What the gypsies taught me

Published 10:00 am Wednesday, February 26, 2020

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By Charles Qualls

The Roma people have taught me a lot over the years. You probably know them better as “gypsies,” although that name is so derogatorily received. Yes, here in America and abroad some of them have given that old name a bad reputation.

A group of six of us from Franklin Baptist Church went to Slovakia in early November. We spent a little more than a week serving alongside missionaries from our denominational body, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. These missionaries work with Roma families and in one specific congregation there in the city.

Dating back to 2002, this was actually the fifth time I have traveled overseas to work in some capacity with Roma people. Twice I have lived in a dorm with Roma pastors and taught them in the closest thing they get to a seminary education. Both times, I came home feeling as though I had gotten far more than I gave. You haven’t lived until you’ve lived with Roma, so lively and colorful are they.

Let me not mire us down in the history. It might be helpful to know that the Roma people seem to be descended from a group that left northern India in the sixth century. Over the centuries, they gradually intermingled with Europeans such that this unique ethnicity is what we have today. They reside mostly in central and eastern Europe and to some extent in the Americas.

They are one of the least wanted people I have ever known. In a bizarre twist on the old chicken-and-egg sequence, their unwelcomed status is a great cause of the lifestyle that some have taken on. Yes, some Roma will swindle, steal or mislead just like many caucasion will. Consequently, throughout their history they are normally the last to be hired and the first to be fired, economically speaking. They reside on the outskirts of town normally and in relative poverty.

Access to education is a prevailing issue. That is where we come in. Although I have taught with the pastors, the larger need is English language skills and exposure. We went to help out a little with that, and also aid in the missionaries getting into a couple of new school or daycare settings where they can further their work.

What have the Roma taught me? For starters, I have learned from them that there is always someone who needs us. The first group I took abroad to work with a Roma congregation arrived in a small village in Hungary to find that several of the Roma were missing. They would return the next day, because they had traveled a few hours away to minister in a prison. That is, these who we thought needed us were off helping some other folks who needed them.

I have also learned that empowerment is more important than charity. Don’t get me wrong. Situations will always arise where generous, charitable action is needed. Over the long haul, however, empowerment efforts will be even more helpful. Charity makes us feel good about what we have done. The Roma we met and dialogued with in Slovakia said to us that what they needed most were opportunities that English, education and cultural reform could give them.

The Roma have also taught me that kindness and hospitality are best when mutually offered in a partnership. Somewhere over the years, I stopped seeing our trips over there as heroic or overly admirable. Instead, they feel exciting and beneficial. As we think we are traveling over to “give” to them, they also give to us with warm hospitality. Even some small gifts will sometimes come our way, as they express their thanks. After worship with a Roma congregation on this last trip, they insisted we stay for a coffee fellowship with home-baked sweets. These poverty-stricken people will find some way to welcome and thank trusted visitors. The goodness has flowed both ways on these trips.

Here may be my most profound discovery from the beautiful Roma people I have encountered now in Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. Talent, intelligence and ability are distributed equally across the world. Opportunity does not seem to be as evenly available. The Roma adults that I have worked or talked with are just as smart and able as we. They are wise in many ways, albeit having lived quite differently than most of us. There is nothing innately deficient inside them. They are in every way that matters, our equals. Their ultimate need is not for a handout of any kind. They only beg a hand up.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.