Roma Mission in The United Methodist Church in Hungary
by Kristóf Sztupkai
A main objective of The United Methodist Church is to lead people into discipleship with Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world (Book of Discipline, ¶ 120). This process includes ministry with the poor—those at the margins of society, as was Jesus himself. In most Eastern European countries, including Hungary, one people—the Roma—live in extremely poor conditions, often in the most marginalized and vulnerable places.
The integration into Hungarian society of the continuously growing Roma population became a problematic social issue in the second half of the 20th century. Throughout central and eastern Europe, the Roma live in difficult and desperate situations. Today, there are around 700,000 to 750,000 Roma in Hungary, making up about 8 percent of the Hungarian population. Some statisticians predict that, by 2020, in certain regions of the country, every second child is going to be Roma. Since the Roma’s traditional professions and their under-qualified labor force are not welcomed in Hungary, even more Roma will soon be marginalized in Hungarian society. At present, state provisions for these people are no more than a symbolic social benefit. In 2012, more than 80 percent of the Roma population was unemployed, and half of the children did not go to daycare.
The Roma population is continuously exposed to victimization by the European majority. For the Roma, unemployment creates more difficulties than just financial ones. Unemployed fathers lose their prestige. Some turn to alcohol. Others try to win jackpots from slot machines—often losing what little money they may have accumulated. Illiteracy is still a common problem for adult Roma as well as children, so parents are unable to help their children with their studies. Most Roma families also lack children’s books and toys.
The UMC and the Roma
The Roma’s perilous situation is a challenge for churches that are trying to help. In 2011, the Mission Committee of the Hungarian United Methodist Church founded a Roma Mission Work Team. This team was to increase the church’s emphasis on mission goals among the Roma and strengthen Roma congregations. Christ’s mission for the church is to offer salvation for all people, but humanitarian contributions are also essential in feeding and clothing those in need.
The United Methodist Church in Hungary has been engaged in the Roma Mission since the 1920s and 1930s. During those decades, there were a few initiatives in Miskolc (southeast Hungary). Some Methodists from the Miskolc congregation started to visit Roma settlements. They preached the gospel and gave some social support to the people. But these first steps did not grow into an organized ministry, and, after World War II, none of these missions remained. Yet, as a later generation of preachers ventured into ministry among the Roma, the Methodist mission was renewed.
In the 1950s, a Roma ministry began in Alsózsolca, not far from Miskolc in southeast Hungary. Approximately 1,500 people there are Roma, representing 20 percent of the population. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the heavy industry in the nearest city provided enough jobs for the locals, including the Roma. Today, however, jobs are few, and self-sufficiency is a major issue.
The new Methodist ministry started one day when a poor Roma woman invited the Hungarian Methodist pastor, the Rev. János Szuhánszki, to the Roma settlement in Alsózsolca. She asked him to “tell the wonderful stories about Jesus.” In the beginning, worship services were held in the fields near the River Sajó. Later, the Roma worshiped in shanties and houses. Since 1952, the church has been continuously present in Alsózsolca. As years passed, more and more children and adults attended services and became interested in developing a congregation. Many found and accepted Jesus, and their faith changed their lives.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the Hungarian UMC purchased a property in the town and converted the building into a sanctuary. Different kinds of church programs were held each day of the week. Thanks to the presence of the Methodist church, the children’s lives started to change. The Roma appreciated the fact that a church was putting down roots and making them a priority. Programs for the children became regular events, and the youth, women, and men also came together regularly. More than 100 people attended the Sunday services, so very soon the worshipers outgrew their sanctuary.
Since the Roma people are extremely gifted in music, many church members were attracted by the worship music. The messages conveyed in worship songs are an important part of the service. The congregational choir is full of enthusiasm and joy. In fact, the Alsózsolca Methodist choir tours the country, performing at church programs, Roma conferences, and civil occasions. In 2007, the choir released a CD called “With Gypsy Heart.”
The life story and ministry of Lászlo Erdei-Nagy, who is originally from this community, is very important to its members. In 2007, Erdei-Nagy became the first Roma pastor of the Alsózsolca Methodist Church. (See “A Roma Pastor for a Roma Church,” p. 10.)
The Roma congregation in Alsózsolca has grown in strength and ministry, making God’s work felt throughout the community’s life. In early 2011, supported by churches in Germany and the United States, this Roma congregation launched a project to build a new church.
Sunday, April 17, 2011, was an important milestone in the life of the Alsózsolca congregation. The foundation stone of the church was laid, with some 500 people attending this joyous, uplifting event. The Roma community wants this church not only to serve the Methodist congregation but also to strengthen the development of the town, support the Roma population in nearby villages, and emphasize the peaceful coexistence of the Roma and other Hungarians.
In the summer of 2012, an “In Mission Together” volunteer team from Virginia provided arts-and-craft activities and organized services every evening in front of the new church. More than 500 people came to these events to hear the message of God.
