By Kristel Ortiz
Oct. 6, 2013
Across Slovakia’s countryside, castles sprout from mountaintops. These castles have dominated the landscape for a thousand years, boasting of power, wealth and luxury. At their feet, sleepy villages rest in lush valleys. Small chapels marked by crosses and images of saints dot the roads, reminders of long-ago days when medieval travelers stopped to rest and pray.
Yet beyond the mountains, a dark tale has been playing out for ?decades. It is the story of the Roma people — the Gypsies.
Of the approximately 4 million Roma scattered across the European Union, half of them live in Slovakia. A striking, swarthy people, their lineage has been traced to the Punjabi tribe of India, though some Roma believe otherwise.
“We think maybe we came from one of the lost tribes of Israel,” says one Roma man, “since we are not wanted anywhere and share many similarities.”
Though this theory is not proven, many Roma identify deeply with the people of Israel and greet each other with the traditional Jewish “shalom.”
The Plight of the Roma
During the Nazi occupation of World War II, Roma were systematically imprisoned and slaughtered alongside Jews and other minority groups. Persecution continued during the communist regime that followed in Eastern Europe.
Though the dark days of oppressive governments are past in Slovakia, nearly all Roma continue to face staggering problems and obstacles every day.
The European Union identifies the Roma as “the Gypsy problem.” One Slovak city became overrun with stray dogs and decided to solve two problems by allowing its starving Roma residents to eat the dogs. Thousands of Roma are forced to live to themselves in crumbling, cement block housing left from the communist era. An estimated 55 percent of Roma live without electricity, heat, water or sewage.
During Slovakia’s bitingly cold winters, Roma must burn wood for heat. However, many vendors refuse to sell wood to the Roma, forcing them to burn pressed board and other scraps. The pollutants from these materials are released into the air, causing tooth loss and other sicknesses for the beleaguered Roma.
Despite the deplorable poverty of most Roma communities, something much more disturbing is evident. In the crowded, muddy streets and makeshift homes, there is an unnerving absence of teenagers. Considered a threat and a nuisance, healthy Roma young people — up to 70 percent of them — are locked away in mental asylums.
But suddenly, in the midst of this misery, the Spirit of God has swept into the Roma community of eastern Slovakia. An awakening — unprecedented and unabated — is sweeping from village to village, gaining momentum as it goes.
“I have never, ever seen anything like it. No one can take credit for starting it,” Jim Sabella, AGWM area director for Central Southeast Europe, says emphatically. “Christ the King has gone into the highways and byways, inviting whosoever will to come to His table. And the Roma are coming in droves.”
A Forbidden Marriage
The first chapter of the Roma story begins in 1999 with Marian, a Roma man living in Sabinov, Slovakia. After his wife’s death, the brokenhearted man was left with five young children to raise alone. Unable to cope with his grief, he began to drink heavily, but as time went on he realized he was only slipping further into darkness.
One night, Marian fell to his knees to plead with a God whom he did not know to deliver him of alcohol and help him raise his children. A few days later, his nephew invited him to Switzerland to work as a street musician. Marian went and soon began attending a Swiss church.
“I felt joy there ... and hope,” Marian remembers. “I heard about Jesus and invited him into my heart.”
For the next year and a half, Marian faithfully attended church and became part of a cell group. There he met Elisabeth, a widow. Soon Marian and Elisabeth fell in love.
But their relationship faced great opposition. Elisabeth’s family and some people in the church recoiled at the idea of a marriage between a Roma man and a Swiss woman. If she married Marian, Elisabeth realized, she would have to sacrifice everything.
Faced with such a huge decision, Elisabeth fled into the mountains to seek God. As she stared across the regal peaks, her eyes settled on a cluster of clouds capping one specific mountain.
“Please, God,” she whispered. “If this marriage is Your will, move those clouds to the next mountain.”
The clouds moved.
“Just so I can be sure that it wasn’t weather moving them, won’t You move them back again?” Elisabeth pled.
Immediately the clouds moved back to the first mountain.
“One more time, Lord,” she prayed. “Move them to the other mountain, please.”
