To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Roma being recognised as a nation, we will be sharing with you a few stories from some Roma brothers and sisters from different countries over the next few weeks. They will share with us how they view their identity as Roma, their experiences as Roma, how they came to Christ and how this affects their sense of identity. We hope you are encouraged, inspired and enriched by their stories.
Radko lives in Sliven, Bulgaria, with his wife and two daughters. He has been serving with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) among the Roma for the past 24 years. He is well-respected and sought after as a leadership coach, and often speaks at different training events.
When you speak with Radko, you will see someone who is secure in his identity. But this was not always the case.
“I came from a broken identity, very confused identity. My parents and grandparents didn’t have a stable understanding about themselves. Most of the things they believed about themselves were what other people said about them. This identity was passed on to me and my brother and it influenced us very strongly,” Radko shared.
“People looked on us Roma as low caste people, with low identity, and that’s what I believed about myself.”
Coming to Christ
In 1991 when Communism fell, Radko came to know Christ through what he described as a supernatural experience.
“When Communism fell, many foreign missionaries came and shared the gospel, and the underground churches became legal and open. Many of my friends started to come to Christ. They invited me many times, but I said, ‘No, you’re crazy!’ I thought it was better to go to disco parties, meet girls and just have fun,” Radko reminisced.
“One day I was outside a building that happened to be a church. I’d never been inside. When I heard the people worshipping God, I started crying. It was a big shock for me. I cried like a deep sadness come out of me, I didn’t understand it. At that time I was a trained boxer. I thought ‘I’m a boxer and I fight at competitions, why am I crying?’ I ran home and went to my room and continued to cry.
“I thought to myself ‘Why did I cry? Nobody told me anything wrong, I did nothing wrong, why did I cry?’ For me it was strange. Years later, I understood that the Spirit of God came on me when I heard the worship of God.”
“The next day I went back to the building because I wanted to feel the same feeling. I waited for people to start praying and worshipping God again. Then I started to cry again. But that second time something happened with me. I went home and I felt somebody hugged me. I felt hands on my back. I said, ‘Who’s there?’ I opened my eyes to see what’s happening, but I didn’t see anyone.
“After this experience my friends helped me to go inside the church. I heard the sermon and I asked for forgiveness. I became a Christian and became part of the church.”
Light or darkness?
Radko said at around the same time he encountered the gospel, he was also having a close brush with evil.
“Several people came to me and asked me to be a pimp and to be involved in prostitution ring overseas. It was a poor time – hungry time – so it would have been easy for me to join these evil things,” Radko said.
“Looking back, it was evil trying to take me, at the same time as the gospel come into my life. I was at a crossroads, to choose what I want to do with my life. I chose Christ.”
Sense of identity
As a young Christian, Radko continued to struggle with his sense of identity.
“I came to Christ but my identity didn’t change straight away. Later when I went to Bible school, one of the topics was identity in Christ. I remember I was crying for almost one week because I didn’t understand why we Roma are so low caste, why we are so bad. Identity in Christ was a hard thing for me to understand,” Radko said.
“But everything started changing at this point. It was a lightbulb moment for me. It doesn’t matter what people think about me, it’s important what the Bible says about me. I understood that I’m a child of God. I understood that I’m in God’s heart. I’m a co-worker with God. In his eyes he’s watching me, his love is the same to me as to the Bulgarians.”
“But even when I understood this, my brain had bad habits. It turned off and went back to thinking that the Bulgarians were better than me. When I started working with YWAM and came to know international family of Christ, I still thought everyone was better than me. I was at the bottom of the list, the bottom of growth and everything else.”
It took years and a lot of deep heart work before Radko’s sense of worth grew. The respect and support he received from brothers and sisters from around the world helped him retrain his brain to have a different way of thinking about himself.
“Now I have become more stable and more healthy in my emotions and way of thinking. I become stronger. I know that I have my place and role in the body of Christ,” Radko said.
The issue of pride
While his sense of identity was being restored, Radko came face to face with another problem of the heart: pride.
“One time I went with a group of young people to do ministry when I was 21 or 22. At that time I was already in very intensive ministry as a single. I went with a larger group of Roma people, around 200 people. I saw young pastors and leaders come to the stage and they started to preach and sing songs, wearing good clothes,” Radko said.
“Something stood out to me, I just suddenly felt bad inside. I really wanted to drop out and throw up. Why am I feeling this way? One thing came in my heart. Some voice came and told me, ‘Hey Radko, you’re just like these people on the stage’. I saw these people full of pride and arrogance on the stage. Their attitude and behaviour was like they were the king of the Kingdom. That made me very sad because I saw myself in their behaviour. It was very ugly.
“I went home to my apartment and sat down on the floor. I told the Lord ‘I need help. I don’t want to continue in this way’. This was a fight that went on for several years.”
Radko said self-observation and self-reflection were tools that have helped him a lot in his Christian walk.
“It helps me see what’s going on in my heart and my thoughts. Later as I started to train as a coach, I was working on a counselling course. In this process I found one strange sickness in my life – a spiritual sickness. That sickness was I needed other people to need me. I never understood this problem before. When people needed me, I felt so happy. When people didn’t need me, I felt down,” Radko shared.
“I figured out that during Christmas or Easter or holiday season I was not a happy person because I wasn’t with the ministry and not with the people that needed me. I didn’t have the audience of the people. I didn’t hear people tell me that I was important. That was a big problem. I said to myself, ‘Hey Radko, what’s going on?’
“That helped me very much to realise and to see that I’m not what I do. I’m here because of the blood of Christ. I’m not important because I’m doing ministry or giving something to the people. I’m important just because I’m a child of God. That changed me a lot.”
Discrimination against Roma is an issue in Bulgaria, as is in the rest of the Balkans. Radko and his family experience and witness this themselves.
“When people meet me, they don’t always recognise that I’m Roma. I have often had the Bulgarians come to me and they start to speak against the Roma. Our older daughter sometimes comes home from school very sad and confused because she sees her friends speak against Roma. Our little girl doesn’t understand why her friends at school don’t like a particular girl, who is Roma and has darker skin,” Radko said.
“Sometimes people look friendly, but when they realise we are Roma, things change.”
However, Radko also has had positive experiences.
“People who have grown in their understanding and people who really understand God’s kingdom, these people respect us. Some Bulgarians even bless us with finances for our ministry, and that’s not usual,” Radko said.
When it comes to Roma and non-Roma interactions, Radko said one of the challenges is the two groups are often operating on different wavelengths.
“When Roma connect with the Bulgarians, it doesn’t work so well. It’s like they’re at different levels. They just have small talks, nothing deeper,” Radko said.
“I think we need to change things from both sides. Roma people need to grow to get to the same level, and the Bulgarians need to humble themselves.
“It’s very important to respect one another not because of who we are, what we are able to do, or what level of education we have. We need to meet people, character to character – to meet people with soft, gentle, loving character.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with Christian Roma Support. You can find this story in Dutch on their website. While you are there, check out the great section they have prepared on the 50th anniversary of Roma. (You can select “Translate” into English when you get on the website)