Salvage, Beg, or Pray - A Roma Story (part 1 of 3)

By a Pioneers Field Worker in Albania

It rained yesterday, which means the road to church is muddy. As far as dirt roads go, this one isn’t the smoothest, and I hope we don’t show up in mud-soaked jeans. Even if we did, I remind myself, it probably wouldn’t make much of a difference to our hosts. 

Today is “Roma church”, or the day we go to the house of the only family of Roma believers we know, listen to a chapter of the Bible on a solar-powered recording device (because half of our congregation can’t read), and try and find truth in the words while juggling the chaos of seven kids running around a tiny cement room. I’m only a month into living in Albania, but it’s already my favorite day of the week. 

As we park the motorbike, I marvel at the tiny cement structure. Most Roma families in this neighborhood live in shacks constructed of corrugated tin, cardboard, and whatever else they can find, which makes this house an anomaly. We walk over a river of trash and broken toys to reach their doorstep, but before we can knock on the door, a four-year-old boy with a devious smile and a giggle to match bursts out of the house, quickly followed by his older sister. They bolt past us and into the “yard”, playing a high-stakes game that ends in tears in about 60 seconds. Those tears used to scare me, but I know better now; in another minute, they’ll be at it again, this time for the win. 

Holding back laughter, we step inside the structure and gratefully find it heated by something that looks like a piece of square cement cradling red-hot electrical coils. I’m too busy enjoying the heat to ask questions, but as a curly-haired toddler falls over and almost hits her head on the coils, I start to wonder if this is the safest option. It’s not, of course, but when your entire culture is based around your collective ability to survive, burns are of little concern.   

Joni, usually loud and jovial, is lying on the couch, looking like he just woke up from a too-long nap. He’s been ill for the last, well, for a long time, but Sula, his wife, warmly and firmly greets us. Like most Roma couples, they have probably been married since they were teenagers, a fact that still disturbs me no matter how much I tell myself how different our lives have been – what different choices we have been given.

One thing Sula and I do share in common is our age; we are both 26, and when I find this out, I have a hard time hiding my shock. Maybe it’s the way she carries herself or the fact she’s had four children or the fact that I’m uncomfortable thinking of all her 26-year-old self has experienced that I have not, but I would’ve guessed mid-30’s at least. I take a moment to study her: though uneducated, she is clever, resourceful, and a bit shrewd – and it’s lucky for her family that she is. Since Joni got sick, she’s had to find ways to feed six hungry mouths every day, a task made even more difficult by the discrimination she receives from mainstream Albanian society. As it is, her two options for earning money are to salvage through the trash for recyclables, or beg. 

Today at least, she has a third option, and she takes it. After serving each of us a glass of soda and a cookie (food I feel guilty for taking but do to honor her), she finds a place in our circle. Tuning out the sounds of squirrelly children as best as a mother can, she closes her eyes, bows her head, and she prays. 

Joni and Sula are the only known believers in the Roma community our Pioneers team currently works in. Would you consider specifically praying for this unreached people group, giving your resources to those who serve them, or going yourself?