Another Look, From the Inside
by Patrick Streiff, New World Outlook
In my teenage years I had to wear glasses. They helped me to see better for longer distances. I still remember how I walked out of the optician’s shop wearing my first pair. I could see things much better at a distance, but I was hesitant when I took my first few steps with the glasses on. Visually the floor seemed closer and distorted, but I got used to the change very quickly. After a day in school, I did not have any more headaches. Eyeglasses literally shape our vision.
What are the images that come to mind when you think about Roma people (or Gypsies, as they still call themselves in some regions)? What ideas about them do you already hold? And if you’ve ever met a Roma person, what image or impression stayed with you? Maybe, depending upon the type of encounter you had, you saw this ethnic group differently afterward.
In this issue of New World Outlook, a diverse group of individuals share their experiences with the Roma. As is the case when looking through different glasses, we hope this issue will change your perception of the Roma people. You’ll find contributions from both the Roma themselves and other Europeans who have had personal encounters with them. In this introduction, let me share some of my impressions when looking through my personal glasses.
From Caravans to Houses
As a small boy growing up in Switzerland in the late 1950s, I saw traveling Roma people come to town a few times a year. They offered to sharpen knives, and they sold carpets. Later, I read about the difficulties these traveling Roma had in finding parking lots in Switzerland where they could stay overnight for a few days before resuming their journey. Some arrived in luxury cars and others in big caravans. I also read about the mess they left behind when they moved on. No one wanted to offer them hospitality. These are the images of the Roma that I formed in my childhood.
A few years ago, when I became a bishop for the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church, I began to see a very different reality—a picture of extremely poor, mostly jobless, but settled Roma. The settlements that I have seen remind me sometimes of situations of extreme poverty in the global South. Yet the Roma’s poverty is still a reality in Europe, where most Roma live in the formerly Communist countries of east-central or southeastern Europe.
Under the Nazi ideology of the 1930s and 1940s, the Roma were considered among the lowest of races. As such, they were included along with the Jewish people in the Nazi extermination strategy. Hundreds of thousands—perhaps more than a million—Roma were killed. Then, after the Second World War, the Communist ideology in Eastern Europe held that everyone should be treated equally. This policy resulted in good consequences for the Roma in most European countries. They could settle into houses left empty by people who had fled to the West toward the end of the war. Their children were integrated into schools. The parents were hired for unskilled state jobs. The Roma then had the same security in society as other people.
But with the end of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Roma lost their jobs, their social security collapsed, and prices rose. Once again, the Roma found themselves on the lowest rung of the social ladder. For them, the free market only worsened the conditions under which they had to live.
United Methodist Outreach
We praise God that church congregations and other people of goodwill have taken to heart a call to reach out to the impoverished Roma. Within The United Methodist Church in east-central Europe, the first initiatives to help the Roma date from the 1950s and 1960s, during Communist times. Most often, an individual or small group within a local church began to reach out to Roma children. There was no “mission strategy” behind it. The founders simply had loving and hopeful hearts. They felt the need to show more patience and perseverance in sharing Christian love and service with the Roma.
A new round of initiatives in Roma ministry began after the fall of Communism. Today, The United Methodist Church in east-central and southeastern Europe has many ministries among and with Roma people. Such initiatives are based in the knowledge that every human being is created in God’s image. To talk about this biblical truth in a general way is easy. But when it comes to living out this truth in ministry with the Roma, it has to be implemented in a practical and mutually challenging way.
As is often true in life, a closer look, with new glasses, sharpens what we see and gives us a different perspective. Usually, the world becomes more complex rather than simpler. Roma people have a different origin, culture, and language than other Europeans, whom the Roma call Gadje (singular form—Gadjo). Nevertheless, in state census data, many Roma do not register as Roma but as citizens of their country. Thus, there are in reality more Roma than the percentage shown in the official statistics of east-central Europe.
An interesting question—one yet to be explored more deeply—is how the different origin and culture of Roma people is reflected in their religious beliefs. It may well be that, despite their long presence in Europe, they are still shaped by their Hindu origins from India. The importance of the theological study of Mary among Catholic Roma, or a fixed mindset concerning what is pure and what is impure, may well have originated in earlier times. These characteristics also pose an interesting challenge for shaping a Methodist identity among the Roma and will remain so for the future of our ministry with them.
From My Perspective
We all know that strength is often accompanied by weakness. Through my glasses, it seems as if Roma people have some particular strengths and some corresponding weaknesses. Depending on the lenses you look through, you may see more strength or more weakness. Let me give a few examples from my present perspective.
Roma people often show strong emotions. They are gifted in music. Their worship services are very joyful. Singing plays an important part in their expression of trust and hope in God. For these reasons, I like to worship with my Roma brothers and sisters. It is uplifting—even more so when I think that Methodists in Western Europe would only complain if they had to live in the conditions the Roma face every day.
Bishop Patrick Streiff serves The United Methodist Church’s
Episcopal Area of Central and Southern Europe.
Roma people are spontaneous. They decide things quickly, in the moment, without troubling about the long-term effects. They have not had a chance to learn the habits of more stable, long-term planning. They never know quite how the Gadje will act toward them at any given time. Thus, even with the best intentions of doing good, they can easily get into debt—and once in debt, it is very, very hard for them to get out of it.
The Roma do not only express joy. They can be deeply disappointed if they do not receive what they hoped for—particularly from Anglo people. They have experienced a long history of neglect and discrimination. The fact that their dignity has been hurt so often has produced, in most, a low self-esteem—and, in a few, a combative spirit to advocate for their rights.
Children play an important role in Roma families. Women get married and have children when they are in or scarcely beyond their teenage years. They believe in the importance of creating a family. At the same time, many parents are so greatly overburdened by managing a family that they cannot promote a better future for their children. And what good comes of sending children to school—or to serve an apprenticeship or to undertake university studies—if no one in the community will hire them?
If you work with Roma children and offer them some clothes or presents, large groups will flock around you. They are used to depending on outside help. But this help—as well-intended as it may be—keeps them locked in the same dependency trap in which their people have lived for generations.
These are just a few examples of the Roma’s reality as seen through my lenses. I hope that others may have additional—even different—perspectives. I am looking forward to reading the articles from other authors in this issue. And I hope all of these stories help you to see the Roma people through new glasses.
God—who has always heard human cries of injustice—certainly has an open heart, an open mind, and open ears for the Roma people. Do Methodists have open doors for them?
Bishop Patrick Streiff serves The United Methodist Church’s Episcopal Area of Central and Southern Europe. This article was originally published in the May-June 2013 edition of New World Outlook magazine.
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A modern Roma band in Jabuka, Serbia. Photo: Üllas Tanker
The Altar area of the Roma United Methodist Church in Kürtöspuszta, Hungary. Photo: Jan Snider
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