Romany (Gypsies) have been part of European history since their arrival in the Balkans beginning in the 1300s. Their dark features and unfamiliar customs have set them apart from the peoples they have encountered. But where did these wanderers come from? The clues to their origin are linked to the Romani language, which scholars have found is closely related to ancient Sanskrit. By tracing linguistic clues, scholars now understand that Romany migrated in repeated waves over centuries from what is now northwest India and Pakistan to Persia and the Byzantine Empire. The expansion of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which conquered the Byzantine Empire, pushed Romany farther afield, so that by the 1500s they could be found as far west as Europe and as far north as Russia. Many mistakenly assumed these nomads originated in Egypt, hence the name Gypsy (English), Gitano (Spanish), or Gitan (French). They call themselves Romany or Roma and the name for their language (Romani/Romanes) comes from the word rrom, meaning "man" or "person."
In Europe many Romany were nomadic and followed wanderers' trades such as metal repair and seasonal work. Today, group names often reflect the traditional occupations of their forefathers (for example, Kalderash: coppersmiths; Curara: sieve makers; Usari: bear trainers). In Eastern Europe Romany were exploited as a source of labor. In parts of Romania they were enslaved as late as 1865. In Europe and Western Russia they were sometimes tolerated, in part because they provided services such as horse trading and entertaining. In Eastern Europe and Russia it was fashionable for wealthy landowners to own Romany musical groups to entertain guests on special occasions. In spite of their professional popularity they were sometimes banished, deported, imprisoned, or simply exterminated. During the Second World War the Nazis killed 80 percent of some Romany populations. Today they continue to face subtle discrimination in the West as well as open hostility in Central and Eastern Europe. European Romany remain a people on the move, prompted partly by political unrest in the Balkans and the Caucasus and partly by ethnic discrimination in Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Romania. Romany may be found not only in Europe and Russia (some ten million), but also in North and South America, North Africa, the Middle East, China, and Australia, with a current worldwide population estimated at 40 to 60 million.
Romani, the Language of Romany
Romani, the language, is really a language family. Romany, the people, borrowed linguistically from the lands in which they traveled and from the peoples among whom they now live. Romany speak more than 20 different languages and dialects, some as similar as British English and American English, some as distinct as English and German. Oral tradition and suspicion of outsiders remain so strong that some groups oppose the appearance of their language in written form.
Basic divisions in Romani were perhaps originally geographic, as reflected by the names given to some language families (Balkan from the Balkans, Vlach from an area of Romania/Moldova, and Baltic from the Baltic States). However, language groups now cross many national borders, and many countries may have as many as ten different Romany language groups. Due to political and social pressures some groups have lost their mother tongues while others are taking pains to preserve them.
Christian Ministries among Romany
At first glance it appears that few Christian ministries are active among various Romany groups throughout Eastern Europe and Russia. This misunderstanding is due in large part to the lack of communication and information sharing among those ministering to and alongside Romany. Some groups are having measurable results ministering among Romany by creating partnerships with other ministries, agencies, churches, and individuals. This article will focus on only a few of these groups. It is the prayer of this writer that this article will spur more partnerships and more open communication.
Gypsy and Travelers International Evangelical Fellowship
One of the most mobile and widespread ministries working among East European Romany is Gypsy and Travelers International Evangelical Fellowship (GATIEF), a branch of Life and Light Mission, based in Ambares, France, and headed by René Zanellato. In addition to outreach in Eastern Europe and Russia, it also ministers in India, Western Europe, Scandinavia, Greece, North and South America, and Australia. GATIEF's vision is a worldwide Romany-led church movement. Its objective is to "establish mission work and train Romany to lead their own people." GATIEF does this by planting churches, organizing seminars, starting Romany Bible schools, and establishing national Romany-led Christian organizations. In Targu Murés, Romania, GATIEF operates a children's home for Roma orphans and a mobile medical unit that treats 600 to 700 children per month. In addition, GATIEF links and coordinates ministries directed toward Romany, with various Life and Light Missions worldwide, and with other missions, ministries, and churches: Full Gospel Fellowship of America, Cornerstone, Gypsy Christian Churches Movement USA, Los Angeles Romany Church, Gypsy Fellowship Trust of India, and others. To do this, GATIEF workers travel extensively, networking with different ministry leaders, meeting Romany believers, distributing Romany Christian videos and audiocassettes, and facilitating television broadcasts of Christian programs in the Kalderash dialect. In Russia alone GATIEF has Christian television programs in ten different cities.
