When one visits a foreign land, one is encouraged to be culturally sensitive–to educate oneself regarding offensive behavior and basic good manners. For example, in some countries, it’s rude to point with what we Americans call the “pointer” finger. In other countries, it’s rude to sit in any position that aims the bottom of your foot toward a person. What comes naturally may be totally unacceptable, and it often takes months in a new culture before one even begins to ferret out the nuances of right and wrong behavior.
Enter Toni, the sound guy.
In Croatia we stayed at the Hotel President Dubrovnik. I could say a lot about the hotel, but for now, let’s just say we were not roughing it. By any stretch. Comfortable rooms, fabulous food, breathtaking views. Lovely place. We held our key-note sessions in a spacious conference room. Picture 100 women (per retreat) seated at round tables. A central “stage” area contains a keyboard and three microphones, which are connected to a portable sound box. Seated in front of the mixing board we have the only man in the room, Toni. (Yes, he spells his name with an “i.”)
Toni is probably 40ish. I would peg him younger if his hair and beard weren’t both graying. He’s tall, strong, and soft-spoken with friendly brown eyes. Every morning Toni arrived by 8:00 AM to set up for our 9:00 meeting. He stayed until our last session ended, sometimes after 10:00 PM. When he arrived, Heather, Lisa, and I were usually running through the morning’s worship set. From day one, we liked Toni. It’s impossible not to like him, and with each new day our appreciation increased.
For one thing, Toni is thoughtful. He pays attention. During the first meeting, Heather read a few scriptures during the singing time. After reading, she balanced her Bible on the corner of the sound box. There wasn’t any other place for it, besides the floor. The next day, Toni showed up with a small table for Heather’s Bible. Whatever we asked him to do, he figured out a way; and most things we needed, he noticed before we asked.
Heather had printed up songbooks with lyrics to all the songs. She gave one to Toni–just as a gift. No other reason. The next day as we gathered for our meeting, the song “Indescribable” was playing through the speakers. “What’s this?” Heather asked. In his thick accent and somewhat broken English he said, “I went home and looked up your songs on the internet.”
So, as you can imagine, Toni rapidly became our hero. And here’s where the cultural sensitivity thing comes in. How do you let someone know he’s a hero, when you don’t know what’s proper in his culture? We decided to do what came naturally. Then ask. Sometimes we drew attention to his unobtrusive service–especially if he solved a problem on the spot. “Go, Toni,” or “Woo hoo!” or, “You rock!” we’d say, and all the women would applaud. Toni looked a bit overwhelmed, but not at all displeased.
During coffee breaks, he’d stand outside on the deck, smoking a cigarette or talking on his cell phone. Many of the women walked over and chatted with him. We all wondered what he thought of us. I mean, here you have 100 women, singing their hearts out, many crying or raising their hands. These are women who serve God in countries all over the world. Many of them rarely get to worship in English or enjoy the freedom to openly express their devotion. Toni sat at his sound board and observed, day after day. He sat as the speaker spoke about God’s goodness and the power of redemption. He sat as we prayed in small groups. He took it all in, recognized needs, and came back the next day prepared to meet them.
As we got to know Toni he told us a bit about himself. We learned that his nine-year-old son was currently competing in an academic competition. He searched for the right English words to explain. “The winner will be named . . . um, ‘Croatia’s best boy.'” We smiled. I’m not sure what he meant to say, but I imagine any son of Toni’s is quite a fine boy indeed.
Toward the end of the second retreat, Toni showed up with several copies of a CD he’d burned for us. “It’s Croatian love songs,” he explained. “Some popular, some old. I thought you might enjoy them.”
“Wow, thanks, Toni. This is awesome,” we said. After a momentary pause, Heather asked, “Is it okay to give you a hug?”
A shy grin. “Sure. It’s okay,” he said. We did.
The next day, Toni brought us a box of Croatian chocolates to share. Smooth hazelnut cream filling between two chocolate layers. Delicious. Toni devoted long days to our service over a period of two weeks, anticipating our needs and quietly meeting them. Then he lavished us with gifts. We did the only thing we could think of. The whole staff signed a thank-you note. So inadequate.
But that’s not the end of our relationship with Toni. When I made photographic web albums for the staff and attendees, I made sure to include several shots of Toni. He snagged a spot in all our hearts, and I know lots of women all around the world will be praying for him.
The thought of all those prayers makes me happy. Toni may be generous, but I’ve never met anyone who could out-give God. Maybe someday, when people from every tongue and nation gather around the throne, Toni can tell me how God answered. In a language we’ll both understand.