Monthly Archives: December 2013

Emmanuel: The One present in our stories(Part 2)

“I didn’t have a mother or father, I lived with an older woman,” Z. says in her hoarse voice.  The old woman would go out and beg for money every day and sometimes clean houses. Because they daily struggled for survival, often Z. would not have enough to eat.

“Once I marry,” she thought as a young girl, “I will have security and then things will be good.”  But when she did marry, things went from bad to worse.  Her husband was unreliable and would beat her and so she felt even more insecure.

“Before, although things were at such a basic level, I knew what I had, and no one beat me.  Why does Jesus allow so much suffering in my life?  I want him to tell me what I did wrong so I can make it better.”*

In my last blog post, I wrote that relationships which are joined by an unequal balance of power contribute to the complex mire of poverty, and cannot merely be reshaped by top-down initiatives and laws. Listening to the others’ stories becomes key in reshaping perspectives and collective identity—as the listener’s own self-understanding grows in a mutually dynamic direction with the other.

But if listening to the stories is key to reshaping relationships, how are the stories themselves reshaped to offer hope, purpose, and a way forward?

Of course, this question of “what did I do wrong to deserve such suffering” is an age-old question spanning cultures and histories—but in many Roma communities there is a deeply held, intrinsic belief that they are cursed by God. Such a belief likely stems from a combination of centuries of hardships superimposed on old myths—some of which claim Roma either stole or forged the nails used for Jesus’ cross.

“Mom,” B.’s little ten year old daughter asked her after watching a documentary film on the Roma in Hungary, “if God knew that we were going to be so hated and suffer so much over so many years, why would he create the Roma?”

Such questions, and the past, cannot be lightly dismissed or trivialized when looking to reshape the current stories.  And yet, when there are no more dreams and the current story seems to be unending in its continuous cycle, is there a critical point of change that can begin to reshape the narrative?

“What would you want Jesus to say to you?  What would you ask him if he was here right now?” we asked the women in the circle.

S. looked at us, her eyes sadly reflective. “I would just want Jesus to come to me and I would ask him if he really loves me—am I actually important to him?  Will he take care of me? I want to fall asleep right now and maybe he would come and tell me—why so much suffering?” **

Church doctrine and structures,  theology, missiology—the focal direction of these pursuits rests on the critical question: Has Jesus actually incarnationally entered our story?  Because if not, hope becomes another useless structure with which to attempt to prop up such world-weary faces. If one only preaches about some kind of heavenly better—is this not a shutting of one’s eyes against the overwhelming present reality of poverty and hardship, and a callous dismissal of the tumultuous past?

The day after the women’s circle, there was another gathering in the Little Darda Church. S. came in, her face alight with something new.  “Last night,” she said, “Jesus came to me in my dream and told me he really loves me.”

Emmanuel—an experiential encounter with him, recognizing his presence in our community—can be the critical catalytic point in our stories.

*Paraphrased from a conversation

**Many Roma expect that God will speak to them through their dreams.


“We have no more dreams”: The power of story to reshape identity and relationship (Part One)

“When I was young, I had a dream to be educated,” my co-leader B. said.  “I wanted to rise above my situation and succeed, but then my mom married me off when I was 15 and  all my dreams were crushed.”

We were sitting in a tight circle in the Little Darda Church, pressing near the woodstove for warmth as each Roma woman took a turn to share part of her story, dreams she had as a young child that eventually collided into the hard reality of  life. Although the mood had started out with joy and laughter, faces quickly grew sad and  haunted by the remembering.  Each story unique, each story heartbreaking, and each needing to be told and heard and acknowledged.

Photo by Toni Balog

Photo by Toni Balog

The Roma continue to be a strong news thread in European media.  In Brussels, the Council of the EU adopted new recommendations in an attempt to facilitate more member state compliance with the weakly implemented 2011 Roma integration standards. The Bulgarian Roma Civil Society’s enacted a civil protest against the Bulgarian Ministers in front of the Council building, and more documented cases of illegal expulsions and ethnic profiling continue to surface in the news.

The raised awareness and attention is important, of course, except that often there is a meta-narrative of identity into which the 10-12 million European Roma are shoved—on the one hand portrayed as “beggars, thieves, and musicians,” and on the other hand, “discriminated against, socially isolated, and marginalized.”   Of course, many communities are shockingly disadvantaged in terms of education, jobs,  health care, and housing, and many could share personal stories of discrimination.  And yet, when the Roma are pushed into a static identity and then ‘solutions,’ like puzzle pieces, are forced into spaces that may or may not match the shape,  our approach becomes purely mechanical.

Over the last 2 years, I have been in and out of over 15 Roma communities in six countries, and I have come to understand that each community differs in terms of religious orientation, language, ethos, and even how they self-identify.

“Sometimes my people do not identify as Roma so as to not put themselves at a social disadvantage, and sometimes they identity as Roma precisely to gain some  economic advantage,” one Roma pastor told me.**

“I am Roma,” one man stated with pride and confidence.

“Those people over there are Roma, we are Ashkali Egyptian,” one pastor pointed.

“I am Roma, but that woman is a Gypsy,” one lady confided to me.

Each of these voices emerged from a different community, and yet each would be pigeon-holed into one identity meta-narrative by outsiders.  But every person’s  story ripples over into creating a unique narrative stream for each community.  Many are heartbreaking, some are shocking, and many exhibit astonishing resilience, creativity, and survival skills.

Listening to the stories helps bring the abstract meta-narrative into shared aspects of the human experience: suffering, joy, hardship, families, the loss of dreams.

“Dreams, what kind of dreams?” the old grandmother said.  “Life is just hard, there are no dreams.” I sat silently, listening to the women in the Little Darda Church, feeling as if I were on some kind of sacred ground, knowing that even these few stories would change my personal approach and understanding of  the community.

The surrounding community, whether they be Croat, Serbian, Bosnian, Romanian, Montenegrin, must themselves begin to listen to the Roma community—which is often located either outside the city or ghettoized within—in order to understand how the Roma understand themselves.**

Robert Rustem, Executive Secretary of the European Roma and Travellers Forum, points to Nelson Mandela as an inspiring model for the Roma situation and believes that someone possessing that kind of visionary leadership will rise up among the Roma. But President Obama articulated the problem with us humans in his speech to honor Mandela:  “There are too many of us who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality…And there are too many of us who stand on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.”

Nelson Mandela embraced the idea of understanding the other as a key to reconciliation and working together.  Still, his life was no picnic; and that should serve as a humbling reality check for those who have fantasies of the glorious fanfare of trumpets heralding  idealistic visions and noble aspirations.

But if the relationship between Roma communities and the majority culture is not reshaped, the dominant meta-narrative will continue to reign—and the same story will continue in its well-marked tracks.  And how to reshape the relationship without listening to the individual stories?

“Roma women are the women who are not able to dream, ” B. said, trying to explain the situation to us.  “Everything is so hard and so broken so that every day just becomes a question of how to survive that day. What is the point of dreaming when you cannot realize your dreams?”

If listening to the stories is key to reshaping relationships, how are the stories themselves reshaped to offer hope, purpose, and a way forward?

Stay tuned for further thoughts on this question…

*These are actual quotes from some of my interviews.

**One creative initiative in Ireland is trying to do this by sharing Roma stories.