A letter from Dennis Smith in Argentina
“I've made a promise to God,” confides Esmeralda, a young Gypsy mother. She and her husband, Anyi, have received us into their tent, pitched in an open field in Quintero, a town on the central Chilean coast. They are joined by their three daughters.
This camp of half a dozen tents, desperately poor, has no latrines or running water. The community has tapped into local power lines for electricity. Local authorities ran them off of this empty lot a few days later.
“I intend to be baptized,” continues Esmeralda. “I will keep my promise, but I don't know how. You see, as a Gypsy woman I work as a fortune-teller. But my work is based on lies and deception. In good faith, I feel I can't be baptized until I find honest work, but I can't find other work because I'm a Gypsy. Nor will anyone give a job to my husband because he's a Gypsy. God will provide, somehow.”
I feel as if I've stepped through the looking glass and have joined Paul on one of his missionary journeys or into the pages of an Isabel Allende novel. In more than three decades of mission service in Latin America, this is my first exposure to the region's Roma community, commonly known as Gypsies. There are about 15,000 Roma in Chile; they arrived fleeing persecution from eastern Europe a century ago.
A few Roma have prospered, but most are very poor. Although they are Chilean citizens, the Roma have little access to education or health care. They seldom vote and are not welcome in the armed forces. They are ostracized by the larger community. A traditionally nomadic people, they migrate according to the seasons up and down Chile's great length.
In recent years PC(USA) World Mission has supported my host, Rev. Carlos Hernández. Carlos has been working as a missionary to the Roma for more than 30 years. A Chilean Presbyterian minister, he lived in Roma camps for a decade and learned to speak Romané fluently. Your mission dollars allowed him to participate in the Chilean Bible Society translation team that published the Romané New Testament in 2008.
Every Roma camp, Carlos observes, now includes a number of believers. His dream is to witness the birth of a Roma Presbyterian Church in Chile. Roma evangelists are now spreading the gospel throughout this far-flung, nomadic people. Emerging leaders of the Roma Christian community need training in a whole range of pastoral and administrative skills if they are to form an indigenous church, training in their language that is rooted in their culture.
Roma community leaders have also begun to advocate for their civil rights before the Chilean government. Key demands include allowing Roma children to begin primary school in their mother tongue and to adapt schooling to Roma nomadic culture. These steps will help to address the high rates of illiteracy and school desertion.
PC(USA) World Mission will continue to walk with Carlos Hernández, the Nicolich family, and all our Roma sisters and brothers in Chile. Take a moment now to remember them in prayer.
If you feel led to support this cutting-edge ministry, you can send your gifts to ECO account E863001, clearly marked for “Evangelism to the Roma in Chile.” This is a general account to support all PC(USA) evangelism initiatives, so it will only reach Chile's Roma people if you specify that your gift is for “Evangelism to the Roma in Chile.”
Under the Mercy,
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