Cross-cultural engagement-A ‘vitamin pill’ for monocultural churches?

“More and more we realize that it is the work of the Lord,” said a Chinese pastor from Budapest, Hungary.

I was at a Roma mission strategy seminar in Thessaloniki, Greece with a handful of Chinese Leaders from North America, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Europe.  Some of them were new to the whole “Roma-Chinese” connection that began two and half years ago.  But others were a year or two into the process of learning, listening, and discerning what part, if any, they could have in what God was doing among Roma communities in Europe and North America.  Interspersed with our ‘classroom’ sessions, we visited several Roma communities in Greece.

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A Chinese clown entertains kids in a Roma church.

A pastor from Malaysia shared that being exposed to Roma mission had led him to reflect on the difficult time some Chinese churches have had with cross-cultural mission, traditionally being more inward focused.  “It occurred to me then that maybe the Chinese need the Roma, that they are perhaps a ‘vitamin pill’ for the Chinese church to begin looking outward,” he said.  “This is starting to stir among the Chinese Churches I am sharing at.”

Of course, he is referring to the fact that missional engagement is a mutually transformative process for all involved—and this process is particularly magnified if it involves a cross-cultural element.  To learn from how others experience God can only lead to your own small perception of God and his mission expanding.   And if that is true, well, then, there is no alternative except to plunge right into relationships-in-context.

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Roma leader (Roma Networks) from Serbia encourages a Roma Church in Greece. These are the vital moments of connection.

And this is what the group did —after myself and the Roma Networks committee left Thessaloniki, the Chinese leaders headed out across Albania and Macedonia. Their plan was to continue relationships already begun, make new ones, and continue to learn about the diversity of Roma communities.

This is not a speedy process—and even as there were some in the seminar who wanted to ‘make a plan,’ others cautioned deliberation over speed, organic growth over imposed plans, continuing to listen and learn in the context of growing relationships with Roma leaders.

The Chinese pastor from Budapest shared about how his heart had been gradually changing over this two year process. “At first I was convinced that we should not get involved,” he said.  “Who are the Roma to us Chinese? But now our whole heart is being transformed because we realize they are people in need of salvation just like us.”

Who has the right to name us?

“All these names are given to us by others,” said Miki, a Roma pastor from Serbia. In his presentation on Roma identity at the 2nd European Roma conference, he was listing different names people call the Roma.  “But who has the right to name us, to tell us who we are?”

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Picture by the Good Story Team.(thegoodstory.co)

Claiming identity in Christ, which liberates from shame and self-rejection, also revitalizes Roma identity.  This was just one of the major themes emerging from the conference.

“I did not feel worthy to sit with the non-Roma,” one pastor said.

“Even though I ‘look’ Roma because of my skin, I was educated and so I did not fit the expectation others have of  who the Roma are.  So when they would ask me if I was Roma, I would say no, because I did not want to be rejected,” another pastor said.

Overcoming rejection and embracing identity in Christ is key to transformation.  But this concept is not just about ethnicity—later on, I applied Miki’s question to gender issues at the women’s panel.

“Who has the right to tell you who you are as a woman?” I asked, referencing Jesus’ call of ‘Daughter’ to the bleeding woman in the gospels .  We had been having a  lively discussion on

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Picture by the Good Story Team.(thegoodstory.co)

women’s issues, the place of Roma women in ministry, and sharing personal stories and reflections.  To my surprise, the room had filled up with both men and women—though this might have been because (maybe providentially) there was no Romanian translator at another workshop.  Roma men talked about the place they gave their wives in ministry.  Roma women talked about their views of their role in ministry.  Non-Roma asked probing questions and listened.  As the time grew to a close, it was difficult to shut down the conversation, as each insisted on having a voice and opinion in the discussion.

This robust discussion was one of my highlights at the conference—connecting ministry, personal story, theology, and culture in a space where everyone wanted to share and contribute.

But Roma claiming identity in Christ is only part of the transformative process. Non-Roma must also understand that every human is God’s sacred image bearer. “We have no right to say who is worthy or worthless because no one chooses where and when to be born,” Miki points out. Without a mutual recognition of the ‘other’ as our brother and sister—across ethnic and gender barriers—the church cannot have a widespread prophetic voice to a society growing ever more divided by fear and suspicion.

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Picture by the Good Story Team.(thegoodstory.co)

“Who told you who you are?  Who told you how much you are worth?” Miki asked the audience.

Nelu, another Roma pastor from Romania, pointed out that in the Romanian, Jesus’ exhortation to the hemorrhaging woman translates into the word ‘dare.’

Accepting our true identity also necessitates action, a courageous movement into life. Dare to step forward, to walk in peace, to be freed from suffering.

“Don’t be led by your problems,” Nelu challenged his workshop participants, “dare to be led by Jesus.”