Reflections on Mission by Rev. Keith Kraft

Reflections on Mission by Rev. Keith Kraft

Deb and I journeyed to Hungary and Ukraine as part of my Sabbatical 2013 experience and learning. The purpose for this journey was really two-fold. One was to expand our understanding of the world and its people by experiencing another culture.

Deb and I journeyed to Hungary and Ukraine as part of my Sabbatical 2013 experience and learning. The purpose for this journey was really two-fold. One was to expand our understanding of the world and its people by experiencing another culture. We also wanted to see if other cultures, where two different cultures live together, experience some of the same challenges that we do [in South Dakota] where the white culture and the Native American culture live together in the same communities. Before I even attempt to put down my thoughts I would just like to remind you and myself that these are only my thoughts based on my limited experience, understanding, and especially limited wisdom.

First of all let me say that we had a wonderful experience at the Roma Mission camp in Csonkapapi Ukraine. Attila and Livia [Tomes] were wonderful hosts. They made us feel welcomed at the camp and were very helpful in helping us work through some of the language and cultural barriers that were very much a part of the mission experience. They do a very good and important ministry at the camp. One of the things that I appreciated about the mission camp is that the mission went well beyond the camp and out into the Roma communities. The Roma Mission camp is tied to mission schools and children and youth outreach programs in several Roma communities throughout the area of Ukraine. The people who work with the leadership of each week of camp are the same people who have been working with the children and youth throughout the whole year.

I have been trying to figure out the best way for me to illustrate how I interpret the Roma Mission camp fits in within the whole of the Roma mission within the Reformed Church in Hungary (RCH) of Ukraine. It is as if the camp is the hub from which other missions reach out into other Roma communities. And yet, the camp is not meant to be the center of Roma mission outreach. It is the missions within the Roma communities that is the main importance of RCH mission, or at least should be. As Attila told me, “The Mission camp is the end of the year “celebration” for the children who have been participating in the mission schools and outreach programs within the communities. In other words, while the Mission camp in Csonkapapi might not be the hub of the missions, it is that which ties and holds the other Roma youth outreach missions together. I will let Attila, Livia, or someone else who is involved in the mission more intimately correct me if I am wrong, but that is how I experienced it. It seems to be a pretty good system and seems to be working for them.

Deb and I spent most of our time at the mission camp so we did not experience much interaction in between the Roma culture and the more dominate (for lack of a better term) Hungarian/Ukrainian culture. I cannot judge whether there is deep seeded prejudice or racism, or simple indifference or general concern towards the Roma from Hungarian/Ukrainian people. I would guess that attitudes towards the Roma population run through all of these attitudes. It just depends on who you talk to. That is one of the similarities between Roma and Hungarian/Ukrainian relationship and the Native American and White relationship [in the United States].

The other similarity in relationships between the two cultures, both in Hungary/Ukraine and the U.S., is the trust issue. Both groups of people struggle with trusting the other. Trust is probably one of the most important if not the most important aspect when it comes to building relationships, not only between groups of people but between individuals as well. If there is not trust, the relationship will always struggle. Trust is also one of the most difficult aspects to build and one of the easiest to break. The Mission camp in Csonkapapi and the mission schools have got a good beginning in building that trust. We must always remember, trust is a fragile thing.

Some of the similarities between the Roma population and the Native American population as a whole are the poverty and the hopelessness. When I say hopelessness, I am referring to the sense that this is the way things are and this is the way things will always be. “Life will not get any better for us.” Both the Native American population and the Roma population have adapted well to their circumstances, and have an amazing sense of humor and attitudes in spite of the realities within which they live. But there is a desire, as there should be, for something better.

Overall the poverty and the living conditions are probably more severe among the Roma population. There is very little, if any plumbing in the Roma villages and most homes consist of one, two, or three room houses with multiple families with 10–20 people living in one house. Bathrooms consist of outdoor pit toilets. If they are lucky they will have one for their house. Some settlements have just two or three for the whole Roma camp.

