I will never forget sitting on the floor in a small little home in Macedonia, surrounded by a circle of Romani. The Romani are better known as gypsy’s, but the term “gypsy” is derogatory, like calling them “niggers.” Everywhere the Romani go, they are disliked. For most East Europeans, images of “fake” beggars come to their minds when thinking of the Romani. In the Sarajevo neighborhood our family lived in, the Romani had a well-deserved reputation as thieves and liars.
Yet here I was, with these Romani who were Christians. A team of church planters had the incredible blessing of seeing the church in this town grow from one or two key families to a church of over a hundred! I was privileged to sit among the leaders and discuss God’s grace and the challenges they were facing.
They described the extreme poverty of the community, the lack of jobs, the hardships they faced as a church trying to help people in an unjust situation. In the course of the conversation, one of the Romani leaders lamented that their lack of resources was limiting their ability to serve the community. “Nobody has it worse than the Romani,” he commented. I had a hard time disagreeing. I had probably paid more for the shoes on my feet than these men earned in a month. As the conversation went on, they asked where our group had seen other churches start.
A friend was traveling with me who we will call “Mike.” Mike had been a missionary in China, supporting the small North Korean church. The translator kicked into gear as Mike relayed his experiences there.
Mike explained that North Korean Christians would risk their lives traveling to the Chinese border, swim the frigid river at night, and be met by the underground Chinese church. They would receive training in the scriptures, encouragement, and prayer. Then, they would tie sealed bags of rice onto their backs and they would swim across the river once again. Often they drowned with the added weight in the ice-cold water. Sometimes, North Korean border guards shot them. Those that made it faced a death sentence if caught. If they made it successfully back into their villages, they gave the rice to starving families, shared the gospel, and prepared their hearts for the next attempt back into China.
The room fell silent as we all considered the courage and sacrifice of these brave Christians.
One of the men spoke up. “I am sorry I complained earlier,” he said. “Here we are, safe and secure, with friends around us, food, and a new beginning in the church in this community. We have so much to be thankful for.”
I was so humbled. As my eyes filled with tears of gratitude to the Lord, I realized that all heads were bowed in thanksgiving to our God. We prayed and sang our thankfulness. We beseeched the Lord of the Harvest to send the Comforter to the North Korean church and uphold them. We worshipped.
That day I saw how the Holy Spirit teaches the church. I was humbled by the overwhelming generosity of God to these impoverished Romani. More importantly, I realized that thankfulness is an issue of perspective.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18