Bringing Cultures Together

2016. április 06., szerda

“It’s very timely to realize that the question of integrating the Roma society is essential for us,” warns Dániel Szabó. As the former Lay President of Cistibiscan Reformed Church District, who has been committed to the Roma Mission service for years, said, that isn’t the main reason to work among them; it is also the missionary command of the Lord.  Dániel Szabó or as we call him “our beloved Uncle Dani” speaks of his commitment towards to the Roma people and talks about the joy of this service.

When did you meet with Roma people for the first time? 

My father was the pastor of a rural church in Hejőcsaba. We had been living in quite wealthy conditions before World War II, that’s why I was a well-kept and well groomed child along with my siblings. My father had studied in the United Kingdom and my mother had used the German language at the beginning of her childhood, so a lot of educated, urban guests visited our home. All of these privileges could have separated me from the world of those who were needy and the Roma people – who, in our village, also showed a great misery: they went on barefoot, and when the first snow fell they used only rags to protect their feet from the cold. However, by God’s grace, it didn’t happen that way. My father brought many things back to our home from his time in England: not just the knowledge of the Gospel, but a great social sensibility too. While my mother was the former deaconess of the Great Church of Debrecen (when Imre Révész was the bishop there), she had to take care of the inhabitants of “black barrack in Nagyerdő” [Nagyerdő is a district of Debrecen city], who were the poorest, and most homeless, people of the city. Their homes were makeshift, where the roof had seen better days and the rooms were separated with tar-boards. The only way to visit these “homes” was with a police escort, but my mother always refused it. She used to say, “I can’t serve with the company of an officer, so please wait for me outside until I come back.” 

How did the social sensibility of your parents manifest during the service in Hejőcsaba?

It was a regular Sunday afternoon activity that my mother would have us visit a poor family with her. She asked us to make packages from our toys and clothes to give to the impoverished children. My father, putting to use his inherited lands crops, took care of the catering for one hundred children with the help of the congregation. The children ate their lunches on deck-planks which stood on bricks. The key was that they had us sit among them. All these things happened during the period of the Great Depression. Jakab Stuart, Béni Szikszai, Benő Békefi, and Béla Borbély, the well-known pastors of the awakening movements, also made services at our church and parish, so this community was a great supporter to my family in their service.

Were all of the poor people Roma?

Some of them were Roma, but mainly they were Hungarian. There were a few Roma in the village, we called them “domestic Roma people”, because they worked around the house for payment – they washed, cleaned up the house and whitened the walls. They were grateful, reliable and had a great respect for my father. The Caroling was a memorable moment of every Christmas time when an expanded Roma family – the shepherds of the village – came to sing under our windows. “Shepherds in Bethlehem…” –the windows would shake while they sang the well-known songs in their intense voices. We, the children, were a little tongue-tied but still joyful while we whispered in each other’s ear, “The Roma people are here.”

Then the war began, obviously with even greater poverty. 

After the war, like most of my classmates, I went to my former prestigious high-school barefoot. We already knew where we had to go to work by the time the school has ended. This period gave me the possibility to make connections with the working-class society where there were a lot of people who had Roma roots. I remember that they camped around the forge and slept under the sky, rather than going to their homes. We, who were shuttled by train, Roma and Hungarian people, slept on each other’s shoulders, tuckered out on the way to the work in the crowded wagons at early down.

How did your mission among the adult Roma people start?

