The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
Part of our mission is house visits. We listen to them as they express concerns or worries, helping them to decipher letters, finances, doctor appointments. We often end by reading the Bible together, praying and singing to Jesus, which they love.
There is a bus which runs directly from a small Roma Hamlet in NE Slovakia to Sheffield. When Slovakia became part of the EU in 2007, many Slovakian Roma travelled on this bus and settled in estates in the north of Sheffield, UK.
As the number of Roma grew, so did tensions in the city. Stories of increased theft, litter-strewn streets and ghettoisation started to appear in newspapers. In 2015 there were fights in the streets, particularly between the Roma and Pakistani residents.
Whilst tensions have decreased in the city, any mention of the Roma generally brings stories of disrespectful, system-abusing, unwanted immigrants.
Marginalisation of the Roma – the largest ethnic minority in the EU, is nothing new. Efforts to improve integration have met with limited success, with one in three Roma in the EU experiencing some form of harassment, with 4% being physical violence. (Fundamental Rights report 2018, European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights).
Lack of education, employment opportunities and poor social skills contribute to their social exclusion. The 2016 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey of nine member states found that 80 % still live at risk of poverty. Moreover, an average of 27 % of Roma live in households where at least one person had to go to bed hungry at least once in the previous month; in some EU Member States, this proportion is even higher.
In addressing some of the need, there are many ministries reaching out to the Roma across Europe – this article highlights just two.
Mission Possible in Bulgaria started running soup kitchens and classes for children in Roma villages and hamlets in 1998. In addition, they give ‘Baby Boxes’ to families with newborn children, which contain donated essentials such as clothes and nappies.
Roma girls are married young and many become mothers between ages 13 and 15. They don’t receive instruction and lack medical care. So alongside the Baby Boxes, the Mission Possible staff hold classes for the mothers giving them teaching, health care, and mental and spiritual help and support. The spiritual aspect is important, and in several Roma villages, churches have also been planted as part of Mission Possible’s work.
Back in Sheffield, a small missional community linked to a local church is reaching out to the Slovakian Roma living in one of the estates.
“Many Roma already know Jesus – one of the first things you’ll hear out of their mouths when you truly start to get to know them is ‘I love Jesus’,” explains Sarah who has been part of the group since mid-2017. ‘But we want that they might truly encounter the living God and to cultivate a spirit of worship among the children.”
The group is currently in touch with over 100 children and their families (with families typically having up to 10 children). Due to the nature of migration in Sheffield, most of the Roma are related to each other in some way, and homes are always open with children moving freely from one to another. Sarah reports that it is hard to walk up the street without being stopped by 10 different children, all eager for conversation. “In such large families, children are often hungry for attention and time – which is something we can give them,” she says.
“Part of our mission is house visits. When visiting a new family, it often takes no more than a knock on the door and saying ‘Hi, we’re neighbours, can we be friends’ to be let into their house, offered food, coffee and friendship. We listen to the adults as they express concerns or worries, helping them to decipher letters, finances, doctor appointments, as many adults have limited English and literacy. We often end by reading the Bible together, praying and singing to Jesus, which they love.”
The group also do discipleship classes with older teenagers, and a highlight of the week is the Jesus party (so-called by the children) where they all share food together, have a short sketch or talk, and then singing and dancing, with the children often making up their own songs of praise.
“We have also started doing homework with the children,” says Sarah. “Many struggle in schools. Their chaotic home lives mean that they are not able to adapt well to the rigid school environment, and most of them before coming to England will have very limited experience of school. In Slovakia, the Roma are not allowed in normal schools, and instead attend special schools – or none at all. As a result, children are not used to rules or sitting still, and the exclusion rate is disproportionately high.
Their parents’ lack of English means they often can’t get help with their homework, even if they want it. Often during home visits, children are keen to practice reading or maths, or show us with pride a class test they have passed.
“But the children and families are also extremely vulnerable. Grooming is an issue. Alcoholism is a problem in some families. They are often very poor, exploited by landlords and employers and unable to access legal aid.
“Even so, we are seeing lives transformed. Children who a year ago had little respect for authority, and who we struggled to engage with are now kind and respectful. They listen, are polite and don’t fight.
“The Roma are so eager to and ready to love, and deserving of our love, if only we are willing to put aside cultural barriers and see them as Jesus does. They are a beautiful people and we just need to open our eyes to see it.”
Jo & Sarah Appleton
This article first appeared in the July 2018 edition of Vista Magazine.
For more information about mission among the Roma visit romanetworks.org