Thinking Hard about Hard Things | Roma, Chinese, Mission and Me – Part 8

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Melody Wachsmuth at the Roma to the Nations consultation. Budapest, October 2015

Melody Wachsmuth, who blogs at Balkan Voices, has studied theology and cross-cultural studies at Fuller, and lives in Croatia, where she teaches at Evangelical Theological Seminary. She has a gift for interacting with people and getting to the heart – both on the individual level and at the “macro” level of demographics. It is in the latter area that she brings reflective insight and statistical rigor to a place they are practically non-existent: mainstream understanding of Europe’s Roma.

It’s hard to imagine that this consultation would have ever taken place had it not been for the folks at Great Commission Center International encountering some of Melody’s articles and, reading between the lines, discovering the “gospel debt” that the Chinese church owed the Roma. It image_3349175is sadly ironic that many in the mainstream – not only in society but, to our shame, among Christian churches – have still not acknowledged that we have a balance due.

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Wall hanging in Hungary Chinese Christian Church. October 2015

At the conference, I asked about her brilliant master plan– for years, she’s had a heart for the Roma, not just as an object of study, but as worthy subjects of relationship. Getting such little traction among mainstream believers, what a stroke of genius to survey the missional landscape of Europe and conclude, “I know what we’re missing – Chinese missionaries!” With her ready smile, she could do nothing but chuckle at the very idea. There was no way that this response was in the wildest imagination of the author of the articles that sparked it.

Melody brings some hard data to a hard topic. In this age of seemingly endless statistics and information, it is mind-boggling to consider the best (though certainly not only) estimate of how many Roma live in Europe: 10 to 12 million. That in itself is insane – merely citing that entails referring to two million human beings, two million souls, that may or may not exist. Not since our days of trying to get a handle on reliable HIV statistics to try to understand the exploding epidemic in Ukraine have we seen such a gap between “official” statistics and reality. Just one example: according to the “official” data, there are 600,000 Roma living in Romania… while the most likely number in reality is close to two-and-a-half million!

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Livezeni, Romania. October 2014.

Merely considering how this is possible provides insight into what it means to be Romani in Europe. It’s political mathematics driven by discrimination. In many cases census takers or officials flat-out lowball the numbers so that less money will flow into Roma areas. But they don’t have to work hard to fudge the numbers – the Roma themselves often under-report or refuse to self-identify as Roma, for a variety of tragic reasons: fear of stigma, internalized shame, and bad memories about how other attempts to “register” were used to their detriment.

Melody is a living example of the importance to mission of both sharing the human stories and wrestling with data. “Demographics,” she says, “is just looking at context to be better prepared to participate in God’s mission.”

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Livezeni, Romania. October 2014. As these pictures show the link between Roma and disabilities is more than conceptual, as numerous residents of this roadside village are affected by disability.

We can’t pursue mission without decent research – hence her ongoing collaboration with Fuller’s School of World Mission. Historically the lack of research (or inadequate research) into context and culture has led to “misguided efforts,” never truer than among the Roma. Mainstream culture (including, by and large, the church) tends to portray the Roma as either victims (worthy of little but pity), scapegoats (the source of every imaginable problem) or romanticized “roving gypsies.” (The echoes of mainstream attitudes and treatment of people with disabilities, another one of our areas of passion, is shamefully clear.)

The European Union just wrapped up the Decade of Roma Inclusion, which focused on education, employment, housing and health – all things seriously lacking among the Roma, now as much as ever. 90% of Roma are still living below the poverty line in the EU. The life expectancies for Roma men and women are ten years less than the EU average. Infant mortality is higher. Levels of education, especially in the East, are significantly lower. Many who ARE in schools are in segregated schools or “special schools” for the developmentally disabled.

What has resulted from all the money and government initiatives? The consensus is that the “decade” pretty much “flamed out.” Again, lack of decent data make it impossible to completely make that assessment. Certainly there were improvements in some areas (like in education and health in SOME areas) saw improvement, but nothing CLOSE to success. In places like Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Montenegro education markers actually got worse. In Albania, the housing gap increased. Roma employment levels in Romania went down. The health gap increased in Macedonia. Discrimination persisted and, in some cases, got worse. 60% of Roma are unaware that discrimination in hiring is illegal. Half of Roma interviewed in southeastern Europe had no idea that it the “Decade of Roma Inclusion” ever existed. There is a big disconnect between high-level view and reality in the community. But it’s striking that even at the highest level, the organizers’ summary is entitled “A Lost Decade?

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Budapest, Hungary. October 2015

This is where statistics do not tell the story, and where the heart of mission needs to become engaged with a mind that can clearly sort through the concepts. When we talk about poverty, we may use different definitions without recognizing it. But there are deeper differences. The EU continues to measure poverty as a lack of material things. But, at a deeper level, poverty might be better seen (and battled) as being RELATIONAL. It’s not the lack of things as much as the lack of SHALOM.

Poverty as BrokennessIf poverty is seen entirely as “lack,” then even “success” in fighting it will never bring transformation and will likely lead to disillusionment. All the money in the world will not heal broken relationships between the Roma and non-Roma – so the “glass ceiling” remains intact.

Melody is convinced that we will NEVER experience shalom in the wider society without reconciliation with the Roma… and that it MUST start with the church. The “numbers” make it clear (if we didn’t know it already) that the mission approaches need to be holistic.

One of the questions Jesus asked was “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus, in asking that, knows that Peter’s understanding of His identity will shape his thinking and behavior. The same principle applies to us and Roma. We don’t serve a mass of “poor Roma” with our own ideas of what transformation looks like… we embrace a call to mission in light of our own weakness and need, committing ourselves to the discomfort of shedding our own culture to walk with the Roma, created in the image of God just like us.

This post is the eighth in a series, which begins here.

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