After the Hungarian Revolution of ‘1956 I was excluded from theological study at university for political reasons. A friend of mine recommended me as a doorman to the Hotel Avas at Miskolc city and I worked there for more than three decades. In a really short time we developed spiritual connections between me and my other gypsy colleagues. It turned out that they were curious about the Lord and open to the Gospel. As far as I experienced there are just a few of the Roma poeple who have no interest in God. Among the Roma stokers there was a man who sometimes played gypsy music – sometimes tempted by alcohol – and I made a fine acquaintanceship with him and his family. He was Catholic, but his belief turned deeper during our conversations. If I felt bad about something, I went down to the stokehole where he put down his shovel, and then he covered a chair with newspaper to protect my clothes from the soot and just listened to me before we would pray together. I started to visit him at the gypsy ranch. They had eight children, which made me a godfather multiple times! It happened sometimes that the catholic priest didn’t want to baptize their new-born babies, because the parents weren’t married. I tried to convince him with unreligious reasons to change his mind, saying, “We are here and the celebration table is ready too, there is no reason to set a bar against the christening.”  His argument was that the christening is not just a simple action, it has a meaning – naturally I know he was right, but I saw the family’s living belief during the preparation of this occasion. In the end, the mother was the one who convinced him by saying, “Dear Father! I am giving birth or breast-feeding. When would we get married? We don’t have time for wedding!” Finally, the priest laughed and said, “Borika [the mother], now this is an argument I have to accept. Come to baptize the baby!”

How did this family circle become a bigger community? 

For a long time we gathered at Hankó’s house at the gypsy ranch, where the parents and their children played beautiful music; these families and their neighbors were the members of our little community. After a while the police force dumped on us and they harassed us, asking what we're doing and why have we come together? Then, when better times came, we started to serve in churches and with families, like caroling at Christmas-time. After the political changes, these possibilities became more likely. We used to visit the worship of the Nondenominational Christians in Debrecen, where we met other Roma people, but we also attended at Reformed Church services in Hejce, where my sister’s family –the Victor’s – lived. Through the decades, the Hankó family and ours developed a close friendship; we practically become one family.

You mentioned that after the regime change the possibilities enlarged? 

When I was the Lay President of the Cistibiscan Reformed Church District in the 90’s, with the Hankó family, we started to visit Csenyete [a gypsy village] which was almost abandoned by the church. The parish and the interior of the temple had been burnt up. Even so, the three families – the Hankó’s, Victor’s, and us – reached great success, but due to the distance, we couldn’t keep up this service. Our Nondenominational Christian connections helped us to make acquaintanceship with the Roma population of Uszka, in the Eastern part of Hungary. This was the first village in Hungary from where the television reported about the Roma awakening mission under the title of ‘Gipsy Mass’ (Misa Criolla). Here, even the pub had to close, though before the mission it was simply unimaginable. I introduced the Roma people of Uszka at many places in the Reformed Church and the congregations listened to their testimonies with awe. My main purpose was to open the eyes of these Free Christian Roma and non-Roma brothers and sisters to God’s presence in the Reformed Church and make sure that they didn’t see us like the great and faithless Babylon, because we wouldn’t like to treat them as an unacceptable sect either. Therefore, I was working to help our denominations recognize each other’s values. 

These visits surely meant a lot to the Reformed Churches’ to change their approach in this topic. 

We found opened doors everywhere. Before the political changes, we took courage and went caroling in front of a police station in Miskolc.  They didn’t roughly kick us out, but instead they said that, “All right, it is not that kind of place, but the songs are nice. You still must go. Goodbye.” We went caroling at parishes and to the homes of the church leaders. I also took my Roma people to the church district’s hall. We captured a whole side wing. It happened sometimes that when Bishop István Mészáros called me on my office telephone one of my Roma brothers would pick it up and they would have an exchange like this: “Who is talking?” asked the bishop. “László Hankó,” responded our man. “But how did you get there?” continued Mr. Mészáros. “I’m the godson of Uncle Dani!” they would say. Certainly there were a lot of people there, and sometimes outsiders turned up from the community, so there I can’t say there wasn’t thieving sometimes, but all in all, the bishop didn’t refuse us; he was really helpful and understanding in every question. 

It is well-known that your Transcarpathian connections are good. Did you take part in the starting up of the Roma Mission there? 