The clouds moved and God spoke: “Take Marian and go live among the Roma of Slovakia.”
Elisabeth did not hesitate. In 2000 she left her family, sold her 11-room mountain home, married Marian, and moved to Slovakia.
Like Pieces to a Puzzle
While Marian and Elisabeth’s love story was unfolding in Switzerland, God was directing the life of another man in preparation for the spiritual awakening to come.
Igor Laslofi, a Slovak, was a street cleaner in Kosice, a city about two hours from Sabinov. He was also an elder in the Apostolic Church (a partner fellowship with the AG).
“The Roma children made me so angry,” says Igor, his blue eyes sparkling over his bushy mustache. “They would get into the garbage bins and throw trash all over the streets I had just swept. I grabbed them by the ears and made them pick up everything they threw. But then one day the Spirit scolded me, saying, ‘That is not your job.’”
When Igor was asked to lead the church’s Gypsy ministry in 1998, he resisted.
“No! I can’t minister to those kids!” he said. “I used to pull their ears!”
But God’s call was persistent, and in obedience Igor accepted the position. He began ministry in District IX, a Roma settlement just down the hill from the church. Initially, District IX had about 5,000 residents and fairly good living conditions, but over time the quality of life plummeted.
An estimated 3,000 Roma now inhabit District IX. They have no electricity, no heat, and no water except for an hour a day. Residents are streetwise, angry and bitter. The air is thick with tension. Everyone has forsaken them — except the church.
The one-way street into District IX winds past several tenement buildings before looping back to the main street. The view from the road reveals crumbling old buildings and shattered windows. The side of one building has been completely blown away, and people can be seen climbing and swinging from shards of exposed rebar and cement jutting into the air six stories high. The building will soon be torn down, Igor says, leaving its residents to pack into the remaining buildings.
In May 2005, Igor started a church in District IX. Many were saved but soon moved, seeking better conditions for their families.
“They carried the gospel with them,” Igor says proudly.
Despite the departures, Igor continues his work and has purchased a small piece of land in hopes of building a church. Currently his congregation meets twice a week, moving from place to place within the troubled community.
“We preach a lot and we pray a lot,” Igor says. “It is nice to share the gospel, but if people are naked and hungry our words are empty. We must approach them with something in our hands. We must have the gospel and bread.”
In addition to District IX, the Kosice church has established 12 churches and other places of ministry — including a church in Sabinov.
While God was working out His plan in Marian and Igor, He added a third piece to the puzzle: Renaldo. A talented and ambitious young man, he decided to leave Sabinov to become a street musician. He settled in Switzerland just months before Marian arrived in 1998.
When Renaldo’s cousin decided to attend services at the Swiss church, he asked Renaldo to come along and translate the sermons. The moment he stepped inside the church, Renaldo felt the presence of Christ.
“His presence broke me,” Renaldo says simply. He returned to Sabinov soon afterward, a changed man.
In 2000, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The recently married Marian and Elisabeth met the newly saved Renaldo, and all three met Jan Liba, pastor of the Apostolic Church in Kocise. Jan invited the two men to begin attending leadership classes, and soon they were placed over the church in Sabinov planted by Igor’s ministry in District IX.
Under Marian and Renaldo’s leadership, Sabinov Gypsy Church was born in 2004, the first Roma church officially accepted into Slovakia’s Apostolic Fellowship. Through this ministry, Renaldo’s brother Marek also accepted Christ. Marek is now translating the New Testament into Roma and has recently completed the Gospel of John.
By that point, Elisabeth had reconciled with both her family and her church in Switzerland. With their help, construction of a building for Sabinov Gypsy Church began in 2007. Miraculously, local authorities gave the congregation immediate permission to build on a hill overlooking the city. But the building process was not a smooth one.
“The amount of money we started with did not even complete the foundation,” Marian said. “Many, even Christians, scoffed at us. But we prayed.”
Initially, Marian and Renaldo consulted various construction specialists about the project. Most of the initial bids were beyond the young congregation’s ability to pay.
“Besides, we did better without them,” Renaldo says with a chuckle.
