Consultation on the Ministry with Roma

The United Methodist Church serves as an important bridge between the Roma minority and the general population in Alsózsolca, Hungary, according to the mayor of the small town.

Mayor Sándorné Zsiros was a featured speaker at a United Methodist Consultation on Roma Ministries in Central and Southern Europe, held in Budapest in late February. That region has a large percentage of the world's eight to ten million Roma, a name that comes from their original «Romany» language.

United Methodists are exploring ways that the church can be more effective in ministries with the Roma, dealing with challenges their communities face and respecting their indigenous cultures.

Often pejoratively called «Gypsies», the Roma are among the poorest and most shunned populations wherever they are found. These once wandering people were «settled» by most European governments in the 1960s.

Mayor Zsiros cited several ways in which the Roma Methodists in her town are improving their own situation and helping public life in general. Her slide show included pictures of local Roma community members shoring up a river bank with sandbags to prevent flooding. She also highlighted the important role that the United Methodist kindergarten plays in equipping Roma children for public school, which in turn reduces ethnic tensions in the elementary classrooms. The town of 6,000 has a school population of some 1,000 children.

Alsózsolca's United Methodist church is one of the oldest Roma congregations in the region and has a longer history than most congregations in dealing with majority culture. Rev. László Erdei Nagy, who is Roma, has been the pastor for three years, and took place in the Budapest consultation.

The two-day event is part of a broader evaluation of ministry needs and opportunities among the Roma by the church's Central and Southern European Conferences. Bishop Patrick Streiff, who leads The United Methodist Church in the area, organized the event and took an active part in it.

The General Board of Global Ministries supported and participated in the consultation as part of the denomination's emphasis on ministry with the poor, one of four current areas of focus of The United Methodist Church. This priority places emphasis on «with», not «to» or «for» the poor. It stresses work with marginalized communities in evaluating available resources and coping with forces that keep them in poverty.

Roma Poverty and Social Concerns
Roma poverty is often acute. The February 21 issue of The Budapest Times stated that «if one-third of Hungary's Roma population lives in extreme poverty, then somewhere between 200,000 and 300,000 Hungarian Roma live under continual threat of starvation and exposure. And because of the Roma penchant for large families, one can only conclude that between 120,000 and 200,000 of them are children.»

Much of the Budapest agenda consisted of reports on the Roma in six countries – Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovakia – by 13 representatives of United Methodist congregations or districts in those six countries. In addition to these participants, the consultation included historians, sociologists, government officials, and others representing sponsoring organizations, including Connexio, the Swiss-French mission agency of the church.

«Social inclusion» was a recurring theme among speakers and those giving ministry reports. The term can be interpreted as either friendly or threatening to the Roma. Perspective and context affect the interpretation.

The Roma have struggled to retain their cultures rather than being totally assimilated into the dominant culture of the countries in which they live. The forced settlement of Roma resulted in the erosion of many traditional Roma craft jobs, and has heightened Roma distrust of government policies. Illiteracy is high, especially among women. Larceny and petty crimes are perceived to be common.

These factors, along with other historical stereotypes, often negatively influence public opinion and governmental policies toward the Roma. To the Roma, «social inclusion» can sound like assimilation--making them over into the image of the dominant culture.

But governmental policies toward the Roma may be evolving. Laura Jones of Eurodiaconia in Brussels, Belgium gave an overview of the Roma in central and southern Europe. She surveyed programs of Roma inclusion sponsored by the European Union and various national governments and presented resources on Roma culture and issues. Eurodiconia is an ecumenical federation of non-governmental, private, and church organizations. It examines social needs and promotes public policies aimed at achieving justice and fairness.

Roma people within central and southern Europe are themselves diverse. Some speak both Romany and the local language while some have dropped the old language. In Bulgaria, according to the Rev. Mihail Stefanov, some of the Roma speak Turkish. The Rev. Marjan Dimov, pastor of a 20-year old congregation in Macedonia, people with a Roma background neither speak Romany nor consider themselves Roma.

Roma United Methodists
The number of United Methodist Roma in central and southern Europe is slowly increasing. The oldest predominantly Roma church – that in Alsózsolca, Hungary – was established in 1952. It has a weekly worship attendance of 130 persons, a band, and choir of 30. Having long outgrown a modest facility, the congregation plans a new church building to accommodate 250 worshippers. The municipal government has helped the church to find a convenient, well-located building site. «We had a space set aside for a bus stop, but we moved that and provided the land to the church,» said the mayor.

Serbia today has 14 United Methodist congregations and four ordained elders. The Rev. Lila Balovski from Jabuka, Serbia may have had the most years of Roma ministerial service among the consultation participants. While not Roma, she has served a Roma congregation in Jabuka for 19 years. She was initially sent there to decide whether to close the church, which at that time included only four elderly women and one man, all Roma.

Rev. Balovski knew as soon as she arrived that Jabuka was where God was calling her to ministry. The revival of the church began with prayer, and next came outreach to children. «Within a month, 30 to 50 children came», she said. «I began to preach to four women and 50 kids. Soon their parents came, too. We had an awakening. We soon began congregations in other towns.»

At the consultation, Rev. Laszlo Khaled-Abdo shared stories from a Roma house church of 30 members in Central Hungary. Filip Gärtner described a shelter for homeless in the Czech Republic. The Rev. Mihail Stefanov from Shumen, Bulgaria supervises four congregations, three of which are Roma with local pastors. Roma congregations are increasing in Slovakia.

Priorities Going Forward
Dialogue at the consultation produced preliminary priorities for ministry with the Roma going forward. The need for literacy programs and job training emerged as important priorities. Work with whole families is also a primary objective; outreach to children should remain important, the group agreed, but should be accompanied by the building of trust, especially with male family members. Other priorities include:

• Spiritual formation, including literacy and Bible reading with women
• Pastoral skills for Roma contexts
• Coworkers for pastors of Roma congregations
• Stronger relationships with other organizations concerned about Roma welfare
• Research on the needs and assets of Roma communities
• Heightened Roma self-identity and more indigenous worship resources
• Self-sustainability of Roma missions
• Advocacy to sensitize Christians, civil society, and public officials about the need for acceptance of and justice for the Roma.

Source: GBGM, Rev. Üllas Tankler + Mary Ellen Kris