In the 80’s I got to know a Ukrainian veterinarian, Baljuk Szerjózsa, who lived in Munkács and helped with the local Roma population in his free-time. He was a really blessed man who founded nearly forty Ukrainian protestant churches in Ukraine and its diaspora. The Roma Mission in the Transcarpathian churches hadn’t had started at that time, but a married couple in Nagydobrony, Sándor Kupás and his wife, set off on their own and visited the local gypsy ranch. I asked the congregation of Nagydobrony to listen the report of the vet about his service. László Horkay, the pastor, future bishop, took initiative, so we had to go to the gypsies immediately. From that time the Kupás couple got help and the Trancarpathian Roma Mission launched. Congregations were founded one after the other by the offertory of our western friends. It helped us to build churches, and beyond this, a kindergarten was also established for the Roma children. A lot of people took part in this process besides just Bishop Lajos Gulácsy. There were amusing and uplifting stories. It happened once that a horse was lost at the gypsy ranch of Szernye. We recommended that they pray together for the horse in a shed and by the time we finished, we heard somebody is yelling, “The horse, the horse is coming back!” Well, it doesn’t need to be said, but a new church was founded there too.

How did you establish the Roma churches nearby Sárospatak?

I got to Sárospatak [a city in the northern part of Hungary] in the beginning of the 2000’s. We organized one of the conferences of the Hungarian Reformed Elder's Association here, which discussed the questions of minorities and Romas. We invited some our familiar Roma brothers and sisters to these sessions where they played gypsy music – like my Roma family, the Hankó’s. This conference was the starting point of those monthly meetings for which 100-120 participants gathered who were interested in hearing God’s words from the congregations nearby Sárospatak. In the contact arranging we had a lot of help from Professor István Győri, whom my sister Mária Szabó helped as a divinity teacher, and the expenses of the catering were taken up by the Victor family. 

How did the Koreans join this ministry? 

When I was the Lay President in the 90’s, I met a Korean pastor who was touched by my report about the service among our Roma brothers and sisters and he decided to join our ministry. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Then, ten years later, a Korean man came to me and he said that he was the nephew of that pastor who I had met before. He told me he would like to look around in the Roma Mission. We were on the road for two weeks in an uncomfortable Lada [an old car] and I didn’t change my routine during our trip: we ate cured meat and bread without sleeping a lot. I was afraid that I would exhaust him with my lifestyle, but three months later he appeared again and stayed here. Now pastor Young Choi serves here with his wife and their daughter, who are the most dedicated, most committed people on the map of world mission. They are here by the grace of God. 

What kind of innovations have appeared with their presence in the service? 

We asked them to hold “in-house events” in the neighboring villages. We huddled together in small rooms weekly for three years. It was a huge sacrifice for the host families because at every occasion they had to put all their furnishings outside to make free space for the benches purchased by the Koreans. The benches we brought in to every gathering to help increase the amount of people who could fit in the rooms, but partakers often sat on the floor too. As these events became more sought-after, it meant that opening small community centers became important too. Most of these innovations came to fruition thanks to the assistance of the Reformed Korean brothers and sisters. Along with brother Choi’s financial support and service, we permanently see visitor groups from Korea and every corner of the Korean diaspora. Most recently, groups were here from Berlin, Philadelphia and South-America. World-known musicians came from Berlin to give a concert for Roma and non-Roma inhabitants of the village and the Americans organized an English camp for the Roma children.

How many congregations are there in Zemplén [in the northern landscape of Hungary]?

We have regular meetings in Halászhomok, Olaszliszka, Sátoraljaújhely, Tiszakarád and Vajdácska, but we used to visit Sárospatak and if we have the time then we visit the Roma community of Kovácsvágás. Beside these, brother Choi based a missionary house in Hadad, where Romas live in primitive circumstances in the forest, but they always find hot tea and meals in addition to nice words and the children have learning possibilities and spiritual lectures. Furthermore, the Koreans support a Hungarian pastor couple who serve at the infamous gypsy ranch at Beregszász (a Trans Carpathian city). The headcounts of the communities in Zemplén depend on the seasonal jobs. In winter times there could be 100-120 participants at a meeting, but during working times that number can drop under 50. It doesn’t mean that our brothers broke away from us, but if they get a job then they are out on the lands from dawn till dusk. In the five or six congregations, we have around 500 members total.

