Several grey, concrete apartments stand clustered on the outskirts of Kosice, Slovakia, forming a community of their own. Unlike other apartment blocks in the city, however, this complex, known as Lunik IX, has no grass underfoot and no swings or slides for the children. Instead, an abandoned Fiat draws kids and teens like a magnet. The car’s doors are ripped off, its windows are smashed, and a teenage boy hammers on the dashboard while his buddies watch and cheer. Garbage lies in heaps around the place, and many of the buildings’ windows are shattered.
Lunik IX is the largest gypsy ghetto in Eastern and Central Europe. Approximately 6,500 people live here. Sometimes three or four families share a two-bedroom apartment. Electricity is available only in the mornings and evenings, and heat and hot water are usually non-existent, but there’s no shortage of alcoholism, gambling, usury, abuse, and incest. The unemployment rate is 98 per cent. Poverty and hopelessness pervade. In the midst of the darkness, however, the Light of Christ shines – thanks partly to the ministry of International Messengers missionaries Karla and Brad Thiessen from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
When the couple moved to Slovakia in 1991, they were unaware of the gypsies’ desperate situation. It didn’t take long before they saw and understood. The gypsies, officially known as Romas, are originally from India. They were invited to Europe to work as blacksmiths and artisans centuries ago. They established their own leadership and social structure, but that structure was destroyed when Communism moved in. The government forced them to live in the ghettoes and work as street sweepers – society’s lowest paid job.
The economy nosedived when Communism fell in 1989. The Roma lost their jobs and became dependent on capitalism’s welfare system, receiving payments partly based on the number of children per family. The result? Large families and a never-ending poverty cycle. Every day, city residents found Roma sifting through the garbage dumpsters outside apartment buildings, searching for scrap metals to recycle or edible wastes to sell to farmers for pig food, and leaving a mess behind. Thievery became commonplace. Alcoholism skyrocketed. Society responded with discriminatory attitudes and actions. Christians struggled with discrimination, too, sometimes turning the children away from their Sunday schools.
Shortly after the Thiessens settled in Kosice, Brad opened an English language school in the city’s downtown center as a means of establishing relationships with the Slovak people. One day, as he looked out his second-storey window and watched the Roma children playing on the street below, an idea came to mind: Start a kids’ club and share the Gospel with them. Each week, the children enjoyed a basic English language lesson, a simple craft, and a Bible story. The children loved it; the school’s landlord hated it. “He showed up drunk one day and yelled that he would kick us out if we continued the kids’ club,” says Brad. “After he left, the children looked at me with wide eyes and said, ‘What are you going to do?’ I told them I was going to continue.”
Brad refused to let the threat intimidate him. Instead, he prayed that God would not let the landlord sleep until he changed his mind. His prayers were answered – the landlord returned and said, “I haven’t slept for four days. Go ahead, continue using the building for your kids’ club, but invite them to come more often.” Before long, the children’s parents grew curious and began attending the club. Numbers increased, and a local Christian woman offered to help. Eventually she volunteered to host a weekly Bible study at the school, and Roma responded to the Gospel by committing their lives to Jesus Christ.
Laco – a man addicted to smoking, gambling, and alcohol – became a believer several months after his wife’s conversion. The day they moved into Lunik IX, as he watched his wife share her faith with their neighbors, he sensed the Holy Spirit say, “Do you understand what’s happening? I love the Roma people, and I want to use you in this place.” Laco began sharing the Gospel with others in Lunik IX, and within two days, nearly a dozen people placed their faith in Christ.
A decade later, Laco pastors a small church in Lunik IX. Addiction-free and committed to sharing the Gospel with his fellow man, he preaches the Word and writes worship songs that are sung by Roma believers across Slovakia. “My heart’s desire is to see my people come to know Jesus as Savior so they, too, can be set free and experience healing in their lives,” he says. God is answering his prayers. Two women’s discipleship groups, a children’s outreach, a teen program, a men’s discipleship group, and two church services meet in a remodeled ghetto apartment in Lunik IX every week.
Located a half block past the beat-up car, the church building is surrounded by a chain link fence and a cage to protect its glass windows from vandals. The sanctuary holds about 40 people. If more attend, they stand in the hallway. Young children chatter and dash to and fro as the congregation sings worship songs accompanied by a guitarist, a drummer, and a blind accordion player. The facility provides bare essentials for the congregation, but it’s much nicer than the facility they’d considered before International Messengers provided funds to remodel an existing structure.
“Christians in the ghetto needed a meeting site, but the only place available was in the basement under one of the apartments,” says Laco. “It was a mess, littered with human waste and infested with fleas and lice. The city authorities refused to give permission for us to meet there because the ceiling was too low. In retrospect, we know that God was protecting us. He had a better place.”
It appears that a better place yet awaits, one that’s large enough to accommodate a growing congregation. Amazingly, in the summer of 2007, the local government donated a piece of property to the Lunik IX believers. At the time of this writing, Laco and the other Christians were praying for the means to hire someone to draw the plans for their new facility and to fund the materials. They plan to do the construction themselves.
When the Thiessens started the kids’ club, the Roma were considered an unreached people group, having no established church in their language. Today there are approximately 500,000 gypsies living in Slovakia. Estimates say 500 are Christians. There are two established evangelical Roma churches in the Kosice area. Besides ongoing discrimination, however, one of the biggest challenges Roma believers face is not having the Bible in their own language. And one of Laco’s biggest challenges is to disciple the believers so they don’t fall away from their initial decision to follow Christ due to their discouraging economic and physical circumstances. “There’s much work to do among the Roma people; we’re praying for the Lord to send more laborers into the harvest,” says Laco.
As the spiritual light in Lunik IX shines under Laco’s leadership, Brad and Karla continue to support the believers there in practical ways. They also focus on other avenues of ministry to the Roma. In 2006 they helped establish Life Art, a non-profit training institute for unemployed men and women. Women learn sewing skills, and men learn woodworking skills using modern equipment. The second woodworking class completed the four-month course in October 2007. Tony was one of those graduates.
Tony, age 38, had been unemployed for ten years. Married to a woman with a life-threatening heart condition and sharing a 12x12-foot room with their four children ages 8 to 17, he was taking medication to fight depression when he starting working for Life Art. At first he was unsure of himself and lacked math skills needed to calculate measurements for cutting wood. Time and teaching increased his skills, however, and his self-confidence blossomed. He learned valuable work ethics and gained the ability to teach his peers. Best of all, Tony became a believer and gained the courage to tell his peers that a relationship with Jesus is the only means to a transformed life. He still lives in the one-room apartment but he now has hope that someday his family will rise above their poverty.
The transformation in the lives of Roma believers is difficult for city officials to ignore. They recognize that government programs have done little to reduce abuse and alcoholism or to provide hope for those mired in poverty. But those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ have undergone dramatic changes. Addictions no longer hold them hostage, and their countenances reflect joy rather than despair. The men show concern for their wives and children. They feel valuable, and they have hope in Christ.
The Thiessens credit God for what’s happening among the Roma people. “God loves these people and wants to see them set free from their bondages,” says Brad. “We’re witnessing what Scripture says – when people know the truth, they will be set free.”
This article first appeared in Power for Living, March 22, 2009. Copyright © Grace Fox.