The mountains were crisp and clear in the winter sun as we headed to the outskirts of Podgorica, Montenegro. “Where are you from?” the Serbian pastor of the young Roma church asked me.
“The USA,” I replied.
“Oh. This is here because of you, ” he replied, in a matter-of-fact way I have become accustomed to in the Balkans.
He was referring to the NATO bombing of Kosovo in 1999, of which one consequence was our present destination: a squalid, trash-filled Roma refugee settlement located within spitting distance of the city dump.
It was hard for me to see the children hard at work in the city dump, digging up metals to sell. Around 60% of the children are out in the dump instead of the makeshift school in the camp, because their parents are depending on them for survival.
“I feel worse when I see kids playing video games all day,” the Serbian pastor told me with a wry grin, after I expressed my concern. He dropped me off in the safekeeping of his assistant pastor and translator while he zipped off to go meet a lawyer and some Roma men to try to help them escape jail—a typical day in the potpourri life of a pastor to the Roma.
“We are not Roma,” my translator for the morning corrected me. “We are Ashkali/Egyptians. Gypsies.”
“Ahhh,” I thought to myself. “Just when I thought I was getting a handle on Gypsy identity….”
“You are originally from Egypt? How do you know that?” I asked my translator, expecting an answer that had something to do with oral tradition.
“I read it on the internet,” he said.
This community of 320 Albanian-speaking people are refugees from the 1999 conflict in Kosovo. Many terrible atrocities happened in that war between the Serbians and the Albanian Kosovars—but the Roma and the Ashkali also suffered greatly. By the end of 1999, most had fled or been driven out, and even though many tried to return after the war, an outbreak of violence against them in 2004 destroyed numerous homes. I myself have run into plenty of Roma refugees from Kosovo in various places.
But in the midst of this trash heap, a tiny church, begun in 2010, is already growing rapidly. The assistant pastor seems a focused man, perhaps because of God’s distinct intervention when he was only 18 years old.
During the war, his entire 36-member extended family was huddled in a house, hiding from the Serbian soldiers. At one point in the night, he went up to the second floor to gaze out on the destruction outside. All of a sudden, he heard a voice in the darkness say: “I am Jesus.” Scared, he looked around the room. The voice repeated itself: “I am Jesus, do not be afraid. I will save you and your entire family.” He searched the room but it was empty, and then he ran downstairs.
The power in this voice stayed with him when the Serbian soldiers were hunting people with dogs outside. Although the dogs sniffed the house holding 36 people, they did not bark. It stayed with him when his family fled to Albania the next morning, miraculously saved again from soldiers they encountered on the road. And it stayed with him for a 3rd miracle, when an Albanian pastor came to find them in a refugee holding center, saying that “God had sent him to find them.”
He began to learn about Jesus and attend church when his family returned to Kosovo a few months later. He continued serving God when in 2004, he and his wife moved to Montenegro since her family disapproved of him as a suitable husband for her.
In 2010, he received another call from God. “Don’t wait anymore, ” he heard God say. “It’s time to start what I brought you here for.”
And so he teamed up with the Serbian pastor and they began the church in this place— a place on the outskirts of the capital city where trash is surrounded by beautiful mountains, a place where surely God is gathering a people for himself.