How can you describe the attitude of the communities of the Roma Mission towards the Hungarian congregations and to their extended environment? 

In some places we are held in high esteem, but we are accepted with more or less interest everywhere, and we haven’t experienced any resistance yet. We took care of the collaborations with every local community before our departure, the former dean of one of the Reformed presbyteries, József Börzsönyi, the local congregational pastors and the Head of the RCH  Mission Office sat down together and  made a decision that we look at the Christian Roma communities as one of the missionary branches of the local congregation, even if the pastor isn’t in the situation to take part personally in the service. Our future aim is to integrate the converted Roma people into the local congregations. Regarding the national level, the Synod passed its formal “little steps” method and has started to move significant forces for the Roma Mission. This action gave validation in the church district that the Roma Mission is not a useless service. As a sign, I consider it of importance that our Presbytery welcomed brother Choi as a pastor and that László Pál could start his mission and Roma mission service at Sátoraljaújhely.

What are the tasks, responsibilities and possibilities of the Hungarian Reformed believers in the Roma mission? 

This is a huge challenge because new congregations mean new needs as well. Before, we only met once a month and we preached God’s words, provided some food, and let people go home - they didn't have any special expectations. But when we started to create and organize communities and the worships became more regular then our pastoral caring responsibility spread too. We have to baptize, we have to bury, we have to visit patients – there is a major demand for our pastoral service and this is a huge question for us: how do we answer it? Sometimes we feel it overwhelms us. Only one thing is sure: we have to ask the Lord of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest field. 

As you have mentioned before, the Synod and the church districts seem to be more engaged in the topic of work with the Roma. 

It is really welcome that co-workers are being added to the mission and organizing nation-wide programs by the Synod and the church districts. These main institutions now present the church’s caring role and commitment to this mission and it shows that they see them as a huge value in society. But this is not enough to solve the problem. We need workers in the fields. We’re trying to sort out this issue by sending one person from every Roma mission to the Hungarian Reformed Elders Association’s elder training session. These brothers and sisters may be able to learn more and be capable of accomplishing additional tasks.

And what about having the support of the majority of congregation-members?

The service of elders could replace the majority of the pastoral care. I think it is not only the robed pastor who could teach from the Bible or hold morning prayers. If the elders could help ease the burdens of their pastors then these pastors could have more time to be in another field of service, like the ministry to the Roma people. Naturally it requires equipping of the pastors. Unfortunately, we have to admit that most of the pastors don’t have enough experience and courage in this area. However I see that even if we offer the possibility for seminary students to gain experiences in the field of Roma mission, not many of them take it because of the lack of sense for missionary vision. 

The status of the Roma minority is not just a question of mission – it’s social too, right?

We are facing a vast national issue, and we are living in a God-given time for solving this problem. The Hungarian Government relies on the churches to help bringing Roma people together with the wider Hungarian population. The government could not do it alone, but with the work of the church it is possible. Think about it: only the work of two or three people by God’s grace, in one region of the country, at the peripheral of Sárospatak, could establish five or six congregations, so the Reformed Church as a whole could have the potential as it is in the Bodrogköz[lowland region between the rivers Bodrog and Tisza]! The Pentecostal Church has one hundred congregations in Hungary, with ten thousand converted members, and they have even founded a research institute for making the mission more effective. I believe that we, the Reformed people, could not stick at the level where we have some executive for Roma work and  Roma collegium for students attending higher education. Congregations have to make their own movements! But for this, the members of the church have to admit that this is fundamentally a social, even a matter of life and death, issue – the bringing together of Roma people and Hungarians in society. Naturally, this is not the main reason why we have to go among them, we are also there following the command of the Lord, for their sake; if we do these steps, they will lead us to the solution of this problem. If we don’t open our communities and societies now, our generation will make a huge mistake and our children and grandchildren will be faced with an issue which is even worse than this.  

Text by Sándor Kiss 

Photo by Krisztián Sereg

Translated by Lilla László 

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