A Congregation-Based Approach to Ministry with the Roma
by Daniel G. Topalski
In Bulgaria, we cannot speak about ministry with the Roma apart from our local congregations. This is true of all our work, whether with Bulgarians, Armenians, or the Roma. We are convinced that a congregation-based approach is the authentic Christian way to be in mission. So in the Bulgarian United Methodist Church, all three main types of ministry with the Roma are congregation-based.
Roma Local Pastors
Roma congregations let by Roma local pastors are very diverse in terms of the members’ language, customs, and social attitudes. Roma people in Bulgaria may speak Bulgarian, Romanian, Turkish, or Romani, the Roma’s own language. Every local congregation is free to choose the most appropriate language for its worship, with Bulgarian being the usual language of choice in linguistically diverse congregations. From the beginning, these churches were challenged to form a stable community of believers as a recognizable sign of serious engagement with the life of the local people. This sense of stability has crucial importance in Roma settlements and neighborhoods since, to the Roma, short-term activities and projects are not taken seriously.
Churches with diverse congregations have been successfully integrated as fully equal members of the Methodist connection in Bulgaria. At the same time, this process of integration within our church structures, relations, and identity places special value on the specific features that characterize Roma congregations. In the two instances in which this integrative process failed, the congregations became dependent on local authoritative leaders who sought to manipulate and control the neighborhood residents. Typically, this happens when United Methodists “adopt” Roma faith communities that were founded by other Christian groups.
The diverse Roma congregations have a good reputation among local community residents. They provide a constant and concerned Christian presence, with space for meeting God and taking care of one another in mutual responsibility and love. Their limited resources are used to provide relief for the sick, help for families in crisis, and support enabling children to continue their education.
In the Roma neighborhoods, our churches are usually the only stable institutions to be found. They face and deal with all the problems of this population—great misery, illiteracy, early (and illegal) marriages, prostitution, and the trafficking of young women, to name a few.
The Roma leaders of these congregations are involved in continuing education in order to be more effective in their ministry. We train them along with their Bulgarian colleagues to avoid every possible kind of isolation or separation and to form a real fellowship of preachers, regardless of ethnic origin. The opportunity to be led in worship by one of their own is greatly appreciated among the Roma.
Bulgarian Local Pastors
Roma congregations can also be led effectively by Bulgarian local pastors preaching in the Bulgarian language. Despite the difference in leadership, all the distinctive characteristics of Roma-led congregations are present here also.
Churches Working With Roma
Some Bulgarian congregations are surrounded by a large Roma population resulting from migration both during the Communist era and after it ended. It took some time for these congregations to realize that the future of their ministry would be influenced by their Roma neighbors. For the village congregation in Hotanza, which exemplifies Bulgarian Methodism, the fact that all 30 children in the Sunday school were Roma was a revelation. Now that congregation is undergoing transformation, trying to stay in contact not only with Roma children but also with their parents. Still, it will take time to convince the neighborhood that this “Bulgarian” church is also a hospitable and friendly place for the Roma.
Work With Roma Children
Three years ago, the congregation in the small town of Lyaskovets started a center for Roma children in the church building, which was then in terrible condition. Thanks to the generous support of German United Methodist donors, the building was entirely renovated. Now, 25 Roma children in two age groups attend the center every day, receiving competent assistance from qualified teachers and from church volunteers. This project has become a key part of the ministry of the church and is highly valued in the local community.
The United Methodist work among the Roma in Bulgaria is not self-supporting. The financial resources within the Bulgarian annual conference and local churches are very limited. This is one of the main challenges we face for further development of existing work and for starting new projects.
Roma congregations receive support from “Connecting Congregations,” a partnership program of the World Methodist Council’s World Evangelism. United Methodist churches from Switzerland and Germany also sponsor Roma work in Bulgaria. Additional aid comes through different grants from Connexio (the Network for Mission and Service of The United Methodist Church, Switzerland-France) and from the Fund for Mission in Europe (a mission fund of the UM Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area).
The Roma are among the poorest citizens in Bulgaria, so those in ministry with them encounter many serious social problems. At the same time, we are aware that the most powerful means for transformation that we can offer to the Roma is the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of Christian believers. In the process, we have to transform our own negative social attitudes toward the Roma.
Priorities and Next Steps
Congregation-based ministry with the Roma provides a solid and stable foundation for a constant and caring Christian presence. The growth of this ministry is connected with the further strengthening of existing congregations—both through the continuing education of current church leaders and by training a new generation of Roma leaders to assume responsibility for all aspects of church life. An integral part of this development is the achievement of self-sufficiency.
We recognize the importance of full integration of Roma congregations and church members into the life of The United Methodist Church in Bulgaria. Our idea is not to form a “Roma ghetto” but to provide all necessary preconditions for full and equal inclusion of the Roma in church life. This will be a powerful sign that we are trying to live and serve in the light of the gospel, where “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28). For people who are usually accepted by others as “second-class citizens,” this full inclusion has a crucial significance.
The process of full integration includes equal access to all sources of project funding and the prioritizing of projects aimed at strengthening and developing our ministry with the Roma.
We recognize the necessity to maintain the right balance between works of piety and works of mercy in our ministry with the Roma. We have to overcome every temptation to use different kinds of social aid to manipulate people. The personal dignity and value of each individual must be respected in every church activity. Our main task is to offer people Christ through the loving and caring life of the local congregation and to serve as a true example of transformed lives and relations.
We recognize that people involved in ministry with the Roma need an opportunity to share their difficulties, challenges, achievements, and prayer concerns with one another. So we started to organize regular meetings for sharing good practices and encouraging fellowship. The coordinator of our ministry with the Roma is responsible for organizing a working network that includes everyone involved in the ministry. This office’s main tasks will be to provide mutual support for ministry and to serve as a clearinghouse for further development, coordinating discussions of new projects and preparing grant applications to support them.
To make our ministry more holistic, we will cooperate with other organizations that specialize in specific Roma issues in order to benefit from their experience and expertise. We are especially interested in cooperating with Roma organizations on issues such as the prevention of early marriage, responsible parenthood, and family planning.
Motivation to Participate
The congregation-based approach of our ministry with the Roma does not differ from other responsible church planting in Roma neighborhoods and settlements. Our intention is to motivate the Roma to participate fully in their own healing and restoration so that they can become members of responsible and responsive, caring and loving communities of faith. And in the Wesleyan tradition, we encourage these congregations to concern themselves not only with preaching but also with living new lives in Christ. This approach differs from the way most religious organizations work with the Roma. It confronts the common attitude that Roma people can only be receivers of the services of a church or a nongovernmental organization (NGO). The congregation-based approach encourages the Roma to be real participants and coworkers within the body of Christ.
The Rev. Daniel Topalski serves as Superintendent of The United Methodist Church in Bulgaria. This article was originally published in the May/June 2013 edition of New World Outlook magazine.
The Rev. Daniel Topalski preaches during a worship service in the largely Roma neighborhood of Gorno Ezerovo, part of the Bulgarian city of Burgas. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
Vassil Ivanov (left), a member of the local United Methodist Church, lives in the Bulgarian town of Staro Oriahovo. He talks in front of his home with his adult daughter, Pauna Vassilev (right), and with the Rev. Daniel Topalski, the superintendent of the United Methodist Church in Bulgaria. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
Mehmed Stefanov, a United Methodist local pastor, walks with two boys in the Maxsuda neighborhood, part of his parish in Varna, Bulgaria. The neighborhood has a large Turkish-speaking Roma population. Photo: Paul Jeffrey
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