SKOPJE, Macedonia (BP) -- A thin horse waits patiently strapped to a cart just off a busy thoroughfare in Skopje, Macedonia's capital city. As he stands with the imprint of his ribs showing through his skin, his owner pokes through a dumpster looking for plastic bottles, cardboard, metal -- anything he can sell.
It's what you do when you're poor and hungry.
Roma gypsies -- about 200,000 strong in Macedonia -- live in dusty neighborhoods of small, cinderblock houses and sell trash for income. As a larger people group scattered across Europe, they are viewed as a castoff people in every nation in which they make their home.
It's hard for them to see a way out.
But Betty Easter is working to change that, a little at a time, with some food, education and the Gospel.
"Poverty is their life. Seeing human needs on a daily basis can be very trying. We can only do so much. But we are working to meet their immediate needs and share the Gospel with them," said Easter, an International Mission Board missionary to the Roma people of south Europe. "It is hard ground, but there has to be an era when the beginning work takes place."
That beginning work, for starters, has included things like a box of food every week to every family in one Roma village, thanks to Baptist Global Response. It has also included ongoing education at Sumnal, a community center situated in Topana, a Roma neighborhood.
"For the most part, the Roma haven't had any education, so they can't read. But they also aren't oral learners, because they don't know their own history and haven't had stories to pass down through an oral tradition," Easter said. "They have not learned how to learn. When new information comes their way ... they don't have an easy means to store and analyze that information. This has a huge impact when sharing the Gospel with people who have never considered Jesus Christ."
And that's one reason relationship building is so important, she said. They have to trust the messenger so they have a chance to hear the message over and over.
"We're trying to help with the hopes of getting in," said Karen Blackburn, an IMB missionary to the Roma.
Through the help of BGR and the work of Easter and Blackburn -- a nurse by profession -- the Roma have had opportunities for dental care, clinics, health seminars and medicine. In the past, a BGR grant also fed Roma children two meals a day for a year at Sumnal. IMB missionary Abbey Hammond works several days a week at the center writing grant requests, and Gef Smock helps with English classes.
"What we are doing at Sumnal has worked," Easter said. "With every action, we are sowing seeds that can have a spiritual impact."
Blackburn agreed. "Slowly, people are becoming more open to the Gospel."
The Roma people of Macedonia are "sort of" religious -- nominally Muslim, Easter said. In other nations of Europe, the Roma also hold loosely to whatever religion belongs to the area they inhabit -- often Catholic or Orthodox.
"We have a series of eight Bible story DVDs we are distributing," Easter said. "Please pray that each person who receives the DVD will play it over and over and request the second DVD in the series."
This, she said, will give her team an opportunity to follow up with those who are interested in hearing more.
"These are all strategies with house churches as the end goal," Easter said. "If we spread the Word, God has promised the harvest. We know it will come."
Easter also asked for Christians to pray:
-- For those working among the impoverished to remain sensitive to needs and not grow weary of helping.
-- For barriers that darken the hearts and minds of the people (like a lack of education) to be lifted so the Gospel can take root.
-- For the broad Gospel seed sowing the team is doing through the DVD series, that hearts and minds will be open to the Word of God.
Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer based in Europe.
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