The newest WELS-sponsored project in Europe, Outreach to Roma (OTR) [a.k.a. gypsies), has proven to be a truly Paul-like experience. The reports from Pastor/Missionary Iliyan Itsov read like a modern-day Book of Acts. Moreover, OTR’s method of gospel outreach closely resembles the method the Apostle used – a travelling missionary gathers groups and then leaves them to be served by local leaders.
There have been places like Lystra where the Apostle encountered violence. Missionary Itsov was invited by our sister church, the Evangelical Lutheran Free Church of Germany, to try to gather some groups in Germany, which the ELFK pastors would then serve. Itsov met with threats of physical violence and had the tires on the OTR van slashed. After about two months of outreach, a couple interested families were found.
There have been disappointments like Paul experienced when men turned away. Pastor Itsov spent several weeks in Romania to help form and legally register a Confessional Lutheran Church. The theologically trained man who had invited WELS to help later decided to associate with a different Lutheran body.
The Apostle Paul did not give up and found cities that welcomed the gospel. In Bulgaria, OTR has met with success. Itsov travels to Roma villages and shares the gospel. He gathers interested people and gives them initial instruction in the Word. With their help, he seeks to find a suitable place for worship and holds the initial services. After a few visits for worship and Bible study, he asks the group to select a leader who is willing to study the Bible in greater depth and conduct weekly services reading sermons Itsov provides. Then through periodic visits and via Internet Itsov teaches the leader.
Three such groups are now gathered in Bulgaria, each with its own leader and each with regular worship. The first group is in the village of Zlataritsa. Atanas has led the group for nearly a year now. It has an average of 18 in services. Two more groups were started in November. Bogdan is leader in Kotel, and Boyko in Stara Zagora. In all three cases the leader and members of the group have taken on the responsibility of inviting others and seeking to build a congregation. Frequently, through the many family and friendship ties among the Roma people, members are directing Itsov to other individuals and villages.
In addition, the OTR van goes out each week to three neighboring Roma villages and brings 20 people to the service at the Bulgarian Lutheran Church’s congregation in Dunavtsi.
When he is home in Dunavtsi, Itsov also helps his congregation’s pastor. Right now the congregation stuffs as many as 25 people into a rented room the size of an American living room. But, God willing, help is on the way! Itsov has received a loan from a WELS member to enable the congregation to purchase land and construct a small chapel. The cost will be kept low because volunteers will supply nearly all the labor. The present rent money and special gifts will be used to pay off the loan.
By Rev. John Vogt
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