Columbia woman helps build Romanian church in honor of son

Friday, January 30, 2009 | 11:10 a.m. CST
Sherryl Laws speaks to parishioners in August inside the newly completed church that she has been helping plan for years.

COLUMBIA — Seventeen years ago, Sherryl Laws and her 14-year-old son, Scott, traveled to Romania for the first time. It was 1991 and the country’s economic outlook was bleak. Food was scarce and jobs were nonexistent. Communism had just fallen; life was chaotic.

It was into this uncertainty that Laws and her son went, unaware that this country and its need for a hopeful future would dominate their lives for years to come.

How to help

There is much left for the Church of Craiova to do to complete its building. The congregation is in need of $40,000 to $50,000 to complete the kitchen, heating, air conditioning, landscaping and to purchase chairs. If you would like to help, send contributions to Evangelical Free Church, 600 Silvey Road, Columbia, MO 65203. Be sure to add the memo line or note: Romania.

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Their church in Columbia, Evangelical Free Church, established a sister congregation in Craiova, Romania, after missionary efforts in the early 1990s. Soon after, the congregation in Craiova began purchasing land to build a church.

After the Romanian Revolution of 1989, there was an explosion of interest in spirituality and the Christian gospel message brought in by Western missionaries, said Richard Millhouse, an American missionary to Romania and pastor of the Craiova church. Millhouse also works with ReachGlobal, a missionary organization within the Evangelical Free Church of America.

Both Sherryl and Scott Laws fell in love with Romania after their visit, so much so that they called themselves “Romaniacs.” Scott spent his summers there as a teenager and returned for a study abroad semester in college. He became fluent in the language, fitting in as if he were a local.  Sherryl and the family returned over the years when they could. 

Sherryl's most recent trip to Romania was bittersweet. This summer, she visited in honor of Scott, who died in 2007 after battling colon cancer. He was 30 years old. Donors contributed nearly $30,000 to Scott's memorial fund, which was designated for the completion of the Craiova church.

For the first time, Sherryl saw the Craiova congregation worshipping in a building of its own.

But it wasn’t finished. Yet.

Sherryl and a team of 10 others went to Craiova for 10 days in August to put in windows, plumbing, wiring and insulation — in many ways, the final touches toward completion. But it was still a construction site, rough, with no landscaping or sidewalks. There was much left to do.

As congregants walked up to the church that Sunday, seeing the windows for the first time, they stopped and clapped, Sherryl remembered. When Mitel Scarlatescu, one of the Romanian church leaders, entered the sanctuary, his eyes grew wide, Sherryl said.

“Mitel, this is your church, God’s church,” Sherryl said she told him, and tears welled up in their eyes.

Finally, after 17 years, 60 congregants could worship in a sanctuary of their own, though sitting on chairs on a concrete floor and without painted walls, air conditioning or even flushing toilets. But there was a roof overhead, beautiful windows to look out of and electricity to run the projector that beamed the words they sang that Sunday.

The building was finally a reality.

But many people in Romania are reluctant to embrace an Evangelical Christian church, mostly because of a deeply rooted Eastern Orthodox Christian heritage. The Orthodox church helped keep a sense of national identity under Ottoman Turkish and Hungarian rule in the 15th and 16th centuries. It also became an important part of the eventual emancipation of ethnic Romanians in Transylvania and the integration of greater Romania as a country after 1918. Today, 90 percent of the population is Orthodox, according to Encyclopedia Britannica’s Web site.

This makes the Craiova church's evangelistic efforts more difficult. "A person born in Romania is naturally thought of as being Orthodox," Millhouse said.

But as Romania integrates more fully with Western ideas and economic influence, its openness to spirituality grows dim. “Today there is guarded receptivity to the gospel message (of Chrirst) in many parts of Romania,” Millhouse said.

Even so, Romania is more receptive to this message than most countries in Europe, Millhouse said, but belief in spirituality seems more irrelevant as secularism and materialism stream in from Europe and the West.

Many of those who do accept the Christian gospel message, however, have difficulty attending an Evangelical church because its appearance and worship styles are radically different from a more traditional view.

In the Orthodox church, worship takes place in a beautifully adorned building with candles, icons and paintings on the walls, Millhouse said. People can’t wrap their minds around church being in a rented movie theater, which is where the Craiova church met for many years, he said.

This perception of church practices and religious traditions can often hamper missionary efforts, but Millhouse focuses on similarities between the two churches. “I think it’s important to focus on things we have in common with the Orthodox Church. Our concern for people is about a personal relationship with God through the person of Jesus Christ,” he said.

Millhouse said that Scarlatescu, like many others, initially struggled with going to a nontraditional church. Scarlatescu first attended an Evangelical service in the rented movie theater because his sister coerced him into going. Scarlatescu later relayed his experience to Millhouse, who said "the music and the warm, loving atmosphere was so attractive and filled a void in (Scarlatescu's) heart that he had to come back and understand what made these people different."

Sherryl said, “I think building this church is important.” For her, the church is both a testament to her son and a symbol of a hopeful and promising future.

For Romanians, planting roots speaks volumes, Millhouse said. The almost-complete building is a reminder to its neighbors that the Evangelical Church of Craiova is here to stay.

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