“After a year of working with them, ” a Macedonian pastor said about the Roma village with whom he and his wife virtually stumbled into working, “we realized that we actually knew absolutely nothing about them, even though we had lived side-by-side all these years.”
And this is the clincher, the key to the problem of the vast relational divide between Roma and non-Roma in this part of the world.
The non-Roma think they know exactly who the Roma are—and why not? They can be living side-by-side, neighborhood by neighborhood for centuries. But the knowledge is formed by a constructed image, past down through generations, maybe reinforced by a bad experience or two. Their entire culture is often summed up in a sentence, applied unilaterally with the word “they.”
“How often are you here?” I asked one Bulgarian college student, who graciously took us into the huge Mahala(the Roma quarter), estimated to be around 40,000 in Sofia, Bulgaria. This young women had been working part-time for an NGO which, among other things, offered a kind of “half-way house” for young Roma leaving an orphanage, providing job and life skills training.
“Oh no, it is not safe for me to come here by myself,” she said emphatically. “I’ve only been here one or two times.”
I looked around at the kids walking through the mud-rutted streets, the shacks and houses leaning tiredly against each other, the women on their way to the store. Yes, they glanced at our car as we drove through, and one teenage boy whistled at us. My lens interpreted these glances as a half-hearted curiosity because of a car with Croatian plates driving through neighborhoods. My young friend interpreted them as thinly-veiled threats.
“Is it getting worse, staying the same, or getting better?” I continued to ask Roma as we traveled through Bulgaria and Macedonia in regards to the relational divide.
Everyone said it was worse.
“When I was a boy, I grew up next to Bulgarians. I was friends with them,” one Roma man in his late 40’s told me. “Now, it is not like that.”
Although it is not legal to segregate schools in Bulgaria, others told me that Bulgarian parents would bus their children to a further school in order to avoid being in a predominately Roma school. This, despite the Bulgarian government’s efforts to sometimes bus Roma children to other schools in an effort to integrate.
If it is getting worse, this is puzzling, since no other time in history has seen such a raised awareness of Roma issues, increased exposure of discrimination and hate crimes, and vast of amounts of money being poured into projects.
Often, what I read in the press, academic reports, and public policies seem galaxies away from the situation on the ground.
Still, as always, there are exceptions to the rule.
“It was hard at first,” one teenage Roma boy told me in regards to his experience of moving out of the Mahala and into the town. “But after a couple of years, they got to know me and became my friends.”
Still, his new Bulgarian friends, although freely inviting him into their homes, will not go with him into the Mahala.
“They don’t feel safe here,” he said.
Sadly, this relational divide, with few exceptions, also exists in the Church. The handful of Bulgarian and Macedonian Christians working in Roma communities are usually on their own. It is always encouraging to hear their stories of how their opinions and hearts were transformed when they entered into relationship with a Roma.
“I grew up hating them, and thinking of them as dirty gypsies,” one said to me. “When I first came here, I didn’t want to touch them or have them touch me.”
But perhaps it is safe to say that this “constructed image” goes both ways. One Roma pastor in Macedonia told me of his vision to break the chains of nationalism in his church.
“Everyone thinks they are the best…the Albanians, the Roma, and the Macedonians,” he said. “But if we don’t want the next generation to bear this curse, change has to start somewhere. My church is not just a Roma church but open to everyone.”
The Church should be a prophetic witness of reconciliation, forgiveness, and a place where people can have their images of the “they” recreated through relationship. From Roma to non-Roma, and non-Roma to Roma.
Thank goodness that God’s mission is bigger than the Church, and he graciously invites the Church to be a part of his mission.
In other words, Church is invited to God’s party of what he is doing among Roma communities, and we can be privy to how he will use Roma Christians to bless the global Church and the world.
The question is: Will the Church accept the invitation to the party?
For an interesting article discussing other problems related to this relational divide, click HERE.