Why are there so many Chinese who are drawn to minister to the Roma in Europe? Particularly when Europeans themselves have been – and pretty much continue to be – participants in the generations-long process of marginalizing them? All the same, here there are Chinese churches from three continents, each struggling with critical European questions that Europeans are still, to a great extent, succeeding to avoid. How do they describe their motivations? Are they seeing something that the rest of us have been missing?
A key figure in this dynamic is Pastor Thomas Wang, who is celebrating his 90th birthday. If anyone could be forgiven for taking a pass on starting in on such an unexpected Gospel endeavor, it could well be him. However, introduced as “our special grandfather,” he is providing heart and encouragement for a unique cross-cultural engagement.
And Pastor Wang is very clear about why he is here in Budapest, gathering Chinese and Roma and Europeans together to “make a plan.” In his words, “We have come to pay a debt we owe.” Again highlighting the importance of media portrayals of on-the-ground realities for raising awareness and giving a “face” to an otherwise abstract “issue,” he referred to role played by publications about the Roma, acknowledging that “these articles aroused in us a sense of indebtedness.” His response to what he read: “Woe to me if I do not… reach out to the Roma!”
But what is the source of this feeling of “needing to pay a debt”? (We Americans are typically very skeptical of attempts couched in words like “you owe us this.”) Pastor Wang draws his sense of “gospel debt” from Scripture and from the Chinese experience.
In the start of Paul’s letter to Rome, Paul speaks of being “under obligation” to both Greeks and non-Greeks, which is why he was “eager to proclaim the good news.” (Rom. 1.14-15) But the Chinese are not just seeing this as “moral obligation.” They read this verse (as it’s translated in the NRSV) as saying that Paul was a “debtor” to those who did not know. They are taking this very seriously – to ignore the fate of 10-12 million people on the margins of Europe who are not welcome in most of Europe’s churches or communities would be like defaulting on a debt. So when they read about the Roma, it hit them – We just found out about a debt we owe and need to repay. We OWE it to these people to take the good news to them.
While this “indebtedness” idea would apply with any “unreached people group” to whom they turned their vision, there is a particular historical aspect of the Chinese experience that is relevant. We heard a variety of accounts of the story of the Chinese people (particularly in diaspora) and the gospel. Chinese were, going back a couple hundred years or so, also scattered about, also dispersed, also consigned to the margins. They also were the victims of inherited superstition, stubbornly clinging to old forms of life that did more to bind them than to advance them. But, say these leaders, the Gospel changed all that. A key role in their telling of their exposure to the message of the cross and their application of it to life, is played by “the missionaries” who “brought the gospel to us 200 years ago. That is why we feel such a debt.” The Chinese see their past in the Roma present. They see themselves as being once “refugees and travelers,” an enormous “extended family” united by their hardship and lack of “home.” But when they became “evangelized, a new identity was established.”
One after the other Chinese pastors and mission leaders shared their deep appreciation of the missionaries who brought the Gospel to their people, and their profound sense of debt to carry that mission of sharing the gospel to those who are now in a similar position to the one in which their ancestors were when the Gospel came to them. This is not just a figure of speech. These people feel the burden of this debt… and they are not going to go away until they’ve found a way to pay it off.
It is this sense of indebtedness that makes their message of mission so compelling: They are NOT coming here to tell the Europeans how they’ve messed up and created a Roma problem; they are here to pay their OWN debt. That is what drives their sense of outrage about the status quo for European Roma – “Millions of Roma have not heard the gospel… and European churches don’t care! Last year we heard – from first hand testimony – about how Roma Christians are often refused baptism in European churches. And even after baptism, they are refused membership. They say, ‘We are being treated like we are sub-human.’ And they simply desire to be treated like human beings. That makes us feel guilty. This is not how the church of Christ should behave. We went to a Roma church that met in a shipping container! It is a shame on the church that a shipping container is the best they can have. We need to stir up a burden, vision and mission for the church in Europe.”
I was moved by the heart and the biblical basis for this concept of “gospel debt” and can certainly see how it holds the power it does for these Chinese believers. In my next post, I’ll up the ante by adding a couple of elements that lead me not only to personally embrace this sense of “gospel debt” to the Roma communicated by our Chinese brothers and sisters, but to “own” it to the extent that we feel an even GREATER sense of gospel debt to the Roma than they do.