In a sewer tunnel under the busy streets of downtown Bucharest I encountered hopelessness in a way I never had. Six of us climbed down the ladder through an exposed manhole and met with half a dozen families that called this particular urban cavity their home. I wasn’t sure why I was there other than to tag along with aid workers who brought along basic medical supplies and a few wool blankets. The director, Catalín, waved at me and in broken English said, “go talk with them and listen to their stories.” Eugene, one of the ministry leaders, volunteered to translate back and forth from Romanian to English and English to Romanian in order to grant me the gift of conversation with a gentleman who was no stranger to the weekly visits of my companions. He recounted to me the experiences of living in a broken post-communist society that was still reeling (even after 17 years) from the horrendous practices of the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu. Born in the sewers, not a hospital, this man had no form of documented identification, which relegated he and his little family to the status of non-entity. The instability of the government had not created pathways to be recognized as a true Romanian citizen. He was a foreigner in his own land, couldn’t legally get a job, and had no foreseeable opportunities to change his situation.
My naïve American pragmatism had no conceptual space to piece together this man’s story. And I thought I knew brokenness! Growing up in Los Angeles, interacting with homeless populations, poverty, single-parent homes, immersed in ministries directly working with gang members and drug addicts—none of it prepared me for those conversations I had in that sewer. As we drove back to the base in silence, my heart was broken as I searched for answers to this man’s situation. I desperately wanted to tell him everything was going to be okay. I wanted to tell him that there was a way out and that he didn’t have to give up. If he would just follow a few basic steps then he could work his way out of this predicament. But I couldn't.
I realized that my faith in Jesus only worked in America where there were resources available for even the most destitute. I had no answers to offer this man and the feeling I had was that of hopelessness. The next day, Catalín asked if I would be willing to share a devotion later that night with a group of the city’s homeless that gathered in a downtown shelter they called ‘coffeehouse’. I reluctantly accepted but was terrified because of the situational faith crisis I found myself in. I didn’t think the gospel had anything to offer these people! I sat for an hour with the Bible open, a notepad, and a pen trying to figure out what on earth I had to share with this little community. Finally, locked away in my room, with tears of frustration streaming down my face, I remember audibly raising my voice toward God, saying, “Lord, I have nothing to tell them…nothing at all!” And in an instant, the Lord said to me, “of course you don’t—but I do! I have lots to tell them. I am the Lord, their strength and shield. My power is made perfect in their weakness. I hear their cry and see their oppression. I have unfathomable plans for each of those, my little ones. They are mine and I love them. Can you tell them for me?”
At that moment in prayer at the base, I think I felt something similar to what Simeon, the devout man in Jerusalem, felt when the Holy Spirit revealed that he would meet the Lord’s Messiah. Everything around him pointed to hopelessness—political turmoil, Roman occupation, religious corruption, racial prejudice, injustice—but he obeyed the Lord, waited expectantly for the consolation of Israel, took a newborn child named Jesus into his arms, and gave thanks because God had not left Israel without hope.
Associate Campus Pastor for Discipleship Ministries
Masters of Divinity, Fuller Theological Seminary
B.A. in Biblical Studies, Azusa Pacific University
Coba Canales has been in ministry since 2006 and has served in the local church, parachurch, and university setting, including a year as director of diversity programs at Vanguard University. He loves working on ministry teams and has a passion for seeing every student transformed through intentional discipleship alongside peers and mentors. Coba and his wife Drea have two children, Joseph and Ruth.