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Szabina Sztojka on Mission To and With Roma People in Hungary

As in many denominations with a single ethnic majority, the Reformed Church in Hungary (RCH) is working to be more welcoming to other cultures. As leader of the RCH Roma Ministry, Szabina Sztojka focuses on reconciliation, health, and hope to nurture Roma gifts and leadership in churches and schools.

Szabina Sztojka is one of the first Roma clergywomen ordained in the Reformed Church in Hungary (RCH). She works with international students as associate minister at St. Columba’s Church of Scotland in Budapest, and she leads the RCH Roma Ministry. Sztojka also trains facilitators in Hungary and internationally for Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations reconciliation events. In this edited conversation, she talks about inviting Roma and ethnic Hungarians to recognize God’s gifts in each other. 

What are the demographics of the Reformed Church in Hungary (RCH), Roma people in Hungary, and Roma people in the RCH? 

The Reformed Church in Hungary is the country’s largest Protestant denomination, with 1,200 churches in Hungary. The Roma are the largest ethnic minority in Hungary, estimated to be 3–8 percent of Hungary’s population. Roma people are traditionally religious and tend to adopt the religion of the culture around them. I don’t know of any denominations birthed and run by Roma. Northeast Hungary has many RCH congregations, and that’s also where many Roma live. Between seventy and eighty RCH churches in the northeast and Great Plains regions have some connection with Roma people.  

Because there are Roma people within the RCH, why does the denomination have a mission to the Roma? 

Roma people are still viewed in Hungarian society and in the RCH as “them.” Although some Roma people are listed on paper as RCH members, they often come to church just for baptisms and funerals. Some RCH churches hold Bible studies in Roma neighborhoods and sometimes invite people to perform a Roma song in church. But the percentage of Roma regularly attending RCH worship services in historic churches is low. They feel most accepted if they shed their “Roma-ness.” They rarely hold church leadership positions. 

Traditionally the RCH played a huge role in Hungarian culture and history. Some towns have become more Roma because of higher Roma birthrates or because ethnic Hungarians are moving away from eastern Hungary to find better jobs. The remaining RCH churches want help to be more welcoming to the whole community. The RCH Roma Ministry vision is: “Empowered by the Holy Spirit, the Reformed Church in Hungary (RCH), as a sign and agent of God’s kingdom, will be a church of personal and social transformation, a community where, irrespective of origin or race, people can experience the welcoming, reconciling, and healing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” 

As leader of the RCH Roma Ministry, what do you focus on? 

Our ministry’s main pillars are reconciliation, health, and hope. Christ reconciled all creatures and the whole creation to himself. When marginalized and majority peoples let the Holy Spirit heal their mutual pain and reveal the gifts God has placed in each culture, then the church becomes a visible witness of God’s mission to renew all things. We emphasize health because Christ came so all may experience the fullness of the gospel and kingdom of God—including physical, spiritual, and intellectual health, dignity, and justice. We put our hope in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because only God can bring about change that seems impossible in our world.  

Making the entire RCH church and school systems more inclusive is too big a task for our small ministry. Because pastors are often the main connection between Roma people and RCH congregations, our RCH Roma Ministry also targets pastors and seminarians. They can build relationships so that Roma and majority populations and churches can serve their communities together in God’s love.  

Can you share some tools and stories for each pillar—reconciliation, health, and hope? 

Our mutual reconciliation tools include RCH-funded dormitories in two cities and scholarships for Roma and disadvantaged non-Roma students to live and study together. We also address prejudice through blogs, short videos, and podcasts; pastor training; and national events that highlight gifts God has placed within the Roma people. Our reconciliation seminars, based on Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations principles, help Roma and non-Roma people recognize mutual guilt and injury and experience Christ’s forgiveness and healing.  

Three things stand out from a recent field trip when we took seminarians to spend three days and nights visiting institutions in a Roma village. When we played with children at a bilingual kindergarten, some seminarians were surprised to see that the Roma teachers were so professional. We talked with a Catholic priest who had served forty-two years in the same village. He became emotional when he told us about the prejudice he had displayed after performing his first Mass there. A Roma lady asked to remove the altar cloth because it was dirty, and she offered to clean it. He eventually said yes but was afraid because he had heard that the Roma are people who steal everything. Also, a seminarian confessed that she had felt afraid before the field trip. But on the last day, she said she felt 100 percent safe walking in the Roma village. 

Speaking of recognizing God’s gifts in marginalized people, what gifts has God placed within the Roma people? 

In my culture, dancing is central, and it’s intergenerational. There are many Roma subgroups and dialects, each with its own musical, dance, and artistic styles. We have very specific ways of singing at funerals, and God is often present in the lyrics. Some Roma believers have rewritten traditional songs with Christian lyrics. Dance isn’t really a thing in the RCH as a whole, but our ministry organizes national events so more people can experience Roma arts as God’s intergenerational multisensory gifts for worship.  

Over the centuries, the Roma have often been barred from holding property. They traditionally had a trading culture, skilled in the language of business and convincing and using figures of speech. This language can be used for good or bad, but when Roma people share their testimony, it’s often very convincing because they use emotion. We also have a big value on the family, rather than on just individuals. 

And returning to the RCH Roma Ministry pillar of health . . . 

To build our network of schools and congregations, we help pastors connect with Roma people through existing programs and programs they develop. The Hungarian government uses European Union funds for social and intellectual development programs that often take place in churches, such as weekday morning programs for moms and children ages 0–3 and after-school tutoring. HEKS/EPER (a Swiss Protestant aid and development organization) also provides significant funding for similar programs for children and schools. Of 300 villages designated by the Hungarian government as the most disadvantaged, many are in villages with RCH churches and large Roma populations. In some of these villages, RCH’s Christian Aid agency is leading holistic community and village development programs where educated professionals help people with housing, work, infrastructure, and other needs.  

Schools in Hungary have to offer ethics or religious education classes. RCH teachers and pastors can teach these classes even in government schools. In Nagyharsány, a new Christian religious education teacher who became the school’s director transformed a whole RCH school where 60 to 70 percent of students are Roma. There is now no distinction in where Roma children must sit. The teachers are so welcoming and loving. One teacher assistant was ready to clean streets to earn government benefits. The school hired her as a cleaner. Education is free here. The school encouraged this cleaner to earn her teacher assistant certificate and hired her as a teacher assistant.  

What helps the RCH Roma Ministry build and communicate its message of hope? 

We are seeing local examples of hope and potential for more. One RCH pastor supported a Roma couple to start an afterschool tutoring program in their home. The church helped the couple apply for HEKS/EPER funding to buy computers and food for the program and to provide field trips. This pastor treats them as equals. 

We are working to use more Roma voices when we talk about God. Back when I was an assistant of RCH Mission Office, we got funding from the Evangelical Church in Rhineland and a Hungarian donor to produce the book You Welcomed Us into Your Kingdom, with contributions from Roma youth, mission workers, pastors, and artists in the RCH. Sometimes I uplift Roma voices by asking, “Can Jesus be Gypsy?” I’ve talked about this at a gallery opening for a Roma artist, in pastor trainings, and even at a national conference.