“But I could never forget what Jesus did for me,” she said. As usual on Sunday afternoon, we were gathered around the table of a Roma family, talking about God over a carp stew. As I painstakingly fished the small bones out of my mouth with each bite, I reflected on the issue of spiritual growth among these Roma that we visit weekly. E., healed by Jesus after four years of sickness, cannot read, and her husband struggles with only a rudimentary reading level (Click Here to read that story).
“I read something and put the Bible down and forget it a few minutes later,” he says, trying to explain his dilemma. This is a family whose lives have been changed by this miracle, and yet the lack of education makes the how of spiritual growth an interesting question. How do you learn more about Jesus when you cannot read? I wondered about passing out the Bible on CD, but I was told by my friends that this, also, has not been an effective tool without someone to help explain the Biblical stories. Studying the Bible for myself, reading other books, and discussing my learning with others has been essential for my own spiritual formation—yet this means of spiritual formation cannot be duplicated in this context. So what does it mean to be a growing disciple of Jesus in this Roma village?
My friend, Đ., an evangelist who is himself Roma, begins in Matthew with the story of Jesus’ birth, and every week, reads a few more verses, explaining the story over and over. “It is so hard to understand, “ one man said as he described his attempts to read a few verses himself.
“This is not a book of philosophy,” Đ.says pointing at the Bible. “God’s words are for everyone, the educated and the non-educated.” Jesus himself told us that unless “you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”(Matthew 18:3,4, NRSV).
This is a sobering concept, and my time with these Roma families are reminding me how to approach God. I have two masters degrees, and sometimes degrees can delude us into thinking that we are more important and have more to offer at God’s table. However, since my communication skills are still at kindergarten level, I am freed from such misconceptions, forced to come to the table as a child. Oftentimes, I do not say anything at all in a given house, and other times, I feel compelled to say a simple sentence about the Bible story— a nerve-wracking, intimidating attempt to express spiritual concepts in my limited Croatian. One thing is for sure, my forced simplicity does not permit any false pretensions. There is no allowance for a savior mentality, for a sense of superiority because frankly, most of the time I am like a bump on a log. “What am I actually doing here?” I think to myself. I know I am trying to learn and understand the culture, but it is humbling to feel that you are not contributing much of perceived significance.
Đ. encourages the families to pray together. “You are just speaking to God honestly from your heart, “ he says. “You don’t need to use big words or any formulas.” Last night, I garnered enough courage to try my first prayer in Croatian. We held hands, each person taking a turn to pray around the table. I could feel my palms growing sweaty and heart beating faster as my turn approached. Did I myself believe what Đ had said? Or did I think I was better than this Roma family and my prayer had to be impressive? “Thank you God,” I prayed, “for your love and joy. Amen.”
As the Roma struggle to learn what faith in Jesus means for their daily lives, I am sifting through what is really important to know and understand and what is not. Entering into their world reminds me that it is not about me, that I must be authentic when I approach God and others. Around the Lord’s table, there is no distinction of education or success, race or ethnicity, rich or poor; rather, Jesus has made us one.