EDITOR’S NOTE: This year’s Week of Prayer for International Missions in the Southern Baptist Convention will be Dec. 4-11 with the theme of “His heart, His hands, His voice — I am Southern Baptist missions” from Acts 1:8. Each year’s Lottie Moon Christmas Offering supplements Cooperative Program giving to support Southern Baptists’ 5,000 international missionaries’ initiatives in sharing the Gospel. This year’s offering goal is $175 million. To find resources about the offering, go to imb.org/offering.
SKOPJE, Macedonia (BP) — The tattered blanket hanging loosely in the doorway of the cinderblock house does little to keep the shouting inside from drifting out into the dusty streets of Dame Gruev.
The set of lungs belongs to a grandmother who sits in the bare, one-room house that only has one chair — the one in front of the computer.
She’s video Skyping with family members elsewhere. Romania. England. Could be anywhere — they move a lot. A neighbor is courting a girl in Germany over the Internet — he’s only met her via video, but it’s getting serious. She might move soon and marry him.
Welcome to gypsy life in the technology age.
Abbey Hammond and Jessica Burke sit on cushions on the floor of the grandmother’s house, sipping juice while she explains to the men on the video call why there are Americans in the background.
It’s intriguing to them. Puzzling, even.
Roma gypsies — about 200,000 strong in Macedonia — tend to be a castoff people in every European country they alight in. In fact, in Bulgaria ethnic tension is so great right now that 14 towns in that nation — including the capital of Sofia — held anti-Roma protests at the end of September and beginning of October. Protestors pinned accusations of corruption and organized crime on the people group. Others just said they wanted their gypsy neighborhoods dismantled.
In Macedonia, Roma are known in the bustling capital city of Skopje for driving horse or pedal carts in traffic and rummaging through trash bins for plastic, metal and cardboard to sell.
But several times a week, Hammond, Burke and other International Mission Board missionaries walk the dirt roads of Dame Gruev and two other Roma neighborhoods in Skopje. They greet the people there by name, have coffee in their homes, talk about life and talk about Jesus.
“They are excited about having Americans in their home, so that’s a great way to get to know them initially. But as I get to know them, I want them to get to the point where they see Jesus instead of me,” Hammond said. “I think they know how much I love them, but I want them to see that it’s not my love. It’s God’s love for them that He lets me show them.”
It’s not easy. Roma in Macedonia are, for the most part, nominally Muslim. In other countries, the people group has sometimes lined up its identity with the predominant faith of the land — Catholicism and Orthodoxy to Islam and animism. But to be Roma in Macedonia is to be Muslim, even if their religion doesn’t impact their lives at all.
“I’ll eventually figure it out. I’ll cover my head and go to the mosque and pray when I’m 40,” one Roma woman told Hammond and Burke as they talked with her in her home. She puffed on a cigarette and gave it a moment’s thought. “No, when I’m 50. Forty is too soon.”
They may not know much about their religion, but they do know Jesus Christ isn’t part of it. And they think that to turn to Jesus would make them Macedonian instead of Roma. Macedonian people are, for the most part, Eastern Orthodox.
But it happens sometimes.
In the summer when the small Roma homes get tight and sweltering, everyone congregates outside for a breeze, and Jessica’s husband B.T. said he can walk around and meet hundreds of people.
“Jesus is not something people are opposed to conversing about if you establish relationships with them, so I’ve tried to do that and have that conversation as much as I can,” he said.
He’s sat in their homes and visited them when family members were in the hospital, and once he labored alongside a Roma family to help build their house.
“I tried to deepen and build relationships and gain respect in the community, and as soon as I found someone interested in studying the Bible, I started a Bible study,” he said.
Slowly it grew into a church of Roma believers in Jesus Christ.
“They are bold in sharing their faith, and now they can do the talking among their people,” B.T. Burke said.
It surprises the Roma when they meet Roma who are Christians. It doesn’t add up with what they know.
But sometimes God is surprising like that, Hammond said.
Recently while visiting with a Roma family in their home, she gave them a Bible, but the father of the family made the women give it back to her.
“He said it was a bad book, and they are Roma, so they can’t have it in their house,” she said.
But when a family member was sick soon after, Hammond wrote a card to the wife saying she was praying for them and penned Scripture verses on the card.
“She was so touched she cried. She said it meant a lot to her, and she kept it,” Hammond said. “God got His Word into their home anyway, in a different way than I expected.”
Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer based in Europe.