Beautiful People with Beautiful Stories Pt. 1
A few weeks after I first came to Bratislava, I was given the opportunity by a coworker and some friends I met when I first visited Slovakia in 2010 to go on a church trip to South Central Slovakia. The church group was actually a combination of two churches. One, an international Baptist church from Vienna, Austria and the other, the international Baptist church in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Our purpose for going on this church trip was to help with some manual labor and do some community outreach in a place called Cinobaňa (See-no-bonn-ya). Cinobaňa is host to a large Roma community and my friend, Heather, has been really passionate about trying to support local Christians in their ministry to fellow Roma. They are particularly heavily involved in mentoring, tutoring, and living the Gospel to the younger kids in this village.
In order for me to try and explain to you the significance of their ministry and the reason why it’s so special that we got to be a part of this, you must know a little more about them. The Roma people are also known as gypsies, though this is a derogatory term and, unfortunately, the more common name for them. I won’t go too much into the history of this people group, but Roma is a subgroup of Romani people originating from northern India who are widely dispersed, with their largest concentrated populations in Central and Eastern Europe.
Behind the Jews, Hitler’s hatred for the Roma people earned them the horrific title of being the second most populous victims during the holocaust. Much like the Jews, their hatred and discrimination is nothing new. Persecution has carried on for quite some time. Common stigma associated with the Roma is that they are thieving, unclean, alcoholic, and conniving individuals looking to take advantage of the government’s socialist welfare systems. While I am here to try and give you as accurate depiction as I can, I also recognize that there are always truths in stereotypes. There are always bad eggs in the large batches. Being from the Southern US, I certainly get labeled with all kinds of rude, though sometimes true, stereotypes.
For a number of reasons, the Roma have been and still continue to be a popular center of controversy. Because of their migratory behavior and extremely unique culture, they are often singled out by hate groups as problems and a scourge upon Europe. Discrimination is quite normal in this region of Europe. A combination of generational poverty, cultural misleading, and political, economic, and educational prejudice has brought about very serious hardships on these people. In Slovakia, unemployment among the Roma was estimated at over 80%. I find that astounding and horrible. As a result, the poverty that results from unemployment feeds back into the cycle of raising another generation of people to be alienated from education, political status, and fair wages.
Thus, you can see why something so simple as tutoring kids with homework is such a huge deal. In this community, it’s quite common that the parents mock the child for trying to learn and do homework. They are ridiculed for getting an education. The Christians living and ministering in Cinobaňa were there to try and provide these kids with help so that they can break free from the chains of generational poverty and, hopefully, recognize the love of Christ while doing so. This small group of Christians in this community were so beautiful. They were there with clear, Godly purpose to live life with these people and be Christ to them. Beautiful.
One of the leaders in this ministry to Cinobaňa was a guy named Jozef. Jozef was a soft-spoken, respectful, and handsome man. Though quiet, he knew exactly how to interact with children. He had all the confidence he needed to lead these children around all day and night. I didn’t get to speak to him much while I was there, since I was helping some of the manual labor guys from the churches with rebuilding a playground for some kids. Here is a picture of Jozef:
We helped install a heavy duty steel swing set (the kind you used to see back when America made things to last), sand away rust on some playground obstacles and slides and paint them over again.
In the afternoon, we set up a bunch of inflatable slides and jumping houses for the kids to come play on. Those that didn’t want to jump on the inflatables had the opportunity to go get their faces painted or other arts and crafts-related things. As for the older guys, I joined with a few of the younger guys from the churches to play soccer and basketball with the older kids. It was awesome. Extremely hot. I ripped my jeans big time in the crotch while playing goalie. I guess I deserved it. It was my second pair of jeans to bite the dust since I came to Slovakia. It was so nice being energetic with the kids. They were so much more in shape than any of us, but there was so much joy in the exhaustion.
I know I say this a lot when I talk to people or write blog posts, but I cannot convey to you just how beautiful these people were. The kids were absolutely stunning. Every single person I encountered there had eyes to make your heart stop. Dark skin, dark hair, and the most gorgeous, colorful eyes. I cannot convey to you just how awe-inspiring it was. I’m a people watcher at heart, so I love to appreciate things about every person. Perhaps that plays a part in my enjoyment of photography.
I would have taken pictures during this time, but I did not feel it appropriate to haul out my camera gear to take pictures of them. Me, a complete stranger, and a Westerner at that, flourishing my expensive camera around to take pictures of them. I didn’t want to give them the idea that I was either flaunting my wealth or taking advantage of them by taking pictures of them. I really wish I could have taken pictures, though, because all I saw was truly unique beauty. The kind of unfettered beauty that so many people miss out on. Sure, there were tattoos, piercings, and all kinds of abnormal stuff, but it was so precious and unique.
I helped play bass for the community outreach program in the town later that evening. It was a time for drama skits, dances, music, and testimony to speak the very communal Roma village. In the back room, we had set up a giant banquet of food and drinks for the community to come and take. It was a gesture of love and sincerity. The kids swarmed it.
My time there was excellent.
The entire point of me writing this post was to actually talk about Jozef, but I felt that you needed to have some context before you would understand the gravity of what came next.