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Taking a breath: Sabbatical in Romania - pt.1

There is always something that needs doing! A bid for funding, supporting a member of the team, meeting with a strategic partner, mentoring a young person, planning a training day recruiting staff and volunteers, planning and delivering a talk or sermon, social media etc etc... It goes on.

It is easy to become focused on what is right in front of you: the most urgent thing which has to be done just to keep things running. Over the last 3 years Oxygen has, like many organisations, had to adapt to the challenges presented by the pandemic and develop new ways of working to meet the needs in front of us. There has been very little time to step back, take stock and reflect on where we are and where we need to go in the future. As a leader of a Christian charity, this also involves taking time to pray and listen to God.

I was very excited then, to be able to take a short sabbatical which was scheduled to start after one of the most important events in our calendar, Oxygen's AGM. It was a fantastic event with many testimonies from young people and volunteers, along with awards for their achievements. It was a real celebration of the impact Oxygen can have on people's lives. It left me feeling very inspired and motivated but also quite tired!

I started my sabbatical knowing that Oxygen was of course in the capable hands of Charlie and the rest of the team, who managed very well, ensuring that our activity programme continued throughout the summer, engaging and supporting young people, particularly those on free school meals.

A sabbatical should include 3 elements: rest; reflection; and some type of training, exploration or research to provide insight and perspective. Initially I found it very difficult to switch from an intense focus on the immediate future, tackling problems and working on the daily challenges of running the charity. I also felt very guilty at saying no to checking emails and not responding to messages, (although there were a couple of urgent things which needed my input which helped!)

I love fixing things ! So, being able to focus some of my time on DIY and catching up on jobs around the house, gave me a great sense of purpose and accomplishment. It also gave me space to think, ponder and reflect on life. I also find that I can get carried away on a practical task, which is a phenomenon associated with DIY, regarded by some people as a form of mindfulness or pursuit of a state of well being which they describe as getting into the “flow”! At the risk of reinforcing a stereotype, it could also be why so many DIY jobs remain unfinished!

I was able to spend some time with my wife and family, going for short walks, coffee and chats. There was the occasional cycle ride to Paris which was one of the most enjoyable rides ever and which raised a few pounds for Oxygen and Man and Boy!

I also had to plan the rest of my sabbatical...

To satisfy the exploration aspect of the sabbatical, I had been invited to help out at a couple of projects in Romania, one of which was a Summer activity programme in Transylvania which I visited along with my eldest son Dan and my daughter Milly. Our input involved planning activities and training sessions which were designed to improve young people's English and their understanding of British culture.

On reflection, what struck me about the situation is that it shouldn't have worked! We had not realised that there would be such a dependence on us to plan the sessions, so we were unprepared, had limited resources and could not speak the language! However, this was countered by the amazing welcome, hospitality and absolute faith in us, from our hosts, that everything would be ok and that we were more than capable of the task!

In fact, the week was made so much easier by the eagerness and excitement of the young people who just wanted to learn about us, our lives and improve themselves in whatever way they could. There was a real mix of personalities and capability amongst the group and it was immensely rewarding to see them challenge themselves and overcome their fears and grow in confidence. It was also good to work alongside Dan and Milly, who came up with some excellent ideas, applied their skills and grew into the role as the week progressed! The feedback from the young people at the end of the week was very humbling with some saying that it was the best week of their lives and very keen to have us go back!

Another bonus of my time in Transylvania was being able to share it with my brother Simon, who not only helped with the holiday club, but had arranged for the two of us to have a couple of days walking in the mountains. We stayed in a mountain lodge for a couple of nights eating local cheeses, breads and cured meats, washed down with a very powerful local drink which I am sure could have cured anything! Out walking, we spotted a family of wild boar and even a bear, which certainly sharpened our awareness of our surroundings! We felt very humbled by the hospitality shown to us by our hosts, Rasvan and Michela and also somewhat relieved at having made it out of the mountains safely!

My planning for the rest of my time in Romania had involved a conversation with James Vaughton of TEN Ministries who organise Christian missions to Europe. I had very low expectations of being able to have an impact and just wanted to visit some projects to gain insight into how God is working in people's lives. I had said that I just wanted to learn and if I could help with something, anything, in a small way then I would, even if it was as simple as just going to play table tennis. I was delighted when Andrew Saxton, a missionary working with the Roma community in Tinca, came back saying that he had been trying to set up an outreach to young people using table tennis!

So from Transylvania I flew to Oradea where I met Andrew and within a few hours, I found myself in a small church hall in Tinca, facing a group of about 20+ young people and some adults, who all seemed to think that I was a British Olympic Table Tennis champion!

Now, I am not too bad at table tennis, having lived in Hong Kong for a short while in my teens, and quite used to using it as a tool for engaging young people! However, I suddenly felt a considerable weight of expectation to perform, and realised just how tired and stiff I was from travelling and how hot and dehydrated I felt in the 38 degree heat! As I picked up the bat and ball I could not help wondering if the mild panic I felt inside was evident to those the other end of the table!? Were they experts at the game and going to be disappointed? Only one way to find out... “Does anyone want a game….?”

Come back to read part 2 next week to find out more about my time in Romania and find out what I learned about myself and how God works in the most bizarre ways…

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