Led by the Rev. Róbert Hecker, pastor of the Szolnok United Methodist Church in Szolnok, Hungary, the Methodist congregation in Abony began through evangelistic outreach. Rev. Hecker invited the Alsózsolca congregation to spread the gospel in Abony, a small town of 12,000 inhabitants, including about 2,000 Roma. The first event—held with spirited worship songs and the testimony of Roma Methodists—was really important to some of the married couples in Abony, who later hosted the first Roma Methodist services in their homes.
The Roma of this area had been totally neglected by churches in their area. They lived in very poor conditions, mired in poverty. But for 20 years now, the Szolnok congregation has reached out to Abony families. Besides services held in homes, regular Sunday services are held in Abony with the help of Roma participants. There is a worship band, and the youth are taught to play the guitar by congregation members in Szolnok.
Besides preaching the gospel, this mission also involves volunteer work. The United Methodist Church in Hungary believes that any authentic Roma mission needs to work toward the elimination of poverty and the social disadvantages that the Roma face. The Szolnok UMC is committed to this mission.
In 2012, thanks to a donation from congregations of the Methodist Church in South Korea, a house in Abony was purchased for church services. Though its renovation is still in progress, it is already providing space for worship, youth gatherings, and guitar lessons. With trust in the Szolnok United Methodist congregation, the Roma faith community in Abony is committed to extending the spiritual and physical work of the church as they celebrate their 20th anniversary with the Szolnok UMC in the new building.
Kürtöspuszta is an extremely poor village situated about 17 miles from Kaposvár (southwest Hungary). Its 250 inhabitants are exclusively Roma. All suffer from substandard living conditions, with most of the elders having grown up in plastic tents. Disease and unemployment further degrade village life, and most of the villagers are illiterate.
Though many residents are knowledgeable about the use of herbs and others can do basketwork, the population suffers from alcoholism and unemployment. Usury (exorbitantly high interest rates on loans) is common in Kürtöspuszta. More than half of the village inhabitants are under age 18, and most are highly disadvantaged.
The UMC mission here seeks to emphasize the importance of caring for children. The Methodist pastor of Kaposvár, the Rev. Zoltán Kurdi, knew a Roma family from his faith community who moved to Kürtöspuszta. This is how the Methodist mission there started in 2003.
In Kürtöspuszta today, the church building of The United Methodist Church in Hungary is the only “institutional building” in town. It is a former school that has been reconstructed with the help of Methodists from South Korea, and Sunday services are now celebrated there. Nearby congregations (in Kaposvár or Hetes) generally conduct the maintenance and mission of the building, assisted by other congregations or youth groups (from Óbuda) during regular mission visits. On weekday afternoons, children come to play guitars or a game of table tennis in a heated and renovated room. Still, medical care and grocery stores can be found only in nearby villages, and some houses have not had running water for two or three years.
Since 2008, when the church building was inaugurated, many church events—such as camps, retreats, and Vacation Bible Schools—have taken place there. The first mission project was organized in 2009. Non-Roma young adults cultivated relationships with the local Roma children, resulting in a “study-camp” mission project that currently includes three or four camps each year.
In 2011, an “In Mission Together” volunteer team from Virginia provided arts-and-crafts activities and led Bible studies among the local people. That same year, the first Roma Family Camp was organized, attended by Roma participants from all across Hungary. Following this successful initiative, a second Roma Family Camp with more than 100 participants was held in Kürtöspuszta last year. Hungarian Methodists believe that God has a plan for the Roma population in Hungary and that God grants us wisdom to accomplish this work among the Roma in the most efficient way.
Walking With the Roma
We are grateful to God for this growing ministry with the Roma, which is now standing on a more solid and prosperous foundation. We are grateful to have Roma brothers and sisters spanning several generations within The United Methodist Church. It is a blessed achievement to see parents raising their children in faith and providing them with a different kind of socialization. Such long-standing foundations are missing from the newly started missions, but we know that building from the beginning is essential and bears fruit.
Throughout our mission, we encounter many different kinds of desperate—seemingly hopeless—situations that call on us to renew our strength again and again in our faith and our love for the Roma. Although this is quite a challenge, it creates a greatly blessed opportunity for mission.
Kristóf Sztupkai is pursuing a degree in theology and doing an internship in a local United Methodist church in Dombóvár, Hungary. He serves as mission coordinator for the UMC in Hungary. This article originally appeared in the May-June 2013 edition of New World Outlook.
A children’s camp in Kürtöspuszta, Hungary, based at the Roma United Methodist Church. Photo: Tamas Sera
Children attending the Roma United Methodist Church in Kürtöspuszta, which began in 2003. Photo: Tamas Sera
Members gather for a house group study with the Hungarian UMC in Abony. Photo: László A. Khaled
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