Text by Dorota Gwiaździńska and Jana Pavlíková (in frame of "Czech-Polish experience in reporting about Roma communities" project). I was just a coordinator of it and tried to make possible for young students to write about Roma communities with the knowlage and from the field. See our website HERE.
Christians among Roma community in Vsetín, the ways of God are impenetrable
That morning there was something different in the air of this little town near to Olomouc, something we haven’t been prepared to after our previous experiences. Almost one hour by train among the mountains there is located Vsetín where we found out new point of view for question of Roma. Life goes slowly there and seems to be somehow more peaceful and pleasant to live than in other places. After visiting socially segregated localities in Přerov we had totally different expectations about what we can see in a city which is well known due to case of ejection of Gypsies in 2006.
Take a look, only those mountains all around. There was no other place to eject Gypsies than on the suburbs. We didn’t want people to lose any place to live and it was the most economical way to locate them in the buildings right there. Even they had no money to pay a rent and were in big debts, we wanted to guarantee them a home, we didn’t want them to stay on the street, we heard in city council of Vsetín explaining us why they ejected Gypsies to houses known as ‘Čunkoboxy’.
We went there to give a voice to Romanies themselves, to hear their own stories and to find out what means to live in ‘Čunkoboxy’. We wanted to check if the situation is the same as in other places across Czech Republic. But we discovered also something more. Our first encounter was with a small group of Gypsies in front of the shopping centre. It was accidentally in fact. We carefully and in timidly way tried to make a spontaneous conversation with them. After short exchange of words and phrases we heard our counterpart saying “God leads our steps. Thanks to God we know how solve problems. The most important are love and tolerance.” That was something unlooked-for and surprising.
Rudiments of “new” religion among Gypsies
We had to quit the chat soon, because we were quite late for a meeting with a Roma’s association in Vsetín. We only needed to find an address. Before we reached the goal we had spent a lot of time walking near to the river with no clue if we’re going in good direction. There was nobody who knew where was the organisation we´ve been looking for. Suddenly we noticed a woman, she was running somewhere and we saw her dark hair and skin. We sent one of us to ask her, but she was too fast for us. We saw her turning in the corner.
We did the same and suddenly found our association next to this corner. Few minutes later we saw as well the same people in different part of the town, far from the centre. They are Christians, members of Life Light Association and we met their pastor Ondřej Tulej. A stout middle-aged man with riant face who talked calmly, but also with premeditation in his voice. Unfolding around him friendly atmosphere. We were speaking, eating cookies and drink coffee he offered to us. We heard a lot W We not only about the birth of Life Light in Vsetín but also about his chequer life.
It can be said that his life is full of changes. As many of Roma he has immigrated to Great Britain to find a work there thirteen years ago. He wasn’t even a believer in that time. Any religion had no influence on his conduct. As he admits you could with no doubt attach to his chest a stereotypical label of Roma: thief, fraudster and rake. But when in 1997 he found himself in Britain, something changed inside him. But it wasn’t immediately. It took him whole 8 years. Now he is father of three adult children, fond grandfather, staunch husband and above all devoted pastor.
As an immigrant, he was arrested for two month. “God found me there and started to speak to me. First, I got mad because I didn’t know God. But later, God sent me the Bible and I found myself there while reading and studying the Bible. I saw all mistakes I have done. God’s intention was to lead me to penitence,” Tulej relates about his first experiences with God’s word.
First, pastor drew lessons from the Bible alone, studying the cards of it, he prayed, he began attending to church. Last two years in Britain he served by Life Light and also by Jesus Art where he tutors himself. “Then God told me he wants congregation in Vsetín and that he wants to use the Gypsies,” Tulej explains why he came back to Czech Republic.
Following the voice of God, after 11 years spent in exile, Ondřej Tulej returned to Czech Republic. A little bit against himself. He had his life and work in England. “But there are more important things,” he says. He remembers how it was in the beginning, when he returned from Britain. When he came to Vsetín, Gypsies did not go to church and nobody wanted to believe him that he has changed. People were suspicious.
In their memory, he was still a rake and a criminal. “It is difficult to believe a man who you knew for long time as cheater and crook that he has changed. I needed time to trust him. But now I respect him and I’m glad he came back,” says one of many believers. Tulej relates that it took a lot of time to persuade the others that he is another person and that also those who are following him have changed.
