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Pastor Joel Tillis, Missions Trip to Romania PT.1
One of my biggest role models is Pastor Joel Tillis. Why?
Has he written best-selling books on how to receive blessings from God? No.
Does his church hold services to 10,000, on average, each Sunday? No.
Does he have his own television program? Has he been on Oprah? No.
Pastor Tillis hasn’t done any of the things and if he has his way, he never will. So, why is he my role model? Because he’s my pastor.
Pastor Tillis recently went on a missions trip to Romania and he agreed to let me interview him about his trip for Teen Ink. Hopefully, through this interview you will see why he’s my role model-both as a Christian and as a human being.
Rachel: My first question is why did you choose to go to Romania and who all did you go with?
Pastor Tillis: I chose to go to Romania because I was invited by my brother and his pastor and a team that had gone there the year before. So, his pastor in North Carolina’s name is Reverend Burlier and then my brother, Stephen, and three of his friends, Brandon, Brian and Brian, and so they invited me to come and I thought, since it was my first missionary trip out of the country, it would be good to go with people that I knew and that I had a good working relationship with.
Rachel: Are there any major differences between the personalities of Americans and the personalities of Romanians?
Pastor Tillis: I couldn’t answer that question fully; I could only answer it in the area that I was.
Bucharest was a large city; a lot more modern. Turnu Severin is a smaller city and surrounding, outlying villages; it’s not nearly as modern and it’s just sort of a different world. So, it’d be like trying to answer that question talking about the rural South versus New York City; I’m sure that there would be differences.
But in the area that I was I found that the Romanian people were very kind; they were very accommodating; but I didn’t find them to be very warm. They didn’t seem to be open a lot; there seemed to be sort of a spirit of distrust; of carefulness. They weren’t very boisterous when they talked; they were very quiet and a lot of that, from what we discovered, was left-over from the time of Communism and some of the strict government policies they were under.
But the major differences in personality is, what I think, they were friendly and kind, but not warm; [It was a] very closed atmosphere.
Rachel: What was it like preaching with an interpreter?
Pastor Tillis: Difficult. [chuckles] It was difficult because you had to slow down and you weren’t able to just put together large blocks of thought; you had to break it down into sentences and, on one hand, I think that’s good because it makes you think about what you’re saying; on the other hand, it’s difficult because it becomes choppy if you’re not careful, as you’re speaking.
It’s also harder, I think, to tell jokes through an interpreter. The colloquialisms that we use here in America don’t always transcend; even simply using words, for instance, I was preaching in a very poor, small village one night and I was talking about a garage and they just didn’t really have a concept of what a garage was on a house; they could picture a four or five or six story garage in a city, but they just didn’t imagine that attached to a house.
So, I think using an interpreter, it was difficult sometimes to communicate; I think it was also difficult to get the feeling from the people back; that instantaneous reaction, whether good or bad; it was hard to have that feeling and connection with the people.
So, that was probably some of the things that were difficult about it.
Rachel: What types of messages did you preach?
Pastor Tillis: I preached, basically, only two kinds:
One was the fundamental message of Christianity, which is the Gospel. I preached…the basic tenants of the Gospel; that Jesus is the Savior of the world; that’s He’s the Hope for the world; that no matter, whether it’s America or Romania or Africa or [the] South American continent, it doesn’t matter where, we believe that Christ is the answer.
And then I also preached some fundamentals of the Christian life; hope, love, going through trials, going through difficulties.
So, I used quite a few different passages from the Bible, but stayed with those two major themes and that was the Gospel and then strength in difficult times.
Rachel: Was it different preaching to Christians over in Romania oppose to preaching to Christians in America?
Pastor Tillis: Yes! And no.
“No” in that the truths that we hold dear as American Christians are the same truths for Romanians Christians because it comes from the same source; the same text, the Bible.
But, “yes”, it was different in that their set of problems are different. The fundamental problems aren’t; you’re still going to have marital problems, you know, no matter where you are; you’re still going to have problems with lying, cheating, bad attitudes…
But, you know, it’s a little bit different to preach to people that literally are getting on a wagon and donkey to ride home as oppose to preaching to people that get in a SUV and drive home; that’s a world of difference. You know people that are going home that don’t have heat; they just have a stove or a fireplace; people that have a limited resources of food; limited resources of clothing; limited resources to medical attention facilities.
And so, they’re very poor; they’re very limited in what they have and so that made it different, not always bad, just different.
One example that made it different was preaching on Heaven. Here in America it’s hard to sometimes get people to want to think about Heaven in a really positive, meaningful way, because they have a lot of their needs met.
Over there, when you’re living in squalor and every day is just a fight to stay alive, Heaven takes on a whole new meaning. And so, when you’re preaching or singing a song (“There’s a Land that is Fairer than Day”) and you’re singing about the “sweet by and by”, it means something more to people who are fighting just to stay alive as oppose to people like us who, we think it’s a really hard time just because we don’t have extra money.
So, it was different; [in] some ways it was good; [in] some ways it was bad.
Rachel: What was your biggest challenge going from America to Romania?
Pastor Tillis: The plane rides! [laughs] Getting there, I went from Tampa to Washington [D.C]; [it was] about a two-hour flight; from Washington [D.C] to Zurich, Switzerland was about an eight-hour flight; from Zurich, Switzerland to Bucharest was about a four-hour flight and then once we got to Bucharest we had a five-hour train ride out into the middle of Romania.
So, the hardest thing to me was just the loooong hours of traveling. And I think the train was even worse than the plane because at least on the plane you could get up and walk to the back; you could stand back there; [you could] have a cup of coffee; there were movies to watch.
On the train, there was no where to go; you’re just sitting there and there’s no movies to watch; it was dark when we were traveling so you couldn’t really see the landscape.
But it was the traveling. It was a looong trip, long trip.
Rachel: That’s actually what Christi [your wife] told me you’d say. [laughs]
Pastor Tillis: Mmhm, it was really, really difficult. That was the hardest thing and I think the second hardest thing, on a more personal note, was, there’s a difference in being in Georgia or North Carolina and knowing that, you know, within a day, within eight hours you could be home if you needed to be as oppose to being on another continent and not being able to get home when you want as quick as you want.
And having a wife and two children [Anna and Sam], I think the distance really sunk into me [about] how far away [from] home I was. It’s one think to be a couple hours away; it’s another thing to be on another continent, in a whole other country; a whole other world.
And that was the difficult thing, I think, about going to Romania.
Rachel: What did you expect when going to Romania and how did that differ from what you actually encountered?
Pastor Tillis: I don’t think that I expected as much poverty as there was in the villages; I was surprised about that. I guess being, you know, being an American it’s still…it was surprising to me to see that people still use donkeys and wagons, you know? They still just use fireplaces. The poverty was surprising.
I was surprised about how Americanized; how much they were hungry for Western culture. When we went to the coffee houses, the kids would, if you told them you were American, the teenagers would talk to you for hours and hours and hours on end, and ask you questions about all the different kind of TV shows; about MTV; about Lady Gaga; anything that they could, so I really surprised about how hungry they were for that.
But I think the poverty [was what surprised me]; I think the hunger for the Americanism; for Westernism. So, that was surprising.
The weather! It [was] cold. I wasn’t prepared for how cold it was. And so, that made a big difference.
Rachel: Who was the most memorable person you met while in Romania, whether good or bad?
Pastor Tillis: I think the most memorable (and by that I mean the one that, the people that just stick in my mind the most) is probably several girls, young girls, that were just elementary age:
Cassandra, Alexandra and Rahayla were the three girls at a village (there were other kids there, but); they were probably seven…six, seven, eight; very, very poor; very, very…beautiful; very kind. [They] had never seen bubble gum before and [they] had never seen a video camera before and, for whatever reason, I think those three just really stick in my mind [as the] most memorable because, you know, I still think about where they are, what they’re doing.
When we left the village and headed back, it was dusk and it was, for me it was bitterly cold and I could see them walking down the little trail, up the hill, to head back to where their little home was and God only knows what kind of home they were heading back to; outhouse; what kind of little shack they lived in.
And that was one of…if I could have put them in my suitcase and brought them back, I would have. So, I keep them in my mind; I think about those [girls] and to me, they represent all the little kids over there that are so disadvantaged and [that] don’t have the opportunities that we have.
So, I think Cassandra, Alexandra and Rahayla stand [out] in my mind the most as far as the most memorable.
And even now, talking about it, I get teary-eyed [just] thinking about them. It just meant a lot to see them, you know, and love them up.
But those are the three I think.
Rachel: What was your most interesting experience?
Pastor Tillis: Using an outhouse. Without a doubt. Without being crass, it was very cold and we had driven a looong, long, long, long way out into a village on the side of a hill and I asked if I could use the restroom. When we got there, they said sure and the guy pointed out the back [laughs] and I walk out the back, looking for an attachment to the building or a shed or something.
And he said, “No, no,” and he pointed out there, across this little backyard and there was an outhouse out there and it was, it was, basically, four posts and a little, tiny roof, and it was the most unusual thing that I had ever seen.
That was one of the most unusual experiences, right there; I was with my brother.
I think the other experience that sticks out in my mind was preaching at the Gypsy church in the Gypsy village and hearing them sing their Gypsy songs for the Lord. That was, those two were probably [the most memorable experiences].
And the Gypsy village, that’s another one of those that sometimes I’ll, even now, I’ll start to go to sleep and, in my mind, I can still remember the smell, the feel, the sound of the singing; that was a special place; hearing those Gypsies sing and that was neat; that was special.
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