By Laura McKillip Wood
The 75-year-old, one of few literate Roma women in Ukraine, had read the Bible for years in Russian and Ukrainian. She spoke both languages, in addition to her own dialect of the Roma language. When translators presented to her the story of the prodigal son, newly translated into the Roma dialect, a smile spread across her face. With tears in her eyes, she said, “I have read this story many times, but this is the first time I have understood it!” This reaction underscores the importance of a new project underway that partners a Ukrainian college, several mission organizations, and a group of Ukrainian believers to translate the Bible into the Roma language.
Traditionally, the Roma people have been nomadic and make a living any way they can. The Roma, commonly known pejoratively as Gypsies, have a reputation for dishonesty and have experienced a great deal of discrimination in Europe and other parts of the world because of it.
Many Roma do not practice dishonest methods of making a living but still have trouble getting jobs and maintaining stable lives because of stereotypes about their people. They often are unable to rent or purchase housing or provide education for their children. People sometimes chase them from their stores and cross to the other side of the street to avoid them. These marginalized people were among those targeted in the Holocaust, along with Jews and other minority groups.
In Kherson, Ukraine, a city where Roma people live, Tavriski Christian Institute (TCI) trains leaders to pastor churches in Ukraine and other countries in the former Soviet Union. TCI, a leader in Ukrainian Christian higher education, began in 1997 when local churches, newly liberated by the fall of the Soviet Union, needed educated leadership.
In addition to their work in Kherson, TCI started an extension program to train local pastors in the country of Georgia. They have had success in teaching people to reach out to those from different backgrounds.
For example, one of their students developed a strategy for building relationships with Georgian refugees displaced from their homes in 2008 when Russia invaded their country. The refugees lived in unheated housing that was supposed to be temporary. As time went by and the housing became permanent, a TCI student from Georgia developed a plan for a simple home heater. After attending a TCI extension class on discipleship ministry, he realized he had plenty of contacts with Georgian refugees through his heating business. He cultivated those friendships and eventually started a youth outreach, youth camps, and sports teams for children.
Collaboration and Empowerment
Tavriski Christian Institute and the believers in Kherson have decided to change the difficult dynamic between Christians and Roma people in their city; to achieve this, they have formed an interesting collaboration with several organizations. TCI has partnered with Pioneer Bible Translators (PBT), Team Expansion, and Johnson University to give Ukrainian Christians the resources they need to reach out to the Roma people living in Ukraine.
Last year, PBT and TCI printed and distributed calendars with Scriptures and illustrations of Roma artwork. The few Roma already attending church began sharing these with their friends, and the calendars spread throughout the Roma community. As a result, more Roma people began to attend church.
“About 40 people started coming to church because, after seeing the pictures, they realized that Christianity could be part of their culture,” said TCI president Valentin Siney. Before that, most had either considered themselves to be Orthodox or had not participated in any religion.
Seeing the interest among the Roma community, Tavriski Christian Institute and Pioneer Bible Translators began collaborating on a translation of the Bible into the Crimea Roma dialect. The Crimean Roma have no books in their own language using their alphabet. Many are unable to read and write in their dialect. Because of that, PBT has recruited several Ukrainians as literacy workers. These workers are learning how to reach across cultures by taking online courses through TCI and Johnson University.
When they finish their training, they will start teaching Roma people to read and write in the Roma language, while building relationships in the process. “It’s important that they not only hear the Bible in their dialect but that they can also read it,” Siney said. Team Expansion also plans to plant churches that specifically appeal to the Crimean Roma culture.
Tavriski Christian Institute does not plan to stop when translation work is finished, but instead plans to reach even more people. The college, previously accredited by only the Euro-Asian Accreditation Association, recently earned state licensure for its bachelor’s programs from the government of Ukraine. This licensure enables all of their degrees to be recognized by the government, the same as secular universities and colleges in Ukraine.
TCI is now working on the next step, which is full government accreditation. To become fully accredited, though, TCI needs a professor with a PhD in residence at their campus for one to two years. They are open to hosting American professors to fill this gap. They also hope to expand their degree offering to include not only ministry and Bible degrees but also business as ministry and other programs. This will open up options for TCI students and widen their influence.
In the meantime, Tavriski Christian Institute actively works with PBT, Johnson University, Team Expansion, and local Ukrainian churches to educate and reach out to the Roma people and to others in their area and around the world. Alone, TCI could not complete this work. In partnership with others, they form a network that opens more doors to the gospel.
Because of their work among the Roma and other communities, the face of Ukrainian Christianity is changing, and the Roma people are gaining acceptance in Ukrainian society and learning about the love of Christ in the process.
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If you have a doctoral degree and are interested in the opportunity to teach for a year in Kherson, or if you would like to learn more about TCI, contact Valentin Siney at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura McKillip Wood, former missionary to Ukraine, now serves as the registrar at Nebraska Christian College in Papillion, Nebraska, and works as an on-call chaplain at a nearby hospital. She and her husband, Andrew, have three teenagers.