I’ve seen poverty and suffering before, but not like this. As I write, heaviness weighs on my shoulders like a coat of lead. On this recent mission trip my eyes were opened to a fierce darkness that I’ve not encountered before.
We were in a small community named Rómska Osada (Roma settlement), outside the city of Sečovce. Our vehicles pulled into a remote field that consisted of broken shacks and rows of feebly constructed homes. As the crowd engulfed us we were welcomed with cheerful giggles and curious smiles. The children gladly addressed us with Slovakian greetings. Many of their faces were covered in dirt. Little girls stood by with babies on their hips as the elderly attendants hobbled toward our small meeting area.
Who were these oppressed people? Most would tag them as gypsies, but they are the Roma people. They live only a few hours’ drive from the brilliantly colored cathedrals of Eastern Europe, a stark contrast to the dark depression that surrounds them. After settling into a nearby hotel we met with Mark and Valerie Zechin, the missionary couple that made our visit possible. Over dinner we intently listened to their story and the plight of the Roma people.
Mark & Valerie Zechin.
After pioneering a church in Eugene, Oregon the Zechins came to Eastern Europe in 1993. Here they raised their three children and founded a church in the Czech Republic that continues to this day. The Zechins have participated in planting over seventy churches throughout the Czech and Slovak Republics. In the midst of their mission journey, tragedy struck in 2009 with the loss of their daughter, Jireh. She was twenty-two years old. A short time after giving birth to their grandchild, they found she had a fatal heart condition. In the shadow of their loss, they left the mission field and sought recovery. They enrolled as students at Bethel’s Supernatural School of Ministry in Redding, CA.
In 2012 they returned to pioneer a needed work among the Roma people in Southeast Slovakia. Now, six years later, they sat before us wrestling with the giants of poverty and suffering that threaten their work. Their love and efforts to reach the disparaged Roma people completely wrecked my heart. I tried to hold back tears as they invited us into the trenches of oppression and hate. As I listened to their account, feelings of anger, discouragement, and shock exploded in me. This is their story.
Sex Trafficking of the Roma.
Numbering around 10,000 or more, the Roma live in two large communities outside of the cities of Trebisov and Sečovce. They are marginalized into barren fields that are nothing more than a barren garbage dump. Neighboring Slovakians scorn the Roma community. Deep-seated racism lies at the root of their hate. Racism of this intensity is an evil that many will never understand.
95% of the Roma live unemployed. The few who are afforded work earn a meager seventy dollars a month for working nearly twenty hours a week. Despair and poverty leads them to alcohol and drug addiction. Families also fall prey to loan sharks that are known as “Vidas” or “gypsy kings.” These lenders trap their victims by lending at an interest rate of 100%. Borrowers unable to keep up with payments are stripped of their government welfare cards, their homes, and everything of value. The “vida” then becomes the recipient of their monthly welfare deposits.
As debt compounds the lenders profit further by selling indebted children into prostitution. Fueling their misery, Slovakian police, city officials and teachers in the Roma schools invest with the loan sharks. In return, they make sizeable profits. Orchestrating this dehumanizing capitalism stands the Italian mafia. They conduct the trafficking of Roma children at a price of €1000- 3000per child. Girls and boys, as young as 8 or 10 years old, are sold to buyers in Germany and in the United Kingdom. Disease-infected and exhausted by sexual abuse, these children are finally dumped back into the slums from which they came. Because of the import and export of children, Trebisov holds the highest per capita rate of syphilis in the nation. It is in this darkness that the Zechins have established their work.
Adding to this sexual exploitation, the Roma are victimized by demons of addiction. Mark told us that 90% of Roma youth are addicted to an inhalant called “Toluene.” Parents often foster the addiction in their own children. Toddlers are forced to sniff the fumes of this deadly glue-like toxin as a means to curb hunger. Babies are also given this drug to sedate their cries through cold winter nights. Surviving Roma children live only to become chronic inhalant users.