When the building was partially completed, a specialist assured Marian that the structure was level and solid. Marian, however, was ill at ease. At night he tossed and turned, unable to dismiss his worries. Eventually he found another contractor willing to look at the building for an affordable price.
“That church will fall if you keep building it as you are now,” the man told Marian.
The congregation promptly tore down the structure and began again.
In 2009, the church was completed with no debt. Today it stands like a beacon on the hill, a source of light and pride for the whole community.
“Even non-Christians in the area say, ‘This is our church!’” Renaldo says. Nothing has ever been stolen from the building; it is respected and protected by all.
About 300 people faithfully attend the Sabinov church, including approximately 80 children. When the church bus makes its run through the city, Roma line the streets, dressed in their finest, hoping for a ride on the 80-seat bus.
During the week, a group of 50 Roma kindergartners meets in the church’s colorful classrooms. The church also hosts students from outside the Roma community to help relieve overcrowding in the local Slovak schools. Each Thursday the church hosts a Bible study, preceded by a meal. More than 200 people attend.
“At first, many people came only for the food,” Renaldo says with a laugh. “But now most stay for the study too.”
Awakening and Reformation
Sabinov, as with all Roma communities across Slovakia and Europe, has traditionally been haunted by many problems. About 95 percent of Roma are unemployed. Alcoholism, incest, theft and violence are all too common. Roma often resist education, integration or cooperation. Distrust and resentment between Roma and majority Europeans create a vicious cycle of unrest.
But among Roma awakened by God’s Spirit, startling changes are taking place.
“The best comparison may well be the revivals that took place in 18th-century New England,” says Jim Sabella. “Under the ministry of Jonathan Edwards, bars closed and prisons emptied as society underwent a massive reformation.”
Particularly in Sabinov, crime rates have dropped drastically. Police and local authorities express not only amazement and gratitude but also a desire to partner with the church to build a community center.
For lack of better facilities, Roma children currently play in the streets or trash dumps. A community center next to the church would provide a playground, classrooms and more.
City authorities have promised to assist the church by supplying all necessary furniture, amenities and utilities once the center is built. To complete the building, the church needs $250,000.
“First we bring people to God,” Marian says. “But we also pray and do what we can to bring change in families and education so people can have better opportunities in the future. Many Roma go to England because here they have nothing. But from this church, they don’t go. They say they prefer the presence of God here to the money there. We are thankful that they are living in the Word of God. Seeing the firstfruits motivates us.”
A desire for education, partnership and quality of living is evident among Roma believers. Though they have few belongings, their homes are immaculate. Clothes are kept clean, grooming improves, and begging stops. Jobs are sought, and alcoholism ceases.
The changes are so pronounced that many government officials have noticed. They comment that faith is producing more positive long-term results within Roma villages than any other solution or program previously introduced.
Also evident is a growing desire to handle money responsibly.
“Among the Roma, we have many who lend money to other Roma, especially those who spend their government checks too fast,” says Renaldo. “But they charge very high interest rates — sometimes even 100 percent. So people are always struggling and in debt.”
After they receive Christ, many Roma immediately seek to pay off their debts and live wisely. This new attitude has become so common that loan sharks are often angry and violent toward believers.
Like a Devouring Wolf
Repeatedly, Satan has tried to destroy what God is doing among the Roma. Sometimes his attacks are subtle; at other times they are frighteningly obvious.
One December morning, Marian’s wife, Elisabeth, failed to return home from an early morning walk in the woods. Sensing something was wrong, Marian called Renaldo to help him search. By evening, a team of men from the church had joined them.
With no sign of Elisabeth by the next morning, Marian recruited the help of a local hunter. Soon afterward, the hunter spotted Elisabeth across an icy river. A high, narrow bridge separated them.
“We could see that she was not well,” Marian recalls. “She had eaten some mushrooms to curb her hunger, but instead they disoriented her.”
Marian forged the icy river and carried his wife to safety. By that time, Elisabeth had spent 28 hours in subzero temperatures. She sustained a neck injury that required surgery and a brief hospital stay. Miraculously, she was otherwise unharmed.
