Learning to “Be” with the Roma
Nina Jankucić

Nina introduced herself by telling me a bit of her story, which is also about her family, because “this is something of the Balkans, you are so immersed in your family and surroundings, that when someone asks for your story, they get the story of my community, not just my individual story.”

Nina Jankucić: Something that really shaped my life is that I was born in a mixed family, between a Serbian father and Croatian mother, and when I was around four years old, my father killed himself. That really influenced my worldview, because I thought he abandoned me, I did not know he killed himself – I found that out when I was five. When I was about seven, the war started in Croatia, and it was a really hard time, running and hiding, my life was threatened, especially because people knew I was from a mixed marriage. So my mum decided to marry a Croatian soldier, as she thought, “then no one will ask, whose child is this?” But he was a soldier and drank a lot, so suddenly it was not just the threat from the outside but also from the inside. My mum was getting desperate and could not see a way out. But one day she went to a nearby church and got to know a lady that led her to Christ. I converted a year later. Further on, my stepfather also, and today he is part of church leadership — it is unbelievable how God changed his life.

What do you do now, Nina?

I am leading Roma Networks, doing all the administrating, networking, and organisation of projects. We also have a church plant in a Roma community, some 15 km away from Osijek, where I live with my family, and I am an elder in the church. We began this in 2010, and are just really entangled with all the positive and negative aspects associated to church planting in a Roma community.

How did you get involved in Roma communities?

By coincidence! Be careful when you say to God, take my life, lead me wherever you want! I was working as an event manager in a coastal town in Croatia, doing this huge project, like street art festival, and projects for different companies. At one point, I had this feeling: I am putting 100% of myself into this, and it is amazing, all the news reports and everybody is looking at it, but two days later nobody remembers it anymore! What am I doing? So, I quit my job. I didn’t know what I was going to do, but ended up in the Netherlands, working for an organisation that had two hostels, one of them was in the red-light district. It was such a strange thing. If felt like somebody picked me up and just brought me out of Croatia. I remember flying to Amsterdam and crying and thinking, what did I just do with my life? But, basically God brought me to Amsterdam to work on me and heal me, and at the same time to work through me, and he surrounded me with people who were like parents. While there, I got to know one of my work colleagues, who was from the Netherlands, and wanted to work with Roma, although he had no experience. And one day, in a prayer time, God just told me, go back to Osijek, which I had not wanted to do at all!

So you went back to Croatia?

Yes. There was I, going back to Osijek, with zero job and no money, along with this colleague, who wanted to work with Roma. He had taken a truck of humanitarian aid to Romania a couple of times – that was all the experience he had! But we somehow ended up in a meeting with people who had been visiting two Roma communities but had run into problems with one of them. They told us, people are saying they will kill us, that we are not welcome anymore, but there are a few people who want to study the Bible, and so we can connect you with them secretly. That is how it started, I did not get a call like, “Roma, the people who you need to work with!”, and often that is how it is with me. The next day, they brought us to the community, connected us with the people. And there we were: This guy that had no idea what he was doing, I, the translator, also with no idea what I am doing. All my theological education would not help me anything there. I was just like, “oh my goodness!”

And it is the sort of community where you need a lot to gain their trust.

Exactly, and many locals don’t want to go there. But we continued working there; we made many mistakes. We joined up with a Roma couple and an American lady that were also visiting Roma people in the nearby community, and started working as a team. More and more people wanted to know about God, and started reading the Bible. And we spent so much time in the community, we decided to open a church.

When my friend just decided this was not for him and went back to the Netherlands, I was left thinking, what now? Is this where I should be? But in all this process, I really fell in love with Roma people. In all this questioning, I just stayed. The culture, the unpredictability, how they are open, brutally honest… everything, I just fell in love with them. Many times people say I was born to be among Roma, and it is interesting that God would shape even somebody’s character to fit in a certain thing.

Could you tell us a little bit about the Roma Network?

There are Roma all over Europe and Roma Networks basically consists of all the different ministries throughout Europe. The Board has people from 6 different countries, (Finland, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Bulgaria), involved in different ministries, and in every context it different. When we started the Roma Network it was a lot of traveling, connecting on the ground, it was almost a 3-year process of inviting people, talking, listening. After 2 years, we saw we could not travel ourselves to all countries, because I would spend days on the trips. In Bulgaria there are around 800 Roma churches, in Romania around 2000. We cannot constantly rebuild these relationships, so we need to have a person from each country, who knows the situation with whom we can communicate. (

And the Roma Bible School was a project that came out of the Roma Network, right?

