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."
Bakić's family was converted after his brother was miraculously healed of throat cancer, and he is now preparing for ministry in the pastoral footsteps of his father. Bakić and other Roma leaders are walking alongside their people on the path from conversion to transformation.
For example, in the 1970s, ethnic Serbian pastor Mio Stanković and his wife, Else, opened the doors of his small evangelical church of about 30 to the 8,000 to 10,000 Roma living in villages around Leskovac, Serbia. After 10 years, Roma trickled in after word spread of miraculous healings. Within 20 years, the congregation exploded in growth, recording 1,000 members.
In 2004, the church split, but both communities have become a base for missions, planting other Roma congregations in Serbia and reaching out to Roma communities in Croatia. Different languages, dialects, cultural groupings, and host countries make each Roma village unique. What unites them are miracles, dreams, and visions that lead to conversion. "Our gypsy people really want to see something—to feel the presence of God," says Selim Olivić, one of the pastors in Leskovac.
Change is neither immediate nor easy, leaders told CT. "Roma people come easily to Jesus, to pray the Sinner's Prayer—and then they stop," says Alexandar Subotin, founder and pastor of three churches and two mission stations in northwest Serbia.
"At the moment they hear the gospel, they are usually without hope. They accept and have a fire in their heart, but they don't know how to put wood on the fire."
Subotin was converted as a teenager, and served in a local Serbian Pentecostal church until he began a Roma church in his village. He biked to other villages, as far as 35 miles away, in order to lead home groups and evangelize. Fifty Roma now attend his largest church, though he recognizes that many come just for humanitarian aid. Still, he aims to treat equally everyone who attends.
Across the Board Outreach
Systematic poverty, a survivalist mentality, low education levels, different cultural values, and persistent prejudice have conspired to keep Roma at the bottom of European society. But effective discipleship has a proven track record of transforming individuals and renewing Roma culture. That is the conclusion of scholar Miroslav Atanasov, who's completed groundbreaking research on Pentecostal Gypsies in Bulgaria. A key factor is grassroots Roma pastors having a comprehensive vision for ministry.
In 2008, Subotin placed new emphasis on the command from Christ to care for "the least" (Matt. 25:35–40)—no matter what it takes. His work requires him, depending on the need, to be a pastor, lawyer, advocate, nurse, and counselor. "He gave me these people, and I must serve them, work with them, encourage them," Subotin says, "not only to preach the gospel but to encourage them to work and have normal lives."
Subotin says instances of violence and witchcraft have decreased, and school attendance and legal marriages have increased. More Roma now have personal documents that give them legal status in society, and there is as an increasing desire to work and keep gardens and houses clean.
Subotin says, "I always tell them, 'We will be very proud of our nationality if we have a Roma doctor or lawyer.' They don't have this vision. Some go to high school, but when they hit puberty, hormones start to work and they want to be married."
Discouragement is constant, as is divine encouragement. At one point, pastor Olivić felt overwhelmed. At a prayer meeting, he sensed God asking him to get down on the floor. "I had a picture of Jesus coming down and taking my hand and say, 'Get up. Lead my people, lead my people.' I really felt God wanted this from me."
The changes are evident even to local authorities, who now call Roma church representatives if there is an altercation between Serbs and Roma. Some Roma leaders now believe that God will use them to reach the majority culture: mostly Orthodox or Roman Catholics. "Serbians see hope in Roma people, in God," says Šerif Bakić, another pastor in Leskovac. "We wait for God to open the door to do big evangelizing so that everyone can see."
Influence is spreading regionally. Romania's population is declining, but independent churches (as a group and including Roma congregations) are growing 2 percent annually, even though their pastors do not have the same access to high-quality training as do pastors from established, denominational Christian groups.
A pastor and teacher, Marius Constantin, ministers in Romania and wants to see theological training improve among the Roma. Speaking about one problem of independent congregations, Constantin says, "A man with a lot of power, if he repents, can open a church and everyone has to listen to him. He doesn't know how to read and write, but he wants to be the boss."
The Gypsy Smith School in Bucharest, Romania's largest city, is one of the few places in the country specifically designed to prepare Roma for ministry. Since it opened its doors in 1999, many of its 50 graduates are now serving as pastors, elders, deacons, youth and music ministers, church planters, and missionaries.
In 1999, three years after Florian Tanaṣie became a Christian, he felt a strong desire to translate the Bible into Romani. Even while working as a brick-maker, he started privately translating the Psalms. When he heard about the Gypsy Smith School, he telephoned and asked if he could study there. After graduating in 2000, he went for further study and then returned to brick-making.
"I was working with bricks every day, but constantly on my knees asking God to let me translate the Bible," Florian says. Finally, in 2006, he received an unexpected call from an old professor, and eventually became a mother-tongue translator working with Wycliffe Bible Translators. So far he has helped to translate six books of the Bible into the Usari Romani dialect.
Pastor Adrian Petrovici claims that mentorship is also an effective way to train Roma. "The biggest impact I see is after I finish a sermon. I sit with the people, I touch them, and I talk with them and eat with them."
Jesus in Darda
The fasting and praying by Biljana and Đeno began a two-year process of reaching out to the village of Darda. Their ministry began to take definite shape in 2010, when Pastor Šerif traveled the 265 miles from Leskovac to hold an evangelistic concert in Darda. Biljana and Đeno were surprised when Šerif insisted on visiting Roma homes afterwards, but they learned a lot about ministry in the process, even if reluctant at first.
While visiting one home, Šerif asked Đeno to pray for the host. Đeno pleaded, "No, please, brother, I am not ready."
Darda villagers began to pay attention to Christian outreach when one woman, who had been bedridden for four years, was miraculously restored to full health. This woman and her family immediately became Christians, and she and her husband were the first from the village to be baptized.
But after two years of discipling people, Đeno and Biljana became discouraged. Not much seemed to be happening. Then in the fall of 2012, Đeno was in the garden studying his Bible when he felt God reaffirm his call to Darda. "This woke up some kind of joy in me to finally begin the church," he says.
Now that the church in Darda is up and running, Biljana and Đeno already see potential "coworkers" in it, and they are amazed at the new believers who are visiting families on their own, despite the daily challenges that emerge from a church of new believers.
"God used everything we went through in this life," says Biljana. "Now I can understand my people and what they are going through. I can comfort abused women, girls who feel rejected and unaccepted, and orphans. If [this] was God's will—for the glory of his name, I am grateful."
Melody Wachsmuth, based in Croatia, blogs at balkanvoices.wordpress.com