Domestic violence is another horror woven into their culture. Men, drunk in their misery, regularly beat their wives. Mothers in turn traditionally beat their daughter-in-laws. Women often come to the Zechin’s ministry with battered bodies and broken bones. The abuse is nominally accepted as a Roma custom. Valerie went on to say that the work of rehabilitating families has had its surprises. In the past when husbands gave their lives to Jesus, they ceased in their violence toward their spouses. Strangely, the wives did not understand how to function in their families without the physical abuse.
Valerie continued by unveiling another painful evil among the Roma people. “Almost every Roma girl is molested as soon she reaches adolescence,” she said. The culture forces girls to remain in the custody of the man who robs them of their innocence. Because of this, the cycle of pregnancy and poverty continues. For every child another government welfare card is issued, but it is never enough. The children turn to alcohol, drugs, and prostitution to sustain their livelihood. Valerie concluded her story by telling us of a recently deceased eight year-old girl. The child took her last breath inhaling toluene fumes administered to her by her own mother.
To defend the women and children from the torrent of abuse and oppression, Valerie presented to us a hope for which they have been praying. “We need a place to shelter the beaten women,” Valerie eagerly told us. “We also need full-time counselors to mentor the victims,” she added. Curiously I asked, “How much would it cost to buy a facility like this?” “There’s a community building that is for sale now,” she replied. “It was built for the Roma people years ago.” We later discovered that this building currently lays dormant, awaiting a buyer. The cost of purchasing and modifying this facility, we were told, would be about $200,000. The Zechins told us of the desire they have to bring social reform to the Roma. With this new facility they feel they can implement needed literacy and education programs.
Ministry in the slums.
As we concluded our dinner, an unexpected rain moved over us. The clouds poured down the depression I felt in my soul. If the rain did not relent, our planned ministry time in Romska Osada would have to be cancelled. We paused and a few of us prayed against the storm. By the grace of God it moved on and we packed our bags and headed to the grounds.
The view was everything you could imagine when you hear the word “slum”.The children came running our way as the ministry team set up the sound system. A few wore nothing while the remaining were clothed in tattered rags. The smell of mud and decay filled the air as storm clouds collected above us. We set up near a small tin-roofed structure.
We began by playing a song to draw everyone out. They gathered around and listened to the music. Then a drunken man wildly paraded himself in front of our musicians. No one in the crowd seemed surprised by his disruption. Mark gracefully stepped forward and ushered him to the side and the song continued.
A hundred or more residents gathered near as I stood before them to speak. Taking the microphone in hand, I felt overwhelmed. The reality of their suffering combined with the stories I had heard plunged my heart into despair. I could hardly hold back the tears as I began.
Pointing to a small wood and concrete structure to my right I said, “You see that house? I was born in a room like that.” My translator repeated my words in the Slovak language and the crowd nodded in affirmation. “I was born in poverty like this,” I continued. “But Jesus came to me and my family.” Images of my Indian childhood came back to me. I remembered my little bare feet on our dirt floors and the smoke-stained concrete walls. I knew this feeling very well. I remembered demoralizing feelings of poverty. Every Roma face looked intently at me as tears streamed down my face. “But I had one hope,” I continued, “my parents taught me about a man named Jesus.” I told of the times that I’d climb onto the roof of our little home. As a child I would gaze up to the stars and speak to the God of my father. He spoke back to me. I was only a kid, but I knew His voice. “He wants to speak to you,” I said, “just as He spoke to me.” They listened as I extended the invitation for them to know the God I knew.
We continued with another song. Then my friends Pastor Michael and Pastor Laurie shared a little more about God’s love. We invited those who wanted prayer to come to us and a small group of people pressed their way forward. “I have a pain in my back,” the first woman said to me. We prayed with her, but the pain did not stop. Then I looked up at the evening sky and spoke softly to my Father. Placing my hand on her back again, I prayed once more. She smiled and reported that all the pain was gone. A second woman came forward complaining of a pain in her leg. We prayed for her and Jesus immediately healed her. Again and again it happened. As our team prayed for each person, they were completely healed.