GATIEF does not send Romany missionaries from France or other countries, but rather it seeks local Romany to be the leaders and missionaries within their countries of residence. GATIEF identifies three or four responsible, educated Romany believers in each country. These local leaders then take on the responsibility of organizing, selecting, and training those Romany who want to serve the Lord. Two years ago Liova, a struggling young Romany believer, received an encouraging telephone call from GATIEF. In the conversation René Zanellato explained God's movement among Romany in many countries and GATIEF's media ministry. Today Liova is working among Romany to establish a church in Ufa, Russia, and is directing the duplication, subtitling, shipping, and broadcasting of Christian videos and television programs in Russia. In Kyrgyzhstan, GATIEF is enabling three Romany students to receive training that they will be able to use to minister among the thousands of Romany in Central Asia. So far, most of GATIEF's work in Eastern Europe and Russia has been among Kalderash-speaking Romany.
The European Romany Team
Another group that has focused ministry specifically on Romany is the European Romany Team (ERT) of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), headquartered in Atlanta, GA. ERT missionaries serve in Hungary, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and Russia. One characteristic of the larger agency, CBF, is that it focuses almost exclusively on unevangelized people groups, giving less attention to geographical/political barriers. This "world without borders" ministry perspective seems to work well for those serving among Romany since they are not constrained by borders. Nowhere is this more visible than in the former Soviet Union. In Russia alone, in addition to Russian Baltic Romany, one encounters Kalderash from Europe, Sinti from Germany, Balkan from Yugoslavia, Usari from Bulgaria, Lovari from Hungary, Servi from Ukraine, Crimean from the Crimea, Luli from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and other Romany groups. Each group speaks a different dialect and has specific cultural practices. As a result of the multiple Romani dialects, one goal of Christian ministry in Russia involves working toward the translation of the Bible and Christian literature in each dialect, using the Cyrillic alphabet.
Since many Romany are unable to read, it is important to develop Christian resources on audio and video cassettes in all the various dialects. To meet this need ERT has formed partnerships with United Bible Societies and several national Bible societies, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Campus Crusade (known as New Life in Russia) and its "Jesus" film project, Hosanna (producers of a Baltic Romany New Testament on cassette), Trans World Radio (broadcasting Bible studies in Albania and Romania), and the "Through the Bible" radio program. These partnerships range from formal, contractual agreements to very loose, informal working relationships. In their first year of cooperative efforts, the above ministries were able to plant four new Romany churches.
ERT and CBF place a premium on partnerships. By such cooperative ventures nine groups working with ERT have been able to expand their Romany outreach to include children's education and literature; leadership training; Bible translation, printing, and distribution; humanitarian aid; church planting and construction; small business ventures including livestock projects; literacy training; computer training; Christian camps; and a vast prayer network in various languages.
A recent event illustrates the challenge of working with such a diverse people group and the value of partnerships. A Russian Baptist deacon invited Romany believers to hold evangelistic street services among Baltic Romany in his small city on the Volga River. A young Romany college student recruited the worship team from various towns in Russia, including a Lovari charismatic pastor, three Kalderash Pentecostal women, two Baptist women: one Crimean and one Baltic Romany, a Baptist student from Kentucky, a Russian Pentecostal, and two American CBF missionaries. The team arranged for singing in various Romany languages and dialects, followed by preaching in Russian.
