What kind of image comes to your mind when you hear the word ‘Gypsy’? Perhaps you picture a colorfully dressed woman with a headscarf, peasant blouse, and mismatched long skirt who is adorned with ornate jewelry. Maybe you envision her living a nomadic life in a wagon while she engages in fortune-telling by looking into a crystal ball. While such a picture has been promoted by Hollywood to depict the small number of Gypsies who made their way to the U.S., it does not accurately represent this minority group which is predominantly located in Eastern Europe.
The term ‘Gypsy’ is actually a misnomer, as these people did not come from Egypt but actually migrated more than 500 years ago from northern India to many Eastern European countries. They are more accurately named Roma or Romani, which describes the largest subgroup of this population, but the term Gypsy has stuck. Our society even uses the word ‘gyp’ to describe the act of being cheated or swindled. In Eastern Europe, Gypsies are intensely hated and discriminated against because they are perceived as a scourge on society, equated with theft, prostitution, disease, fortune-telling, and petty crime.
Indeed, their reputation is not entirely undeserved. Gypsies never developed a civilization or state and they have no written language of their own. The level of development in their camps is similar to that of the Middle Ages: they have no sanitation, running water or waste disposal, and schools are discouraged or attended for only a few years. In fact, I spoke with a young man in a Gypsy village in Ukraine who told me that his grandmother encouraged him to quit school as soon as he was able to count the amount of money he pick-pocketed each day!
The Gypsies are extremely private and do not trust anyone from outside their community. Dr. Pal Oroszi, Luke Society Regional Coordinator for Eastern Europe, notes that they do not even trust people who live in other Gypsy communities. As you might expect, bringing about meaningful societal change in this population has been difficult to nearly impossible. But reaching out in Christian compassion to this marginalized group of people has been a daunting challenge that our Luke Society directors in Ukraine and Romania have accepted. It is a task most people do not wish to engage in, and government agencies have failed in their efforts to bring meaningful change to this segment of society.
As I wandered through a Gypsy village on the outskirts of Pitesti, Romania last month, I was grieved at what I saw, and I asked myself why these people choose to live in such primitive circumstances. I wondered why they choose to engage in dysfunctional lifestyles. I marveled at their refusal to adopt practices that would be to their benefit in the long run. But in a moment of solemn reflection, I recognized that in God’s sight, I am no different than a Gypsy. When I deliberately make decisions and engage in behavior contrary to what I know God expects of me, I am in no position to cast judgment.
Dr. Oroszi notes that achieving positive changes among the Gypsy community can only happen when the love of Jesus is demonstrated in a tangible way. His clinic partners with Margit, a nurse who lives next to a Gypsy village in Ukraine. By consistently being present among them, loving and befriending them, she has gained their trust. Her example reminds me of a pastor I met in Paraguay.
This pastor makes weekly visits to the people of his congregation, who are very poor and not embraced with love or respect by wealthier people living in the surrounding communities. His actions exhibit a love that previous pastors have never demonstrated. The people he serves are surprised and delighted by his approach. As a result, they are more than willing to listen to what he has to say on Sundays.
He describes his approach very simply as he humbly states, “A good shepherd needs to smell like the sheep.”
He recognizes that to effectively bring about lifestyle changes in the people he is trying to reach; he needs to be present among them and be willing to ‘get his hands dirty.’
As a result of Margit’s presence among the Gypsy population, seemingly small, but community-transforming changes are now taking place. Rather than stealing electricity by way of illegal electrical connections, residents of this village have agreed to install electric meters and pay for the power they use. They have cooperated with a project to provide a clean water source for their village. Margit monitors the health of the community. As a specific example, she checks up on tuberculosis patients to ensure that they take their medication each day, which is critical to reduce the number of cases and mortality from this disease. More children are attending school, enabling them to pursue an honest occupation later in life. And most encouraging of all is that many Gypsies are now active participants in their local church which was begun to minister to the spiritual needs of the people. One by one, Jesus Christ is transforming these Gypsies into “new creations.”
We may not see Gypsies gazing into crystal balls in our neighborhoods, but we most certainly will see people who are making destructive life decisions if we choose to look for them. How about you—are you ready to join our Luke Society directors and get your hands dirty as you reach out with the love of Jesus to a ‘gypsy’ living among you?