CBF field personnel share Christ’s great love through literacy ministry in Slovakia
By Blake Tommey
Imagine you are 6 years old and those first-day-of-school butterflies are swarming in your stomach. As you shuffle into your first-grade classroom, you scan the faces of your classmates, placing timid bets with yourself on who is most likely to become your friend. But as you take your seat, the anxiety slowly gives way to the warm thrill that can only come with a certain piece of knowledge: this is the year you will finally learn to read.
The chalk hits the board and your teacher commences with the first language lesson of the year. But suddenly, a horrifying reality hits you — she’s not teaching your language. You have never heard these words. This is not what you and your family speak at home. How are you going to understand your teacher, let alone learn how to read?
It doesn’t take long for your teacher to realize you are falling behind. You say goodbye to your classmates as the school places you in a room for deficient students. Eventually, they label you “stupid” and transfer you to another school with other students who also fell behind. You were trying to keep up but they just were not speaking your language. How were you ever supposed to learn?
“This is the fundamental problem for Roma children in Slovakia; the Slovak system of schooling and education does not offer conditions necessary for Roma students to handle school like Slovak children,” said Anna Koptova, founder of an elementary school for Roma children in Košice, Slovakia.
“Roma kids come to the first grade and do not speak the teaching language of Slovak well at all. They only speak the Romani language. This communication barrier is so vast that the child cannot cope with it during his or her years in elementary school. So, that student is not only unlikely to finish school, but he or she will never come to know who they are, have self-esteem or pride or integrate into Slovak society.”
This is why Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Jon and Tanya Parks are forming together with Koptova’s school and other learning communities to share Christ’s great love through literacy ministry in Košice. With support from the CBF Offering for Global Missions, Jon and Tanya alongside their partners in Slovakia are joining God among the Roma people to provide education and literacy training in the Romani and Slovak languages. Through honoring the Romani language and culture in the education process, they and other educators are not only teaching Roma students Romani, Slovak and even English, but also equipping them with the confidence and tools to emerge from poverty into greater economic opportunity in Košice.
If God is among the most marginalized peoples in the world, God is surely among Roma people in Slovakia, Tanya said. Roma communities are concentrated primarily in the eastern part of the country, comprising the second-largest ethnic minority in Slovakia, and live one of the most ostracized existences in the world.
The European Roma Rights Center considers the situation in Slovakia to be one of the worst in Europe, primarily characterized by educational discrimination, threats, violence and even forced sterilization. In 2012, a United Nations Development Program survey discovered that 43 percent of Roma students in mainstream schools attended ethnically-segregated classes.
“The relationship between Slovaks and Roma is a long and deep one, and the longer we are here, the more deep we realize the situation is,” Tanya said.
“But we believe that education and literacy is such an important piece of Roma communities picking themselves up out of poverty and asserting a vital position in society. We believe that education in their own language, in the Romani language, in the Slovak language and then also in English are three important ways for them to have a leg up, to get better jobs, to speak as educated people and see discrimination begin to change.”
Koptova’s school now partners with CBF through the Parks’ commissioning in Slovakia and was the first school in Košice to implement elementary education in the Romani language. Since its founding in 2006, the school has taught elementary education, including math, science, social studies, reading and language skills to Roma children in their heart language. In addition to teaching preschool and kindergarten students in Košice, the Parks also convene a class of 9- and 10-year-olds in a local village, providing Slovak and English lessons, crafts, games, songs and Bible literacy in each setting.
Jessica Rivarova is a fourth-grade student at Koptova’s school and aspires to be a nurse when she is older because she loves to take care of people. She believes Roma people are exceptional because they know how to have fun, to dance, to sing beautifully and to paint stunning works of art. Conditions in Rivarova’s neighborhood in Košice are hardly conducive to education, so her parents encourage her to go to school and study for her advancement tests.
“Education is important because with it we can help people move beyond where they are now, and then those people will help others and so on,” Rivarova explained.
“For Roma kids, reading is very important because almost no one reads as well as
non-Roma kids our age. I think that by learning, I can achieve more and get better too. My family is very important to me, especially my mom and dad, because they take good care of me and encourage me to go to school.”
In addition to children, Jon and Tanya are also coming alongside their adult neighbors through literacy ministry in Roma communities. Each week, they host classes in a nearby village for Roma adults seeking to learn English and build their international opportunities for employment. Through beginner, intermediate and advanced language cohorts, adult students not only improve their English skills but even teach Jon and Tanya as they are learning Slovak and Romani.
One of those students and partners is Július Pecha, a Roma social worker who desires to learn English in order to improve his communication at international social work conferences. Pecha grew up attending a military school in Liptovský Mikuláš, Slovakia, where he was the only Roma student. Early in high school, the Slovak curriculum became so difficult that Pecha nearly withdrew from school completely. But with the firm support of his family, he eventually attended college and graduated from the school of social work. Today, Pecha works among Roma in the village of Kecerovce, just outside of Košice, where he helps individuals escape from gambling addiction, alcoholism and poverty. Pecha and his partners help provide food, warm clothing, school supplies for children, basic healthcare, vitamins, vaccinations and especially advocacy for Roma who regularly experience deliberate harm at work, court, labor offices as well as by employment agencies and healthcare institutions.
Once a week, Pecha and 10 of his classmates gather for the advanced English class with Jon and Tanya to learn verb tenses, timing words and colloquial phrases. But Pecha believes it is the informal, relaxed setting in which they are learning that makes him love English classes and allows everyone to be transformed. Above all, he said, we must be increasing Roma teachers, Roma literature and opportunities for Roma to succeed in early education, but at the end of the day, there is still one thing Roma people don’t have to prove or work for: the love of God.
“Faith and the love of God are two things nobody can take away from Roma,” Pecha said.
“Even if they are poor, even if they live below the poverty line, even if they have no education — Roma have faith and thanks to that faith, they help one another. They try to make their families complete and when someone in the family has a problem, the other members have the obligation to help because God’s commandment says, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Roma truly live in this faith.”
For Pecha, Jon and Tanya and Koptova’s school, loving your neighbor as yourself is the true goal of ministry among Roma in Slovakia. As their partnership in Košice continues to seek vital economic and social opportunities for Roma, it is their dedication to forming together that makes it possible to join God in God’s mission, Jon noted. Partnering with churches and individuals through the CBF Offering for Global Missions, he said, is actually what helps keep them most in tune with what God is doing in Slovakia and around the world.
“We have more faith in God to provide for our needs when we know that our work and ability to stay here depends on people’s jobs back home and depends on people continuing to stay connected with what we do,” Jon added.
“And when you support our ministry — when you support what CBF is doing in the world — you’re providing ESL classes for Roma students and for adults. You’re providing clothing and materials for Roma children in a school who don’t always have the same materials that their Slovak peers have. You’re providing presence and Bible studies for young Roma teenagers, boys and girls, to learn about God’s word in a safe and caring environment. But above all, you’re providing Roma communities the opportunity to share more of who they are with the world.”
Learn more about the 2015-16 Offering for Global Missions and find resources to promote the Offering in your congregation at http://www.cbf.net/OGM.