“Missionaries from America and Europe have played a role in beginning this [church] movement in Croatia. And, perhaps even more surprising, a Chinese missions group launched a special initiative to help grow and support the gypsy church.” Jillian Melchior
“The [gypsy] church’s assertive Christianity sticks out in a Europe that has become increasingly bashful about its Judeo-Christian roots.” Ibid
At a refugee camp near the Serbian-Croatian border, Biljana Nikolić cradled a newborn baby, still covered with blood from birth. The infant wasn’t crying. The mother, who had delivered on one of the crowded buses transporting Europe’s newcomers across the border, urgently needed a doctor herself, by the look of it. So Ms. Nikolić rocked the child, calling for a Red Cross doctor.
“I was shaking,” says Ms. Nikolić, a Roma Christian. “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.”
As Europe grapples with the biggest population shift since World War II, many have reacted with fear, warning of threats to European culture and the Islamification of the continent.
Croatia’s small but growing Roma Christian community, however, has embraced this development, with believers like Ms. Nikolić enthusiastically volunteering to help Muslim newcomers. Many Roma Christians are too impoverished to dream of working abroad as a missionary—but now, they say, the mission field has come to them.
“Nothing is happening that God has not allowed, and if it’s God’s will, we must accept it,” says Ms. Nikolić’s husband, Đeno. “It’s like a test of our faith to show love through this kind of situation. If people are saying they’re Christians but don’t have the love or the will to serve these people, how can they become Christians?”
The Nikolićs and other believers sprang into action in mid-September, when Hungary closed its border with Serbia and thousands of refugees and migrants shifted their route to travel through Croatia. Some of the Roma Christians have been involved daily, serving food, helping medical teams, playing with children and praying.
The response derives from their own hardships. In the past century the Roma have been targeted by Nazi Germany and endured the Yugoslavian wars; even today many live in extreme poverty, and discrimination remains prolific throughout the Balkans. So when Roma Christians see the suffering of the refugees and migrants, they identify.
Ms. Nikolić remembers living on the streets of Serbia with her husband and their young children in the late 1990s, not long after the war ended. They begged and struggled to survive, she says. Her two small children were filthy, she remembers, and she feared they’d get sick, so she bathed them with bottled water she warmed in the sun. “So we understand,” she says.
Ms. Nikolić also knows the power of Christian charity in winning converts. When she and Mr. Nikolić moved back to Croatia, still penniless, a Christian couple fed them, invited them to church, and helped them find shelter.
“We said, ‘Why are you helping us?’ ” Ms. Nikolić recalls. “We’re only gypsies. No one loves gypsies.” Their answer: Because Christ came to serve, and Christians must follow his example. That won over Ms. Nikolić and, eventually her husband, too; the couple went on to found Croatia’s first Roma church, where they serve together as co-pastors.
Though good statistics are lacking, Christianity is booming in the Roma community, having spread particularly quickly over the past five years. Part of the faith’s appeal is that it transcends ethnicity.
Prejudice meant that when the roof of their shabby home collapsed last summer, the Nikolić family struggled to find someone willing to rent to them. But faith has united the Nikolićs and other believers not only with other Croatians but also with church leaders from around the world.
Missionaries from America and Europe have played a role in beginning this movement in Croatia. And, perhaps even more surprising, a Chinese missions group launched a special initiative to help grow and support the gypsy church.
That same transcultural impulse now informs the Roma church’s outreach to Muslim refugees and migrants. Though it’s uncomfortable or taboo across Europe, the Roma church is unapologetic in its proselytizing.
“If our first priority is our ethnicity or our nations, we would be afraid,” says Melody Wachsmuth, an American who has been researching the Roma church, spending years alongside the Nikolić family. “But this is an opportunity to show the love of Christ and to serve them. We can’t do that in the countries they’re coming from.”
They hope that their work could revive Europe from religious apathy. “I’m amazed that Muslims who have lost everything still pull out their carpets to pray,” Ms. Nikolić says. “If they decided to turn that to the Christian God—wow.”
The church’s assertive Christianity sticks out in a Europe that has become increasingly bashful about its Judeo-Christian roots, preferring instead to embrace multiculturalism. But with the influx of newcomers, Europe is vacillating between gut-level humanitarian impulses and guilt-ridden cultural protectionism. Croatia’s confident Roma Christians offer an alternative route.
Ms. Melchior, a writer for National Review, is a fellow for the Franklin Center and the Steamboat Institute.