I continue to wrestle with all of the new things God is teaching me about the Roma people. I signed on to joining a team of Americans to explore Roma ministries in Slovakia with some reservations. While I love traveling, I hate crossing borders.
In an official first world problem post, I have no more room for stamps in my passport. The thought of crossing into and out of Ukraine in the same week makes me exhausted.
But I couldn't pass up the opportunity to travel with Diane Miller again. Diane is the reason that I ever had the chance to start traveling, and the reason that my family had the courage to send a 15 year old to Russia. Diane led my sister on a trip to Russia the year before I went, and helped organize many of my travels. Mom and I traveled with her to Nicaragua, and I was thrilled to travel with her to Slovakia.
Our goal was to learn more about the ministries that work with Roma people in Europe - and we certainly did. I think deep down I also had the goal of getting answers to some of my harder questions - in that goal I failed miserably. I ended up with many more questions than when I started.
I was surprised to meet anglo pastors serving Roma congregations. I guess that it is certainly no more strange than my own appointment to a community of a different tongue and culture than my own. But, it felt strange and complicated. Part of working with Roma communities is banishing unfair stereotypes. This goes for the people who work with them as well.
Pastor Svetlana is young by United Methodist clergy standards. It's an odd thing to write about a United Methodist pastor, but she is refreshingly United Methodist in her theology. One might be surprised by the number of clergy in Eastern European UMCs that exhibit almost no signs of Methodism. Svetlana has worked to bring stability and order to a number of mission sites spread out around Slovakia. She has a sharp mind, and an authoritative tone to her voice. Her husband acts a bit like Mr. Bean until it's time to pray, and then he's dead serious.
Svetlana merged one congregation into two. I don't want to use the term "church split" because our new church plants in Eastern Europe take so much time to firm up into a real community - I think that Svetlana saw that there would be problems in the future, and corrected mid-course. She saw fear and trepidation among slavs about worshiping with gypsies, and she saw a hunger for a different worship style among the gypsies. She is still actively working on planting the Slovak speaking congregation - but has successfully planted a Hungarian speaking Roma congregation.
We worshiped with a Roma congregation that Svetlana had pastored and handed off to a new local pastor. It was wonderful to worship in the Roma style. It was good to see so many children and a clear love between pastor and congregation. Svetlana has visited the church 3 or 4 times in the four years since she left to plant new churches. The congregation is only 12 miles away from her new church plant site.
Pastor Svetlana has invited short term American missionaries to start English language programs. The last one had to to teach in a bigger city 40 minutes away because the schools just weren't open to having an American from this strange Methodist church come and teach. When they heard that I guest lectured at a university, they were willing to let me come and teach. By the end of the day, they promised that the Methodist church could send any American they had to teach. It helps to not be crazy, I guess.
My most interesting conversation of the trip came with the vice principal of the school. She is also the head of the English department, and it was interesting to get her very honest opinion about the Roma people. During the class, I asked students what they enjoyed about their town. One student loudly said, "It's a nice place, but there are too many gypsies." I waited for the teacher to quite him down, but I found every head nodding in unison in agreement. I followed up and asked some hard questions, and got some very interesting information from the teacher. We talked a lot about opportunity and laziness. It was a challenging but fruitful conversation.