We cannot cross out the Gospel passages in which Jesus tells us to include the excluded. Read and interview with the trainer Kinga Lakatos about the significance of community development in Roma Ministry on the occasion of a training for RCH pastors actively involved in serving among Roma.
The significance of community development was already emphasized by the action plan of the Roma Ministry, issued back in 2013, and our colleagues have been working in this spirit, as well as with other principles in mind, over the past seven years. Christian community development is an integral part of our programme called Together–For One Another, which had a weekend event in January, where Kinga Lakatos was present as a trainer. The expert held a training session for the participants of the Roma Ministry pastoral training, which took place between 2-4 March. In our interview with Kinga, we touched upon the significance of community development and its role in Roma Ministry.
When did you first become interested in community development?
Kinga: A certain facilitating-developing attitude is part of my family heritage, but only later did it get associated with Christianity. I studied social work at Eötvös Loránd University, and it was one of my tutors, Ilona Vercseg, who guided me towards this area – I wrote my Master’s thesis on the topic of empowerment. Among all the areas I had learnt about, I found community development to be the most genuine model of facilitation, because it emphasizes the fact that every individual has the power to improve their own situation.
They cannot do this on their own, however, as they require an inclusive and supporting community: in the best case scenario this is a tight-knit local community with its own diverse figures (a local shopkeeper, a church choir, a senior club, an indoor play centre, etc.). Seeing that there was a painful lack of such communities in Hungary, I kept working on becoming a community developer.
How does the adjective ‘Christian’ enrich this work?
Kinga: When I found God, I encountered in Hungary the Chemin Neuf (New Road) Community . It was there that I really understood that Christ is not only calling me to work for communities, but he also wants me to be experiencing that community myself. I had the chance to experience what it means to be a part of something bigger, and becoming my true self more and more through the community.
My final conclusion was that it is the Lord that can enable us to do anything, as no greater strength and power exists than Him. We read in the Bible that Jesus served to empower people on Earth, and I have always been interested in how this can be applied to our own lives. This is a very complex question in terms of theology, but the focus is on a sense of identity, which – if it has a solid foundation – can never be taken from us.
And what this identity is is the fact that we each are God’s unique and beloved children. There is no greater dignity than that. It helps us to recognise that we all have something to offer, and this motivates us to share this with each other. Today humans are reduced to nothing but consumers and efficient work equipment, as well as – if we listen to ecological debates – harmful destructors of the environment. The basis of Christian community development is the fact that humans have been created in God’s image: being part of a community, creating and praising the Lord.
What is the main aim of Christian community development?
It all begins and ends with Christ-like love. Members of a Christian community are driven by a vision stemming from faith towards those among whom they are serving. The first step is building a community among ourselves: do we have a true community within our congregation? What kind of community do we wish to be? What do we hope to be known for, what should be our main features? How do people feel when they visit us for the first time? We need to pray for and discuss these issues, and start walking together on a God-given, common path.
The next phase is turning our attention outward, as God always sends us places; no church can exist without mission: Do we know those living near the church? Are we aware what our neighbours might need? What are they preoccupied by? For example, are Roma children accepted or rejected when they apply to the local kindergarten or school? And once we are committed to a cause, how do we work to effect change?
The aim is to make Christian community development become the engine of local social responsibility and change, where members of the community are viewed as the beloved children of God, as our brothers and sisters.
The training was organized by the National Coordination Office of Roma Ministry for pastors already serving among Roma people, but also for those having an interest in doing so in the future. The training that took place in the Seven Star Conference Centre in Beregdaróc, near the Ukrainian border, focused on Christian community building and included visits at the nearby after school projects of RCH for Roma kids. Participants elaborated Roma mission plans for their own congregations based on the first hand experiences and the theological considerations and strategic plan of RCH’s Roma ministry. The two after school projects are co-financed by HEKS, the Church Aid of the Swiss Protestant Churches. The RCH and HEKS launched their joint inclusive education program in the autumn of 2017. Andrea Ignácz, coordinator for the HEKS projects, informed the participants about aims and experiences of the inclusive school program. “As we are witnesses of God’s kingdom in our respective contexts, mission is not optional and surely not a matter of choice for us,” concluded Rev. Eszter Dani, head of the Mission Department of RCH.
Why did you agree to become a trainer in the Together–For One Another programme, when asked by the Reformed Roma Ministry?
