(Editor's note: In September, we began a year-long series on urban slum ministry around the world. This month is our second installment. For an overview of the series and an introduction to key terms, click here.)
An Overview of Bucharest
“The Paris of the East,” as it was known for generations, is the ancient city of Bucharest, Romania. It is one of the three “B” capitals (Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia being the other two) situated on the Danube River as it flows from the mountain ranges of Germany and Switzerland eastward to the Black Sea. Of the three national capitals, Bucharest is by far the largest, with an ever-swelling population of 2.1 million inhabitants. During the Communist era (1947-1989), the city’s population was constrained as the movement of Romanian people was restricted by the government.
With the fall of Communism, however, the floodgate to the city was thrown wide open and the city’s demographics swelled by nearly 750,000 people in less than a decade. The massive influx was a combination of unemployed rural nationals seeking job opportunities and ethnic minorities looking for asylum from prejudicial segregation; education and job discrimination; and racial and ethnic hatred. It was into this milieu that some fifty to seventy-five thousand Roma (Gypsies) migrated.
The Roma Population
No one knows for sure the exact number of Roma people in Romania. Biased government statistics place the figure as low as 500,000, whereas European Union demographics estimate the Roma population at 1.5 million. The problem of accuracy is further exacerbated as Roma activists agree on a figure of two million to 2.5 million.
The Roma people emigrated from India to east-central Europe in the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries for reasons yet unknown. There have been a great deal of hypotheses proposed; however, no facts have been established. What is known is that their migration took them across the ancient Silk Road of south-central Russia and the Caucasus Mountains toward the Balkans. The Roma are a people without a national heritage, common national language, religion, flag or representative voice to speak on their behalf. The world population of Roma is placed today at twenty million; Romania has by far the largest single element, followed by Hungary and Albania.
Generally, the Roma are barred from acquiring proper housing and restrained from finding job opportunities.
It is conservatively estimated that more than 180,000 Roma people reside in an already congested metropolitan environment, where affordable housing is at a premium. It must be noted that the Roma people have been marginalized for generations. It was not until the mid to late nineteenth century that Romania removed the stigma of the Roma population from being “slaves” of the state. Suspicion and distrust of the Roma population and their cultural differences persist to this day. Philosophically, there is still a sense that as citizens, they are powerless and non-compliant to civic rule or authority.
Coming to Bucharest to compete for housing, job opportunities, better education and a new beginning has placed the Roma people in an even more precarious situation. They are barred from acquiring proper housing and restrained from finding job opportunities; their children are degraded and held back in school. Tragically, across Romania less than eight percent of Roma children attend elementary school and of these, only two percent attain a high school or college education. In general, the Roma working class, if gainfully employed, are engaged in civic sanitary services, garbage pick-up, street cleaning, restaurant dish washing and other menial services that continue to hold them enslaved in economic bondage.
The State of the Church in Roma Communities
The churches that minister to the Roma people are predominately associated with the Assemblies of God. In Bucharest, there are two relatively large Roma churches, which have three hundred to five hundred congregants. There are perhaps another four to six churches with less than 150 adherents. In the 2001 Operation World Handbook, Patrick Johnstone places the Roma Evangelical (Church) Movement (REM) at thirty thousand adherents in 115 congregations. The majority of REM churches are located outside the metropolitan area. The number Johnstone cites, however, does not include Roma believers actively involved in other evangelical churches where racial profiling is not considered.
In a city teeming with social disorder, street kids, prostitution, poverty, disability, disease and homeless children and adults, it is rare to find a church with either social or evangelistic outreach. This reserved mentality is more cultural than by design or choice. Throughout the Communist era, and carried forward to this day, the government has recognized and financed only fifteen religious entities.
These officially recognized groups and the scope of their activity are governed by the Department of Cults and are subject to strict regulations. For years, the restriction prohibited open-air services, pilgrimages, evangelism and community work. Although less restricted today than a decade ago, the Church is not unlike a person scarred by the effects of an abusive childhood: the Romanian Church collectively shares in the trauma of a past that cannot be easily removed. The majority of today’s church leadership, brought up under the Communist-dictum, still feel compelled to adhere to yesterday’s repressive directives.
Orphans and Homeless Children
One of the biggest problems social workers within the metropolitan area face is the large number of abandoned orphans and pre-teen homeless children who wander the streets and reside in sewers and canal systems. The Council of Europe estimates there are approximately one thousand street children in Bucharest; however, estimates from social agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working the streets state the figure at ten thousand or more in the city. Roma or Gypsy children account for about eighty percent of all children abandoned in Romania.1
Gypsies often leave their infant and toddler children at orphanages for a “provisional” length of time, which often becomes permanent. The practice was actually encouraged during the rule of Nicolae Ceausescu (the leader of Romania from 1965-1989), who promised that children would have a place in an orphanage if families could not afford to support them. Since the collapse of Communism, poverty has only worsened for the Roma people. Eventually, many orphaned and neglected children find their ways to the alleys and sewers of Bucharest.
Because of the elimination of social work programs under Ceausescu, post-Communist Romania had no trained social workers or adoption or family advocate services. It was not until 1997, under the Constantinescu government, that policies were enacted to establish a universal social welfare program, a domestic adoption and foster care service program. It was into this void that foreign agencies entered to stem the tide of human right abuses widely circulated by Western media in the early 1990s.
Since the collapse of Communism, poverty has only worsened for the Roma people. Eventually, many orphaned and neglected children find their ways to the alleys and sewers of Bucharest.
Today, there are a significant number of social programs being carried on by these foreign-sponsored, faith-based NGOs. Although evangelism is at the heart of these programs and the workers are spiritually motivated, the ministries primarily have the appearance of social and behavioural interest as opposed to overt evangelism. Because the Church is neither ready nor prepared to receive wounded souls to nurture and restore, organizations all-too-often absorb them within the agency or place them in group homes established by the organizations. These are often in areas of the country distant from Bucharest, which discourages the residents from returning to the streets.
The significant role carried out by the NGO has the potential, even greater than the Church, to promote justice and economic equality for marginalized groups within a country which has long been marginalized by the rest of the world community.
Evangelism and the Roma People
In the late 1990s, HCJB Global founded seven radio stations, the Vocea Evangheliei (Voice of the Gospel), in principal cities of Romania. Although primarily directed to the Romanian and Hungarian-speaking populace, both the Bucharest and nearby Ploiesti station carry several hours of programming each week for the Roma people. The content is primarily Romanian text, translated and delivered by Roma-speaking broadcasters. The station does not receive, nor does it expect, a large mail response from its Roma listeners. It must be remembered the vast majority of Roma are illiterate. The stations do, however, point to the favourable response to the broadcast by comments echoed by members of the local Roma church.
The task of evangelizing the Roma community is not an easy one. It can be accomplished only from within and not through the “here’s how” textbook method of missions. The needs of the Roma people are legendary. Scars need to be removed, discrimination needs to be resolved and poverty, human rights and justice need to be remedied. It will not be done overnight and will require the prayers and teamwork of many. We can only look to the biblical example of the woman at Sychar’s well in John 4.
Christ is able to change lives, one at time: one person, one family, one village. When approached and ministered to effectively, the Roma too shall exclaim, “We know this man is really the Saviour the world!” (John 4:42).
1. Pierre Poupard, UNICEF’s top representative in Romania (United Nations Foundation, 2003).