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The Roma (Gypsy) Pentecostal Movement in Bulgaria

Mirovlav Atanasov Atanasov

Editor’s note: The following article is based in part upon interviews with Bulgarian Roma (Gypsy) pastors, laity, and Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal outside observers. The Association of Roma Pastors, Churches, and Fellowships helped to coordinate the research. For reasons of space, Atanasov’s brief but complimentary treatment of Baptist and Seventh-day Adventist outreach and church planting among Bulgarian Roma (pp. 122-27; 252; 303-04; 327; 333) has not been included.

Religious Receptivity in Times of Upheaval

A substantial turning of Roma in Bulgaria to Pentecostal Christianity took place in the years after the fall of Communism. Most Roma churches were started in the 1990s: “They were being planted and grew everywhere, like mushrooms.”1 An important reason for this explosive growth was the total political, economic, and cultural transition in the country—from one-party totalitarian rule and socialist economics to democratic pluralism and an open market. During such times of major worldview shifts, people undergo great stress and their receptivity toward religious influences is very high. “Major economic changes, such as unemployment, underemployment, runaway inflation…and plant closings have all shaken people’s false securities and opened them to the gospel.”2 These changes affected everyone, but especially Roma, as their marginal status and economic insecurity intensified greatly. Another important factor in Pentecostal growth among Roma in the 1990s was the new freedom which allowed mass evangelism to take place. Bulgarians were hungry to fill the spiritual void created by years of Marxist atheism.

Roma Pentecostal Numbers

Estimating the exact number of Roma Pentecostal believers and churches in Bulgaria is a difficult task. The approximate number of Roma churches of all denominations in Bulgaria is between 700 and 800. The majority are Pentecostal in worship and beliefs, while no more than 100 are spread among the Baptist, Methodist, Congregational, and Seventh-day Adventist denominations. The number of Roma Pentecostal preachers, ordained elders, and deacons is over 600.

Three Pentecostal Denominations

Roma Pentecostals, accounting for the majority of Roma Evangelicals in Bulgaria, belong primarily to three denominations: the Union of Evangelical Pentecostal Churches (Pentecostal Union), the Bulgarian Church of God, and the United Churches of God. Smaller Pentecostal fellowships include the Christian Church Zion and independent and unregistered groups that have a high Roma constituency. The Presbyterian Union of Bulgaria, founded more recently, also counts in its ranks Roma who are mostly Pentecostal in worship. Roma Pentecostal churches exist in most Roma communities throughout Bulgaria. It is hard to find a city or a village mahala (ghetto) without Roma believers.

The Bulgarian Church of God has been especially successful in reaching Roma for several reasons. First, its visionary leader, Pavel Ignatov, made Roma ministry a denominational priority. Second, the Church of God, having just recently come out of persecution, lacked stringent structural limitations. That made it more flexible and effective in accommodating the growing Roma movement in its fold. The Pentecostal Union, which was officially established in 1928, has had more organizational impediments, including a limit on the number of churches in one vicinity, and a more complicated process of pastoral ordination. As a result, a great number of newer Roma churches joined either the Bulgarian Church of God or its spinoff, the United Churches of God, which gave great autonomy to local congregations. In both of these denominations Roma are now in the majority.

Still, it should be noted that the largest Protestant denomination in Bulgaria, the Pentecostal Union, has also had a powerful ministry among Roma. Chairman of the Union Rev. Victor Virchev explains:

With their hospitality and emotionalism…[Roma] bring freshness to evangelical churches. Before 1990 we had mostly mixed churches: there were some Roma churches, but they were not officially registered. After the changes in the country, Roma desired to start their own churches in the mahali. One third of the churches in the Pentecostal Union are Roma, which have about 7-8 thousand members. We also have thousands of Roma in mixed churches led by ethnic Bulgarian pastors.3

Strength of the Roma Christian Movement

Rare is the Roma who is not aware of Christian faith. The Association of Roma Pastors estimates that Roma Pentecostal believers in Bulgaria number approximately 50,000. This is a conservative estimate which most likely refers to regular Roma churchgoers. The number of Roma who self-identify as Protestants is several times higher. The Roma Christian movement has become a significant force in Bulgaria, even to the point of political parties becoming interested in courting its leaders for votes.

