo through the room.
Another woman says she's recently divorced and is loving being single, that we should treasure this life stage because marriage can be horrible. Other comments inspire laughter, disagreement, solidarity. I stand watching the discussion commence like a spectator at her first tennis match—admiring the back and forth, trying to make sense and keep up.
Finally Daniela flashes me a "want to rein in the chaos?" look. I try to speak above the spirited discussion, and then launch into my final point about the fact that contentment and longing can coexist in the heart of a singleton. It is possible to simultaneously enjoy the perks of this life gig and also long for it to end.
Toward the end of my point, I share, "So we're left trying to carve out a successful single life somewhere between the two extremes. Using our more flexible schedule to play with the adorable children in our church's nursery every other week, secretly picking out the kid we wish was ours and yet gratefully going home to our silent apartment at the end of the morning. Enjoying the freedom to have a breadth of friendships with the opposite sex, yet wishing for just one special person to do life with. Packing our bags to take advantage of a last-minute travel deal to visit friends across the country, all the while wishing for a special traveling companion to elbow sometime in the future and say, 'Remember when we just took off to visit Joe and Karen in Phoenix at the spur of the moment?'
"Living with both contentment and longing takes courage and creativity. It requires moments of honesty and vulnerability about our unmet desires, and produces other moments of sheer, living-in-the-moment fun. It blesses us with the knowledge that longing and joy aren't mutually exclusive. And always it involves liberal doses of God's grace and strength."
As I speak these words in metered rhythm, allowing Krassy to translate a phrase at a time, something special begins to happen. I see heads nod. I see a few eyes well up. I get the feeling I'm speaking of longings some of them have felt for a long time but have never discussed in the presence of others.
Standing there, fighting back my own tears, I find myself going off script and challenging them to look around the room and see the others in their walk of life. I tell them one of the greatest blessings of the single journey is gathering with others who get it. That we can't survive this road alone. I encourage them to keep meeting long after I'm gone, sharing spirited discussion, caring fellowship, and their fruity cookies.
As the event ends and I watch these women chat with one another and listen to Daniela start planning another singles event, I feel like I'm watching the birth of a singles ministry. And somehow, I've been allowed the privilege of being the midwife.
In this process something has birthed in me as well. A reminder of the power of showing up, as these 43 Bulgarian women did. Of being present with one another. Of not giving up meeting together (Hebrews 10:25), no matter how wary or weary we may get with singles ministry at times.
Also, I'm reminded of the power of being real and speaking truth. Henri Nouwen wrote, "Community arises where the sharing of pain takes place." Here in a country half a world away from my own, it's easier to talk about the tough parts of my single journey. I have nothing to lose in taking off my mask and sharing not just the joys, but the struggles of singleness as well. As ones who've experienced next to no conversations about the unique challenges of singleness, this seemed like water on dry ground—reminding me of how valuable and bonding gut-level honesty can be.
Standing in the back of a roomful of conversations I can't understand, knowing meaningful connections are being made, I realize that singles ministry isn't just in the Sunday school hour and Wednesday night Bible study, in our gatherings for bowling and volleyball. It's in the honest words and nodding heads. It's in the showing up and speaking truth. Even when you're a little lost in translation. Setting up 50 chairs in faith, trusting that most of all Jesus will show up and work his wonders.