Category Archives: Gypsy

The Invitation is Waiting in Your Mailbox

“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.” DSC03447

“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.

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“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.

DSC03513“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.

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One of the biggest Roma churches in Bulgaria.

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.

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Swimming in the Deep End of Hospitality

Meat, meat, and more meat.

The Roma hospitality we experienced in Bulgaria was not just a dip-your-toe-in-the-shallow-end type of endeavor.  No, it was a get-thrown-into-the-deep-end-with-all-your-clothes-on experience.

When we arranged with a few different pastors that we would be coming to visit them in Bulgaria, we had no idea that they would take it upon themselves to ensure our safety, health, and happiness on our trip over the hills and dales of Bulgaria.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that this all-important value of hospitality is shown through two primary avenues: make sure your guests have plenty to eat at all times (and meat is the at the top of the food pyramid), and as it is a communal culture,  be with your guests as much as possible.

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This was actually a “meat-lite” meal. Delicious.

I think I probably ate more meat in a week than I have in a month.

I would try to take small portions so my system did not collapse, and just when I thought I succeeded, someone would bring another plate of meat.

“Eat, eat!” they would urge.

We were treated like two unlikely queens—especially since I know January and February are the tough months for many poor Roma communities.  Jobs are slim, firewood is running out, and the winter is still hoarding many weeks.  I knew they did not eat like this all the time—but it was to honor us.

After we left one community in the morning, I started to feel very sick, and I realized I had gotten a flu bug of some sort. 200 km  and several meetings later, we were having a meal with a pastor and his wife after a church service. The pastor of the community we left that morning called in to the other pastor.

“He wants to talk to you,” the pastor said, handing the phone to my friend. DSC03572

Apparently, he wanted to make sure that we had arrived safe, that our needs were being met, and by some extraordinary ability, he had heard that I wasn’t feeling well.

“Take care of little Melody!” he urged my friend.

This was the first of a few “check-in” calls from this pastor who has a big heart and an even bigger sense of humor.

Two women traveling alone is a little bit of a novelty for the Roma culture in this part of the world, which is why they gently handed us off one from another like two delicate eggs.

At one point, we underestimated how serious their concern to be.  After we left one community,  on a whim, we took an hour diversion, hiking up to see an old monastery.

It was a bad decision to not take our phones.

When we got back to the car, there were 10 missed calls.  Apparently, our failure to show up on schedule caused a panic between three parties in three locations.  One of our friends living south from us immediately started driving north, and another pastor started on the road heading towards where he should have intercepted us.

Needless to say, we felt horrible.

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Enjoying a kind of “pseudo” ice cream with one pastor.

In general, hospitality in Eastern Europe has completely changed my own practice of hospitality—its inviting warmth and generosity have effectively challenged my over-individualistic values as an American.

But I have to say that this experience has brought the challenge to a whole new level.