Here is little something I wanted to share with you all for a long time now. The flow of happenings, activities, planning, crises and other things prevented me from doing so although there are some truly valuable lessons we’d learned from this event.
Anyways, last May we have used an occasion of St. George’s Day to organize an outreach in Konik. St. George’s Day or EDERLEZI is one of the main Roma folk holidays which probably dates back into the “ancient times” when the Roma were still living in what is modern-day India. To make a long story very short, its original meaning is celebration of “return of the spring”, but the name St. George’s Day appeared because Ederlezi falls on May 6th – the day of St. George’s in Serbian Orthodox calendar.
The holiday itself can take many forms in different Roma groups throughout the world, but the main feature of the holiday (I guess everywhere) is slaughtering of the lamb for the forgiveness of sins of a family, for prosperity, good health and God’s favour over family and its members for the coming year (this would probably be a short summary of motives behind the practice). For this purpose, every Roma family buys a lamb couple of days ahead of the holiday and slaughters it when the day comes. And when I say “Roma family” that is exactly what I mean because not all Ashkali-Egyptians celebrate this holiday. Anyways, buying of a lamb is a MUST so some families would go as far as borrowing money from the loan-sharks to be able to get it. Those who do it often say that they had to do it “because of the children”.
While I cannot and do not want to get into it here and now, it is true that being excluded and/or not taking part in something others do/have is something that generally most of the Roma that I’d met have a really hard time with. For that reason, everyone is always invited (“so that they do not get upset”), everything is always shared with everyone (so that “they don’t feel bad watching us eating while they are not”), etc. Of course, there are exceptions to these rules, but while these unwritten rules bring a lot of positive, they can also create a sense of entitlement that in shame/honour context do not allow people to be properly challenged for their irresponsible behaviour and learn their lessons by experiencing “tough love”.
One way or another, we have decided to organize an outreach during this holiday as we’d thought that its symbolic and some of the practices (male lamb – forgiveness of sins – sacrifice for our sins… you know the story already) could actually be a great opportunity to connect this tradition with a message of the Gospel. In order to make this occasion even more appealing I have contacted several Roma churches from Serbia, asking them to help us by coming over for the outreach and taking an active part in the program. It would not be true to say that it came easy, but praise God, after couple of months of going back and forwards, we received a promise from two churches – one from Belgrade and another from Leskovac – they were coming!
Little to say we were excited. This seemed like a dream coming true. To have those guys felt like a kind of acknowledgment. Finally, all those churches we were only hearing of and looking up to were to join and do ministry with us side by side! Also, we believed it was going to be a strong witness to the entire community. We believed that just their presence in Konik, not to mention them leading the program, with all the testimonies, worship and preaching will penetrate into the hearts and lives of many. And it did. And yet…there was so much we had to learn.
The truth is that this was a great event that really challenged and had shaken the entire refugee community. As you can see in some of the photos and videos, at the end of the program, when people were asked to come out, more than 20 new people came out to be prayed over. Several prayed a prayer to accept Jesus in their lives, many experienced moments of emotional and spiritual healing. And yet….that night we realized how much more we will have to work, pray and wait until all the walls are brought down and strongholds captured.
Bottom line is that on that night we realized that we underestimated the influence of some of the forces present in that community. The division/difference between the Roma and the Ashkali-Egyptians was just one of them. This division, although in the eyes of some seems artificial or even ridiculous, is actually “alive and well” in community in Konik. The two communities live side by side, share the same lifestyle, even intermarry (which is not the case in Kosovo and/or Albania) and still, in the moments like this one was, the difference comes out on the surface. For many of the Ashkali-Egyptians, it was simply too much to listen to the unknown songs in Rromane about God, especially if they are being performed by “Serbian Gypsies” as they normally call them (in their eyes so different than they are). The Kosovar-Albanian element of their identity had simply kicked in and many did not want to “betray it” by attending the program.
