VUKOVAR, Croatia (Christian Examiner) – What do you do when you are a member of a minority treated with hostility and suspicion in a newly established and impoverished church? If you are the Roma in Croatia, you immediately begin outreach to those less fortunate than you.
Biljana Nikolić and her husband Đeno, the pastors of the first Roma church in Croatia, understand and empathize with the needs of the more than 27,000 Muslim migrants who have been rerouted from Hungary into Croatia since mid-September. Roma, who are also called gypsies, have firsthand experience with the fear and struggles of homelessness and know that the migrants can be greatly encouraged by a drink of water and a smile.
Nikolić has been ministering at the refugee camp on the Serbia-Croatia border almost daily since the refugees have begun flooding in. Once, she held a just-born baby while its family waited for a Red Cross doctor to treat the suffering mother, who had delivered on the transport bus en route.
"I was shaking," Nikolić told the Wall Street Journal. "The baby's family was all around me. I felt like it was the first time I've held a newborn, though I've had four myself."
She is no stranger to abject need. She told the Journal about living on the streets as a beggar with her children in the late 1990s after the Yugoslav Wars, using precious bottled water to wash her children because she was afraid they would become ill.
Nikolić became a Christian in 2004 because of the kindness of local Croatian Christians who helped them find shelter and gave them aid through their church. "We said, 'Why are you helping us?' We're only gypsies. No one loves gypsies."
Since her and her family's salvation, though they and their new church continue to struggle with poverty and prejudice towards Roma, she has seized opportunities to serve others, like this one.
MINISTRY TO MIGRANTS
Đeno Nikolić sees God's providence in allowing the Roma to minister to migrant Muslims. "Nothing is happening that God has not allowed, and if it's God's will, we must accept it," he said. "It's like a test of our faith to show love through this kind of situation."
The Nikolićs feel called to serve others as they were and are ministered to by both international ministries and local Christians.
Melody Wachsmuth, a cross-cultural researcher in Croatia, writes that Roma have been and continue to be an oppressed people group, targeted by Nazi genocide and many other local forms of persecution.
"Systematic poverty, a survivalist mentality, low education levels, different cultural values and persistent prejudice have conspired to keep Roma at the bottom of European society," Wachsmuth said, according to a profile of the Roma by the International Mission Board (IMB), "but effective discipleship has a proven track record of transforming individuals and renewing Roma culture."
Wachsmuth reported about the refugee crisis in Croatia for Christianity Today, describing the immediacy of the Christian response.
Domagoj Malović, director the Croatian branch of Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) said the refugees arrived so fast no one was quite sure what was going on. When he followed transport buses to learn how the refugees were, he found "buses stalled and people sprawled out on the asphalt, thirsty and hungry," so he bought bottled water to distribute along the roadside.
"Generally churches are cooperating well and people have a positive response, but also we see that some Protestant believers are callous toward the situation and fear the Islamization of Europe," he said. "Rumors are going around that Saudi Arabia is paying people to infiltrate."
Some unhealthy Christian reactions toward the migrants are hostility and worry about Islamization, but Nikolić is only concerned with meeting immediate needs like thirst and shelter.
HOPE FOR SALVATION
She respects the Muslims' faith and hopes that it can be turned toward Christ. "I'm amazed that Muslims who have lost everything still pull out their carpets to pray," she said. "If they decided to turn that to the Christian God—wow."
The Roma hope that their ministry will inspire other churches to serve alongside them.
Wachsmuth explained why the Roma are so willing to walk in faith regardless of perceived threats to their nationality or ethnicity. "They have no country that would compete for their loyalty, nor can they be comfortable in the countries they live in because of their relative powerlessness and poverty," Wachsmuth said. "This weakness compels them to be in a state of constant movement toward God."
The struggles that the Roma have endured enable them to serve people with the exact same needs. The 12 million Roma scattered throughout Europe are strategically placed to help refugees despite their own struggles and as an example of Christian service.