By a Pioneers Field Worker in Albania
Gypsies. Poverty migrants. “Europe’s Unwanted”. Criminals.
Few people groups in the world have been given so many derogatory labels, yet the Roma bear them with unseen grit – unseen because whether by a well-timed turn of the head or sheer ignorance, most people aren’t paying attention.
Numbering anywhere between four and 14 million, the Roma originally migrated to Europe from India. They made their first appearance in Europe’s history books about 800 years ago, and the report isn’t encouraging. The locals, it seems, didn’t know what to do with these dark-skinned, newcomers on wheels. No matter how much the Roma tried to assimilate – even going so far as to adopt their new culture’s religion – the Europeans struggled to accept a people so different from themselves. So they did what many of us do when confronted with something “other”: they oppressed what they feared and controlled what was different, resulting in the enslavement, ridicule, and exclusion of the Roma people.
The atrocities dramatically and tragically increased with the arrival of World War II. Targeting anyone who did not fit their “ideal”, the Nazis embarked on a systematic genocide that killed an estimated 1.5 million Roma, one of the largest (and least-talked about) mass killings in history. After the war, European governments attempted to curb Roma populations through forced sterilization, a practice that continued well into the 21st century.
While the violence may have stopped, that doesn’t mean Europe has finally accepted their Roma neighbors. In Albania, employers decline to interview much less hire them, officials refuse to test their children therefore barring them from public schools, and social services – even churches – have been known to miraculously “run out of supplies” when Roma mothers get to the front of the line. Through a combination of broken systems, prejudice, and their own hopelessness, the Roma have become society’s “bottom feeders”, the ones who sort through dumpsters for recyclables and extend their hands out for charity, and society is in no hurry to change that.
Yet, for all the ways the world might classify the Roma as “poor”, their greatest poverty is a spiritual one. While most claim to follow some form of Islam or Christianity, their real god is survival, and they worship him well. When a Christian relief organization comes to town, they are devout Christians, and when Ramadan starts, they are sincere followers of Islam. As professional survivors, they know exactly what to do and say to fill their stomachs for a night – but little about how to find purpose, meaning, and hope. And until they know Jesus, they never will.
It would be tempting, logical even, to treat the Roma as victims – but it would also be an injustice. Yes, they have suffered much at the hands of the powerful, but that doesn’t mean they are saints. And while they have certainly endured great pain, they have also laughed, danced, loved, and sinned. They are mothers who want good futures for their children, teenage boys who crave acceptance, and babies who want to be held so much they cling to your neck when you tell them it’s time to go. More than anything else, they are people – people who need far more than a meal or even a job. Instead of offering them our pity, may we lead them to the only real hope we have ever found. May we lead them to Jesus.
As the Church, we are called to serve, love, and tell the unreached about the love of Christ. Would you consider specifically praying for the Roma people group, giving your resources to those who currently serve them, or going yourself?