Roma camps, as they are called in Hungary and Ukraine, are usually on the edges of villages. While, unlike the Native American population in the U.S., the Roma population does not have designated land assigned to them for which to live. But what the government has not done, society and survival in their own way have done, separating the Roma population from the mainstream of society. Not only has society pushed the Roma population to the margins of the villages, they are also on the margins of society as well.

Now, as I talk about the poverty and living conditions of the Roma population we must also remember that the overall living conditions in Hungary and especially in Ukraine are not what we experience in much of the United States. While I recognize that there is great poverty in places in the U.S., most of the population of the United States would be considered very wealthy in comparison to what we experienced in Ukraine.

Lack of education is an issue in both the Native American population and the Roma population, but again I would say it is a much greater problem within the Roma communities. Very few, if any of the adults who live in the Roma camps have much, if any education. Again, please recognize that I am making general statements about a population that does not hold true to the whole population. I have heard that there are some Roma individuals who have gotten an education and are doing quite well for themselves. This is the exception rather than the rule. Most have not and many of the children today do not go much beyond the fourth grade due to many circumstances, many of them societal.

The lack of education, while it is a huge issue, also brings with it an opportunity within the Roma community that we do not have in the same way here within the U.S. That opportunity is the opportunity to do missions and that is what the Roma Mission Camp in Csonkapapi and the mission schools have recognized and are working with. They have the opportunity to start mission schools that will take the children through the fourth grade. After fourth grade the children then have to be integrated into the public school, which is a whole new issue in itself. But up until the fourth grade, the children can attend a mission school right in their Roma camp … that is, provided they have the facility and qualified teachers. That is a huge obstacle.

But if they can overcome that obstacle, these mission schools not only have the opportunity to change these children’s lives through education, but also through sharing with them the Good News of God’s love and grace. The hope is to teach them a better way of living and being in relationship with one another. The Chance for Life Foundation of which the Roma Mission Camp in Csonkapapi is a part, has recognized that if you want to change the circumstances of a particular population of people, you have to start with the children while working with the adults. You will have limited success if you do not have the support of the adult population.

Now we must also recognize that education is only part of the problem with both the Roma and the Native American populations. Opportunities and lack of opportunities is just as big of an obstacle for both the Roma and the Native American people. Opportunities for both populations are limited due to issues of prejudice, lack of financial and material resources, cultural differences, and other obstacles put in place by society.

One of the positives that we have, at least within the South Dakota conference of the United Church of Christ, is that we have some established leadership within the Native American churches. In the Dakota Association, Native American leadership is still a concern as many of our Native American pastors are getting older and there is a concern with who will replace them. At least for now we have some leadership to work with. Our challenge here within the South Dakota conference is to figure out “how” is the best way to work with the Dakota Association leadership that is already established. The Reformed Church in Hungary needs to figure out how to establish some leadership within the Roma communities.

Here are some universals. All children desire and need attention. Children, as they get older, seek to establish their own identity and many of them do not know how to do that in positive ways without guidance. The younger the child, the more willing they are to learn. Not speaking the same language creates barriers. Love and respect are universal languages. It is amazing what you can communicate through knowing only a few words, phrases, and some animated sign language. We are all God’s children, loved and cared for by God. All God’s children deserve a chance for life.

All in all, Deb and I had a very positive, learning, and growing experience in our time at the Roma Mission camp in Csonkapapi. I only have one regret, and it is that I wish I would have known more of the Hungarian language. Communication is such an important aspect of building relationships and I wish I could have communicated more with the people with which we worked and met in our time in Hungary and Ukraine.

Would I do it again? … in a heartbeat if money and time were not such an issue. But next time I would start sooner on learning the language 🙂 Áldás békesség … blessings & peace, Keith.

Submitted by,

Amy Lester

Rev. Keith Kraft, a United Church of Christ pastor from Mobridge, South Dakota (USA), alongside his wife Debbie served for a month this summer at a summer camp for Roma children at the Reformed Roma Center in Csonkapapi, Ukraine. The camp provides weeklong programs from June through July for nearly 400 youth from several surrounding communities.