Special Theme Edition on the Current Ukrainian Crisis: Volume 22, No. 3 (Summer 2014)
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Miroslav Atanasov Atanasov
Editor's note: The first portion of this article was published in the previous issue of the East-West Church and Ministry Report 20 (Spring 2012): 11-13.
A Climate of Care
Pentecostalism, much more than Orthodoxy or Islam, has made Roma feel equal and cared for. The miracle of the Pentecostal movement is that ethnic Bulgarians and Roma in a context of strong prejudices have become one family in Christ through God’s love and the power of the Spirit. Roman family members from Dob rich shared their reasons for choosing evangelical faith: We go to this church because the pastor considers us equal with Bulgarians, because he speaks of human suffering and views us as human beings equal with others. This is not done by anyone else in the city. Also we go because the services are interesting—like watching a film. People around us think that we are only able to steal and fight, but in the church we have been assured that were normal human beings as all others, and that God will help us.1
The Witness of Friends and Family
Many Roma come to Christ as families and attend church together with their brothers, children, and relatives. For example, all the 200 Gypsies living in Kovachevtsi are relatives. About half of the Gypsies in this village are members of the Church of God. As church growth researcher George Hunter notes, Typically, the church grows when it spreads tithe friends, relatives, neighbors, and coworkers of its members, especially its new members and converts. Churches grow when they periodically survey their members and identify all the…undiscipled people who are linked to believers.2Roma believers often point to a close relative or friend whom God used to invite them to church. This personal relationship is an important factor in the rapid growth of the Pentecostal movement among Gypsies.
Roma Churches in Roma Neighborhoods
The phenomenal growth and impact of the Pentecostal movement among Roma has not happened because Roma have gone to Pentecostal churches, but because Pentecostal churches have gone to Roma. In most Roma quarters, these are the only churches present. One may find some Baptist, Adventist, Methodist, or Congregational Romachurches, but Pentecostal churches are by far the majority. I have yet to find an Orthodox Church in aRoma mahala in Bulgaria.
Some Bulgarian church leaders believe Roma need to come to Bulgarian-led churches because there they could learn more. While Roma pastors do need more theological education and training, the strength of the movement resides precisely in the fact that Roma churches are located in the Roma community. Roma go to church to be among their own people, to speak their own tongue, to belong.
Although many mixed Roma-Bulgarian churches still exist, the greatest growth has occurred as Roma have developed their own, mostly homogenous, churches. This principle has not been deliberately enforced in church-planting, but often simply has been the way congregations have developed. Part of the explanation is that most Roma in Bulgaria live in ghettos separated from the rest of the population. Thus, establishing Roma churches has had a revolutionary effect upon evangelistic outreach to Roma.
Elevated Status of Women
The status of women, which traditionally has been low among Roma, has changed as a result of Pentecostal faith. Historically, Roma families in Bulgaria have been unstable, making life for women precarious. Several factors contributed to women at risk among Roma.
1. Early marriages for girls, even as young as 12-13,meant that very young mothers often could not effectively manage the responsibilities of family life and raising children.3
2. Roma traditionally have not had official marriages performed by Bulgarian civil courts.
3. The high crime rate among Roma men has often led to long prison sentences with, as a result, many Roma families being left destitute.
4. A tradition of strong male domination in atheroma family has been accompanied by domestic violence against wives and children.
5. Finally, adultery has been a major problem in the mahala. Roma have had a double standard in this matter: a wife’s unfaithfulness is considered major crime, whereas, if a man cheats on his wife, it is typically dismissed: “Well, that is how men are!”
In summary, Roma women, hardly considered human beings, were perpetual victims of their husbands’ lies, unfaithfulness, and violence. They were abused both physically and mentally. In marked contrast, Pentecostal ministry has radically changed Roma family life and raised the status of women.4 The massive turning of Roma mentor God has reduced alcoholism, which has led to reduced violence in the home. One Roma sister from Samokov shared: Before I became a Christian, my husband and I fought violently at home. It was so bad that the house never had any windows because we kept breaking them; all of our neighbors knew about our situation. Since we both believed on Christ, we have peace in the home; we have built second floor in our house and now…all the windows are in place.5
There is more faithfulness among spouses. Adultery has been decreased significantly in many Roma quarters. The mahala in Perushtitsa had been notorious for its immorality. “All the neighboring villages knew us for our fornications and adulterous affairs. That is not the case anymore since we turned to Christ.”6 That is the story I heard in many of the Roma mahali during my field research.
Overcoming Alcohol and Drug Addiction
The positive transformation of Roma family life—and community life—is also a consequence of the reduction of drug addiction. Revitalization brought about by Pentecostalism has caused many addictions to be broken. Many Roma testify to being free from alcohol, drugs, and nicotine as a result of faith. In the Roma mahala of Perushtitsa alcoholism is a thing of the past. “We are a town with many acres of vineyards for wine-production. In the wintertime people did not have much to do, so there was a lot of drinking. This is no longer the case since the [Pentecostal] movement has occurred and the churches present here.”7
Historically, many Roma youth, influenced by their peers, became involved with substance abuse at a very young age. Because of faith many of them have been prevented from falling into addictions. “The church made me better and kept me from vices so widespread, like drugs and alcohol.”8 The Fakulteta quarter of Sofia for years had a serious problem with drugs, but people testify that as a result of newfound faith, drugs are gradually becoming thing of the past there. Similarly, in the Roma quarters of Razlog prostitution and drug addiction are now virtually non-existent.
