Monthly Archives: January 2013

How to be a Roma church?

A few weeks ago, there was an incident at the new little Roma church in Darda.  During the church service, a usually gentle man fell into some kind of seizure— reacting aggressively to those who came around and tried to pray for him.  Đeno did not know if it was medical or if it was a result of evil spirits, but he prayed loudly and with authority.  Two people in the church ran out, terrified and visibly trembling—and have not returned since.

When the five of us discussed the possible causes for this man’s affliction over coffee and cookies after church the next Sunday, Đeno expressed his regret at his response.

“My Pentecostal pastors [at his Croatian church] insist that it must be demon possession…but I don’t think it is,” he said sadly, “I think the kind of prayer I did just made the situation worse.”

Later, with the help of another friend who has much experience in different Roma communities, we decided to help the Roma man—who has been suffering from strange seizures for years— go to a private doctor and obtain a firm diagnosis.  Unfortunately, sometimes Roma who go through the public health care system are marginalized and do not receive the best standard of care.

Đeno and Biljana went to visit one of the people who had run out of the service.  They thought his fear came from the fact that he wore an amulet, given to him by a magic man, around his neck to protect him. Since I was skeptical about this being the reason, I was surprised when they related their conversation with him.

“He had a dream that a Serbian Orthodox priest came to him and tore the amulet off his neck,”  they told me.  “And then the next day the amulet broke off of his neck on its own accord. He knows now that it is not good.”   Despite this conversation, he has not returned yet to the church.

Last night, we visited a Roma cultural night that takes place every year in Darda.  The dancing, whirling, bright colors, and music bore the passion and complexity found in this culture. As soon as the Roma music began, people in the audience had a difficult time staying still.  Before I knew it, the entire row behind me was standing and doing the foot dance together.

As we were driving back to Osijek, Đeno asked me what I thought about having dancing in the church..”It is so much a part of this culture—it seems natural that you could use it to worship Jesus,” I answered.  I knew our Dutch teammate, who grew up in the Dutch Reformed Church, had some reservations about this concept.  But once again, I found myself surprised at Đeno’s response to my comment.

“Some of the dances wouldn’t be good because they are about the sexual challenge between man and woman. But other dances would be okay, I think.”

I could think of a dozen responses to this, but I stayed silent, basking in the thrill of watching this process of the gospel confronting a culture.  The questions and issues arising in this little church are so different from the ones facing the church in North America—and yet watching such a process is enlightening and refreshing.  Perhaps churches can become so comfortable in their culture that they forget how to ask the questions or are no longer able  to see what questions they should be asking.   IMG_3733


When a beggar has a name….

I had no idea their stories were so dramatic, so intense, so excruciatingly difficult—if I were to write it as fiction it might be dismissed as too unbelievable. As I sat across from them in their roof-sagging house (were they worried the roof might collapse in the next big snow?  No, they shrugged, they weren’t), I felt incredulous about who Biljana and Đeno used to be.  I marveled at such a profound transformation in a couple whom I have come to deeply respect and admire over the past year and a half while working with them in Darda.

Forced into marriage by their families at ages 14 and 15, the first decade of their married lives were marked by such things as dire poverty, war, violence, physical abuse,  mutual hatred, homelessness, and begging.  It was the kindness of a Croatian pastor’s wife which led  Biljana and then Đeno to Jesus in 2004 and 2006.

But I was fixed on the image of Biljana out in the streets with her four children, begging, subject to either people’s good will or scorn.   “Insulting and humiliation from the people in the street didn’t bother me at all, I got used to it…I was always treated this way,” she wrote in her story.  “In school, kids called me all kind of names because I am Romany… and then my own mother, she would say that even my own father didn’t need me…one time she even forbade my sisters to talk to me because we are not sisters by birth, because I’m a bastard who is needed by nobody, [not even] my husband, so insults in the street were something normal to me. I became a person without feelings, who couldn’t be offended or dishonored.”

This morning I went for a walk in the fresh snow blanketing Osijek.  I reveled in the sharp purity of trees outlined by snow against the sky— but still I was haunted by the image of a dirty and miserable Biljana,  begging  on a street corner.  I envisioned myself encountering her as an anonymous beggar to whom I might throw  a passing glance, drawing the steel coat of my emotional defenses a little tighter around me as I continue walking.  My eyes filled with tears as I realized there is a good chance I would have walked past Biljana, that I would not have emulated that Croatian woman who, through kindness, wooed her into a new life.

“But Jesus,” I might argue, trying to defend my behavior, “If I would have known the plans you had for her, I would have stopped and helped her.”

The feeble emptiness of my justification reveals my inadequate grasp of the Good News, that God is simultaneously  able to see us as we are—poor, wretched, miserable, and naked—and see us as he created and can transform us to be.  And because he is God with us, he joins us in our begging, our poverty.  That is why Jesus insists, “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink…”

The last couple of weeks, I have listened to several stories of Roma who were brought to God simply through people in a church drawing them into their love, feeding them, clothing them, and blessing them.  And yet, I have also listened to converted Roma tell me how they used to steal, do tricks to get what they wanted, to manipulate and lie.

So how do we know what kind of beggar it is we are passing on the street?  Is it the kind that deserves our help or is undeserving?  But of course this is exactly the wrong question to ask, and it lacks an experiential understanding of God’s unconditional love.  I do believe we need to be wise in this world—but I can see how often our wisdom is foolishness to God.  The  wisdom of God is to seize the poor, the liars, the wicked, and the marginalized who are spattered in their own mud-stained lives— and to wash and dress them in new clothes.

Last night, Biljana and Đeno radiated joy as they described how it felt to start this new church—to serve God by serving their people.  “God has used all the terrible experiences in my life so that I  can understand everything my people have gone through,” Biljana told me.    Last night I saw two people who love and serve Jesus with their whole hearts, and this morning the snow came to remind me that God’s mercy is unfailingly new every morning.

Đeno outside the new church.

Đeno outside the new church.


Biljana, hard at work clearing the front yard of the new church.