I vividly remember the first time I began reading about the history of Christianity since the time of Jesus. I was in my early 20’s and, on a whim, picked up Justo Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity. What I discovered inside left me shocked and as enthralled as if I were reading a gripping novel—the ghastly bloodiness of parts, the extraordinarily redemptive other parts, the courage and cowardice, love and fear, failures and restoration.
I grew up in a Conservative Baptist church and knew vaguely about Martin Luther and a few missionaries—who were held up like disembodied saints—but it had seemed to me our church existed in a historical vacuum. Reading Gonzalez’s work forever changed the way I viewed and understood the Church, and enriched and deepened my understanding of how God works within the Church and the world.
Perhaps my own experience is partly why I love collecting and sharing stories—particularly the unknown and unheard— about what God has done. Recently, at a conference with 40 Roma pastors and their wives in Bulgaria, I had the opportunity to share stories of Roma Christianity.
“Have you heard the story of…?” I asked several times.
I’m not really surprised that most had not heard the stories—not even the well-documented story of the great French Roma revival in the 1950’s and 1960’s. It is available in scholarly works and academic research but is still not widely known in Christian circles, not to mention small villages. Often, the stories of Roma Christianity are curiously detached from the diverse elements making up European Christian history, although they are all strands weaving the same colorful tapestry.
The theme of my talks was the importance of remembering as an act of spiritual discipline in order to practice obedience, worship, and hope. But you cannot remember something you haven’t yet heard.
“Why are the Roma people the most oppressed all over the world?” One pastor asked during the question-and-answer time. I can understand, knowing the dynamics in Bulgaria, why he would ask that, but unfortunately history and the present day is filled with stories of oppression and injustice unevenly spread over people throughout the world. The stories in Christian history reveal both the Church’s failure to wield its prophetic voice against oppression and the courageous times when it did.
One evening, the people had the opportunity to share some of their own conversion stories. I listened to stories like the converted son of a Muslim imam, a man converted by watching his wife’s transformation, and conversions in response to miraculous healings. I listened to the struggles of ministering in areas of Bulgaria where there seems to be a strong stream of Wahhabism, how the Roma churches have cared for the refugees, how more of their children are staying in school and how God is transforming their communities.
“We will remember the stories you told and tell them to our churches, ” one of the leaders told me.
And I will remember their stories and continue to pass them on. In such days of fear and uncertainty over much of the world, we Christians must discipline ourselves to remember as never before—so that we can do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.