We all belong to God. When others realised we are doing God’s work - they first grumble that it is not from God. There was even some hate. People were wrong. They thought we don´t have persistence. They didn´t know any Gypsy who lead it. But Holy Spirit showed them. When they saw that we function, that we lead it one month, two, three month, a year.... so they did penitence. They apologised to God, that they made mistake and that we are able to live with God, Tulej describes his hard rudiments in Vsetín.
The change must come from inside
Life Light is mostly known as organizer of big festival in United States, but the believers are spread all over the world. Following the spirit of technology Life Light association has a website, which is supported as well by social media as Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace. Brief description on Facebook which is the main goal of organization, says as in John 8:12 Jesus said: Taking the Church outside the walls, Bringing Light into the darkness with the life-changing message of Jesus Christ.
They want to send a good word from God to other people. That’s why they are trying to help the others to find the right way in their lives. They believe one can find a support in God. As pastor says, “we are going to houses as missioners and sometimes people come later to us. We go on these “missions” everyday. Sometimes we have quarrels. We are explaining what they are doing wrong, we reason with them. But the decision is on them.”
There are circa 150 believers who meet every Sunday for the mess held in the communal centre in Vsetín. It is situated just in front of authority municipal. We went there to meet the officials of Vsetín. They told us why they decided to resettle the Roma on the outskirts of the town. They were talking about debts, which had fallen on Romanies, about their problems with finding a work and way to earn for a living their own and their families, also about very popular actually emigration with the direction of England.
Many Gypsies from Vsetín have already moved to Great Britain. They had no choice. The debt is too high to pay. Their families live in „Čunkoboxes“ on the suburbs. We got to know the buildings took a name after the mayor, from time when authorities decided to resettle Gypsies. Those who have still stayed in Vsetín are coming for help, especially with financial problems or social matters which they have quite often. But they are looking for a help also from pastor.
“We manage to help, we can´t complain. It is hard. There are crises. People don´t have money, they have problems. We will exert ourselves and pray so that people don´t go on two ways. When people stop to smoke, drink, and play fruit-machines... Gypsies must learn how to live. Every woman must learn how to take care about household and children, how to housekeep, count money for whole month. This is also what we are teaching them. Some are open to this, some not,” Tulej explains his attempt.
A lot of things changed since he has come back from England, in 2007. Even mayoress of the town and policemen say that the criminality is massively lower and life of all is better. Every inhabitant of Vsetín must have noticed that something has changed. Of course there are many other problems which must be solved, many people who must be helped. After primal scepticism or even distrust other Churches serving in the town are cooperating with Gypsies’ Life Light. Even though they don’t agree with everything people from charity or social workers are glad that Life Light functions there.
“It’s easier to communicate and cooperate with them, now. They are more open. Before, it was harder to persuade them as regards school, paying of debts. I don’t agree with everything concerning the Church they have chosen but there is really big and positive change,” says one of social workers. This deeper cooperation might be first step or optimistic ray on the way to better life and coexistence of all inhabitants in Vsetín.
New reality, old superstitions
Meanwhile, the Roma community varies so much that there can be no unity when it comes to religion. There is no such thing as the national religion of the Roma. Mainly because of many year’s common practice that Gypsies have been adopting widespread belief in the area, where they have decided to settle. And as they have no country, their belief usually depends on place where they live. The reason was often to protect from persecution, and to indicate a desire to integrate into existing community.
Nowadays you can find a Roma Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant, Muslim or Atheist. There are among them also many followers of other, less popular beliefs. According to last census in 2001, 52.6 % of Gypsies (about 6 200 who granted for Roma nationality) declared they are religious. 82.2 % of them are Catholics, 1 % are Protestant (Czech Brothers), 0.3 % of Czechoslovakian Hussite Church and 16.5 % of Gypsies have different religion that noted above.
Even we live in century of open-minded people some of us are still locked in the cage built out of stereotypes. For every phenomenon we need to find an explanation and if we don’t understand something, we become scared. Great part of society is haunted by a belief the Gypsies worship some secret powers. They are not like the others, so their religion can’t be so.
That goes with the image of Roma wanderer or Roma fortune tellers as they exist in the minds of the average. This also confirms their celebrations or, according to us, their strange practices, such as, media’s favourite, the images of pagan feasts on the graves. Media loves to show Gypsies dressed in ornate way on the cemetery next to a tomb which looks like a festive table set with rich food and a lot of alcohol spilling on it. It’s so colourful – perfect for the eye of the camera as a journalist from Lower Silesia TV told us. The view of Romanies walking to the church is not appropriate for media. Probably too grey.