The four of us entered his house, and he greeted us somewhat sheepishly. His table was littered with piles of loose tobacco and large cartons of cigarettes, and it seemed as if we had interrupted him in the middle of a grand cigarette deconstruction and reconstruction project. I looked with surprise at the washing machine and new big screen T.V. in the cramped but clean room. I knew he had an occasional job in some kind of forestry work, but surely his sister who lived in England was also sending some money.
The normal rituals ensued—he offered us juice and coffee, we refused the juice, but he ran out to the market and bought some Sky Cola anyway. He put a džezva on the wood stove to heat some water for coffee. At our request, he went over to the neighbors, also part of Little Darda Church, and invited them into his home. We knew that visiting their house was still taboo—I suspect because they were ashamed of its dilapidated condition.
The couple entered, the woman’s face glowing with the unanticipated pleasure of our visit. We got down to the business of conversation and drinking coffee, hearing about the woman’s ongoing headaches over the last week.
Had she seen a doctor, we wondered? She said that she wasn’t registered to have health insurance—such a lack of proper documents is a common problem in Roma communities. We asked her if she needed help to do this, urging her to take it seriously. She replied that she would go register after she was feeling better. She shyly looked at her husband, who used to regularly beat her.
“He prayed for my head,” she said, grinning openly, the hand that used to hover protectively over her mostly toothless mouth remaining on her lap. The husband described the event—he had put one hand on her head and stretched one hand toward the sun.
I thought perhaps I had misunderstood the Croatian—always a very real possibility in my daily life. Why was he stretching his hand toward the sun while he was praying for his wife?
“I saw you do that,” he tells us. “I thought it was important to point toward the sun while you were praying.”
Momentary sadness flitted through me in light of this misinterpretation of our actions, and I realize again the enormous challenges of modeling for others one’s own interpretation of following Jesus. Although faith communities are usually where we learn to express and practice our faith, a significant problem arises if people never move past the imitation of the faith community and into the imitation of Christ himself. This can not be merely empty rhetoric, but rather must be a subtle reorientation that leads one away from a faith that functions as behavior modification and into a different way of being altogether. Otherwise, we reduce the radical nature of Jesus’ life—those who wish to save their life must lose it—to a static rule list that has no real bearing on our present context.
This man thought that he could manipulate or coerce some kind of sun power through his prayer—but this is not just a mistake made by beginners in the faith. Many of us either covertly or overtly believe that the function of prayer is to manipulate power towards the solution you would pick if you were a god.
At the end of our conversation, we all stood and prayed together. The husband was too bashful to pray, but everyone else in the circle urged him to tell God what was in his heart. Finally, his wife, smiling in the light of her ever-growing confidence, told him, “Just say what I say.” She led him in a very simple prayer, and line for line, he imitated her.
It became clear to me then, as it should have been before, that these house visits were not just a stepping stone to “forming the church.” Rather, in this particular Roma village and culture, the house visits are the very core of the slowly-forming faith community. It is inside the Roma home where real life is lived, where connections happen naturally over coffee, and our listening becomes the door to our understanding.
*To completely change the form, appearance, or nature of someone or something.