Grace among Europe’s most mistreated
John F. Vogt
“The knowledge of God—for me this is the best thing that has come since the fall of communism. Living a life without God is worse than living a life like a beggar.” This is how Iliyan Itsov, a pastor in the Bulgarian Lutheran Church, answered the question: What good has come since the fall of Communism?
Itsov, who is a Roma (a.k.a. gypsy), says his first contact with the saving gospel came through the efforts of a WELS missionary. “In 1998 my father met a man from the USA named John Roebke. The purpose of the meeting was to ask [Roebke’s] help in getting textbooks for our village school. When they met, my father found out that he was a Lutheran missionary. This man came to our house and asked us if we wanted some Bible lessons. We agreed. I learned about Jesus, and my family and I became Christians. My life became calmer and easier. The Lord blessed me.”
The Lord’s blessings continued. “My father asked Missionary Roebke to help him start a church in our village,” says Itsov. “After a year of Bible lessons, the missionary baptized 50 Roma people in one service.” During the time Roebke served the congregation, the weekly attendance grew to about 150 people.
Itsov describes what it’s like to be a gypsy: “The Roma people in Europe today are treated generally as in the past—like people who don’t deserve to exist. No matter what kind of school degree a person has or how much knowledge he or she has, that person will be treated as something less than others if the color of the skin is darker or somebody recognizes him or her as a gypsy. Sometimes we need to deny our ethnicity in order to find any job.”
The impression is that Roma people are always moving from place to place. However, “nowadays the Roma people are part of the societies of the countries, living there and having houses. Their reason for migrating today is economical. . . . Most of the families in my town have one, if not more, of their family working outside of Bulgaria. My mother, for example, has worked for eight years in Italy.”
Itsov prepared for the ministry through training provided by WELS in coordination with St. Sophia Lutheran Seminary in Ukraine. He was ordained in September 2015. He tells of difficulties he encountered along the way: “I was in seventh grade and wanted to continue my high school education in the Gymnasium for Foreign Languages. One of my teachers said that she would do everything to prevent my study in that school (in those times, no Roma children were students there). She gave me low marks, but I managed to pass the entrance exams. I became the first Roma in that school. My schoolmates didn’t know that I was Roma until one of the mothers told her son. When he told the others, they stopped having any contact with me, which made me angry, so I doubled my efforts to show them that I can study better than they. My father and my mother became unemployed in 1995 when I started high school, and it was a great challenge to finish because of the fees. But thanks to my grandfather, I managed to graduate third in my class.”
Itsov credits Missionary Roebke with helping him get into the university. Through his education and work experiences, Itsov has learned to speak ten languages—a unique qualification for the call he has now been given by the Board for World Missions.
Itsov was called to coordinate a new mission project called Outreach to Roma (OTR). It’s an effort to share the gospel with the western world’s most mistreated ethnic group, a group numbering about 10 million people who are scattered all across Europe. “The fact that I am a Roma makes me uniquely suited because I know the psychology of the gypsies,” says Itsov. “I think it will be easier for them to listen to me than to a nongypsy.”
However, even for a Roma like himself, the work is challenging: “There are still prejudices,” says Itsov. “If I need somebody [who is not Roma] to help me in my outreach work, it is hard to get him to agree. Working with Roma people is also a great challenge because they find it hard to trust you.”
OTR is now working in three villages near Itsov’s home. “An average of 30 people from those villages are transported each week to services,” he says. “I have also located interested individuals in two other Bulgarian cities where I hope to begin serving. The translation of The Promise in Romani is done and about to be published.”
Itsov is married and has two children. “My family supports me now,” he says. “In the beginning it was hard for them. We had problems with my traveling [to Ukraine for pastoral training], but through the years they have come to understand that this work is important.”
Itsov’s travel continues. He has been asked by WELS sister churches in Sweden and Germany to help them reach Roma workers and immigrants in their countries. That could be just the beginning. “My plans are simple—to spread the gospel wherever possible. I don’t want to segregate the project only in Bulgaria. I have great opportunities also in Romania, Hungary, Macedonia, Spain, Italy, France, and even England. A lot of effort will be needed to do all this, but I will not give up.”
Itsov has found another man willing to help. “I am working with Sorin-Horia Trifa. He served as a preacher in the liberal Lutheran Church, but his understandings are confessional. So the idea of a Confessional Lutheran Church in Romania is his. Right now we are registering with the government, and Sorin is looking for a house to rent near the biggest gypsy neighborhood, where we could meet and where I can stay while in Romania. I expect and pray that, by the time you read this, we will have started work in Bucharest. Please pray for the project and the Roma people.”
John Vogt is WELS regional coordinator for Eastern Europe.
Editor’s note: April 8 is International Roma Day, a day to remember the killing of thousands of gypsies in World War II’s holocaust and to raise awareness of the continuing difficulties Roma people face.
BULGARIAN LUTHERAN CHURCH
Year mission work began: 1994
Baptized members: 155
Average weekly attendance at worship: 94
National pastors: 6
Pastoral students: 3
Resident missionaries: 0
Unique fact: Pastor Radoslav Radkov, the leader of the BLC, is perhaps the only pastor of our fellowship to have had a face-to-face meeting in Rome with the Pope. Rado was one of eight Catholic youth invited for a 20-minute audience with Pope John Paul II in 1997, soon after Communism fell.
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Author: John F. Vogt
Volume 103, Number 4
Issue: April 2016
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