by Katarina Nikolic
Katarina Nikolic is a Roma local pastor for the UMC congregation in Srbobran, Serbia.
PHOTO: ÜLLAS TANKLER
Pastor Katica Dukai was born in the late 1920s and raised among both Roma and Hungarians in Srbobran, a town in Yugoslavia (now Serbia). She lived in Srbobran for some years and then moved to Senta, about 65 km (40 miles) away. In Senta, she became a pastor of The United Methodist Church. Yet, every Monday, she came back by bicycle to evangelize in the Srbobran Gypsy village. None of the Roma wanted to hear the word of God, but she was moved by Jesus’ love in her heart and was ready to make a sacrifice. My grandfather on my mother’s side once said to Pastor Katica: “Do not come to us anymore. We do not want God’s word.
We are cursed people.”
But after a break, he said: “Wait! Maybe you can help our kids.”
This was a prophetic word. Before then, Pastor Katica was relegated to the streets, but from that time on, she was invited into my parents’ house. Each Monday morning—arriving by bicycle, after pedaling 40 miles to Srbobran and facing a 40-mile ride back to Senta—Pastor Katica came to read the Bible, sing, and pray with our whole family. This began in 1960.
My parents were in a hard and troubled marriage. They had lost three children, though my two sisters and one brother survived. They didn’t want to have any more children. So when my mother became pregnant with me, she wanted to abort me and tried three times. Three times she went to the doctor, but there was always something wrong that made an abortion impossible. God had a different plan for my family and for me.
The Roma congregation in Srbobran, Serbia, celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Srbobran UMC.
PHOTO: KATARINA NIKOLIC
My parents lived in great poverty. We had a kitchen and one small room for four kids and our parents to live in. But we were glad when each Monday came, and many relatives came to our house to meet with Pastor Katica and pray. She brought peace to our house, so my parents were not always arguing. She told them that a child is a gift from God. So I was born in 1975 and they gave me the name of the pastor: “Katica.”
A Call to Serve
By the time I was five years old, there was a lot of joy in our house. Pastor Katica had already taught me the Lord’s Prayer and my first song, “God Loves Me Dearly.” We lived for 20 years in that small old house and we never quit God’s word. After that, my father constructed a new house in the same yard, and there we lived for another 21 years—in a small place, but with a lot of joy.
Pastor Katica Dukai continued to visit every week until the summer of 1992. (By then she came by bus or someone drove her by car). Within this long time, she had become part of our family. But in autumn 1992, she became very ill and could not come regularly anymore. So, on October 26, 1992, together with my parents, I started reading the church magazine and various testimonies of others out loud. That was very interesting for our family, and soon 20 adults and 20 children came to hear the readings. For two years we had a prayer hour every night with song and word. It was a blessing for our family.
From 1960 until 1992, we had thought that The United Methodist Church was only Pastor Katica Dukai, because, in all that time, no one else from a church had ever come to visit us or get to know us. We were all alone. In the winter of 1992, for the first time, our brothers and sisters from the Kisac community visited us and brought with them some small humanitarian help—food and toiletries. This was a great help for us.
Many Gypsies live without attending school or finding legitimate work. They are oppressed and destitute everywhere. It was a great joy for my community to receive this help. But then, we were alone again. Pastor Katica’s health situation worsened, and I realized in 1992 that Jesus was calling me to service. Because I was Roma, “a Gypsy,” I was not even fully included in the church, but Pastor Katica had much love for me and helped me to take German lessons. She helped me attend a Bible school in Adelboden, Switzerland. I also attended the Baptist theological school in Novi Sad, Serbia, for one year.
A Church of Our Own
In 2001, after I passed the examination by the Serbia Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, the Swiss UMC Zigeunermission (“Gypsy mission”) bought a house for us in which we still live today. That same year, Pastor Urs Gassmann from Switzerland, together with Pastor Katica Dukai, established an official United Methodist Church in Srbobran, Serbia. They affiliated 20 members (19 Roma and one Serb), baptized 15 adults, and consecrated 15 children. So in 2001, we celebrated the Holy Communion as a congregation for the first time.
Worship at Srbobran UMC in Serbia. PHOTO: ÜLLAS TANKLER
In 2003, I passed the examinations to become a deacon in full connection. I serve thanks to the love and virtue of Jesus, but it is not easy for me as a woman to do everything on my own. I hold a community service in addition to the regular church work, which is attended by Roma women and girls. This is where we learn about health, hygiene, and reproductive issues. The women and girls also love to make handicrafts, and the young women now learn how to read.
I meet with a group of 25 children and we have lessons in the church every Saturday. I teach the children English and German. We also play different games and dance Gypsy dances, which are very interesting for our nation. Youth in our youth group are looking for work and therefore do not come very often, but we keep in touch. On Sunday afternoons, we worship; Monday is our “Care of Souls”; Tuesdays are for visiting; and Wednesday, we hold a praise service. On Thursdays I visit the elderly and sick in their homes and at the hospital. On Friday, we have prayer and Bible lessons, and on Saturday, I am with children and young people. My schedule is full and I’m grateful to Jesus for that.
Manuel sleeps at the end of Bible lessons. He has two brothers from different fathers and his mother is married and living in Belgium. The kids live on the street and find refuge at the church.
PHOTO: KATARINA NIKOLIC
Even today, the people here are forsaken, without any assistance to survive. Many children are abandoned by their parents and live in the streets. They come to the church because they can find an open door here and a safe place, especially when I prepare some food or have some clothing to give them. I have a lot of ideas about how to help these children and the adult Roma, and I need prayers and support. Unfortunately, no one else from a city—or a humanitarian aid organization—or another church helps much. I have not found the right person or organization to help me so that the Roma here can live a better life and come to know Jesus. I’m grateful for anyone who will pray for this to happen.
We sing in Serbian and Romani, which is our Roma language, and we have made the first songbook with Christian songs in Romani. We are very happy people because we know that Jesus loves us as we are. We know that he will come in power.
Katarina Nikolic is an ordained deacon and local pastor with The United Methodist Church in Serbia. The article first appeared in the May-June 2013 edition of New World Outlook.