Much of Roma history remains shrouded in mystery, a situation compounded by the fact that there is no single definition of the term “Roma.”

With a European population of 10-12 million, Roma — once known as gypsies — are said to be Europe’s largest minority. There could be as many as 60 million Roma worldwide.

Historically the subject of discrimination, Roma people made up an unskilled but reliable workforce in Europe before World War II, when many were killed. After the war, the socialist governments of Eastern Europe attempted to force their assimilation through heavy labor. Soon, more than 90 percent of the USSR’s Roma were settled.

Roma were the first to lose their jobs after the economic collapse of 1989-90, said Burkhard Paetzold, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Berlin-based liaison for Central and Eastern Europe/Roma.

The resulting ghettoization “shows discrimination on the one hand and the attempt to return to and protect Roma family structures on the other hand,” Paetzold said.

The PC(USA)’s Roma ministries started in 2001. The outreach consists primarily of a three-member team in Berlin, along with the Rev. Nadia Ayoub in Ukraine and Karen Moritz in Prague. Liz Searles will soon begin serving in Romania.

This team is committed to more than simple church planting. Ellen and Al Smith, mission co-workers in Germany and Russia, speak of “empowerment” and a “gospel of inclusion.”

Paetzold explains: “We try to support a holistic approach: social services, infrastructure programs, pre-school education, housing, job creation, church leadership training, youth summer camps, youth exchange programs, multicultural learning for white people and advocacy.

“Christians have been guilty of racist and discriminatory attitudes. This cannot be changed overnight. So working in partnership means you have to find the right partners,” he said.

And for the PC(USA), small is also beautiful. Paetzold spoke of a massive, EU-sponsored “Roma industry” that stigmatizes Roma as aid recipients and reinforces negative stereotypes.

“The challenge is to find human-scale development based in existing Roma communities which we can accompany,” Paetzold said. “We are still in the beginning; we have built up a small network in Europe and the U.S. Presbyterian Women have served as a great support network.”

In 2011 and 2012, Presbyterian Women called for prayer and thanksgiving for Roma in the 10 days leading up to International Day of the Roma, April 8 of every year.

Peter Romme, a Kostroma-based Baptist missionary with ties to the PC(USA), notes that Roma are a people of peace. Despite their reputation as petty thieves and drug dealers, they “have never incited a single war nor produced weaponry.”                      

Roma have usually accepted the faith of the surrounding culture: they are Muslim in Kazakhstan, Orthodox in western Russia and Roman Catholic in Poland. But they are reluctant to forsake their traditional beliefs and are thought to be the last goddess worshippers in Europe.

Evangelical work among Europe’s Roma gained momentum only after WWI; Austrians financed a chapel for Roma in northwestern Bulgaria in 1930. Ukrainian evangelicals began to evangelize among the Roma in the early 1950s. By 1975, a congregation of unregistered Baptist Roma had formed in a village on the Hungarian border. Two congregations there now have a total membership of 600.

Bible translation has been a major concern. The Roma of Europe are divided into 40 groups, each with its own cultural traditions and dialect. There is no one Roma culture and tongue. Illiteracy remains a major issue, with 75 percent of Russia’s Roma estimated to be illiterate.

The many and varied efforts among Roma have suffered from a lack of networking. Consequently, the evangelical Roma of Russia have been holding an annual conference in Kursk since 2005. Ellen Smith reported recently that Andrey Beskorovainy has been officially recognized as head of the Roma network in Russia.

“This is no small thing,” she said. “It has been a long process shifting the leadership (of Roma ministries) from Russians to Roma.”

Yet it must be remembered that the number of Roma evangelicals within Russia proper remains modest. The Kursk conference in 2008 hosted only 70 Roma from 21 locations. The Kursk congregation, founded by Beskorovainy in 2004, is often described as Russia’s sole congregation of evangelical Roma; it has hardly more than 20 members. But significant efforts also exist in Michurinsk (Tambov region), Novoshakhtinsk (near Rostov) and Syzran (Volga). Romme remains committed to serving the Roma of Siberia and the Far East.

Roma reserve regarding evangelicals can be attributed to a general distrust of outsiders — intermarriage with non-Roma remains rare.

“The best missionaries to Roma are the Roma themselves,” Beskorovainy said.

William Yoder writes for the Department for External Church Relations of the Russian Union of Evangelical Christians-Baptists, a partner church of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He is a regular contributor to Presbyterian News Service.