A letter from Karen Moritz in the Czech Republic
Visit to Vsetin
Just after Easter Regional Liaison Burkhard Paetzold and I made a trip to Vsetin, located in the southeast corner of the Czech Republic, to learn about ministry with and for the Roma. We were joined by Zsuzsanna Jakab, who works in the Ukraine with a Christian Dutch organization. She works with nine schools, which have a total of about 325 Roma children, in Roma camps throughout the southwest part of the Ukraine. These are special schools for the Roma children but they also work with regular schools in the area and work to mainstream the Roma children whenever possible. Since most of her work is with younger children she was eager to learn about work with entire families. The Diakonie Center in Vsetin, which is connected to the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren (ECCB), has been working with the Roma for quite some time in addition to their work with the elderly. We were graciously hosted by the Center’s director, Dan Žarský, who gave us housing during our visit. His staff was incredibly friendly and hospitable. Anna Hříbková and Marketa Šura showed us around and graciously provided translation. They planned a variety of trips that enabled us to see the wide variety of programs throughout the region.
When we arrived in Vsetin on the evening of Wednesday, April 3, we were shocked to find snow and cold weather. I thought I had made a mistake with my calendar and that it was December and not April. Although the weather was cold and inhospitable we were warmly and hospitably greeted by Anna and Marketa, who treated us to a lovely Czech dinner in a local restaurant. We arose early and were taken to the nearby town of Holešov. We met several people from that community at the Moravian church. Currently it is believed that there are about 100 Roma in the area and they represent two distinct groups.
The major issues they discussed were housing, employment, and education in the Roma community. Housing has changed over the past few decades. At one time many Roma families lived in homes and apartments scattered throughout the town, but many of these places became run down so the town made plans to build new housing. We were taken to the new facilities, which are outside town. The apartments are basically one-story row houses with a kitchen, bedroom, living room, toilet and bathroom. For many families they are small, particularly those families who have several children. We were graciously received by a couple of familes and warmly greeted by many people in the community.
The issues of employment and education are closely linked. Many Roma children participate in special education programs and sometimes separate schools. Since many Roma communities are close-knit many of the children choose these special classes and schools because they have friends in these programs. Many Roma children are not encouraged to pursue their education, so many Roma struggle to find solid employment. As I learned more about the situation of the Roma I kept thinking about many of the minorities in the U.S., paticularly the Native Americans. The issues of discrimination, poor and separate housing, separate education, and stuggles with employment all came to mind. It was troubling to reflect on the many ways in which many cultures stuggle to deal with the minority cultures who have different lives and priorities. In the name of helping we so often make things worse. It seems as though there is a human instinct to push some people to the periphery and then to forget them.
There are of course many people and programs who are working to advocate for the Roma and work with them to create better lives. Many people working in this area have also struggled to come to terms with the errors made. The Diakonie Center in Vsetin showed us a couple of documentaries made about the lives of the Roma in that community. The Diakonie Center worked with some people in the Roma community to help them produce a couple of documentaries about the Roma community there and the transitions that community went through. At one time many of the Roma in Vsetin lived in a large apartment building in the middle of town. As the building aged and became run down the community decided to condemn and demolish the building and then build a newer facility outside town. The documentary tells the story of this transition. Sadly, the new facilities are not that much better and now most of the Roma community live on the edge of town, removed from the heart of the community.
On Friday we visited the nearby town Valašské Meziříčí (try to say that one fast three times!). We began the day with a visit to a program run by the Roman Catholic organization called Caritas. They provide temporary housing and transitional services for women with children, many of whom are Roma. Then we visited a nearby elementary school that provides some special programming for children. We ended our busy morning with a visit to a program directed by Petr Tulia. His program provides a variety of activities directed to the Roma community. In addition to having their offices in a renovated home they also have some rooms for classrooms and various leisure activities. They produce a monthly magazine as well.
Although Burkhard returned to Berlin on Friday, Zsuzsa and I stayed on for the weekend. On Friday evening she and I visited the Alpha program for youth at one of the two ECCB congregations in Vsetin. We got to know people in the congregation Horni Sbor. They have a partnership with First Presbyterian Church in Cumberland, Md. Following our participation in the Alpha program we spent some time with Pastor Pavel Čmelík and a couple of the lay leaders in the congregation. On Saturday three young people from the congregation showed us around the area taking us to some sites in a couple of nearby towns. On Sunday I was able to participate in worship and gave a short sermon (in Czech) for the children and young people. Following a lovely lunch at Dan’s home with his family Zsuzsa and I boarded a train back to Prague.
It was a great few days. The hospitality was incredible and I learned a lot about the situation of the Roma here in the Czech Republic. I was deeply moved by the incredible commitment of so many people and organizations. There are tremendous efforts to address many of the issues that face the Roma which we can see in the three critical global issues addressed by those of us in World Mission. One of the central issues is that of poverty, particularly for women and children. The second global issue—we will engage in reconciliation amidst cultures of violence, including our own—is also quite relevant here. Tremendous violence is the legacy of both cultures and continues to be an issue today. Sadly, there continue to be incidents of violence toward the Roma here in the Czech Republic. Congregations in the ECCB, as well as the church as a whole, have worked to be agents of healing and reconciliation. The service of the Diakonie in Vsetin is one example of ways in which individuals and the Church have been working to bring about healing and reconciliation. The third global issue of sharing the Good News of God’s love through Christ is a core component of the ministry for and with the Roma in Vsetin and the surrounding communities. Sadly, it is clear that a lot still needs to happen. However, it is also clear that a lot is happening to make the lives of the Roma better here in the Czech Republic.
I invite you to be in prayer;
• For the Roma throughout the Czech Republic and Europe
• For the Evangelical Church of Czech Brethren and the Diakonie, who strive to be agents of God’s love and caring
• For the congregations of Horni Sbor in Vsetin and First Church in Cumberland, Md., as they continue to grow in their relationship as partners
S přáním Božího požehnání,
I wish you God’s blessings,
Rev. Dr. Karen R Moritz
ECCB Central Church office
Jungmannova 9 P.O. Box 466
CZ 111 21 Praha 1
+420 224 999 280 office
The 2013 Presbyterian Mission Yearbook for Prayer & Study, p. 285
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