We sat in the circle of Albanian women, their faces set and unsmiling, but when it was each lady’s turn to share, a shy smile broke out on her face as she introduced herself and shared how long she had been a part of the church.
We were in Albania attending a CHE conference (community health evangelism) which is a Christ-centered educational training program that “equips communities to identify issues and mobilize resources to achieve positive, sustainable change.” CHE is a holistic approach to working with poor communities, where transformational development is encouraged from within the communities by training them how to approach their identified needs. It is a often a slow and tedious process—a CHE worker in Albania was estimating 5-8 years before any change becomes visible.
“The hardest thing about starting CHE was overcoming the Communist mindset that we cannot do anything or make any decisions without the government,” the pastor, who along with his vivacious wife, had planted the church 22 years ago.
“But now the women have seen that they themselves can bring about change.” Most of the men were in Greece trying to find work and so this church was made up of women and children.
We were introduced to the CHE “committee”— a few of the women who decide on the projects and help mobilize community volunteers to help others catch the vision.
The women took us out to the volleyball field that they had worked together to build for the community’s children. They explained how they had bought pipe and worked together to pipe water from the mountain into their houses, and pooled their money to hire a painter from their community to paint the church.
Meanwhile, my friend had taken a different field trip and was visiting a poor Roma community which had been turned around after they had been taught that they were growing the wrong crop for their village’s elevation. Now, the whole village was successfully growing peaches and had a contract with a supermarket chain in Tirana. Sons and grandsons were returning home from eking out a living in Greece and Italy to learn the community trade that was now allowing an economically sustainable life.
I have no illusions that this is some kind of magic pill to swallow that effects change overnight—however, it is becoming increasingly apparent to me that poor Roma communities need to be approached holistically, and community problems need to be addressed with the people and not for the people. Quick relief or random projects are not effective in the long term—I am learning this by my own experience in the Little Darda Church and by visiting numerous other communities. Poverty is a series of broken relationships with the majority culture, each other, God, and the environment, and Roma poverty is further complicated by the nature of their long history with the majority cultures. Until reconciliation begins between the majority culture and the Roma community, any development will eventually be stunted by a glass ceiling of prejudice and suspicion.
These lessons became even clearer in the next few days when my friend and I visited a Roma community situated on a city dump—the poorest that I have seen so far…