A while back, I published a series of articles based on the experience of interacting with Chinese, Roma, and European mission leaders last fall.
We continue to work with the networks that have emerged and grown in such gatherings, and in the many personal connections nurtured as the work goes forward.
One of the presentations given at the Roma to the Nations conference focused not upon the unique collaboration across cultures (something for which the Holy Spirit alone can be credited), but on the Roma themselves – particularly the underlying worldview that permeates the cultures of Roma.
Radko Kratsov is Bulgarian and Roma. Having come to faith in Jesus in 1991, he pursued a “biblical education,” which was, in essence, thoroughly “Western.” As he began to pursue “doing ministry with Roma,” he was flummoxed by his lack of “success” – the methods, models, approaches which seemed so good on paper, and which were heartily recommended as effective by those who taught him, were bearing little fruit. “What’s wrong?” he began to ask. “The things I am learning, this ‘Western model,’ are not working.”
So, after years of study, he began to fill in a major gap in his curriculum. “I began to study my own culture.” He looked at the depth and breadth of the history of Roma in Europe, and found that he was looking at – and, indeed, he himself was shaped by – long-term worldview issues that were formed over CENTURIES. “From the fifth through the eighteenth centuries, there was a “black line” around the Roma – they were consistently rejected by the majority. This has changed their mentality. How?”
“Here’s what we see: Kids, teens and families are now at risk from criminality, kids are not staying in school, they have no self-esteem, no ability to ‘realize,’ no desire to change.” Social rejection is the air that they breathe.
Observers from the outside can see the symptoms, but they cannot know what is happening in the head and heart. The Roma exist within a “shame-based culture” – this is particularly true for girls. There is an existential difference between them and the rest of the world. Surveying their place in the world, they are struck with two deeply intertwined impressions: “Something is definitely wrong… and it must be with ME.” This feeling is very deeply implanted in the Roma mindset. Unfortunately, it is reinforced, as Kratsov poignantly comments, when Roma visit Bulgarian churches. “They ‘hide’ us. We begin to feel that we are not for that place… So we go off and plant Roma churches; that feels better.”
“In Communist times, we were second-class citizens, moved to the back of the room, treated as stupid.” (This is more than his impression: A report by The European Roma Rights Center (ERRC), revealed that over 60 percent of the Roma in Slovakia who attend school do so at schools for the mentally handicapped.)
Over time, layers of “shamefulness” accumulate. “Families crowded into one place, one home. Or 24 thousand crowded into one place, the biggest ghetto in Europe. There is no desire to change; that has been lost.”
“We conclude that we were created not for good things. We need to be working hard, eating bad food… this outlook was formed over generations, centuries.” When kids see this as their “world” they fall right into it. They become it and it becomes them.
“People come from the outside and tell us what to do, not to help us take responsibility. Missionaries come in and say, ‘Let’s make a bakery,’ but they have no connection with the local people. ‘Let’s make toilets. For you.’ Why? How? They were just showing us that they see us as dirty Gypsies. We need to recognize that the poverty works in the mind. Discrimination against Roma leads to disincentive, which leads to criminality.”
How can real, sustainable transformation take place in such an environment? “To see this happen, we need to understand the Roma worldview.” Kratsov’s vision is clear and aims high: “Roma can be a blessing to the nations – that is why we were created! Not to be a people who just say, ‘Give me.’”
“Roma know clearly what other people want to do with them.” However, many of them do not sense the injustice… they grasp it as a sort of “destiny” that is not subject to influence. And that leads them to put up walls. They’re acclimatized to being the “object” – of hatred, bigotry, genocide, pity… or compassion, of evangelistic efforts.
But true Christian ministry needs to build the body, honoring and valuing all its members equally. It sees Roma not as an “object” but as a worthy subject, in his or her own right. “If one time a Roma feels as if you are using him for you ministry, it’s all over,” Kratsov warns. “Do you LOVE them, or wish to use them as ministry raw material?”
Here’s another insight: “Roma people like to go to church. They feel secure in the home of the Father. But they don’t GROW from visiting church. They need to understand processes not individual events. They like conferences, but that will not change them. The need is for long-term processes, like five or seven years.” That’s why short-term engagement is so unproductive. He advises “working together with them on a process. Showing a principle and then helping to do each step.”
Kratsov explained “the epistemology of the Roma. That means how do you know the things that you ‘know’.” What do you know, and what are the grounds for what you know? “That 2+2 = 4? You know God? You know the weather? Roma know not from hearing but from seeing and touching. Centuries of rejection has built into a worldview a victim mentality. Someone else is the reason that I am in the situation that I’m in. It’s government, it’s bears… Roma have a visual epistemology. Hearing is not effective. Observations can have a domino effect. Change the worldview by practice. Theological development does not lead to practical change. Westerners explain the importance of particular theological concepts. Roma want to know how I will practice this tomorrow in my village. Without practical steps, theology is foolishness to them.”
He put up a picture, taken in his neighborhood, that took my breath away. A picture of a dark-skinned boy, maybe around ten or twelve, with close cropped, neat black hair and white T-shirt. He had a calm demeanor, almost as if he was posing for a school portrait. Except for his dark eyes that gazed directly at the camera and seemed to betray a deep emptiness. And the fact that he was peering out from the inside of a dumpster in front of his apartment block.
“People see us as garbage. God is changing us! But now people are laughing at us – you are stupid Roma, you are second-class people. We are not because we come from the Lord.”
As he moved to conclude his remarks, he glanced back at the picture, which he himself had chosen for the presentation, and was himself overcome by its emotional impact. He couldn’t continue. The talk was over.
But the impact of his ideas – the insights provided into the nature of the spiritual chains that have bound the Roma for far too long, and the role that understanding them can play in our efforts to ministry with (not just to) Roma – is still resonating.
 Eva Sobotka, “Slovakia,” in Denied a Future, vol. 2, ed. Kath Pinnock (London: Save the Children UK, 2001), 179.