The community where I live, as well as me personally have been called by God to pray and work for unity. I was moved when I heard that Roma and non-Roma congregation employees and leaders are being trained together here. Although I did not know much about the programme, I was thankful for its existence, as the unity of Roma and non-Roma people is a vital issue in today’s Hungary. To achieve such unity, people must get to know each other, and both sides have to step outside their respective comfort zones, and start building something together, hand in hand.
What experiences did you gain during the training?
Prior to the weekend I was looking forward to meeting the participants I would be working with, as I can only be effective in teaching them if I know them. One of the most important aspects of Christian community development is prayer: We ask for God’s blessing on what we are about to do. It is God who can reveal what tasks we have and where we need to perform them.
I was deeply touched by the fact that at the training I met people who pray, local leaders who know and love their communities. They instinctively know what they have to do in their own environment. They have a great deal of responsibility, therefore this training is very significant in providing them with some basic knowledge and creating a supporting net among themselves.
What are your future plans with the participants of the training?
What I feel I still need to work on is to get them to think in terms of general community building, and not only in terms of congregation building. While the latter is clearly important, the point of Christian community development is not to focus solely on the congregation as a community, but to show interest in what is happening locally, beyond the walls of the church.
The participants of the training, and through them, their entire congregations can become engines that facilitate a positive change regarding the relationship between the Roma and non-Roma, which would affect the whole village or town. To achieve that, however, congregation leaders and training participants must acquire an attitude through which they consider themselves to be partners in shared local issues (keeping streets clean, school issues, job creation, the issue of the elderly, etc.).
This is not necessarily general practice within the Reformed Church in Hungary: congregations are often closed communities, and the model for social responsibility is charity activities and the running of social institutions. Community development means a more systemic way of thinking and a change in attitudes at the same time: involvement, empowerment, joint planning, joint action, partnership.
The Roma Ministry pastoral training is coming up soon, where you will also participate as a speaker. In your view, what is the significance of community development in the service of actual congregation leaders?
A process of community development can help pastors a great deal in realizing that they can share the weight that is on their shoulders alone at present. In other words, the practice of universal priesthood gets a role. This is where my hobby horse, empowerment, comes in: if congregation members undertake tasks instead of, but in close cooperation with the pastor, everybody wins in the long term (and thinking in the long term is very significant!).
This way, people feel that the issues are their own, the initiatives become more sustainable (as they are not dependent on a single person), and the pastor can focus more on their pastoral duties. The church premises get opened up for the wider community, and the whole village or town can feel the positive presence of the congregation, which is the whole point of a Christian community development process. During the weekend in Berekfürdő, it became clear that participants of the Together–For One Another programme find the role of the pastor and that of the elders especially important. Any community development process can only have longevity if it has a bottom-up approach, which in turn requires a close unity with the pastor and the elders, on the basis of joint prayer and many-many discussions.
What do you think about those who have a principle of not engaging with the local Roma residents?
I do not know what principle would justify ignoring people or groups of people living in the same village or town. I see no such principle in the Bible. In the story of the Samaritan Woman, for example, we read that Jesus “had to go through Samaria.” But why is that so? There were actually three roads, he did not really have to go through Samaria. And yet he had an urge, a “request” from the Holy Spirit, to choose the road that other Jews avoided, so that he would meet the woman who was suffering from historical prejudices and the weight of her own past. Where others see potential danger or are scared, Jesus notices the yearning heart and offers the fountain of eternal love. Sadly, in my experience, Roma communities are often places like Samaria, which are avoided by most (see John 4:1-42).
As pastors are the official leaders of a congregation, their attitude matters a lot, for example how they feel about getting to know and involving Roma communities. Or about how Roma and non-Roma communities can form a single congregation. We cannot cross out the Gospel passages in which Jesus tells us to include the excluded. Not only did he talk about this issue, but he let himself be touched by those generally considered inferior.
One of the nicest parables can be found in the Acts of the Apostles: Peter and John are going to the temple to pray, and at the entrance gate they notice a lame beggar. We read that “Peter looked straight at him, as did John”. This is the first step, seeing the other person as a human being. The second is that instead of giving him silver or gold, or alms, they give him something much more important: he regains his identity and dignity through divine healing, becomes a full member of the community once more, and can enter the temple (see Acts 3:1-10).
What is needed for change?
We need constant conversion on both sides. This can mostly happen when we open up the door of our hearts, take the risk of encounter, and let somebody “bother” us; Somebody who is foreign to us, who we are wary of, who is not familiar, or somebody who we only have prejudices about. Feed the hungry, invite in the stranger, visit the excluded – this is a fundamental calling of our Christian faith, which we must strive to perform on daily basis.
Translation: Erzsébet Bölcskei