Evil shows no partiality

I walked into the church service, rage pulsing through my body as if I had an inner volcano emitting lava burps—and this was the second time in one week.

The first had been a few days prior—my friend and I were visiting with one young Roma man who had just returned after a 3 year stint attempting to claim asylum in Canada.  Like so many other Roma from Croatia, his application had eventually been rejected and the authorities came, without warning, to deport him.

But that was not why I was angry—Canada was just following its immigration procedure, stipulating that refugee status involves a “well-founded fear of persecution, which is defined as torture, risk to one’s life, etc.” Of course, things raw_edx_refugee-payment-countries-v3-e1414960384588get a bit muddy here as  Roma from Croatia, Hungary, and other places are certainly subject to discrimination, having a more difficult time finding jobs, housing, and fair treatment simply because they are Roma. This is a complicated subject, as seen by this recent article: Canada pays thousands of Roma to abandon refugee appeal.

It was what happened while he was in Canada that really got my blood boiling.  Somewhere along the way, this man began to feel haunted and terrorized by something—whether on a spiritual or psychological level I cannot say.  He reached out to a certain prominent televangelist and began sending weekly donations of money he likely could not  afford in a desperate attempt to secure the  promises of “healing” and “freedom.”

He placed a stack of form letters in front of me—I estimated between 40-50 letters “written” by this televangelist, promising secret envelopes, blue stones, that the “unlocking” was just around the corner.  The carefully worded, manipulative prose was designed to make a reader feel that this televangelist actually knew the reader and had insight into his problems.

And so I felt an unexpected rage—that this  man was abusing his spiritual power and  selling something that should be free, preying on uneducated and poor people who were desperate for help and answers.

Of course, I don’t want to imply that this Roma man was just a helpless victim; he chose a poor way to try to deal with his problems.  As a struggling immigrant trying to support a family, this Roma man estimated he had given $5,000-$6,000 dollars to the organization, and each letter seem to allude that his “deliverance”  was just a cash deposit away.

I took a deep breath. “Here is my problem with this so-called evangelist,” I  began.

***

Fast forward a few days later when I walked in late to church, my heart pounding, almost dizzy with anger.  Without going into specifics, my anger was set off by how a woman was being treated by her husband—as a possession, an object, a thing to be kept rather than a human created in God’s image  to be treasured and respected.

I knew my anger in both cases was about injustice, about the evil in the world which has no favorite culture, ethnic group, socio-economic status, or gender. We say that God has no partiality, but that is also the case with evil.   My anger reminded me that things are definitely not as they should be.

But I have to admit that in that moment—squirming in the messiness, the pain,  all the difficult things that I actually do not really want to know about—I was tempted to disengage.  To emotionally disengage so that I would not have to care so deeply, so that I could stay even-tempered and unemotional when exposed to dark things.

But in that moment, as I walked into church, one little Roma girl sitting in the front row turned around.  When she saw me, her shy face lit up in a big smile—a smile of pure joy and unadulterated sweetness.  I smiled back and waved—and that one smile tipped the balance for me.  I knew that to close myself off would be to step away from God’s mission in the way of Jesus.

“When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep.” John 11


“Come over and help us…”

“We need people.”

By far, this was the most commonly uttered need as we traveled to Roma communities throughout Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Money was not first on the list of needs, but people.  This must be connected to another common theme I have observed in pastors and people working in Roma communities all over Eastern Europe:  a struggle with what appears to be stress-induced health issues or illness.

They carry many burdens without fellow leaders to share them, and rarely do they place a priority on “self-care.”

“People do come and do projects, ” one Roma pastor in Macedonia said, “but then they leave and nothing goes deeper and no relationships are formed. And most missionaries work with Macedonians or Albanians. Evangelistic outreaches that come and do drama and music on the streets have limited effectiveness, but staying and being with people in their homes is where things can go deeper.

Despite seeing negative effects from short-term mission projects, I am not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Mission “projects” certainly have their usefulness and value; but most lack intentionality and a vision toward long term relationships.  Few realize the burden and stress the locals feel while trying to accommodate the short-term plans.

Without careful planning done in the spirit of a listening humility and open dialogue,   short-term mission projects can become a zero-sum game—an exciting cross-cultural experience comes at a cost for the local leadership.

Not properly researching  the context contributes to the probability of a zero-sum game. It might surprise some to know that Macedonia, a small country with a population of around 2 million, is primarily an Orthodox country (64%); however, the Muslim population, makes up about 33% (2002 census).  (For more background on Macedonia, read this insightful article by Kostake Milkov).

Because of these dynamics, there are only a handful of Roma churches in the whole country,  and most of them are small.  And the questions and obstacles they face are different than in Croatia, Serbia, Romania, or Bulgaria, for example, where the Muslim populations are much smaller.

“A graveyard.” The Roma pastor told me matter-of-factly when we were discussing barriers to the gospel in his particular town.

“We are not allowed to be buried in the Orthodox or the Muslim graveyards; and people worry about what will  happen to their bodies when they die. It is a very serious concern for them.” He smiled.  “I myself don’t worry about my body, but I also don’t want to leave that burden to my family when I die.”

I stared at him in disbelief.  “So you are telling me that if you had the money and ability to purchase land for a graveyard, this would remove a big obstacle for people to come to faith?”

Of course, missiologically speaking, this is probably only one barrier in a complex situation—but it sounds as if it is a significant one.

Another difficulty in establishing growing disciples is the constant stream of people leaving to go find work in Western Europe, a common story in this part of the world. “It is difficult for the Roma to find work among Macedonians,” he tells me.

He guesses that there are about 2000 Macedonian Roma in Austria. “I would love to send Roma missionaries to that community to plant a church,” he tells me.

But he alone pastors his small, struggling church, so his vision will have to wait…for more people to come.

“During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” 10 When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.”  Acts 16