Pastor Volodimir preaches from under the arch that separates his kitchen from the living room. It serves as an altar of sorts, and his sermon feels a bit like a Martha Stewart cooking show as he reaches into drawers to pull out objects to help make his point. The kitchen cupboards are lined with stuffed animals, animated faces peering out over the congregation like a spirit-filled choir - they fill the cupboards that should be filled with food.
Volodya's sermon is a string of Bible stories with few notes of explanation. He tells one Bible story after another and strings them together. At the morning service we hear about Jesus and at the evening service we hear from the Old Testament, literally just telling the stories. If I preached in this way in the states, I would be fired in a heartbeat - but the congregation leans in to hear every precious word. Only 10% of the adults in his village can read. This is the only time they will interat with these stories. That afternoon, his daughter proudly stated that she could read, and opened the Bible to pick out the three or four letters that she knew. At eight, she is in her first year of school - and well ahead of the curve in scholastic feats.
I sat with the "gadjy" teacher the day before, and asked if it was hard for a non-gypsy to teach in a Roma village. She replied, "That's a hard question." Which is probably the right answer.
I never think about the color of my skin. My family doesn't celebrate any ethnic heritage - although we do blame our stubborn streak on different ancestral lines depending upon the season. The children would push one another toward me and scream "o gadjo." "He is a not-gypsy." I routinely have interactions in Ukraine, where the person I am speaking to doesn't figure out that I'm a foreigner until part way through the conversation. Oh, my accent is painfully strong - but a lot of people here talk funny in their own way. It's only when I mix up some gender or case that it become obvious that I am an outsider. In Seredne, I am absolutely an outsider.
The "gypsy camp" was founded almost 70 years ago by some counts. Some families can count six generations who have lived there, but generations move quickly. Every time I meet some young man with a child or two crowding around his knees, I can't help but ask him how old he is, and try to remember what I was doing with my life at his age. The oldest single person I met was nine. I didn't ask the age of any 10, 11, or 12 or 13 year olds. The youngest married person I met was 14. I asked one man how many grandchildren he had and he answered 56. Thank God I was able to figure out that he hadn't heard me and gave me his age. He only has 15 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. We were at a party and there was a lot of noise. Pastor Volodya had promised that there would be 10 people. With more than sixty people bursting the seems of the two room house, I counted the adult men - all 10 of us. 10 people.
Volodya had explained that their congregation had to make many difficult decisions. He couldn't preach over the noise of the children. Only half of the adults could come to worship, and the other half had to stay home with the children. They are praying for the money to build a new church so that they aren't meeting in the pastor's home - they need around $1,000 total. Total.
Of the hundred or so buildings in the village, only six have finished plaster exteriors. Two are churches, two belong to the Baron of the region, and two are pastors' homes. And I can't escape the reality, that I spent a lot of time in the village thinking about how I, or a team of my friends, could make things better. We could build a church, we could put plaster on the church and make it look beautiful. We could teach these kids to read. The reality is that outsiders made the decisions to plaster the churches and pastors' homes. This might be why they are full of children, but few adults attend. The government made all the decisions about what the school should look like, and that's a big part of the reason why education doesn't get the respect it needs.
Everyone in the village invited me inside for tea. The women would prepare a meal - bringing water from the only well in the village, killing and cleaning the chicken, slow roasting it over the firewood they chopped themselves, etc - and then watch as the men, or sometimes only I, would eat. I don't think I've ever felt more uncomfortable than when eating in front of an audience!
When pastor Volodya told me that he was the only one in his family who could read, I really couldn't understand. I remembered the feeling of helplesness that consumed me for the first few weeks in Korea before I learned to read Korean. I just stared at him, because I couldn't process the idea of not being able to read and being fine with that. I couldn't get it. I couldn't understand.
On the way to the train station, Volodya and I apologized to one another for the ways we had offended the other. I don't know how many times I did something offensive, but I'm sure there were plenty. We laughed and talked some more. At the train station, I push started his car and watched him drive away - drive back to his wonderful life without the distractions of the internet and stress of the 9-5. I couldn't help but be a little bit jealous.