Monthly Archives: April 2012

The Next Generation: Seeds of Hope

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?

When your Pig becomes my Pig…

“Somebody set our neighbor’s pig on fire, and only a few people went to go help him—the rest just watched,” the woman told us, clearly agitated at such passivity.

This woman had warmly welcomed us into her house, scrambling around to find enough cups to serve us Turkish coffee and coca-cola.  As she worked, she animatedly shared both village and personal news.  I felt tremendous sadness when she told us of her five abortions—she was only 21. Her sincerity was evident, however, when she expressed the joy and peace she felt while reading the New Testament. 

But the story of the burning pig smoldered in the back of my mind for the rest of the evening.

I hadn’t planned to go to the Roma village yesterday evening but there had been an unfortunate incident a few weeks ago. A good friend of mine had unintentionally committed a cultural taboo—doing something that while normal in both American and Croatian culture, was not acceptable in Roma culture.  The fallout had been huge—false rumors and talk were spreading about my friend and we had heard that she and her ministry partner would no longer be welcomed in the village.

My partners, B. and Đ., both Roma themselves and much respected in the village, decided to confront the issue head-on. So last night, all four were going to visit some of the families.  At the last minute, I decided to tag along to support my friend through prayer and presence.

The five of us prayed in the car before going into the village, but I had no idea what would happen when we set out—would people scream at us? Be angry?  I was surprised to find us welcomed into every house, and although the questions about the unfortunate incident came up, one question dominated the evening: Where have you been?  We’ve been waiting for you!

It turned out to be one of those memorable evenings—where life’s meaning and purpose seem a little clearer than normal, when your spirit quivers in awe at the mysterious sense of the Spirit, when you feel the deep satisfaction of being united with a cross-cultural team in spirit and truth. Please come again soon, the families said, some having tears in their eyes after we prayed for them.

The hunger for God in this village is real—and people pour out their problems of money, health concerns, and leaking houses.  And yet, it is no easy matter to encourage  fragile seeds to take root and bear fruit in this context.  The Roma come easily to Jesus, one Roma pastor told me.  But those who bear evidence of blossoming fruit are much fewer.

As I reflected on the events of the evening, the story of the burning pig sparked my full attention once more.  Pigs are a valuable commodity, a source of livelihood and food—therefore, it is no small tragedy to lose your pig.  The image loomed large in my mind of  a few people trying to put the fire out while the rest of the neighbors stood and watched. It reminded me of an incident the month before—during a fight between two families, a man started hitting a woman in the head with a metal pipe without intervention from the watching neighbors.

What are the signs of true transformation in this Roma village? Perhaps when neighbors begin to love one another, manifested in acts of service, peace, and sharing.  When your pig becomes my pig, so that if something happens to you, I act as if it is happening to me. Who is my neighbor?  Jesus  was asked by a man hoping to prove his eternal worth.  And I realize that in Jesus’ criteria, I myself often  fail miserably to truly love my neighbor.  Would I rush to save my neighbor’s pig, or stand hesitating and fearful on the sidelines?