God Among the Roma
A shivering 15-year-old, Biljana Nikolić, stood shielding her one-month-old on a street corner in Serbia as a fierce thunderstorm whipped through town.
Biljana leaned against a house to steady herself against the wind. She was fleeing her abusive second husband, and this, less than a year after running away from her first husband, a man her mother forced her to marry. She watched her baby struggle to breathe, and remembered a song her aunt taught her when she was 9: I have a phone that goes up into the sky, when I have problems I can call Jesus.
"God, I know you are here and that you gave me this child," she muttered, "but I don't know what to do with him. If you want, take him."
Just then, a Serbian woman opened the door of the house Biljana was leaning against. She urged Biljana to come inside. It was the first of a long string of answers to prayer that would change her life.
Eventually, her first husband, Đeno, asked her to return to Croatia for the sake of their son. Yet the couple struggled for years. Grinding poverty compelled Biljana to beg on the streets, and forced to sift through trash for scrap metal to sell for cash. They had no legal documents in Croatia, so they were denied assistance from agencies. Mutual growing bitterness resulted in violent arguments. There seemed to be no end to their suffering until 2004. While Biljana was begging on the streets, a local Christian woman befriended her—an encounter that eventually led to Biljana to give her life to Christ.
The change in Biljana's life moved Đeno. "I would wake up in the night and could see she was in tears praying for me," he says. "I thought that she had surely cracked, but my conscience began to bother me for everything I did to her." Slowly, his love for Biljana grew as he learned about the love of God, and he finally accepted Christ in 2007. They started maturing together in faith, albeit slowly. One thing that wasn't slow, though, was their passion to serve their people—the Roma.
"Almost every time Biljana and I prayed, we prayed that somehow we could go and serve our people," Đeno says, "but we didn't know how to start." Local Croatian Pentecostal pastors encouraged them to begin by fasting and praying for the Roma village of Darda.
Agents of Change
The Nikolićs represent a fresh wave of transformed Roma who are reaching out to their own despite enormous social and economic challenges.
Media reports of Christianity's rapid growth among Europe's 10 to12 million Roma— stigmatized for generations as "Gypsies"—stand in contrast with the staggering prejudice they face. During the Holocaust, 200,000 to 500,000 died in Nazi death camps. Today they are the world's largest people group without their own nation state. There are 70 subgroups of Roma, mostly tracing their origins to northern India. A 2012 World Bank and European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights survey found their situation in Europe grim. Only 15 percent finish upper-secondary general or vocational education, fewer than 30 percent are employed, and about 45 percent live in households lacking an indoor kitchen, a toilet, a shower or bath, or electricity.
"There is an urgency to this matter," says Anne-Marie Kool, a professor of missiology, until recently at the Karoli Gaspar Reformed University in Budapest.
Factors leading to this state of affairs are complex, but basic social discrimination—found even in some churches—is a fact of daily life for Roma. Still, many Roma leaders believe the church holds the key to transformation for the Roma. "The only institution that can help the 'Roma community' on a global level is the church," says an emerging church leader Miodrag-Miša Bakić. "The people have lost hope in all of the political-social leaders and in every institution except the church."