Everybody was talking about it in the haphazardly clumped and grimy Roma community—the woman who had lain in bed for four years and was now walking around in full health. All options had been exhausted, both medical and witchcraft, and as she laid near death, a few followers of Jesus began coming and praying for her. Week by week she improved until she was completely restored. For an impoverished community who glean their living sifting through trash and selling scrap metal, suffer many physical ailments due to a lack of health care, remain largely illiterate and have no plumbing or electricity, this was news worth talking about.
On Sunday night I accompanied a few people on their weekly trip to a Roma community: Đ. and his wife B., their son S., and M., my translator. Although a few different Roma households now believed in Jesus as a result of the family’s weekly sharing, they refused to all meet together in one house because of deep community conflicts. Despite their blatant poverty, we were hospitably welcomed, most houses offering us tall glasses of coca-cola.
At the first house, we were greeted by a toothless but smiling husband and wife. I tried to not conspicuously gawk at the cave-like room, constructed of makeshift concrete blocks and cluttered with a couple battered pieces of furniture. A few ancient black and white photographs, one of which appeared to be the wife as a beautiful young girl, clung to the walls. I sat down next to a table where a cloth-covered mysterious mound was home to countless flies.
As Đ. read from the Bible and shared, the couple remained hesitant and skeptical. It was true they were amazed about the healed woman, and in fact were wondering if the same thing could happen to the toothless man who was having all sorts of leg pains. But they were suspicious and confused about the differences between us and the Jehovah Witnesses who had been besieging the community for years and were not trusted by the Roma.
“They are very simple people and their view of life is very small, ” my translator said to me.
“I don’t blame them for being confused and mistrustful, ” I answered, furtively waving the flies away from my drink.
The third house we went to was more of a hovel—a tiny cement room held a couch, a makeshift bed, and some broken appliances. Despite the darkness, the walls were cheered by some oddly matched paintings and the broken stove was spruced up by a few drooping red silk roses. The woman greeted us with a robust hug and the traditional three-kiss Serbian* greeting. Despite her upbeat appearance, the sadness of her difficult life was etched into her face. Although she now followed Jesus, she previously had been involved in witchcraft. Now, she was deeply suspicious that her neighbors were putting curses on her. No amount of prayer or exhorting seemed to relieve her fears, but she seemed cheered as we left her for the next house.
Our fifth and final stop was the house of the healed woman herself, and although I was eager to meet her, my stomach was distended from all the coca-cola. I was uncomfortably aware that my only restroom option was the family’s outhouse. As yet another tall glass of coke was put in front of me by the beaming woman, I started giggling uncontrollably. Perhaps it was the sugar and caffeine, but it only got worse when the family started bringing out trays of chicken, bread, pickles, and turkish coffee. They tried to encourage me to take more and sit closer to the table, but I insisted that I was fine holding my plate. Not two minutes later, as Đ. was reading from the Bible, I lost my grip on the chicken leg and it thunked against my chest and slid down to my lap. I hurredly put it back on my plate and looked up just in time to catch S.’s amused eye. Once again my giggles welled up and burst out of me. It is situations like these that keep me humble, but thankfully Đ. was able to return to his sharing after my interruption.
This family, having witnessed firsthand their beloved mother and wife’s slow return to health eagerly leaned forward to hear Đ.’s exhortations. I could see in their faces that they truly believed—at this point, their belief was completely based on experiential knowledge of Jesus and the few Scriptures that Đ. had read and explained to them over the last few months. However, they had disposed of all their venerated saint pictures**—a simple act of obedience in response to what they believed God was asking of them.
This blog entry cannot hold all of my impressions and thoughts from this six-hour outing. I am intrigued by these people who live in a different world, separated by choice from the Croatian culture. I will be going back.
*Although in Croatia, this particular Roma group is of Serbian background, thus also having religious inclinations toward the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, their religious practice would be a “folk Orthodox” mixed in with their own culture’s religious worldview.
**Click Serbian Orthodox Saint Pictures for a brief explanation regarding this point.