Then a young man came forward. “Pain in chest,” he said, as he motioned to his heart. I placed my hand on his chest and began to pray. I felt his heart beat faster and faster. In fifteen seconds it was beating so hard that I could feel it slamming against my hand. Then he began to convulse and shake. His eyes rolled backward and he thrashed back and forth nearly striking me with his head. Then he fell to the ground and lay motionless. Not knowing what to do, I reached down and pulled him up to his feet. The two men behind the boy helped him into a chair. I leaned into his ear and spoke, “You evil spirit, come out of him.” Immediately he began to shake. He clawed at his head and writhed his way down to the ground. I called out to one of our translators and asked her to speak to him. “Call him by name,” I requested. She did and the boy came back to consciousness. We asked him “do you want to be free of this thing?” He replied with an affirmative nod. Then he prayed with me to receive Jesus as his Lord. Immediately he began to shake again. Mark and I took authority over the demon and in a few moments it left him. In exhaustion the young man sat down and collected himself as we continued praying for others. After the prayer time was done, the evening faded into night. The sky illuminated with veins of lightning as small drops of rain concluded our meeting.
As we walked to our vehicles, a Roma family from the church invited us to a late-night meal. We followed them through a crowded alleyway into a little a room located in the middle of the compound. When we entered their home, they welcomed us with a dish of sandwiches and sweets. We were honored to eat with the family.
We listened to their stories. One family humbly told us of their two-mile walk to attend church each week. They gladly made the journey to minister with our missionaries. Another couple told us their story. The man said that his wife initially began visiting the church against his will. After threatening her and much arguing between them, a sickness overtook him. He became paralyzed in both knees. The church responded by praying for him. He finally was brought to the church. On the night he surrendered his life to Jesus, he was miraculously healed. Today he serves in the church by playing the keyboard and leading in worship. We left that night with our hearts full of hope because of the testimonies we heard.
Teaching in the Bible School.
The following morning we gathered at the ministry compound and met with thirty or more leaders from various churches. Some of them were Slovak and others were Roma. They welcomed our team and the day began with a time of teaching. After the first two sessions we took a break and walked outside. The cool morning air lingered as we surveyed the neighboring field and distant homes.
As we walked around the building, the Zechins shared about the coming winter. Valerie told us of the hardship that the Roma families face in keeping warm. In need of adequate clothing and shoes they resort to smuggling scraps for firewood. “In the winter the children often lose toes to the frostbite. If they cut down trees for firewood, their parents are jailed,” she complained. Local law enforcement mercilessly imposes limits on firewood that can be collected by the children. However, the better firewood is intended for the non-Roma people who can afford the luxury.
When our break ended we returned to the meeting room. I began my segment of teaching but struggled through the introduction. The message I had to deliver to these saints seemed useless. They had born the agony of this work in ways that I would never understand. I didn’t want to go on with my outlined text. So in my thoughts I prayed, “Jesus, what am I to say?” “These saints,” He replied, “they are the ones who will transform this community. Tell them what I tell you.” Hope kindled in my soul like a small fire on a winter night. One by one I asked them to stand. As I began to speak, His voice spoke through mine giving each one a clear prophetic word. I could sense God’s love for these forgotten ones. In that classroom we stood before the leaders- leaders whom I believe are the greatest hope for the Roma community.
We concluded our meeting and started our journey North into Poland the next day. During our long drive I thought through all the ways that I could hope to supply the Zechins in their work. Remembering that they were the only missionaries in their city, I felt the urgency of their need even more. I know God’s desire for the Roma is to give them a tangible hope. I don’t know exactly how to raise the needed $200,000 or how to plant more missionaries in Slovakia, but I feel I must do something before returning to Eastern Europe. Bringing awareness to their arduous work, I believe, is the first step of my journey.
Even now, I cannot forget the oppression that I witnessed. Thousands in that region need the message of God’s love. They need the strength of the Western church to extend to them a line of hope. Missionaries like Mark and Valerie are heroes in my book. My hope is to join with them in healing the plagued community of the Roma.
For more information about the work Mark & Valerie are doing in Slovakia, click here: