Americans get a lot of looks when chattering and walking through the square. One afternoon, as a group of us walked through the square, a man came up to us and asked in his thick accent if we were from America. He said he had lived there for about 10 years in New York and Florida. He asked if we were on vacation and we told him we were teaching EFL at the Bible school. He lit up with a smile and asked again in a thick accent if we trusted Christ. We told him yes, and he reached for his neck and fished a necklace with a crucifixion on it out from under his jacket to show us.
He asked us to stay where we were and hurried to his backpack on a nearby bench. Although he tried to hide it I could tell he was homeless or very poor, and his backpack was likely contained all of his earthly possessions. He pulled out a faded and thinning American flag he had folded up in his pack and laid it over the back of the bench with pride. He continued talking and said he wanted to share something else with us, making small talk about old cameras, which I didn’t understand until he came back with a stack of 4×6 prints a couple of inches deep. There was an old postcard among the photos.
I asked his name and he said Ivan with a smile revealing several missing teeth. He was a little insistent and kept saying he wanted to share with us. Part of me wanted to make an excuse and move on, but I was suddenly struck with the idea that this may be one of those divine appointments, that I was supposed to just be there with Ivan, listening to him as best I could. I am glad that I did.
As he flipped thru the photos a theme began to develop although they were in no particular order. There were photos of his friends in social situations, photos with friends at work on the New York docks, photos of his apartment, photos of a girlfriend, photos of dogs, ones of his first motorcycle and some of his first car. Ivan was clearly proud of coming to America and starting out with nothing, but ending up self-supporting with both a car and a motorcycle. I had asked how long he had been back in Slovakia, and it seemed about 13 years. Ivan did not say why he had left America, only mentioning the car loan paperwork had asked about citizenship, and he trailed off with distinct sadness in his voice.
Something struck me about Ivan as he enthusiastically shared his life with us, photo by photo. While he would point out what the object of the photo was, his car, his motorcycle with custom wheels, his job on the docks, he would also deliberately and carefully kiss certain photos either before or after showing them to us. They were the photos of his friends.
Of all of the things Ivan, the once American, had been sharing with us it was clear what he valued most – his connection with other people. I thanked Ivan for sharing his photos with us, and I really meant it. I was a little embarrassed to think I had come all the way to Slovakia, to connect with people in the love of Jesus, and almost missed this opportunity. I was reminded of the people Jesus hung out with when He walked around, intending on connecting with people like tax collectors, prostitutes, the sick, unclean, and so on.
Ivan pulled the old postcard from the pile of photos an explained it depicted a famous Slovak character from their history (they have a rich and beautiful history!). He said he wanted to give it to me. I tried to have him keep it, but he insisted, so I graciously accepted. When I went for a run early the next morning I looked for Ivan in the square. I did not see him that morning, but will keep looking for him over the next week….so I can stop and we can share our lives some more.