Soon afterwards, he [Jesus} began going around from one city and village to another, proclaiming and preaching the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, and also some women who had been healed of evil spirits and sicknesses: Mary who was called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanne, and many others who were contributing to their support out of their private means. Luke 8:1-3
“When I read that, ” the pastor said, “my eyes were opened and my mind completely changed. I realized we had to change our perspective of women, that they also had a place to serve God.”
This was no small revelation—in many traditional Roma communities, women occupy a very low place. Consequently, I have heard many difficult life stories and seen heavy burdens borne in silent suffering.
It had been so in this particular Roma community in northeast Romania—famous for its mass conversions in a place once governed by mafia gangs and violence. Now, the pastor estimates about 80-90% of the town is converted.
As his perceptions were changing, he considered the situation at hand. The men were being taught the Bible in small groups and Bible studies in the church. The women were largely illiterate and were confined to the home with the children. He realized two things: Women were the potential biggest disciplers of their children—and yet they did not know the Bible and could not read. Also, he noticed a bitter spirit fostered by their restrictive lives. He began to challenge cultural perceptions by beginning family camps where women and men would learn the Bible together—an idea first met with suspicion by both the men and the women but later widely embraced.
As he realized that women, too, had a part to play in serving God, his wife—intelligent and capable—had her own vision for women.
She began a women’s weekly prayer and fasting event which concludes with a big meal eaten together. She is now poised to begin a women’s bi-annual publication to encourage, educate and foster an understanding of how Roma women can serve God in their communities. She intends for it to be high quality and aims to distribute it across many different Roma communities.
“Women have different callings—not everyone would be called to do what you are doing,” the pastor said, referring to myself and my two female friends and partners in ministry. “But each calling is important.”
I was astonished—as I sat dutifully dressed in a skirt with a headscarf around my neck in readiness for prayer—that the narrative of Jesus’ ministry could so alter a deeply entrenched cultural perceptions of gender roles.
We are oddballs in Roma communities—women my age are often grandmothers—and the strangeness of women traveling around by themselves and our singleness is often commented on.
“We will pray for your husbands,” is the most common promise we hear as we are traveling.
“Please also pray for our ministry,” my friend quipped once recently.
We try to balance showing respect in the culture (hence the skirt and headscarf) even as we attempt to be faithful to our own callings and ministry. This is often a fine line, and I am sure I have both unintentionally offended and encouraged. Sometimes, as we sit around with a group of men while we are served food by the women, I feel both uneasy at the strangeness of the situation and astonishment that the men are taking us seriously.
At another village in central Romania, one old grandmother of the church was telling her story to us. “You are lucky being single,” she said conspiratorially. “You can do so much for God.” I was shocked at this sentiment, and even more so later, when a couple of the women followed behind us, weeping, to send us off. “We cannot believe you are serving God in this way!” they sobbed. “You are so encouraging to us!”
The irony of this is that many of these movements were begun by the prayers and faithfulness of women, which of course is nothing new in Christian history. In the town with the mass conversions, three women and one man prayed and evangelized for years amidst intense persecution from the town before the revivals began.
Listening to the pastor’s story and his wife’s vision, I suddenly began contemplating cultural similarities between the situation of women in the first century Jesus movement and women in Roma communities. All of a sudden I was hearing Paul’s letters and Jesus’ words toward women in a traditional Roma context instead of through my normal 21st century American lens.
“That was truly radical,” I thought in amazement.
And suddenly I felt a true kinship with those women who were following Jesus from one village to another.