Others Who Minister to Romany
While GATIEF, CBF, and other ministries make substantial contributions on a broad scale, efforts concentrated on individual locales should not be overlooked. Margaret Jans is a missionary with Ancient World Outreach (Holland), seconded to the Evangelical Alliance-Serbia. In 1994 she began work with Romany children and a few adults in Kragujevac and in 1998 in the city of Jagodina. Her weekly children's clubs have allowed her the opportunity to reach the whole family with the gospel. In one year's time Jans partnered with two Romany Pentecostals in Leskovac to plant a church. On Thursday evenings about 20 adults meet for worship. At the same time two young women, one Brethren and one Baptist, lead the children's Bible clubs. Because of difficult economic conditions in former Yugoslavia and the extreme poverty among Romany, Jans understands the need for a more holistic approach in ministry. "We are looking to help through humanitarian aid. We would like to buy a building that would be used for a Christian preschool, a soup kitchen, a food distribution center, homework tutoring, literacy classes for all age groups, children's Bible clubs, and adult meetings and worship."
Another ministry having profound success at the local level is the Ruth School. In 1992 in southwest Bucharest, Romania, Providence Baptist Church and a group of partners established the Ruth Project, a children's center offering activities, food, and some basic education. In the beginning about 20 children attended the center, which is run by volunteers. Today 140 children attend the Ruth School in grades one through five and another 110 children attend literacy or day care centers in several other locations. And the program is officially recognized by the Romanian Ministry of Education. Other locations and projects are in the planning stages. The Ruth Project reaches out especially to Romany because of their absolute poverty in Romania, but does not exclude other children in need.
Another collaborative ministry, which has no formal name, seeks to reach Romany in Hungary, East Slovakia, and the Czech Republic. Partners in this ministry include the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren, the Reformed Church in Hungary, and the European Diaconal Year Network. The group has set up an e-group for further communications. All who are working among Romany are invited to contribute to this partnership's Web site: www.groups.yahoo.com/group/Network_Roma_Projects.
Ministries among and by Romany are increasing throughout Central and Eastern Europe, some initiated by Western mission groups, others by individual missionaries, and others by local churches. The difficulties arising from variations in dialects, extreme poverty, widespread illiteracy, and racial prejudice against Romany make facilitating a church movement a slow process. In spite of the difficulties, people of God are answering the call and are finding ways to overcome obstacles. In particular, many successful ministries among Romany have multiplied their resources and gifts by developing international, interdenominational, and intercultural ministry partnerships.
Frank Dawson, Moscow, Russia, is strategic coordinator of the European Romany Team of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Other team members who assisted with this article were Keith Holmes and Mary Van Rheenen.
Barany, Zoltan D. The East European Gypsies: Regime Change, Marginality, and Ethnopolitics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 408 pp.
Crowe, David M. A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996. 317 pp.
Crowe, David M. and John Kolsti, eds. The Gypsies of Eastern Europe. New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1991. 336 pp.
Danbakli, Marielle, comp. On Gypsies: Texts Issued by International Institutions. Hatfield, England: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1994. 209 pp.
Diamond, Todd. "Strengthening Romany Identity." Open Society News (Spring 1998): 8-14.
Fraser, Angus. The Gypsies. Cambridge: Blackwell, 1992. 359 pp.
Guy, Will, ed. Between Past and Future: The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe. Hatfield, England: University of Hertfordshire Press, 2001. 429 pp.
Kenrick, Donald. Gypsies: From India to the Mediterranean. Hatfield, England: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1993. 63 pp.
___________. Historical Dictionary of the Gypsies (Romanies). Hatfield, England: University of Hertfordshire Press, 1998. 320 pp.
Puxon, Grattan. Roma: Europe's Gypsies. London: Minority Rights Group, 1987. 15 pp.
Schlager, Erika B. "The Plight of the Roma in Eastern Europe: Free At Last? East European Studies News (May-June 2001): 5-7.
