LOUISIANA COUPLE: THE PRESENCE OF CHRIST AMONG GYPSIES
by Kyle Kelley
For Louisiana native Keith Holmes and his wife Mary, ministry in a "world without borders" is literally true. For over twenty years now, they have served as CBF missionaries to a people known for nomadic movements that ignore national boundaries. The term "Gypsy," which came from the mistaken idea that this people group originated from "Egypt," is often now viewed as a derogatory name. "Romany" is preferred.
Their language, "Romani," does not refer to Rome or Romania but is based on ancient Sanskrit which has allowed scholars to trace linguistic clues pointing to Romany people and culture originating in Northwest India and Pakistan in the 10th century. Later migration took them to Persia, Turkey, then Europe (getting as far as Paris by the 1400's) and finally to Australia and the Americas in the 20th century. Along the way culture and language has sometimes been lost. In spite of incredible hardships and persecution (see box) Romany stedfastly cling to their language and ways.
Language, in fact, is a primary focus of the Holmes' ministry. It is a special challenge as centuries of migration have created much diversity. Mary explains, "Romany people in Europe speak over 20 different dialects and languages. Not one of these has an authorized version of the entire Bible! Since many Romany cannot read or are more moved by things that are spoken rather than written, we also work to develop other media. We have found Scripture and Christian cassette tapes in several Romany dialects and made these available to people working directly with those languages. We record more tapes. We put Scripture videos (like the Jesus video based on Luke) in Romany languages."
The mission statement for CBF Global Missions is "...to collaborate with churches and other groups to engage in holistic missions and ministries with the most neglected people in a world without borders." The Holmes' work perfectly mirrors that statement. They collaborate with various groups committed to the Gospel. They share the love of Christ by print and recording, preaching and VBS, and supporting special projects that focus on physical, spiritual and emotional needs--that empower the Romany people and transform families and communities. Given centuries of persecution, many Romany are the "poorest of the poor." They have undergone serious deprivation and some of the social problems that can accompany such conditions.
A special program that addresses such needs is Project Ruth of Providence Baptist Church in Bucharest. What began in 1992 as a two afternoon a week tutoring and day care outreach to poor families in the Gypsy community blossomed into something much more. The church discovered many older children were illiterate and due to nomadic lifestyle, prejudice or other barriers "were 3 or 4 years past the age at which they should have started school and effectively already excluded from the education system." When the church approached the authorities regarding this need, the government was skeptical "since primary education is compulsory in Romania and it was therefore believed that illiteracy did not exist." With persistence, permission was finally granted to begin the school in 1994. Project Ruth now reaches over 300 children and their families through the school and satellite programs in other parts of Romania and Moldova. Additional services now include meals, day center activities, medical help, hygiene support, laundry facilities, and humanitarian aid. Its directors note, "Our services ensure a primary education for poor children and help to keep them where they belong,in the family."
Development is a key concept of the Romany ministry. This ranges from the Gypsy Smith School of Evangelism (an off-shoot of Project Ruth) that trains and develops Romany pastors and church leaders-- to a new partnership with a Christian micro-economic development agency that will help Romany families improve their lot. This agency offers training for farmers and small entrepreneurs, provides loans, technical assistance and teaches business ethics. All of these activities suggest working for the Kingdom, mimicking Jesus' concern for the whole person.
Missionaries report an openness of the Romany to the Kingdom, this gospel, when it is communicated in their own language and culture. As this group that has been adaptable for a millennia has entered the modern age, their nomadic culture is slowly giving way to more permanent residences. Even as they settle though, they continue to find themselves on the fringes of society, still considered outcasts. You have the opportunity to be a part of bringing Good News, to announce to Romany there is room at God's table for them. Support this work with your prayers, go as a volunteer, or give to the CBF Global Mission offering that others may serve.
ROMANY AT A GLANCE
Population: 30 to 40 million (estimates vary a great deal because many Romany are not counted in any census.)
Religion: Tend to adopt predominant religion where they live
Language: Romani and/or languages of countries where they live
Locations: India (23.5 million); large concentrations in the Balkans, central Europe, Russian and other former republics of the USSR; smaller numbers in Western Europe, the Middle East, North Africa and the Americas
- Ottoman Empire used them as slaves
- Enslaved in Europe, in parts of Romania as late as 1865
- Frequently imported, nomadic pattern likely result of not being allowed to settle
- Christian church hostile because they "practiced magic"
- Nazis exterminated a half million Romany, 80% of some tribes
- Today: Alarming trend of violence and discrimination noted in central and eastern Europe; from citizenship restriction to mob violence, still a scapegoat minority
Cultural Characteristics: Steadfastness, creativity, self-consciousness, love for freedom, . strong sense of group solidarity, exclusiveness, holding of traditions as sacred
Traditional Occupations: Musicians, acrobats, fair and circus artists horse riders and . . . traders, fortune tellers, peddlers and craftsmen
Common Social Indicators: High unemployment, illiteracy and death rates, frequently . . . among the poorest of the poor