SOFIA, Bulgaria (BP) -- Before Sunday morning, the man shaves, takes a bath and tries to make himself look as presentable as possible, considering he lives in a field. He attends a Bulgarian church, but as a Roma, he won't be welcome unless he tries to look Bulgarian. Though he is a believer, he must blend in to attend the church.
Prejudice against the Roma, also called "Gypsies," is a common occurrence in Bulgaria, but IMB missionaries Cameron and Jennifer Phillips, along with their two young sons, are working to minister to the outcast people group.
"The hardship of the Roma is they can't come to Christ unless they first look and act differently than who they are," Jennifer says.
The Roma are a wandering people, originally from northern India but now scattered across the globe, with the majority located in Europe. As a people group, they have endured prejudice and persecution in many of the countries where they have settled, and it is no different in Sofia, Bulgaria.
This bustling, historic capital city with a population of more than 1 million, is a center of media, cultural events, modern theater and museums. It also is home to many Roma -- 4.7 percent of the country's population, according to a 2001 census.
"Bulgarians have a very strong distaste for the Roma," Jennifer says. "They're stereotyped, and a lot of the stereotypes they have earned, but a lot of them they haven't."
Bulgarians are intolerant of the Roma for a number of reasons. Most Roma are illiterate and work as street cleaners or simply dig in dumpsters to get by. These people are survivors, Jennifer says, and some have no qualms with deception and will pickpocket, beg or make their children beg in order to survive.
A fiercely traditional people, Roma refuse to conform to the culture in which they live. They still practice the tradition of child brides, selling their 12- or 13-year-old daughters into marriage. Holding stubbornly to their own traditions rather than changing with the times makes them outcasts, Jennifer says.
Despite the obstacles, the Phillipses hope to eventually start a church-planting movement among the Roma.
They are learning the Bulgarian language and plan to learn Romani (the Roma language), but ministry opportunities already have presented themselves. The family has been attending a Bulgarian church since March 2011 -- the same church where the Roma man attends. In May, the church's pastor asked Jennifer to start a children's ministry, and she accepted under one condition: Every child would be welcome -- Roma and Bulgarian alike.
The first Sunday, 26 Roma children and four Bulgarian children attended children's church. The Roma man in the church apparently had gone back to the field where he lived, a tent community of Roma, and had invited the children to come. The next Sunday, 26 Roma children again showed up, but no Bulgarian children came.
After the church service, the congregation approached the pastor and asked for a meeting. They no longer wanted any Roma coming to their church. The decision was made to have separate services and children's church -- the Bulgarians in the morning and the Roma in the afternoon.
Despite these racial barriers, several Roma children and adults have come to know Christ, and the Phillipses and the pastor began a weekly discipleship class. While Cameron and the pastor teach the adults biblical basics, Jennifer teaches the children to memorize Scripture along with learning life skills such as good hygiene. Eventually, they hope to teach the adults life skills, too, including respect for and responsibility in society.
The Roma's strong traditions make teaching them difficult. Many Roma will not learn to read because, traditionally, they do not need to read. However, becoming literate so they can read the Bible and learn more about Christ is essential.
The challenge is "for them to have a desire to take what they learn and actually apply it to their lives, to be willing to change as God convicts them, and not to become hardened with tradition," Jennifer says.
The Phillipses, both natives of Texas, are reaching out to the Bulgarians as well. On Friday nights, they hold a Bible study at their house for Bulgarian college students.
"That would be my heart: that people will see that Christianity isn't just Roma or isn't just Bulgarians -- that you can have your hands in all people groups, that we're called to all groups," Jennifer says.
"I have a passion to work with Roma, but that doesn't mean that I overlook the Bulgarians who are seeking, too. If the church can learn that though you may not have a passion to specifically reach out to Roma and go to their fields and hang out with them, that doesn't mean that we don't reach out to them when they seek, and it doesn't mean that you don't try to evangelize them."
-- that God will change Bulgarian hearts to be involved in ministering to their Roma neighbors.
-- for strength for IMB missionaries Cameron and Jennifer Phillips as they balance learning the language with ministry opportunities. Pray also for discernment for the Phillipses as they work to expand their ministries and find those who are seeking truth.
-- that more people will accept God's call to serve in Bulgaria.
Laura Fielding is a former intern with the International Mission Board.
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