Likewise, overall crime rates and violence have been reduced, as noted by Ivan Zahariev, pastor of a Roma Baptist Church in Berkovitsa: Before the church existed in Rakovitsa mahala there were many murders, fighting among various clans. But when God began to work in this quarter even the worst people joined the church. They accepted evangelical faith and even former criminals became witnesses for the Lord. The atmosphere is radically changed.9Brother Kolio, speaking of the town of Chirpan, related: Before the churches were here, things in the quarter were terrible. Chirpan Gypsies are notorious: they take up the knife and kill. Nothings are much better as God’s mercy came and many were saved. In many cities and villages there is change and reconciliation. It is not perfect—bad things still happen, but the crimes and wickedness have decreased significantly.
Muslim Roma Conversions
Pentecostal churches have also attracted significant number of the Muslim population in Bulgaria, including Muslim Roma. According to Pavel Ignatov, Bulgarian Muslims are more easily converted to evangelical Christianity than to Catholicism or Orthodoxy because of image veneration associated with the latter faiths. Certain elements of Islam resemble Bulgarian Protestantism, especially in its ultra-conservative version: women placed on a lower level than men, head-coverings for women, and the absence of image veneration. Protestant churches, however, have transformed some of these cultural elements, for example, giving former Muslim women a higher social status. While in Islam their role is to keep silent and bear children, in Pentecostal churches women can evangelize and exist on a more equal level.
According to a 1994 survey, 44 percent of Roma respondents claimed to be Orthodox; 39percent, Muslim; 15 percent, Protestant; one percent, Catholic; and 0.5 percent, Jewish.10 By2008, the number of Protestant Roma had risen drastically while the number of Orthodox and Muslim Roma had declined. Field researchers like Evgeniia Dolapchieva have taken notice of this massive shift. The Kazanlak mahala, where the majority population used to profess Islam, serves as an example. Kazanlak Roma previously identified themselves as ethnic Turks, but no longer. While according to a 1992 survey, 95 percent of Roma in Kazanlak were Muslim, in 2003 the majority, over90 percent, identified themselves as Christians .11The transformation may be credited to the local Roma Pentecostal Church pastored by Mitko Banev; it serves as a typical picture of changes throughout Bulgaria. In the Kazanlak mahala the active religious life, the self-motivation and organization of the church, and the striving for positive accomplishments, have raised the self-esteem and produced positive changes in the mentality of Roma there. Roma researcher Magdalena Slavkova describes some of the changes that have taken place among Turkish Roma as a result of evangelical faith: “They give up fighting, swearing, and the use of addictive behaviors like smoking, drinking, and immorality. Believers have cleaner homes.”12
It is clear that the impact of Pentecostal Christianity on Bulgaria’s Roma population has been revolutionary and that Pentecostalism is responsible for a revitalization of Roma culture. Evidence includes improved moral standards, deliverance from addictions, lower crime rates, better education, more honesty in business, and increasing opportunities for employment—a significant social lift. Islam, fortune-telling, and pagan customs like the courban(ritual animal sacrifice) are less and less a part of Roma cultural life. The Pentecostal movement has improved manners, relationships, and the whole lifestyle of Bulgaria’s marginalized Roma population.
The leading human factor in this revitalization process has been the work and vision of Roma Pentecostal pastors who feel the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to bring about community transformation. A number of Roma Pentecostal leaders have become participants in the political process in Bulgaria, speaking out for social justice for Roma. As a result of this revitalization phenomenon, Roma have found a new reason to live and a hope for the future. They now see themselves as a valuable group of people and have better self-esteem. Pentecostalism has given them a new identity: instead of being social outcasts, they are beloved children of God. This radical transformation has made them better and more responsible citizens of their country.♦
1 Maria Simeonova and Stoian Tsenov, Cultural Problems of the Roma in the Process of Affirmation of the Bulgarian Ethnic Model: Tendencies and Ways for Their Solution; Motivation for Their Cultural Elevation and Integration into the Main Values of Bulgarian and European Culture (Sofia:
International Center for Minority Issues and Intercultural Cooperation, 2003), 97.
2 George Hunter III, To Spread the Power (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 77.
3 Evgeniia Dolapchieva, “The Roma Mahala in Kazanluk: History, Tradition, Present,” M.A. thesis (in Bulgarian), Sofia University, 2003, p. 116.
4 Fakulteta interview, 2006.
5 Samokov interview, 2006.
6 Salcho Salchev interview, 30 July 2006.
7 Salchev interview.
8 Ludmila Petrova, Radostina Antonova, and Teodora Pencheva, Just a Way of Life (Sofia: Drakon Publishers, 2004), 123. (In Bulgarian.)
9 Lom Church Sinai Church Journal.
10 Ilona Tomova, The Gypsies in the Transitional Period (Sofia: IMIR Press, 1995), 14.
11 Dolapchieva, “The Roma Mahala,” 50-54.
12 Magdalena Slavkova, “The Turkish Gypsies in Bulgaria and Their New Religious Identity” in D. Todorovich, Evangelization, Conversion, Proselytism (Nish, Bulgaria: YUNIR, 2004), 87-
100. (In Bulgarian.)
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,” Ph.D. dissertation, Asbury Theological Seminary, 2008.
Miroslav Atanasov Atanasov is a lecturer at the Bulgarian E