Romany Ministry Web Sites
www.groups.yahoo.com/group/Network_Roma_Projects (Hungary, Netherlands, Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia)
www.gypsyministries.com (Hungary, Netherlands, Russia, Slovakia)
www.adelkeidproject.org (Women's ministry)
www.geocities.com/Paris/5121/vlib (Roma/Gypsies: Religion"--links to ministry sites)
www.romanibible.org (list of available Scripture and source information)
www.christusrex.org/www2/gypies.net (Web site of the Association of Gypsies/Romani International which appears to be a Roman Catholic ministry)
www.geocities.com/Paris/5121/patrin (Romany culture, history, and news)
www.romnews.com (Romany news)
www.religioustolerance.org/roma.htm (ethnic understanding)
www.per-usa.org (ethnic understanding)
www.samford.edu/groups/global/ewcmreport (ministry information clearinghouse)
Selected Ministries and Individuals Working among Romany
To aid in partnership development, contact the following agencies, societies, groups, individuals, and Web sites. (East European countries of service are in parentheses.)
Christian Outreach International
Vero Beach, FL 32961-2823 USA
Joanie Hull, Joanie@coi-europe.cz
Tel: 800-451-3643; 561-778-0575
Web site: www.coiusa.com
Conservative Baptist International
1501 W. Mineral Ave.
Littleton, CO 80120 USA
Web site: www.cbi.org
(Czech Republic, Poland, Romania)
Dadder, Pastors Ralf and Dobrina
First Baptist Church
Franga Dere str. 22
9005 Varna, Bulgaria
Dete I Svet
(Child and World)
European Diaconal Year Network
3503 RM Utrecht, Netherlands
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Web site: www.timeforGod/edyn.htm
(Central and Eastern Europe)
European Romany Team
Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Atlanta, GA 31145-0329 USA
Web site: www.cbfonline.org, www.gypsyministries.com
(Hungary, Slovakia, Russia)
Finnish Free Mission
Good News Foundation
Vorosmarty u. 19
Gypsy and Travelers International
Evangelical Fellowship (GATIEF)
33440 Amberes, France
Web site: www.fullgospelfellowshipofamericainc.org/gatief.htm
(Eastern and Western Europe, Russia)
Gypsies for Christ
Romany Gospel Wagon Mission
32 Ashford Rd.
London E18 1JZ
Web site: http://members.tripod.com/gypsiesforchristuk
Harms, Reinhold and Astrid
ul. Josipa Pancica 16
Web site: www.crossnet.at/members/weindl
Str. Migdalului/Sirbu Nr. 12
Timisoara 1900 Romania
Tel: 40-56-792-866; 40-94-792-866
Hosanna (dramatized New Testament on cassette)
2421 Aztec Rd. NE
Albuquerque, NM 87107-4200
Tel: 800-545-6552; 505-881-3321
Web site: www.fcbh.org
Ron and Sue Bates
C.P. 53-55 Bucharest 4
Web site: www.internet-texas.com/inasmuch/
Interconfessional Bible Society
Calea Calarsi, Nr 173
Bl. 42, Ap. 36-38, Sectore 3
Bucuresti, cod 73.449, Romania
Web site: www.biblesociety.org/bs-rom.htm
International Mission Board
Southern Baptist Convention
Richmond, VA 23230 USA
Tel: 800-999-3113; ext.1461
Web site: www.hope4cee.org
29 Queenswood Rd.
Leeds LS6 3NL
Plovdiv 4006, Bulgaria
Web site: members.truepath.com/sevda/index.html
Protestant Institute for Mission Studies
Dr. Anne Marie Kool
Kalvin tur 7 II
Web site: www.meetingpoint.org/pims
Gypsy Smith School (pastors' training school)
Str. Talazului 16, Sector 5
Web site: www.projectruth.ro
8076 PW Vierhouten, Netherlands
Web site: www.holland-moldova.net
Trans World Radio
820 02 Bratislava 2
Web site: www.gospelcom.net/twr/ministries/wbradio
Union of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Moldova
Alexandra Hijden St. 94
Kishinev (Chisinau) MD-2001
Ministry to Roma: From the Editor's Files
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© 2002 East-West Church and Ministry Report