Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Racism and Roma

     About a year ago I saw a sight I will never forget.  I had been living in Bucharest for about 2 months and was still adjusting to life here.  I was growing more accustomed to seeing beggars scattered throughout the city in high traffic areas.  Many times beggars will do their best to make eye contact with you and then pour out their pleas with vigor.  Other times beggars will do whatever they can to appeal to your humanity to help them.  
     This particular morning I saw a women begging in my neighborhood with a young boy about 2 years old asleep on her lap.  This scene touched my heart very deeply because I had a son almost two years old and another son about 5 months old at the time.  I was heart broken for this mother and her child.  
Hours later that day I returned home to see the same scene.  A two year old boy sleeping on her lap, yet now I saw it differently.  I knew how much energy my 2 year old son had.  I knew there is no way he could just lay on someones lap for hours without moving.  A thought came into my mind, “That is not normal.  Kids don’t do that.”
     A month later I started seeing another women with her son who was about 8 years old sitting at the metro entrance near the center of town.  I would see her several mornings a week as I was going to study Romanian with my language helper.  I would occasionally buy them some food or water.  Seeing them week after week wore on me.  Why is this mother not taking her kid to school?  What type of mother would have her kid just sit there all day?  One day I was so shaken up by it I starting talking to my team member about the situation.  He said, “Yeah, it is difficult to see.  In the past they would drug kids to get them to stay still all day.”  Then I remembered the lifeless 2 year old boy I saw in my neighborhood months before.  He continued, “Sometimes human traffickers steal kids away from their parents and partner them up with someone else who isn’t their parent.  That way the trafficker gets leverage over the parents to do to what they say and they get more sympathy for the beggars because people feel sympathy for children.”  
     “That is terrible.  That is disgusting.  Who could do that?  What type of human being could do that to another human being?  To a child none-the-less!”  These were the thoughts that began to go through my mind.  My heart began to feel disdain for these beggars.
     About that time I heard a story from a school here in Romania.  I was talking a staff member about the school and the difficulties it faces.  He told me that last year the school had two twins about 8 years old.  Part way through the year one of the children just stopped showing up.  After a couple weeks the staff contacted the parents to see why the second child was no longer coming.  “We need someone to go out and beg for us to feed our family.  He is the cuter of the two so we choose him to go beg.  Why does it matter to you?  We are at least allowing you to teach one of our kids!”
   Once again I had a though, “What type of human would do that?”  These emotions began to be stirred up every time I walked by a beggar on the street.  Besides that, I began to notice that most, if not all, of them were Roma.  I began to hear more and more stories about atrocities like parents purposely maiming their own children to be more effective in begging.  So, I began to make a conscious effort to avoid eye contact with beggars.  I began to completely ignore them.  
     What I did not realize was what was going on in my heart.  I had continually asked myself “what type of person could do that?”, yet my implied answer was, “None.”  To explain that thought a little, I was basically looking at their actions and saying, “You are not valuing human life or living with a sense of human decency.  Thus, I am not going to treat you with decency either.”  In doing this I was making a decision to treat a human being created in the image of God as less than a human being bearing God’s image which is ironically what I hated about them.
     However, as I had thoughts of disdain and hate towards different people I began to feel conviction.  “They are the ones who are doing all these things.  If I help them in any way then I am encouraging the way they are acting,” I started to tell myself.  So what was happening?  I was feeling the Spirit of God tell me that I was not treating them as I should but I justified it by saying, “But they did ____!”  I had hardened my heart towards a massive group of people, but it didn’t stop at beggars.
     When I first arrived in Romania I was amazed at how racist many Romanians are towards the Roma people.  One instance stands out at one of the first small group Bible studies I visited.  I told a young man that I was going to work with Roma and he replied, “Really?  Do you like Roma?”  He then followed the questions with, “Do you actually know any Roma?  They kind of steal stuff all the time.”  Another instance was a language professor I had that taught me a phrase in Romanian that meant “I won’t tolerate that.  I won’t put up with that.”  Her example phrase she taught me was, “The dogs don’t tolerate the Roma.”  Caught off guard I said, “Excuse me?”  She seemed surprised that I might have challenged her statement and said, “It is the truth.  The Roma put off a stench that even the dogs can smell.  Whenever a Roma walks by a dog they start barking at him or her because they are so put off by the stench.  It is the truth!”  Then there was the time that I met with a Romanian Christian working with Roma who told me that the Roma should never be a pastor in a church because they could never have enough character to do it well.  When challenged, I once again heard, “Mark, it is just the truth.”  
     “How can someone be so racist?” I asked myself.  My answer was revealed to me through the stories about the beggars.  I saw human beings do terrible things I began to have thoughts about these human beings that did not honor God and were not based in love.  It began with me feeling the normal emotions, but then as I processed those emotions my heart was filled with disdain and eventually hate.  “BUT, it’s just the way they are acting” I told myself.  What I was saying was, “It is their fault that I am allowing hate and disdain to settle in my heart.”  I was justifying my own sin for treating them with prejudice by blaming it on what I saw them doing.  
     It happened quickly, and I didn’t even know I was doing it.  Less than a year after arriving in Romania to work with Roma I was already harboring a racist and sinful heart towards the people I was here to love and serve.  
     Now imagine those who have grown up here and have so many more stories and experiences than I had.  Think about how many negative thoughts one might have had and how many times that person could justify those thoughts by blaming the people they see doing atrocities.  The heart of racism is, “It is their own fault that I am treating them like this.”
    This month I was shown my sinful and unloving heart.  It can happen to all of us so easily and in ways we don’t know it is happening.  Most of the time we don’t consciously think about what is happening inside us on a heart level; we just act based on our emotions.  Let us never forget to continue striving to search out the depths of our hearts and conform it to the love of Christ.

Jeremiah 17:9-10
“The heart is more deceitful than all else
            And is desperately sick;
            Who can understand it?
   I, the LORD, search the heart,
            I test the mind,
            Even to give to each man according to his ways,
            According to the results of his deeds."

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