The distance from one world to the next can be as close as a single step.
Stepping into the Roma village from the Serbian part of town, I am greeted with a boldly spray-painted sign across a building: This is Tsigani [Gypsy] Territory.
“The press photographed this graffiti, assuming it was made by Serbs,” G. told me, grinning, “but actually Roma did it.”
And indeed we had entered Roma territory—the sights, smells, and sounds were extraordinarily different from the street we had just exited. Three-storied houses crowded forward for the best position on the narrow, half-heartedly paved street. The occasional unsightly pile of garbage or unused materials littered in between houses. The street was alive with people—kerchiefed older women with bags of vegetables, children running and playing, men manning tables of raw pig meat for sale. One man tottered down the street driving his three geese in front of him with his cane. Greetings were shouted to one another and people often stopped for a few minutes to chat amid the loud strains of the intoxicatingly haunting Roma music pouring out of windows.
Periodically, we would stop and greet someone, and G. would introduce me to “this brother” or “that sister.” To the smiling men, I would shake their hands—but the older women would often grab me by my shoulders and smack the traditional three kiss greeting on my cheeks.
We were on our way to the Sunday school pick up point and soon arrived at a corner where masses of children awaited. The church van pulled up and happy, loud children squeezed into every inch of space.
“Why are so many streets in the Roma villages unpaved or badly paved?” I asked G. later. “Shouldn’t the city pave them just as much as they pave the next road over in the Serb part of town?” G. shrugged at the question, nonplussed. “It’s how it has always been.” Every town has a Roma representative that is supposed to act as an advocate and communicator between his community and the majority community—with varying results.
We pulled up at the large tent-church and kids spilled out of the van, splitting into two different groups. I hopped between both groups, reveling in their enthusiastic singing as two young boys kept an impressive beat on the drums. Even the youngest group took an offering, kids automatically pulling coins out of their pockets to put in the bucket. Cultivating a culture of giving at such a young age? What a wonderfully transformative idea!
These kids are probably the second or third generation Christians of this 25-year old Roma church in Southern Serbia, which boasts between 500 and 700 people. After all that I have experienced in Roma villages over the last months, I felt an incredible joy to see such Christian formation, done by Roma and for Roma. Who knows but that God will raise up some of these children to continue leading and advocating for their people?