Yes. Some years ago, the leaders of the ex-Yugoslavian region said they wanted some sort of education for Roma leaders. Due to their lifestyle, many do not even finish school so they can’t go to theological seminaries. Another thing is that Bible schools take you out of your community for two years. Again, because of their lifestyle, if you take someone away from their community they might not come back. The request came again in the 2019 Conference, and we appointed a person who started working on this. Now a team of 3 people are leading Roma Bible School and they are completely their own entity. They started training Roma leaders who already had some sort of theological education or a Bible school training, to create Bible lectures that were not just theological and in your head, or disconnected from what is happening on the ground, but truly integrated; and which questioned and reflected on their own culture.

It is a traveling school. Every month meets in a different country, in a different church. Students get exposed to a lot of variety, going from a Roma church with 1000 people to a new church plant of 30 people, which is struggling; they see how things are done in Slovenia, and then another way of doing things in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia or Macedonia. This is not only empowering leaders to know the Bible better, but connecting the region in unity, and it is incredible!

If you think of sending missionaries from the West, they take so long to get integrated. This is not wrong, but this school is creating leaders who are already traveling the region, are already connecting, they already speak the language and know the culture. It is really exciting to see it grow! In October we have a first generation of students coming out of this.

And how about the job creation project?

Again, the leaders said, we want to help people start small businesses in their community, so that they can be self-sustainable one day, to see the value of giving a person a job, to see children dream of wanting to do something in the future instead of being numb in a chain of poverty. And with Roma, as with marginalized communities, there are so many layers, the layers of discrimination, the layer of not finishing education…

We had many different organisations coming from the West, who had their conferences and said, you are going to do things our way, and we are going to give you loans to start a small business. But they don’t know what is happening at grassroots, they don’t know the culture. They want you to start with two goats, but what if no one wants to buy a goat? What if people are raising pigs? What if this person does not even know how to think money-wise: how much do I need for food, how long am I going to feed? When crisis came and there was no money for basic needs, some people just killed the pig, because that is the primary need you satisfy. So we thought — OK, it needs to come from the grassroots!

So we started from the bottom and for the last 2 years we are building a momentum, and I have just come from our job creation conference. We are bringing people who have some ideas about business but have never started anything, others who have started but maybe it is not going well, and others who are running businesses and maybe don’t know how to grow. And when we connect them, you see them having this A-HA moment, “ah, I’m not alone in this!”

Can you give us some examples?

[Nina shows me her hands]: look, this lady did my nails! The first time she came she said: this is what I am doing, I started with 50€, I did a training of how to start a business, this is where I am now. And my dream is that I go to the neighbouring countries to train young women to do nail business too. One year later, she started to do this, and she’s had other girls who started training, which she brought to the April 2023 Job creation conference, and who now already have their own business.

We are building a context of being honest and building on the failures we go through. One Roma guy shared: I started this and then it failed, and then I started this, then it failed. And he was just laughing! And then I had this idea, and it failed as well, but nothing was discouraging him. And now he has this building company and is employing Christians and non-Christians and he wants to pay them better and treat them better than other companies, and he wants to mentor them and share Christ! Seeing that, and seeing his passion, and seeing people succeed is really something that we can all learn from. Because here in the Balkans, if you start something and it fails, everyone is shaming you. But if someone says, I tried something fifty times and it failed, but I picked myself up and kept trying, and this fifty-first time it went well! It is about building this momentum of people from the region, with a positive encouraging culture.

Can you think of one or two things where working with Roma people has changed and challenged you – what have you learned from them?

I think today’s world is so much about “doing” things that it pushes you even more. And the Roma community is about being. It is about relationships. And if there is no being and relationships, there is never going to be doing. I am a doer, and even when the world is saying “just do it”, often God needed to stop me and bring me back and say, “it is about being.” And this is something I learn with the Roma community, this being, this spending time, sharing life. God is just saying to me, you can be a doer as much as you want, you can be excellent, but if you do not dwell in me, it is like a house built on the sand…

So God is really teaching me: why do you think that being still is a waste of time? With the Roma, when you are just being still, emerged in a community, it is not a waste of time, even if it seems to be. Trust is being built, relationships, and this goes deeper and is so much more meaningful than just doing a project.

Originally published by European Evangelical Alliance
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