European Methodists Reach Out to Roma People
by Kathleen LaCamera
The 6,000 member United Methodist Church in Macedonia did not like what they saw happening to Roma people in their community. The Roma, also called gypsies, are Europe’s largest minority numbering some 7-9 million. The greatest number live in the Balkans, where Romani people make up to 8% of the population. When conflict broke out in Kosovo in 1995, Romani people fled the country. Some ended up in Macedonian United Nations refugee camps where they faced very basic if not brutal conditions.
In the camps as many as 1500 men, women and children had to make do with very little clean water, food, or medical attention in extremes of heat and cold. Few had the means to generate income or provide for themselves. Romani children and young people struggled to obtain schooling of any kind. They lacked the basic clothes or school supplies needed to step through a school’s front door with a bare minimum of dignity.
The Rev. Mihail Cekov was among the first to see the real depth of need in this community and understand how The United Methodist Church could help.
“God loves us. When we say ‘we love God,’ but don’t help those who need our help then that love is not real,” explained Cekov who is attending the 2004 General Conference as a delegate for the Serbia Montenegro Conference.
In consultation with Roma leaders, Cekov got local churches, his conference, the General Board of Global Ministries and UMCOR involved. Together The United Methodist Church was able to begin providing food parcels, medicines and other support to the Roma community. UN rations at one point were down to one bottle of water, one loaf of bread, one quart of milk and a few pieces of cream cheese per family per day.
But getting that help to the Romani community proved an even bigger challenge than Cekov first imagined. At one point United Nation officials forbade anyone, including the Church, to bring anything into a Roma camp located along Macedonia’s border with Greece. The UN wanted the Roma people to go back to a larger camp, away from the borders where their presence (and their circumstances) would not be so noticeable to the rest of the world.
“We had to sneak into the camps while the UN was looking the other way,” said a determined Cekov. “The Roma leaders said to me, ‘we are not anyone’s enemies. Why are they doing this to us?’”
The Roma are a nomadic people who came to Europe from India as many as 800 years ago. During the period of communist rule, Romani people in Eastern Europe were forced to settle into permanent communities. According to the World Bank, it is not unusual to find unemployment of up to 100% in Roma settlements. The Roma community is increasingly concerned by how few of their children can read and write to any level of proficiency. In Bulgaria only 10% of Roma adults have had any secondary education. Their community is so marginalized and so far out of the economic mainstream that some Roma leaders now talk openly about a “European apartheid.”
Hungarian United Methodists started working with Roma people over 50 years ago. Today a Roma church, with its own church building, serves the needs of their community near Budapest. A young Romani man is in training to become the church’s pastor. Hungarian General Conference delegate, Eva Csernak reports that her church is helping the community with education programs, employment counseling and other social support.
“We’re helping Roma people find their own ways to step out and to find a hope and a vision,” said Mrs. Csernak.
In Bulgaria, United Methodists have worked extensively with Roma people. Already two Roma pastors are serving churches in that region.
Rev. Cekov says that while the political, social and economic situation for Roma people in his country remains “unresolved,” United Methodists will continue to stand along side the Romani community. Recently the church began providing bus fare and lunch money to several boys who are determined to finish their schooling. A doctor from Cekov’s local church now runs a free clinic for the Romani community which served over 200 people the first week it opened its doors. In cooperation with Macedonia churches, a group of German United Methodist deaconesses are now helping clothe and equip Romani children for school.
One Romani community leader came to Cekov recently and asked him for a Bible. “He said ‘when I read it, it makes me feel good,’ ” recounted Cekov. “Whole families are beginning to come to church. They come because they know they are loved.”
Date posted: May 01, 2004