In her research Milena Benovska-Sabkova interviewed 22 Roma who were: active, even inveterate churchgoers. It would have been simplistic and untrue if we had presented the massive attendance at Protestant churches as a sort of “fad.” Religious values have seriously been accepted by about half of those converted to Protestantism….The devotion for Protestant churches has gained great momentum and has become impressively widespread among Roma. According to sociological surveys of 1994, the share of Roma affected by the activities of Protestant churches ranged between 12 and 15 percent.4 The fact that out of 22 persons interviewed, only three have not been affected by the conversion [process] testifies that in 2002 it has been much more sweeping than in 1992-1994.5

The Roma Move from Orthodoxy to Pentecostalism

Roma have lost their interest in the Orthodox Church because they do not experience it as their own church. Several reasons for this movement of Roma from Orthodoxy to Pentecostalism may be given.

1. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, with its liturgical conservatism and nationalistic attitude, has largely neglected or rejected Roma. Orthodox priests have often been unwilling to offer Gypsies spiritual services, while criticizing Evangelicals for doing so. Orthodox have often accused evangelical churches of luring people into their ranks through humanitarian aid and other enticements. I have two questions in response: Why has the Orthodox Church not been active in delivering aid to poor Roma communities? Is it not the mission of the Christian Church to help the poor and needy in this world?

2. The Orthodox liturgy is difficult for Roma to understand. They may observe and enjoy the rituals and ceremonies, but they experience greater freedom to express their emotions in Pentecostal churches.6

3. The massive conversion of Roma to Pentecostal Christianity in Bulgaria has caused many to lose interest in Orthodoxy. Pentecostal Roma churches are located in the mahali, Roma pastors preach there, and believers sing Roma worship songs. Roma pastors visit people who are in the hospital, fellowship with alcoholics and the hurting, and care and pray for them in a personal way.

Roma Pentecostal worship involves indigenous cultural expressions which help to contextualize Christian faith in the mahali. At the same time, given the low rate of literacy among Roma, oral teaching is critical in discipleship. A cliché often heard in Bulgarian evangelical circles is that “Roma are easily set on fire, but their fire is also easily extinguished.” Therefore, Roma need to become not just converts, but also disciples. Pentecostals overcome the hurdle that literacy poses to discipleship by means of music, simple preaching involving illustrations and storytelling, and close personal relationships among believers.

More Reasons for Roma Pentecostal Growth

A variety of other factors help explain the growth of Pentecostalism among Roma in Bulgaria. Dire economic and social circumstances certainly play a role. Marginalized groups in a society are often the earliest converts of a religious movement.7 They are more open because they seek belonging and a way to escape from the harsh realities of life. The flourishing of the Roma Pentecostal movement gives evidence to this fact.

Roma Pastor Salcho Salchev from Preushtitsa explains: God loves us more because we are poorer, yet joyful. We are victims of injustices. From our youth we have had low self-esteem, feeling defenseless and rejected by society. Many of our Roma people are poor, but find refuge and a haven in the church. God gives them strength to keep struggling.8

Roma are the most marginal group, the outcastes, the social lepers, of Bulgarian society, much as they are all over Europe. This low social position makes Roma feel inferior as a group. Yet from its beginning during the days of the Roman Empire, Christianity has appealed to many because it removes barriers of race, gender, age, and social status. This gospel of emancipation is a primary reason for Pentecostal growth among Roma in Bulgaria. ♦

Notes:

1 Salcho Salchev interview, 30 July 2006.

2 George Hunter III, To Spread the Power (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 80.

3 Victor Virchev interview, 2006.

4 Ilona Tomova, The Gypsies in the Transition Period (Sofia: IMIR Press, 1995), 341.

5 Milena Benovska-Sabkova, “I Am a Pure Gypsy: The Roma Individuality in the Distorted Mirror of Group Stereotypes” in The Ethnobarometer Working Paper Series, 2003, pp. 81-83, www.ethnobarometer.org.

6 Lom Church Sinai Church Journal, 2006.

7 Lewis Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), 33-36; 80.

8 Salchev interview.

Editor’s note: The concluding portion of this article will be published in the next issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Summer 2012).

Edited excerpt published with permission from Miroslav Atanasov Atanasov, Gypsy Pentecostals: The Growth of the Pentecostal Movement among the Roma in Bulgaria and Its Revitalization of Their Communities (Lexington, KY: Emeth Press, 2010).

Miroslav Atanasov Atanasov is a lecturer at the Bulgarian Evangelical Theological Institute, Sofia, Bulgaria.