Another, and perhaps, far more important thing was the growing influence of Salafist (not to say radical) Islam. This influence, embodied in two separate (confronted) groups, had spread across Konik in last couple of years, finding a fruitful ground in the hearts of many by providing religious excuses for the lifestyle they have always practiced. The patriarchal society/culture of the Roma and Ashkali-Egyptians (with all of its strengths and flaws), where men undoubtedly can get away with just about anything and are in no way accountable to no one by God (only in theory) and themselves, embraced the teaching that appeased their already entrenched ways of thinking and behavioural patterns.
On the other note, this form of Islamic teaching creates yet another obstacle to the integration of the Roma and Ashkali-Egyptians in Montenegrin society by creating an additional wall/gap that separates them from the majority Orthodox population. Now, it is not only “Roma-Gadje” thing (although I find the term “gadje” almost equally as dehumanizing as “Cigan/Gypsy”, but that is a whole new topic), but also “the world of Islam vs kafirs/unbelievers”. This greatly changes the ball-game as it justifies and re-affirms the self-isolation of the Roma and Ashkali-Egyptians (one of the spiritual strongholds that contributes to their low position in the society, together with other more known factors) by encouraging them to reject the values and ways of the world that surrounds them. While that may be good in some cases (we are also not very fond of the world and its ways, right?) in others it makes them refuse to re-think some of their ways, confront their traditions, adopt new values and ways (for being Western, Christian, kafir, foreign, alien, non-Roma…). Generally speaking, it discourages them from making a step out of poverty-illiteracy- discrimination-self isolation-marginalization cycle and building bridges with the community/world outside of their own. Again, this all changes “the rules of engagement” and requires contemplating a different, deeper approach and greater spiritual and intellectual preparation in order to be an effective witness for Christ. This is to say that our ministry also has to redefine itself from being “a ministry to the Roma” to “ministry to the MUSLIM Roma (and Ashkali-Egyptians)”, as Islam truly has tendency to nullify all the ethnic and other cultural varieties and create one UMMAH – the nation of Islam.
For those who live in Konik, this change did not come all of a sudden. Although this may come as a surprise to the outsiders, as they often do get taken aback when noticing all the covered women in the streets of Konik (including hijabs, chadors, niqabs and burqas – with last two present the least), listening to the conversations of the men and seeing glimpses of animosity against everything that is not considered Islamic, etc – those who lived in and with the community could probably tell that it was always there, just not necessarily as well defined, vocal and eloquently verbalised. The people in the community simply “sailed into” it as it comes naturally, not to say fleshly, to many of them.
This of course affects our ministry. In last couple of years, it has become harder for people to come to a church service, as eyes of the community are watching more closely than ever. We have witnessed many situations when people were condemned by their families, neighbours and friends if they were seen around us too much and too long. Some even threatened by letting the imam know if they continue hanging out with us announcing a possibility of public shaming and condemnation by the community. Our church members often find themselves accused of betraying their faith and can rarely attend any group gathering without having to defend themselves and their new faith. While that also creates great opportunities for evangelism, it also tells about community has started to ostracize them. These and other things bring in a set of new challenges in front of our ministry.
However, having said this, we still think organizing this outreach was a good thing and we will be happy, Lord willing, to repeat it once again. While it may not necessarily spark a great revival in Konik, it will reach those whose hearts God has already prepared for Him Word (as it did last time). Finally, as in other situations, continuity always sends a good message and sometimes people simply need time to “warm up” and get their hearts in the right place. Therefore, please pray for us. Pray for everyone who know in our church. Pray that all of us are able to act in the roles God has preordained for us from before the foundation of the world. Pray for everyone’s protection, but also for everyone’s courage, faithfulness, meekness and obedience to the Word and Spirit, so that nobody’s witness is sullied and therefore rendered untrustworthy. Pray for our strength, wisdom and discernment as the tasks in front of us are getting harder and more complex. Please pray that we try to do NONE of this in our own strengths, but solely in greater dependency on Him. The task is so much greater than we are, so pray that we get as small we can possibly be, so that He would grow in us.
In His service,