A Walking Bible

As a child, Attila János Lakatos was diagnosed as having a developmental disability, but now he is a college student who can easily cite professional literature and recite Bible verses one after another. János is a third-year Deaconry student passionate about the deep work that deacons provide for communities of faith. He plans to get a degree in social work as well and eventually would like to work among orphans, because János was once an orphan himself. 

One of the this  year’s candidates for this years “Gold Strap Award,” which rewards exemplary Roma people, was Attila János, a third-year  Deaconry student at the Károli Gáspár University’s Institute of Pedagogy (just like the last year’s winner, József Horváth, a cancer researcher geneticist) and a member of the Wáli István Reformed Roma Collegium. He is currently doing his internship in Budapest, in the Válaszút Mission’s Drug Counseling Center.

When did you decide to become a deacon?

It was a very difficult decision. I have already mentioned in several interviews that I grew up in a governmental children’s home where I went to special school. There I was diagnosed as intellectually and developmentally disabled. I refused to believe it and that’s why I began to go to the library, to read a lot and to learn languages. I learnt a profession at a vocational school, but I was afraid of higher education and for a long time I did not have the courage to continue my education.

After finishing high school, I worked as a volunteer in Germany for one year with the help of the Phiren Amenca organization. After I came home, I met a Roma guy through the organization who recommended that I go to the college in Nagykőrös and study Deaconry. I struggled with myself overnight, I sweated, I prayed to decide Whose will is this?  Is it my will or this guy’s or is it God’s? By morning I was sure that the right decision was to go there, that there I would be blessed and I would be able to share my skills with the world.


What does a Deacon do?

The first time we see this term is in the Acts of the Apostles in the Holy Scripture.  After Pentecost, congregations were increasing and the Twelve Apostles could no longer perform all their tasks: such as taking care of widows, collecting donations, preaching, and serving the Lord’s Supper. That is why they decided that the preaching will continue to be the task of the Apostle’s but the social tasks will be carried out by seven chosen deacons. The original Greek word for deacon etymologically means "through a cloud of dust". Therefore the deacon is someone who is doing his service so enthusiastically that he leaves a cloud of dust behind him.

What does a Deacon do today?

We went through interdisciplinary training programs at the college: our main subjects were theology, different areas of the law, psychology, sociology, social policy and health care. They tried to teach us how to help people in several different ways – to help their body, soul, and spirit. People often compare our activities to that of social workers, but the deacon usually works in churches or social institutions that are maintained by the church.  In most cases the deacon is meeting with Christians. The world’s answers for the really important questions are not enough for believers, because their thinking is more aligned with the ethics of God. In the most serious of cases, such as if someone’s family member committed suicide or had an abortion and the believer is looking for answers, then a psychologist or social worker who does not believe in God cannot give them a satisfactory answer. Our job is to simultaneously provide solace and practical help.

You are studying in Nagykőrös [about an hour southeast of Budapest], you are doing an intership in Budapest, and, in addition, you are a member of the Wáli István Reformed Roma Collegium [an hour and a half southwest of Budapest]. What does this look like in practice? How do you do it?

I visit the Roma Collegium just once a month on weekend. These are very intensive classes – we have self-knowledge trainings and sociological and cultural courses in which I can learn about my Roma identity. When I was a child I knew that I was Roma because children who poked fun at me would call me that. Now, in these classes, I can learn about the past and present of Roma people and I can meet other Roma.


You are a third-year university student and you will soon finish your studies.  What are your plans after graduation?

Unfortunately, the church cannot employ a lot full-time deacons, so, like many of my classmates, I plan to get a degree in social work as well so that I can get a job more easily. I often think about working among orphans because I was once one of them and I would love to help children with a fate similar to my own. However, in a state institution there may be no chance to strengthen my faith and I would miss praying with people or encouraging them with Bible verses when discussing their problems. There would be more opportunities for these things in a religious institution.

When did faith become so important to you?

I was twelve years old when, in the special school at the children’s home, in a divinity class, the pastor showed us a video about the life of Jesus. He stopped the video at Christ's crucifixion and asked us to think to ourselves in silence about anyone in our life who knows all our thoughts, all our sins, and loves us with them so much that they would die for us. Then I thought about all my relationships and I realized that were are all for convenience, or selfish reasons. I raised my head, looked at the TV screen, and I knew that Jesus really died for me and if he is God, then he knows everything about me:  my mistakes, my weaknesses, my shames, and my sins.  And he not only says that he loves me, but he has already proved it. Then I asked him to come in my life and my heart and to be the Lord of my life.

Did others convert with you at the children’s home?

I was alone with my faith for a long time. During that time I received many attacks – others would poke fun at me and call me “priest” or “holy pot,” but after a while some of them started to associate with me and would accompany me to the Sunday worship. Then our group expanded to six or eight people. Soon we held prayer meetings at home where we read the Bible and prayed together.

In Velence, a volunteer company of Catholic believers often visited us and helped us to strengthen and improve our faith. They went on excursions with us, played football with us, took us on vacation, to camp, to the theater, to the cake shop, and gave us presents for Christmas, even though we did everything we could to disillusion them. We wanted to show them that they were just people, not better than others. But it never succeeded, their patience was really endless. The love inside them was definitely the love of God.


Maybe this experience had an impact on your subsequent career choice?

Unequivocally, what they did was diaconia. It was the appearance of the love of Jesus, as orphans, widows, and the poor and invalid were especially important to Jesus.  His earthly ministry was a diaconal service, such us healing and comforting people, being and eating together with people. In Hebrew there is a word, Hesed, for this love expressed though action, which means: doing more and better than what is required.  As Christ says, “If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too!  If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Why? Because you love God and the image of him. We have a huge Christian responsibility because the non-believers have no intention to go to church, so they can only find God through us. The Christian man is a walking Bible.

At least, he should be.

Of course. I don’t want to act as if I am perfect. I also have difficult times – sometimes I rebel against God or I complain about something to him. I think that just because I am Christian, I don’t have to always walk with a wide grin on my face. Many people think that if they are believers, they cannot go to God to complain, but let’s see what the Bible writes. Jeremiah 15:18 says, “Why is my pain unending and my wound grievous and incurable? You are to me like a deceptive brook, like a spring that fails.” Isaiah 63:15 says, “Look down from heaven and see, from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us.”

You speak about your complaints so enthusiastically that I have to ask – what makes you waver in your faith?

When I am day-to-day in financial and existential insecurity and I suffer because of livelihood problems, it is hard to believe what Christ tells us about lilies of the fields or birds in the sky. And of course my past has also left wounds in me. In my understanding, the real man is he who lives for his wife and his children; since I didn’t have a father figure, it caused difficulties in finding a partner. Nevertheless, I know that God created us to live in pairs, since if something really special happens to us, we immediately share it with our loved ones, almost as a reflex. God is not a lonely man on the top of the clouds either. The Trinity is a perfect connection of love. When I am thinking about all this and I feel sadness, I am reminded of a metaphor from Ferenc Pálhegyi, who passed away in the last few days. He described the believer as a child, who is sitting on its father’s lap. Sometimes the child is in a tantrum, or begins to quarrel, cry, or yell with their father, but after all, the child will calm down, because he or she will realize that they were sitting on their father’s lap the whole time.  

Illés Molnár

Translation by Krisztina Fürjész