Day 8, July 24. Slavonski Brod, Croatia
The American national anthem is often sung at sporting events and our hearts are filled with pride and gratitude at the greatness of our country as we sing this song together. “…And the star-spangled banner forever shall wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Or our throats may choke up a little as we sing “My country, ’tis of thee! Sweet land of liberty! Of thee I sing!”
Now imagine being a part of a culture where the national anthem goes like this: “We are cursed. We are cursed because one of our ancestors stole a nail from the cross of Jesus. No wonder we are cursed.” It’s difficult to comprehend the national psyche of a people whose identity is captured with such words, whose lore is rooted in the idea that one of your ancestors stole a nail from Jesus’ cross and that this loathsome act has forever blighted your ethnic identity.
If you were to overhear a group of people singing lyrics like these, you would undoubtedly be in a Bayash gypsy village, for these are lines taken directly from the Bayash “national anthem” .
Here is the Roma gypsy logic: “We have 90% unemployment. Alcoholism, poverty, and sadness prevail over our communities. No wonder others despise us. Of course we are cursed. Of course God is against us. God is not for us and he will use every opportunity to punish us.”
The Roma Bible Union (RBU), founded by Bob and Nancy Hitching, is coming into Bayash communities with a different message, the message of “Good News”. The RBU has created a ministry called “UNA”, an acronym that speaks of the positive qualities of oneness, unity, fellowship. The UNA symbol is the bee – the industrious insect that brings sweetness.
The Bayash people are characterized by three oppressive qualities: (1) Insecurity driven by fear. Fear & insecurity are everywhere. Everyone is afraid of the dark. Children are afraid of their parents, wives of their husbands, husbands fear people to whom they owe money. (2) Hopelessness. We have nothing to look forward to so we live “in the moment.” (3) Inevitability. Things will never change.
To counteract the “bad news” of this false national image, Bob and Nancy Hitching have created a UNA theme that runs through the ministry of the RBU. They are training UNA children to not believe the words of the anthem. A theme song has been written specifically for the UNA ministry. Here is the core of the UNA anthem written specifically for the Bayash: “God is for us, God is not against us.”
One facet of the UNA ministry is the UNA club. These clubs meet regularly in the villages and are for the children. UNA clubs are built on nine major activities:
(1) the banner under which the children run as their name is called out – for some, this may be the first time they have heard their name used in a positive context;
(2) music culturally appropriate to the Bayash with stirring lyrics;
(3) chanting of positive themes, like a pep rally. Imagine scores of little Bayash children animatedly shouting together, “God is for us, God is not against us!”
(4) a coloring book produced specifically for the Bayash – many gypsy children have never even held a crayon in their hands;
(5) a Bible story big book – the typical Bayash home has no books. The average Croatian child upon entering public school has had 800 “read-to” experiences, while most Bayash children have never had anyone ever read a story to them;
(6) a name tag to make them feel special and give them pride in who they are;
(7) a bright yellow T-shirt with the UNA name on it and a bumblebee image;
(8) fun games will be played;
(9) a prayer of blessing will be prayed over the children.
Yesterday we took a leisurely stroll through a Bayash village. Today we will participate in a UNA festival in that same village. Hordes of children, many of whom have been attending UNA clubs, will descend upon us in an open field. The atmosphere will be joyful, chaotic, frenetic, loud, sweaty, and redemptive. Bob describes this as “not trying to get everybody out of the village into heaven, but getting heaven into the village.”
To counteract the three negative themes of the Bayash culture (that I mentioned above), the UNA clubs and festivals are designed to clearly communicate three affirming messages: (1) That in knowing God and being reconciled to God through the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is safety and security; (2) That in a world of hopelessness, the Gospel of Jesus is a message of optimism; (3) The Gospel can change the world because God can change (a) our hearts, (b) our families, and (c) our villages.
Lives are slowly being transformed throughout Bayash villages in Croatia, Serbia, and Hungary. It is hard work and slow, but an RBU team is coming together and growing in numbers. Breakthroughs are occurring and momentum is picking up. Where once the spiritual darkness was impenetrable, now “the light of the Gospel of the glory of Christ, who is God’s image” is shining (II Cor. 4:4). Now “the glorious gospel about a happy God” (I Tim. 1:11) is bringing joy, purity, brightness, and expectation to impoverished, despised Roma gypsy villages.