Roma Outreach

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Days begin to get very short in the latter days of October.  They continue to get darker with each passing day until the winter solstice turns the corner and the path returns to spring and summer light. Ukraine is technically in a time zone shared by much of the Balkans, The Baltics, and half the Middle East.  Ukraine is 7 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone of North America.  Hungarians living in Transcarpathia, Ukraine choose to go by Hungarian time or Central European Time.  This topic of time depending on nationality and the ensuing confusion it can cause, is a curiosity in itself and worthy of a different blog.  In the heart of winter and late autumn darkness comes very early on the far side of the Central European Time Zone.  Night comes so early that on the darkest days of winter, the sun sets and darkness descends by 4:00pm in the afternoon. Two university students by names of Boglarka Orosz and Csilla Ködöböcz have been faithfully going week after week in darkness, cold, mud, rain and snow to conduct an outreach program that began in October in a Roma camp in the city of Beregszasz. Beregszasz is a fascinating city. Historically it has been a city with a Jewish and Hungarian population and heritage. Today it is a city of officially around 30,000 people, half claiming Hungarian heritage, the other half claiming Ukrainian heritage, many being bilingual in both Ukrainian and Hungarian. Beregszasz has an unofficial population of around 5,000 Roma (commonly known as Gypsies) living in a massive camp, with deplorable living conditions on the outside of the city.

Making inroads into the camp to address the spiritual and the physical needs of the camp is a daunting and overwhelming task. With what feels like a small battle in a war on physical and spiritual poverty, we have partnered with a young Dutch lady working in the camp by the name of Mirjam, to develop a small outreach program. The program consists of a weekly meeting of 7-15 Roma teenagers and young adults who come for an English lesson, Bible devotion, games and activities. Two university students, Bogi and Csilla, go one evening a week to teach English and to run these activities under the guidance of ourselves and Mirjam. Some of you may know Bogi, who last year lived with Eric’s parents and studied for one year in McBain, Michigan. One aim of the program is to provide these teenagers and young adults with basic English knowledge, which is a difficult task as many of them do not know how to read or write in their mother tongue. More importantly, the goal is to share the gospel of Jesus Christ, showing a Christ-like example, mentoring, and attempting to bridge the racial and cultural gap between the Roma and the rest of the Hungarian/Ukrainian community who share the city of Beregszasz as their home.

This program has been made possible by the Zondervan Family Foundation.  We were introduced to Skip and Jan Pylman last year by our friends Dave and Kristin Contant.  Skip is a board member for Zondervan Family Foundation, a small non-profit organization which provides small grants for Christian non-profit organizations that are working in missions. They graciously accepted our proposal and gave us a grant to begin this program.

These ladies do a remarkable job and we are very proud of them. We are also very thankful to the Zondervan Family Foundation for making this possible. The girls have faithfully been going on weekly basis since October.  We will stop for a summer break during the summer months, but everyone is excited to continue this program in the autumn. It has been very exciting for us to watch the girls grow and take leadership in this program. They have an incredible love for the Roma and they have developed very close relationships with the teenagers and young adults from the Roma community who are coming for these programs.

During one week this past winter the Hungarian Reformed Church was conducting a week long evangelization.  These events are common here and often a church will invite its church congregation and the local community to come every evening over the course of a week to hear a message from a visiting pastor and for a time of singing and prayer.  Csilla played the piano for this event and she invited the Roma English/Bible class to come and attend.  It is difficult to express in the words of this blog how radical and brave Csilla’s invitation was. The Hungarian Reformed church in Ukraine has established a number of Roma churches and they employ missionaries to the Roma, but unfortunately it is still relatively uncommon for Roma and non Roma to interact within church congregations. Racism towards the Roma is still strong in many. On this winter evening in February among her peers and college classmates Csilla brought the whole group of around 15 Roma for this event. After a few long stares the Roma class was kindly welcomed and received. Following the program, the pastor invited them to return two nights later and asked them if they would be willing to sing a couple of songs.  Many Roma are naturally gifted in music and are incredible musicians. They accepted the invitation but nerves ran high and we wondered up until the final moments if they would go through with it. They did, and they showed great courage getting up in a public gathering and singing praise to God in front of a large crowd of non Roma. I can imagine that for many watching, it was the first time they had ever seen Roma through any spectacle other than being beggars and thieves.  Many, possibly, were never even aware that they share a faith and worship the same God as many of the Roma. It was a special night. Below is a video of one of their closing songs.

This opportunity has also led to other opportunities as we were invited to assist in planning, organizing, and speaking at an afternoon seminar in the Roma camp. Low self-esteem, troubled relationships and physical confrontation are all common characteristics of the Roma community. Physical confrontation, violence, and beatings are all too common methods for many Roma to deal with disagreement between each other.  Sadly this is also how most parents deal with behavioral issues in their children.  Mirjam, our partner in these activities, invited us to come and speak of the God’s love for us and His call to turn from sin and to show love and care for our neighbors, leaving no place for physical aggression or abuse of children. It was very exciting for us to take part in this conference and we were also invited back for an Easter service in the Roma church and this coming Thursday I (Eric) have been invited to speak to the youth group about my faith and experience with cancer this past year.  We praise God for the opportunities to serve God and minister to the Roma.

About Eric Hoeksema

Stacey, my wife, and I are located in western Ukraine, living with and working among a Hungarian population in Transcarpathia, Ukraine.

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