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Mission couple report on repression of Roma in Europe

The Searles
Doug and Liz Searles

As Doug and Liz Searles share in Eastern Washington churches about their mission work since 2007 with the minority Evangelical Reformed Church in predominantly Catholic Poland, they remind each listener to be attentive to God’s call to share God’s love in the world wherever they are.

They also encourage Polish Christians to be attentive to God’s call to mission—teaching, preaching, listening, loving, caring and inspiring—where they are.

Just as they raise awareness in Poland, they are informing people here about persecution of the Roma people in Eastern and Central Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Liz and Doug, who have served as missionaries since 1997—in India and China—are now in Poland, where their work is supported by a joint appointment by the Presbyterian Church, USA, and the common Global Ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ.

In October and early November, they spoke to churches of those denominations in Yakima, Spokane, Clarkston, Pullman, Tonasket, Ephrata, Othello and Richland, before going on to share in Western Washington through Dec. 18.

“Reaching out globally matters,” they told the congregation at Veradale United Church of Christ on Oct. 23.  “It saves lives both spiritually and physically.

“We come as people transformed by mission, a link in a circle of ministry in which everyone is transformed,” said Liz. 

“We are your hands and feet abroad, and you are our hands and feet here,” said Doug.

The Searles seek to inspire Polish Reformed churches to reach out in a land where their Protestant churches are marginalized.

Liz described the Evangelical Reformed Church in Poland as having had a 20-year period of recovery since the country ousted the Communists.  Previously, Poles had suffered occupation under Hitler and Stalin.

“People are living their way into reconciliation with each other in a post-atrocity environment,” said Doug.

Lodz, Poland, where they serve, lost a third of its population—more than 230,000 people—during the Holocaust, including the pastor of the Reformed Church who perished in a death camp.

“The scars of history continue to divide communities,” Liz said.  “In some towns, Protestants are identified with Germans, who were ‘cleansed’ out of parts of Poland when postwar borders were drawn.”

“The result of having lived in a climate of fear can be fearfulness today,” she said.  “Fear is an expectation that something bad will happen, even though there may not necessarily be a present reality to be dealt with.”

For today, it means some Poles and some congregations “hold onto a siege mentality, a fear that leads to survivalism.  Such churches may feel that they must be armed fortresses against the world.

“The result is atrophy that makes it hard to reach out in love,” Liz said.  “Perfect love, however, casts out fear.”

The Searles said one message they have brought to the Evangelical Reformed Church in Poland has been, “Fear not!”

Another is that it’s okay to demonstrate a joyful faith and that worship and service can be fun.

Along with those messages, they encourage churches to overcome their prejudices about the Roma, formerly known as Gypsies, and to reach out to them.

“The term, ‘Roma’ is what most who migrated from India about 1,000 years ago prefer to call themselves,” Liz said.  “It means ‘person.’ ‘Gypsy’ in most Central and Eastern European languages is part of the verb ‘to steal.’”

Although gypsies used to travel in caravans or wagons, Doug pointed out that since the 1960s and 1970s, they have been settled travelers.  There are now 12 million in Europe, a marginalized minority living in shanty ghettoes outside cities, stigmatized, loathed, persecuted and facing human-rights challenges.

The Searles reported that during the third week of October, a community of 400 Roma, Sinti and Irish and English “Travelers” were evicted from a longstanding settlement at Dale Farm in the United Kingdom.  The government is spending $28 million to remove them using tasers and bulldozers, and providing no replacement shelter.

“Western Europe is forcibly transporting Roma East to the poorest countries, such as Bulgaria, Romania and Kosovo, and then closing the borders,” said Doug.  “Ninety-nine percent are unemployed.”

Under communism, Roma were taken care of by government programs, but under capitalism, no one will hire them, he said.

They have been taken from their homes and offered no other places to live or find shelter.

Liz said many compare the economic and social climate of Europe today to the 1930s.

“Those parallels are chilling she said.  “As the economies contract, people seek scapegoats.  Neo-nationalist movements and xenophobia are on the rise.  Recent elections in Central and Eastern European countries have put in far-right members of Parliament who run for office on a platform of cleansing the country of the ‘Roma problem.’

“The Roma remember that nearly 1.5 million of them died in the Holocaust,” she said.

The Searles showed a video depicting expanding ghettos on the outskirts of cities, communities with no water or electricity.  Children are segregated to attend substandard schools. Their parents have no jobs.

The video shares comments of rural Roma telling how their lives are depressed, working in the fields for only enough to eat for one day, living 12 people to a room.  Most Roma live on less than $2 a day.  Most are born, live and die without being registered, so they cannot be citizens or find jobs.

Part of the difficulty for the Roma is that they are not one group, according to the video.  They are separated by national borders and speak different languages, so their “activism is disjointed.”

“Doug and I cannot solve the problems of Roma or the fears emerging in Central and Eastern Europe,” Liz said, “but we can plant mustard seeds.  We can encourage believers in Europe to speak out and act on behalf of Roma in a climate of ethnic cleansing, exclusion, stigmatization and violence.”

The Searles have begun to build relationships to encourage capacity-building, advocacy and ecumenical efforts to improve the acceptance of, access for and inclusion of Roma,

Their work supports evangelism, ecumenical relations, reconciliation and outreach in a land where Protestants are a marginalized minority.  Their work also includes music ministry, youth camps and retreats, teaching English, small group gatherings and leadership development.

For information, visit globalministries.org/mee/countries/poland/. You can also read their current report about the Searles' "Home Assignment" or "Itinerant Assignment" dated 11.11.11.