Most of the world refers to them as Gypsies. They call themselves the Roma, and there are 30,000 to 40,000 of them living in Croatia alone.
For centuries they have been oppressed and subject to discrimination. Today, many of them face unemployment and abuse, and many struggle with alcoholism. Many Roma live in third world conditions with limited electricity, no running water, and no bathrooms.
For Roma living in Croatia, Romani is their first language. Croatian is their second language, and many are learning English as their third language.
This last summer, at a Red Cross facility atop Medvednica (Bear Mountain) outside of the capital city of Zagreb, my team of 16 people from the United States were joined by a team of seven Croatian counselors—led a camp for 35 Roma children between the ages of eight and 17.
“Our theme for the camp was ‘The Family of God,’ ” says Craig, “and together we memorized 1 John 3:1 in all three of the languages spoken by the Roma.”
See what kind of love of the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God, and so we are.
“Actually,” Craig confessed, “I only memorized the verse in English and Croatian!”
Running a camp about walking with Jesus among the Roma in Croatia wasn’t without challenges and harsh realities. “Some of the boys have been smoking since they were eight years old,” explained Craig, “and we had to allow for smoke breaks in the program.”
One of the campers—a boy named Igor—is 15 years old, but looks 18. His father is in jail. Igor told the camp leaders, “I don’t want to be like my dad, but I am afraid I will be.” Tomislav, one of Craig’s Croatian friends, explained, “While Igor is here it is like heaven, but when he goes back to his village it will be like hell.”
There were, however, also moments of great encouragement. Craig commented that, “For the second year in a row, I had a boy named Roman in my cabin, and we were able to spend seven days together.” Craig says that Roman is wonderfully gifted and says, “I hope that somehow we can invest in his future over the next decade.”
Roman apparently shares that sentiment. In an encouraging note to Craig he wrote:
Hi Craig. You are as good as God. Thank you for everything you have done for me. I love you.
“There were many other high and low points during this camp,” says Craig, “but perhaps the most exciting thing to me is the encouragement our team generated among our Croatian friends to serve their Roma peers with the Gospel. We believe that the seeds for generational influence have been planted.”
The Navigators plan to send additional teams to follow up with the relationships that have developed—and to continue to build up this part of the family of God. D!
Craig Parker works with The Navigators Collegiate ministry in Boston. This story took place when he was in Croatia leading a Collegiate summer training program.