Encountering God’s Grace: Acts of Kindness Lead a Roma Woman to Jesus

By Chelsea Rollman, Feb 28, 2023

Helena remembers the day they found her husband’s body.

His corpse lay face-down on the frozen forest ground outside their Roma village in northeast Slovakia. She does not know if he had tripped and hit his head or if someone struck him from behind. He just didn’t come home that evening.

Helena swallowed the panic swelling in her throat as she watched men drag her husband’s body through the snow. Somewhere in the night her two young girls roamed the village, unaware that their 21-year-old mother was now their only caretaker.

How was she going to care for them? She didn’t have a job. Even while her husband was living, they were scraping by.

Though she didn’t know it at the time, her husband’s death proved to be a turning point in her life. It was part of a sequence of events God had lined up like a row of dominoes He sent falling to push her straight to Jesus.

A House Church Develops in a Roma Village

In 2018 MTW missionaries Dan and Rebecca Gregoire decided to move their family to Spišska Nová Ves, Slovakia. They worked mainly in church revitalization and partnered with a local Slovak pastor to strengthen his congregation for the work of church planting. The Gregoires’ vision is to plant more churches to reach all people in Slovakia with the gospel, including the 600 Roma communities scattered across the country.

Church planting among the Roma required a unique strategy. Shunned by their countrymen and often criticized as criminals and troublemakers, the Roma people live in slums, often without electricity or plumbing, on the outskirts of society. Fortunately, the local church in Spišska Nová Ves had a good relationship with the two Roma villages near the city and had established an outreach ministry.

Roma Villagers

The Gregoires joined the church in reaching out to the Roma people, offering friendship and inviting them to study the Bible together. Eventually, a small group of Roma Christians formed into a house church. Among this first group of Christians was the village matriarch known as Big Maria.

A New Home and Family

After Helena lost her husband, Maria approached her.

Helena trembled. Last she heard, Maria worked as the enforcer for the local loan shark. She had a reputation as a mean, hard-hearted woman. Helena stared at the ground while the intimidating woman asked Helena to live with her and her family.

Helena’s eyes widened as Maria’s words began to register. Her fear turned to shock. Maria was being kind. No one, including her parents, had treated Helena with kindness. This woman who had a history of taking advantage of her own people was the last person Helena expected to extend generosity.

Helena and her two daughters moved in with Maria and her family, increasing the number of people living in the two-bedroom home from nine to 12. Maria and her daughters taught Helena how to cook and clean. They managed Helena’s money. And they told her about Jesus—the person responsible for melting Maria’s heart.

A Preschool Makes a Difference

A few years after Helena moved in with Maria, Rebecca Gregoire noticed Helena lurking around the village preschool.

Eight years ago, MTW missionary Kathy Lesondak began a Roma preschool ministry to prepare Roma children for the Slovak school system. Roma children grow up speaking Romani. Because the Slovak schools do not have a “Slovak as a second language” program, Roma kindergartners and first-graders struggled through the language barrier in their Slovak-speaking classrooms.

Roma Pre-Kindergarten

The language difference combined with existing prejudice make Roma children 28 times more likely to be sent to special schools than non-Roma children according to New World Encyclopedia. Very few boys graduate from secondary school and even fewer girls since most girls start having kids around the age of 13 or 14.

Rebecca now runs the preschool ministry and started a second preschool in an adjacent Roma village that serves around 10 children each year.

After a few days of Helena showing up during preschool, Rebecca asked her if she wanted to try being her teacher’s assistant for a few weeks. The role wasn’t exactly a natural fit. Helena kept doing things like handing the wrong cup to the wrong student. Rebecca realized it was probably because she couldn’t read the kids names printed on the front of each cup.

But Helena showed up every day and did the work she was asked. She wasn’t unlike the other Roma teachers at the school. Most of them did not graduate from high school and were learning alongside their students. Rebecca even had to demonstrate to the teachers how to do a puzzle. These Roma women had never experienced such normal childhood development.

These women taught the kids passionately, though, and were making a difference. The Slovak school psychologists and directors commented that this new generation of Roma children were able to follow directions and understand their assignments easily. The kids also learned about Jesus at an early age.

“These kids are learning Slovak through Bible stories, through Bible songs, through Scripture memory. So they're learning about God while they're learning Slovak,” said Dan.

The Gregoires said the preschool’s focus is to teach them to be learners.

“If we can teach them how to learn, then they can be successful in school and they can go beyond searching for their basic needs like food and wood to stay warm,” said Rebecca. “And they can actually look up and think, ‘Who made me? How did I get here?’ And contemplate who God is and find the truth of who He is in God's Word.

The Holy Spirit Works Through COVID-19

Life became difficult for the Roma people when COVID-19 entered the world.

Pandemic lockdowns were severe in Slovakia. The government blockaded any Roma village where someone detected COVID-19, making it even harder for the Roma people to access the outside world.

When the Christians in the Roma village saw that some of their neighbors were essentially trapped inside their homes, they asked Dan for help. The church provided money and Dan drove while these Roma Christians bought and delivered a week’s worth of groceries and a Bible to families in quarantine.

Several Roma families became Christians after this act of compassion from their own people.

Roma Village

One of these households, led by the parents Ivan and Veronica, immediately started serving the community. Veronica became a teacher for the second preschool. Ivan shared his faith and read Scripture with whoever would listen—his coworkers, children, neighbors.

Like Maria, generosity gushed out of Ivan and Veronica after learning about Christ’s lavish grace. Their story converged with Helena’s last summer when Ivan donated a room in a home he owned to her and her girls.

For the first time in a long time Helena had a place of her own. Ivan’s gift was one more way God wove His grace into her life—just like He did when Maria took her in and when Rebecca offered her a job.

God began caring for her long before she knew who He was. Her husband’s death, the Gregoires’ call to Slovakia, COVID-19, Maria’s and Ivan’s conversions, were all individual dominoes lined up in a row that ended in God’s warm embrace. With such poignant evidence of God’s love, she easily placed her faith in Him.

The Gospel Continues to Change Lives

The good news of Christ continues to weave its way through the Roma villages in northeastern Slovakia—past the trash piles at the village entrance, through the doors of the crumbling houses, and into the hearts of Roma families in desperate need of hope.

The Roma house church grows every year. There were nine baptisms last year. A Roma man is in training as a pastoral apprentice, and they are currently looking to build a community center in the Roma village to serve as the church facility.

Helena, Maria, Ivan, Veronica, and other Roma Christians, all of whom have known true hardship, constantly show their neighbors where to find abundance in Christ. These outcasts joyfully share what little they have and tell others about Jesus’ generous love.

Chelsea Rollman

Chelsea Rollman is a marketing specialist and staff writer at MTW. She formerly served as the girls’ discipleship coordinator at Village Seven in Colorado Springs, and as a marketing assistant at The White Horse Inn. Chelsea graduated from Covenant College in 2016 with her B.A. in English. She and her husband, Hudson, live in Jacksonville, Florida, and attend Christ Church Presbyterian where Hudson serves as the youth director.

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