I’ve also worked with and observed several religious groups from the United States and Slovakia who came to work with the Roma and learn more about the church in Slovakia.
Through these experiences, I’ve seen the intricacies of Slovak and Roma faith and how locals relate to God in their context.
My favorite interview about faith was with Peter Gazi, the Roma priest who lives and works in Lomnica, a settlement of about 2500 people near Kežmarok. Lominca is nearly 100 percent Roma and is so far out of the way that only three buses visit the settlement regularly. We had to hitch rides with some teachers at the vocational school just to get there. Many of the teachers had never even heard of it.
Peter met us in a modest, but well-kept parish and offered chocolates and juice to Allie, my amazing translator; Bill, a former missionary who decided to come along for the ride; and me.
After exchanging pleasantries and eating chocolates, I got to the point.
“How do Roma relate to God?” I asked.
Peter listened to Allie’s translation and answered: “When Roma originally migrated they often adopted the religion of where they stayed. When they came to Europe they accepted Christianity but kept many old beliefs like using amulets or baptizing a baby to stop it crying,” he said. “Some cultures still have beliefs like this today.”
Peter said the Virgin Mary is extremely important in Slovakia. A reason for this could be because the matriarchy had been important to the Roma. Since the Roma came from an Indian heritage, there was a deep respect for the Hindu Goddess Kali, who many associated with the Virgin Mary.
Although matriarchy was important, Peter clarified that in Lomnica, society was patriarchal yet “the women have the last word at home.”
He also spoke about the negative aspects of this structure; women do much of the work and are treated like machines. They work to raise children, cook, clean and many have outside jobs as well. Some men help but Peter said others rely on their wives to do everything.
“How do you see God at work in Lomnica?” I asked.
Peter said seven years ago the Catholic church sent priests and nuns to Lomnica, and it made a tangible difference. The Franciscan nurses set up health care with an emergency room and started a program to help people farm. The village made improvements over the past few years.
“How do people treat you since you are one of the few Roma priests?”
I wanted to know more about Peter himself. It’s not often that Roma are priests in this part of the world.
“It’s not very common. Many people don’t accept Roma in positions of power. I’m kind of an experiment,” Peter said, laughing. “It seems to be working. Presenting faith in their language helps [the Roma] accept [faith] more. Also, having a Roma priest sets a good example.”
I was amazed by Peter’s quiet strength. He led through humility and hard work, serving a settlement of 2,500.
“How were you treated when you were studying to become a priest?”
Peter gave a small, determined smile.
“I had a supervisor who told me because I was Roma I would have to work three times as hard as the other students. It was true, but I did it.”
Peter told me a little bit more about the issues the people in his village faced. He noted unemployment as one of the largest hurdles, adding that it was difficult for everyone in Slovakia.
I asked him what he liked best about his culture. “It’s hard to pick one aspect. I enjoy the slower pace of life. The food. The temperament of the people.”
I asked him more about the personalities of the people in his particular village.
“The Roma heart is always open to change,” Peter said. He had never met a Roma person who said they didn’t believe in God.
“They might not go to church but they cry out to God through song, complaining, or a little prayer. Even if they go away, they come back.”
Peter helped shed some light on social issues going on in settlements today along with the relation to God through these difficulties.
When I visited an Epistolic Roma church in Sabinov, the youth leader started the service off with: “worship is very important to us. I believe we will have a good time.”
He wasn’t lying. The music was phenomenal with singers, guitarists, a pianist and a violinist playing together as the entire church clapped and sang along. Both Roma services I have been to have had a big emphasis on music.
Another thing I noticed was a time of confession before the service when a man and woman came up to the front of the church and apologized to the congregation. They didn’t go into details, just confessed and asked for forgiveness.
My travelling companions were shocked when we took communion together. The group from the United States didn’t expect to have alcohol during the service. Many churches still use wine rather than grape juice like Protestant churches in the States.
The pastor went on to talk about the body of believers and the importance of protecting unity in the church. Unity is a strong subject for churches in Slovakia as members struggle to connect with each other and the majority community.
After the service, I spoke with the youth leader about some of the work they were doing. The church was trying to build a community center for the surrounding community. It would have hygiene services so poor Roma could wash their clothes, take showers, eat food and sleep in beds. The church recently finished translating the Bible into the Romani language.
Every congregation I visited was very warm and welcoming to me as I learned how Slovaks worship and relate to God, faith and their neighbors.