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Same people group, different continent

CAMPINAS, Brazil (BP)–It wasn’t the easiest way for a new missionary to begin ministry.

During Bible study in a Roma Gypsy home not long after Jim Whitley went to post-communist Romania, police knocked at the door. The careful plotting of an Orthodox priest brought the officers to escort Whitley and another missionary from the community. All appeals to the mayor, who had approved the meeting, proved futile.

Persecution set in as Whitley and his wife Charlotte began their work in Romania nearly 10 years ago. Their work engaging Roma Gypsies in the Eastern European country blazed trails into unknown territory.

Today, work with Gypsies in Romania flourishes and other missionaries have fanned out across Europe to join efforts to reach the Roma. The Romanian work has expanded to more than 50 Bible studies, at least 10 new churches and 10 to 20 baptisms a year. But now the work there continues without these pioneer missionaries.

The Whitleys recently moved to South America to begin new work among Brazilian Gypsies. But it wasn’t an easy decision.

“We were comfortable [in Romania] and the work is not finished,” Whitley said. “But we felt God was moving us [to Campinas, Brazil] to work with the same people group.”

Although they didn’t intend to leave Romania, a request for new work among South American Roma touched the Whitleys.

“As we went looking through neighborhoods, we found they still love to have their big barbecues outside and dancing,” Whitley said of the similarity between Brazilian Roma and their European cousins. “They just enjoy life. In a lot of ways, they are very similar.”

But there are differences. Brazilian Roma are not persecuted, although they are ostracized and held at a distance. They thrive as businessmen, metal workers and fortunetellers — true entrepreneurs by nature.

The number of Gypsies in Brazil is in dispute since many have no birth certificate. Estimates range from 350,000 to 650,000, with groups living in other South American countries such as Argentina and Chile.

Regardless of the number, the Whitleys are deep into language study and seeking information about the location and cultural benchmarks of this people group — particularly the characteristics that will impact how they should share the Gospel.

“The Roma community is generally open to talk to you about God,” Whitley said. “No strong religious ties keep them from becoming evangelical. Most [ties] depend on how strong the family is with the Catholic Church. They could get kicked out of their house for that kind of thing.”

The Whitleys anticipate using Bible storying as a primary way of sharing the Gospel with predominantly nonliterate Roma. They also plan to prayerwalk through Roma communities, looking for persons of peace as entryways into villages and starting work with Brazilian believers to evangelize and disciple them. They hope to start Bible studies in each village, ultimately forming Roma Baptist churches with their own leaders.

Then, the Whitleys pray, missionaries from the new churches will begin to cross social barriers with other Gypsies to win more of their own people to Christ.
Dea Davidson is a writer for the International Mission Board.

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