Szabina Sztojka on the Ministry of Reconciliation
Christians sometimes believe that because God forgives our sins, we should always appear happy and should not talk about pain and anger. But Christians involved in the Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations ministry of reconciliation explain how inviting the Holy Spirit to surface our wounds can eventually lead us to see more facets of God’s glory.
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 how God not only forgives our sins,but heals and redeems our pain.
Christians use the word “reconciliation” in many ways. How do you define it?
Reconciliation work starts with what is the goal. The Trinity is our model of perfect unity in diversity. Though the persons of the Trinity have all they need in each other, they open their hands to us, so everything in God is now in us. That is why we must first be reconciled to God’s original intention. God reconciles us through Jesus at the foot of the cross. God reconciles us to accepting how God has made each of us, which in my case is as a Roma woman. Only then can we reconcile with our neighbors within and beyond our identities.
Many Christians speak of reconciliation at the cross as removing the guilt of our sin. What role might pain play in reconciliation?
The center of Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations (HHTN) workshops is how pain and lament affect reconciliation. For many people, it’s a new concept to hear that we can’t talk about sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation without talking about healing. We need healing to deal with our individual and community pain. At the 2023 Calvin Symposium on Worship, Najla Kassab reminded us in her sermon [starts at 35:10] that God didn’t cause our pain—but he can redeem it. We can participate in Christ’s ministry of reconciliation because Jesus Christ carries our wounds and our sins.
How did you get involved in the HHTN ministry of reconciliation?
While earning my MDiv in Hungary, I volunteered with our denomination’s Roma ministry. In 2015, I was part of a reconciliation seminar that our ministry hosted for Roma and Hungarian people. I translated for presenter Dr. Rhiannon Lloyd, a Christian Welsh medical doctor and psychiatrist who grew up experiencing anti-Welsh prejudice in the UK. Yet at the same time she was conscious of being part of the British Empire, which has caused so much harm in the world. She was invited to post-genocide Rwanda to help church leaders find ways to forgive and reconcile.
To begin the seminar, Lloyd explained the diamond concept. I like to joke that we Roma like shiny things, so of course the diamond concept caught my attention. She quoted from Revelation 21 about how in the New Jerusalem, the kings of the earth will bring back the glory and honor that belong to God. Each people group has special gifts and glory put there by God. Just like a diamond shines with more beauty than a single pane of glass does, God’s glory is best revealed through all facets of creation. On a drawing of a diamond, Lloyd started writing ethnic group names on different facets. When she wrote Roma on a diamond facet, it was my first time realizing that God put glory and honor in my culture too, so I don’t have to be ashamed of it.
Can you say more about that shame?
I grew up in a family with a Roma father and Hungarian mother who didn’t go to church. Even though Roma people groups have lived here since the 1400s, we have always been seen as “other.” Roma people carry a lot of intergenerational pain because they have at times been enslaved, were massacred during World War II, and are still looked down on, even in the church. I am Roma and Hungarian, and when I began primary school, Roma and Hungarian schools were still segregated. When I was age seven, my mother somehow got me into the Hungarian school so I could have music classes. Classmates told me I stank, even though I showered every day. That’s when I began to internalize that I am not acceptable and don’t belong in a room with people from the majority culture.
I started going to the Reformed church in Kiskunhalas at age 15, and my pastor invited me to preach at age 17. But at that same church, a woman in her 70s known as a very strong believer told me, “God created Hungarians. Satan created the Gypsies.” Because of many painful experiences while growing up, I used to stay out of the sun so my skin wouldn’t get darker. I introduced myself with my first name, not my family name, because that would reveal my ethnic identity.
How did you become a trainer of facilitators for Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations (HHTN)?
I helped host seminars in Hungary. There’s so much generational pain among Hungarians because of centuries of invasion and occupation. After World War I, Hungary lost 70 percent of its territory. People who identified as ethnically Hungarian or RCH members found themselves living throughout the Carpathian Basin in Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Ukraine, and elsewhere. Hungarians, Hungarian Roma, and the RCH experienced hardship during communism and even after when state jobs disappeared.
In 2018, when I was studying for my ThM at Columbia Theological Seminary in Georgia, US, and guest pastoring a Hungarian Reformed congregation in Georgia, I got invited to an HHTN international training in Rwanda, where I experienced even more healing.
What happened as you learned to train facilitators at that international HHTN experience in Rwanda?
HHTN events bring people together through worship, prayer, drama, lectures, and active listening. I heard from persecutors and the persecuted, such as Hutu and Tutsi people from Rwanda and Dinka and Nuer people from South Sudan. I witnessed African men and women and others weeping, crying, and sharing testimonies. At first I felt reluctant to share my own stories because their pain seemed bigger than mine. Yet HHTN pushes us to practice vulnerability because when wounded healers share, it helps participants identify that we all have pain.
Before I went to that Rwanda training, I’d thought that God had helped me accept my Roma identity and that I loved everyone, including Hungarians. At the training, we prayed for the Holy Spirit to bring up hurts we had suppressed so complete healing could take place. And out of nowhere I remembered how Hungarian police had treated my father and our family in our own home. That memory made me cry. Then, during a time of confession, a Hungarian leader started to repent on the behalf of Hungarians for how we Roma have been spit upon in buses, wronged by teachers, and excluded by churches who treat us as second-class citizens. I started crying even more, and with the tears came healing. Just as African participants reported, after that special healing, I started sleeping better.
How have you used these insights in congregational or other settings?
Not all preachers might agree, but I believe God uses all of who we are—our bodies and our experiences. I used to think that God didn’t like my “Gypsy-ness.” But I’ve learned that people who are ashamed of all or part of who they are cannot allow God to be close to them. That is why it is important to be vulnerable about pain.
I often lead an exercise from the workshop where we begin by asking the Holy Spirit to bring up pain that still needs healing. Then we write out our personal and people group pains, share it with another person, and pray for each other. I invite people to nail their written paper to a wooden cross while asking Jesus to take away their pain as the nails enter the cross. After that we carry the cross outside, remove the papers, and burn them. As we see the smoke go up, we pray for faith that when Jesus died on the cross, he also took on our suffering and pain. When we only see ashes, then people are invited to place flowers on the cold ashes. The flowers remind us that God takes our pain seriously, and we pray for faith that our Redeemer can make beauty grow out of ashes, transform our pain, and give us peace.
I love doing this in Good Friday services and have also incorporated it into seminary chapel worship, small group meetings, and summer church camps. Honesty about our injuries and guilt helps St. Columba be a truthful and authentic community. Our participants come from all over the world, both colonizers and the marginalized. Bringing our pain to the foot of the cross helps us live as a reconciling community. It helps us see more of the facets that reveal God’s glory.
- For a 2020 Columbia Theological Seminary chapel service, Szabina Sztojka preached on pain, sin, and reconciliation (scroll down for sermon video). In that sermon she describes the exercise mentioned above and recommends the book The Black Christ, by Kelly Brown Douglas.
- Read how Szabina Sztojka’s friend Josef Nyamutera, a Rwandan pastor, talks about the difference between pain and sin.
- Find a Healing Hearts, Transforming Nations event near you.