Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Separated Peoples: The Roma as Prophetic Pilgrims in Eastern Europe

Magazine article International Bulletin of Mission Research

Separated Peoples: The Roma as Prophetic Pilgrims in Eastern Europe

Article excerpt

Since the Middle Ages, migrating groups of people, one of the largest groupings of which are now most commonly called Romani, have elicited various responses from their host communities in Europe, ranging from being honored musicians and craftsmen to facing forced assimilation, banishment, slavery, or death. (1) Throughout the centuries, elements of each host culture, language, and religion became tightly interwoven into their own culture, with each Roma village or group of villages differing in terms of religious expression, dialect and language, and cultural practices. Differences from village to village prevent a homogenous conceptualization of Roma culture, yet commonalities of culture and language still remain. One of the primary markers of shared identity is an awareness of separation from non-Romanies (the gadze)--an awareness cultivated by the Romanies' unique cultural and linguistic framework and fostered by centuries of prejudice.

In a recent European Union document entitled "Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020," the EU estimates there to be 10-12 million Roma in Europe, making them Europe's largest ethnic minority. (2) Twelve Eastern European governments declared 2005-2015 to be the "Decade of Roma Inclusion." However, few tangible gains have become evident at the local level. The Roma remain largely marginalized in terms of economic status, education, and political clout.

Today in Croatia and Serbia, the Serbian Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches have little interaction with nearby Roma villages. This sense of separation is reflected in the recent words of Aleksandar Subotin, a Roma pastor: "Nobody wants to accept the Roma, not the traditional [Serbian Orthodox] church, not the Protestant church.., so now is the time we can make our own church for the Roma." (3) This religious and social exclusion may be one factor contributing to the growing movement of God among the Roma over the last decades. Roma are coming to Jesus through dreams, visions, and miraculous healings. Their spiritual worldview, their acute physical needs, and their identity pockmarked by centuries of discrimination have allowed many, at least initially, to "come easily to Jesus," the God who accepts them as they are.

On the surface, it appears that God's mission in eastern Europe takes place in two separate spheres: the Roma and the rest. And yet, what if God's activity in the margins of society could be dynamically linked with the center of society? Could a Roma village being transformed under the power of the Gospel have any impact on the historic separation between the majority culture and the Roma? If, as many have said, God's self-revelation often manifests itself in the margins, then God's activity among the Roma may not be just for the Roma but may also have the potential to bless the dominant culture and become the vehicle of healing and peace between the two. In order to provide a context for this discussion, I (1) summarize historical themes related to this separation and present the contemporary situation, (2) reflect on the relevant research from five Roma villages in Croatia and Serbia, and, finally, (3) offer four missiological implications.

Historical Themes and Contemporary Issues

Roma history is complex, unevenly patterned with discrimination, fear, idealization, and a certain mystique--all of which makes it difficult to trace and understand the virulence of anti-Roma sentiment today. As Roma scholar Ian Hancock notes, "We are, after all, a people who have never started a war, who have never tried to take over a foreign government.... In fact, if anything typifies us as a people, it is our desire to keep to ourselves." (4)

Idealized nomad or thieving beggar: two polarizing images of the "other." European attitudes toward these traveling groups of people were not always hostile. Although scholars note the eleventh century as the earliest possible Roma reference in the western Byzantine Empire, the twelfth-century documents a more substantial presence, and by the fourteenth century, the Roma were widely established on the Balkan Peninsula. …

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