Later Elisabeth recounted her harrowing night alone in the woods. As she sat against a tree, wolves slunk out of the darkness and encircled her. Desperately she cried out to God for a hedge of protection. When the wolves tried to close in, they were not able to reach her. It was as though a line had been drawn around her.
“Satan tried to attack us as leaders to ruin the work here,” Marian says, tears glistening in his eyes. “But he failed.”
The wolf could not cross the line.
Partnering With the Spirit
Jan Lacho, bishop of the Apostolic Church of Slovakia, knows about crossing lines. In defiance of many longstanding cultural taboos and customs, Bishop Lacho allows Roma to participate in church events, leadership training and more. These events were previously segregated, or at least had separate seating, but Bishop Lacho calls the Roma his brothers.
“I tell them, ‘Your families have been cursed, but the blood of Jesus has broken the curse. Now you must be blessings to your families and to the nations,’” Lacho says. “It is very hard for them to throw away their talismans and superstitions, but once they do, there is immediate change. They are hungry to be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Lacho is also pressing for change within the educational community. He is preparing a plan to include Roma students in a Pentecostal institute being organized within an evangelical seminary connected to Matej Bel University in Banska Bystrica.
“Roma need leaders who know their mentality and will speak boldly to bring change and hope to their society,” he says.
For those who challenge his inclusion of the Roma people, Bishop Lacho’s answer is simple.
“The Spirit is moving among the Roma,” he says. “What should I do, try to stop Him? I choose to partner with Him, not be swept out of His way.”
“Something powerful takes place when the church takes on the challenge of reaching the marginalized. God always sides with the marginalized,” says Paul Trementozzi, AGWM Europe regional director.
Jim Sabella is embracing that challenge joyously.
“Gypsies may be called ‘The Europe Problem,’ but to God they are no problem,” he says.
As the Roma awakening gains momentum, Jim and his wife, Sherry, are positioning themselves and the missions team in Slovakia to give aid in any way possible to the Roma. For the next five years, feeding, clothing and providing sanitation for the Roma people will be the focus of Europe’s Heart, a newly developed initiative of the Central Southeast Europe area.
“We will also focus on outreaches to men,” Jim says. “This is a very patriarchal culture, and we want to help create solid leadership in homes and communities.”
Other avenues of ministry through Europe’s Heart are more nontraditional, involving such things as sawdust and cameras.
“Sawdust is proving to be a key for improved sanitation and as fertilizer in fields,” says Jim. “I’ve also found sawdust to be a source for making pellets that the Roma can safely burn for warmth. In addition, making the pellets will create an industry for the Roma.”
The Sabellas have also organized a group of photographers to prepare family and individual portraits within Roma communities. This process opens the door for Roma to hear the gospel.
“We talk about their value in God’s eyes,” Jim says. “Most Roma have never had anything like a portrait, and it touches them deeply.”
For a people long degraded and devalued, Europe’s Heart is helping heal the past and create a direction for the future.
“God always uses those whom the world considers unworthy as vessels of His power and glory,” says missionary John Bean. “It would not be surprising if God used the Roma to usher in the next wave of revival across Europe.”
John and his wife, Daralena, have served as missionaries to Slovakia since 2008. They are now assigned to work specifically with the Roma people. Their ministry will involve assisting in training more Roma leaders and initiating a variety of ministries to strengthen local churches.
The need for more leaders is critical as new churches are planted. Already the Sabinov church has planted four others. Marian, Renaldo and their team have reached into more than 13 additional communities with the gospel, and their message has been eagerly received.
In the Roma village of Ostravany, a church is perched atop the city trash heap, the only land the congregation could use. Though surrounded by squalor, the building is immaculate. In another community, Milpos, every resident has prayed to accept Christ.
“God has told us He has a big mission for us here,” Marian says. “But the mission is not just for Slovakia. It will go outside our borders. I believe we will have missionaries to Ukraine and beyond. With God we do so much more than we could alone.”
Cast aside and rejected by mainstream society, the Roma are finding acceptance in Jesus. The Holy Spirit has brought a spiritual awakening to hundreds of Roma, forever changing their lives, homes and communities. Wherever the Spirit moves, the Roma are eager to follow.
Kristel Ortiz is a staff writer for AGWM.
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