Present and Future Hope for Roma Children
by Thomas Rodemeyer
When, for the first time, I visited a United Methodist Roma congregation, I was quite astonished to see such a large number of young people. About 70 to 80 percent of the congregation was made up of children and youth—the rest being mostly women. I do not remember having seen any man older than 25 in the room where the service took place.
Having since visited a number of different Roma churches, I have noticed that many of them have this characteristic: the median age of their members is quite young. Although, in most European countries, the life expectancy of the Roma is often 10 to 15 years lower than that of the majority population, this fact in itself doesn’t explain such youthful congregations.
Although some churches in Eastern Europe withstood the Communist era, church work did not regain any kind of growing strength until the late 1990s and early 2000s, after Communism collapsed. Many local churches have been founded in the last 15 years, as has most of the ministry with the Roma. Many of the Roma churches have developed only recently.
Generally speaking, from what I have seen, the newly founded Roma churches have developed in two different ways. The first way I would call family-driven. Someone within a Roma community has made a commitment to God’s Word and to the work of the local church. This one person brings along a whole family, from grandparents to grandchildren. The other way Roma churches develop is child-driven and not, as far as I can determine, family-based. Children who live near a meeting place take a chance and come to the church meetings whenever something interesting appears to be happening. In this kind of congregational development, the activities are set in motion by a missionary. Children and youth usually meet when the missionary is around.
For me, the most obvious explanation for reaching so many children is this: children, even on the margins of society, tend to be open to strangers. Their elders may have had difficult experiences, making them feeling excluded from the rest of society. That makes them skeptical about anyone or anything that comes from the outside. Yet the Christian church today seems to have a real chance to reach the Roma community—especially Roma children. We should make the most of this opportunity, while not forgetting to contact the families through their children. We want to be in Roma communities for people of all ages.
The local church in Alsózsolca, Hungary, started in the 1950s when a Roma woman invited a Methodist pastor to “tell the wonderful stories about Jesus.” I imagine that many children must have gathered together to hear those stories told. Little by little, that congregation must have developed, becoming what we have now: a living, growing church with about 100 adults attending church services on Sunday—and, of course, with many children and youth coming too.
Methodism and Roma Children
In many local churches, children have their own Sunday schools or Bible study groups within the weekly schedule of church activities. In some places, guitar or other instrumental lessons for young people have become part of the church program. In recent years, in the Slovak Republic as well as in Hungary, several camps have developed, both for Roma children and for mixed groups. These camps usually have some educational aspects, such as preparation for school. The United Methodist Church is working with schools in Hungary to teach Christian education in places where many Roma live.
In the Czech Republic, the UMC is giving shelter to families and children, most of whom are Roma. A great deal of work is also being done with children in Bulgaria (see the story on p. 28). In Macedonia, much of the church’s social work with the Roma is intended to help the children. One project, which provides clothes for Roma children, is coordinated by Weltmission, the mission agency of the UMC in Germany. So our mission starts with covering basic needs and goes on to help the children and youth develop their skills in different ways. In all our work, we tell about and show God’s love for the children.
In July 2012, I had the chance to participate in a one-week day camp for the children of Kürtöspuszta, a Roma village in Hungary. There, I joined a team of nine people from the Hungarian United Methodist Church. Although the UMC has a church building in the village, Hungarian Methodists consider the place to be a mission, since it is not yet a stable local church. We had about 40 to 50 participants between the ages of 2 and 23—all of whom came from the village of Kürtöspuszta. The schedule included time for eating lunch together, doing school work, creating arts and crafts, playing outdoor sports, and having a small devotion.
During the camp, the people from our team had many discussions with the children, especially with the youth, about their present situation and their future. The young people saw a lot of hatred and violence in their village. Most of them see their own future elsewhere because this place causes them to despair.
Surprisingly, despair was not at all what I felt during the camp. I saw lively children who played with each other and had consideration for others. Some people from the team told me that they could feel the children changing—that they had become calmer and more trusting and were learning to take care of one another. Since I could not speak Hungarian, I was limited in my ability to relate to the children. Even so, the kids talked to me a lot and they always found ways to make me understand. You don’t always need words to communicate. During the time I was there, I could feel a lot of love coming from the kids and from the team. God was with us.
Considering the Future
What the future most likely holds for these children is probably not what we want for ours. This new generation of children is slated to face the same poverty that their parents have known. There are two reasons for the great poverty experienced by the Roma—reasons that interact and thus make the situation worse. One reason is discrimination and the related exclusion of the Roma from mainstream society in almost every European country. The other factor is a generally worsening economic situation in many Eastern European states. If there is a lot of unemployment in a society, it will especially affect those who are already weak.
Not everybody has profited from the fall of Communism in the 1990s. In fact, the Roma have not fared well at all from the changes that were wrought. Yet we do have some ways to fight for a better future for Roma children.
The first thing we can do is to build relationships. Interacting in church programs is probably the best means to counteract social exclusion. All the people on our camp leadership team have been to Kürtöspuszta already and are looking forward to coming back to the next camp. While some leaders return, new participants are getting involved each year. The leaders love to come back as much as the children love for them to do so. I hope, as time goes on, members of both groups will expand that willingness to welcome the other beyond the camp and into their daily lives.
We’ll also keep trying to help these children discover new skills and strengthen the skills they already have, whether in respect to school work or in other areas, such as art, music, or sports. Seeing oneself as a person who is capable in every way creates much self-assurance, encouraging people to try something new and to reach out for something better. Telling the children that they are children of God and are being loved strengthens their self-confidence. And, of course, we all can pray that God will continue to make good changes in the children’s lives.
Thomas Rodemeyer is the coordinator for Roma Ministries in the Central and Southern Europe Episcopal Area under Bishop Patrick Streiff. This article was first published in New World Outlook, May/June 2013 edition.
About 70 to 80 percent of the Roma congregation is made up of children and youth—the rest being mostly women.
Thomas Rodemeyer with Roma children in Kürtöspuszta, Hungary. Photos: Thomas Rodemeyer
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