No Life is Barren – a Reformed Roma Mission conference

The dialogue between cultures, the role of education in integration, the relationship of church and the Roma community, as well as job creation were among the topics discussed by the participants of the Roma mission consultation held at the Budapest office of the Reformed Church of Hungary. The event was organised by the Mission and Foreign Offices of RCH, and was one of the Reformed Church’s several programmes related to the rotating Hungarian EU presidency.

The conference was opened with a worship led by József Steinbach, Transdanubian Bishop. In his sermon, based on Psalm 113, he talked about the God we need to praise, and also how and why we need to praise Him. One of the bishop’s remarks resurfaced several times during the day: referring to the words of the psalm, the bishop emphasised that no life is barren, nobody is destined to be useless or worthless.

The worship was followed by József Csomós’ opening address, which was of a personal nature. The Cis-Tisza Bishop recalled his personal encounters with Roma people at various stages of his life and the resulting experiences, and he also added significant remarks on the present situation. The bishop, who is the leader of the Reformed Church district that has the highest Roma population in Hungary, said: the government officials responsible for education should start experimenting with new ideas, in order to have effective and proven methods in fifteen years, by which time the number of Roma children will have increased significantly.

The rest of the Roma mission consultation comprised a series of forum discussions. The participants of the first one – including Emese Závodi from the Ecumenical Diaconal Year Network Office, who works for a Reformed mission based on volunteering, and Péter Bakay, Lutheran pastor of Sárszentlőrinc – discussed the dialogue between cultures in detail. Judit Szabóné Kármán, Romologist, lecturer at Semmelweis University, underlined the importance of awareness. She was of the opinion that in order to get a genuine picture of the situation, people have to go and see the Roma community for themselves, instead of relying on the distorted image and misinformation presented by the media. The expert, who also participates in the Roma pastoral care work of the Jesuit Order, pointed out that integration does not mean assimilation, but rather learning from one another, and the Roma people also need to be ready and willing to do so. She went on to say that helping the Roma should not be limited to basic necessities; the provision of spiritual food, i.e. the Gospel, is equally important.

The participants of the discussion forum on education highlighted the diversity of their work. János Báthory, who is Director ad interim of a Jesuit institution in Budapest to be opened in September, which is a member of the Christian Roma Specialist College Network, talked about the topic of higher education. Tibor Derdák, Head of the Buddhist Dr. Ambédkar School in Sajókaza, shared his own educational experiences, while Péter Heindl revealed details of the life at Gilvánfa School in Baranya county. István Bóni, within the framework of the Reformed Mission Centre, works in Dencsháza, where programmes supported by the European Union are operated: in the mornings there is a playhouse for little children and their parents, in the afternoon learning opportunities for schoolchildren. Their aim is clear: to ensure that these children complete elementary school. This is enhanced not only by encouraging and assisting learning, but also by developing a positive self-image. “We are trying to find the values in every child that can provide a foundation for them later in life,” said István Bóni, emphasising that children have to join by their own free will. He believes this has been achieved and therefore everyone is enthusiastic about taking part in the activities.

“The church had had an image of the Roma even before this ethnic group arrived in Hungary,” declared Péter Szuhay, Senior Museologist of the Museum of Ethnology, during the third discussion forum on the relationship of religion, churches and the Roma. He added that this is where the stigmatisation of Roma people originates. Szilveszter Póczik, historian and criminologist, agreed and stated that several stereotypes exist to this day. One such stereotype is based on two contradicting views. According to one extreme, the Roma have no religion but are inherently inclined to commit crimes. On the other hand, it has also been believed for centuries that the Roma are a deeply religious ethnic group. The historian Pál Nagy added to this that in East-Central Europe there are no stories of any Roma losing their religion, whereas in Western Europe such stories predominate. Annabella Gecse, who works in folk research, brought the example of the village where she was born when talking about the religiosity of the Roma: the Roma living in the village of Baraca in Gömör have been absent from churches for a long time, still, being Catholic means a lot to them even today, that is why smaller, newer denominations – often popular among the Roma in general – could not become firmly established there.

The final discussion revolved around job creation and the employment of the Roma. István Forgács, independent Roma expert, made it clear that it does not necessarily solve all problems if Roma people are given jobs. We need to find trainings appropriate both for them and the job market. To achieve that, the state has to adopt a novel approach. Talking about the proposed restructuring of employment centres, Ágnes Bátori, Employment Counsellor, praised the initiative, as the previous system provided trainings that were ineffective, ignoring individual and job market needs. The aim is to ensure that everyone has a dignified life, but work is only one aspect of such a life, commented on the topic Márta Furmanné Pankucsi, Sociologist at the University of Miskolc. A differentiation has to be made regarding who we are targeting: Roma people in general, those living in extreme poverty, or the uneducated? It is most unfortunate if these criteria are confused, she added. On the challenges of job creation, György Lukács, project manager of the Autonomy Foundation, pointed out that since the economic transition there have been approximately 3.8 million people in the Hungarian job market, and there have not been major changes in this respect regardless of the ruling party. Analysing the statistics of extreme poverty, he said that this social phenomenon cannot be regarded as a specifically Roma problem.

(By: Botond Csepregi – Annamária Kováts –