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Loving the Despised

By Susan Fikse, Mar 26, 2013
Katka knows the heartache of looking into a hungry child’s eyes without a morsel to offer. The one room she shares with her husband and nine other family members would challenge even the poorest Americans. Job opportunities, education, and indoor plumbing are distant, unfulfilled dreams. The end of the month can bring evenings without dinner or the warmth of a fire. On one of those cold and barren evenings, Katka, having little food left, received an unexpected gift of a bag of potatoes. Despite her dire circumstances, Katka divided the potatoes and shared her gift, prompting tearful thanks from another desperate mother.

Knowing that God is creating this kindness and generosity in the midst of economic need draws Kathy Lesondak to the Roma community she visits regularly from her home in Kosice, Slovakia. Kathy’s husband, John, is the leader of MTW’s Slovakia team, whose central focus is church planting in Kosice. As the church plant overcomes racial divides to minister in Christ’s name, God has demonstrated the power of the gospel among both Slovak and Roma.

A Persecuted People
The Roma—often known as Gypsies—are despised throughout Europe and commonly viewed as dirty and uneducated thieves. This traditionally nomadic people group lives in a cycle of poverty that is perpetuated in part by persecution within their own countries. Throughout Europe the Romani have seen their homes demolished, been subject to harassment, and in the not too distant past, even endured coerced sterilization of women.

When Kathy and John Lesondak first moved to Kosice in 2010 from Trnava (where they worked since 1997 planting a church), they learned of a ministry to the Roma community in Vitkovce, a village outside of Kosice. “The first time we visited Vitkovce, we took off our rings and watches,” remembered Kathy. “We really didn’t know what to expect.” What they discovered were six believing families who, in spite of their economic poverty, were hospitable, generous, and hungry to grow in their understanding of the Word of God.

“We grew in love for the Roma people,” Kathy said. “We wanted to help them, but aimed to address their needs without patronizing or creating dependency. We recognized the image of God in these people and their ability to ‘do’ for themselves.” So, as the team in Kosice addressed the spiritual needs of the Roma through preaching and training of the men, they also brainstormed ideas for addressing a whole way of life that anchored the Roma in physical need.

Practical Progress
“The Roma receive a stipend from the government,” explained Kathy, “but they had no idea how to stretch that money to provide for their needs. We taught them how to budget and save, so that they could avoid the loan sharks who took advantage of their desperation.” Kathy and other team members taught Roma families how to buy and eat differently, both to save money and improve their health. Once a month they gathered at a host home and prepared a menu that would feed 12 people for $4.50. Believers invited their neighbors to hear a testimony and share the meal. “It was so fun to see changes start to happen in different families,” Kathy recounted. “One family was able to reduce their oil consumption from seven liters a month to two liters a month. The wife was thrilled that her husband lost weight and was so much stronger!”

Another initiative that will change the trajectory of many Roma children’s lives is a preschool. “Many Roma only know the basics of the Slovak language,” explained Kathy. “So when children start school, they are quickly categorized as mentally handicapped merely because they can’t communicate.” However, non-Roma villagers would not agree to allow the Roma use of a facility for the preschool in spite of the team’s willingness to purchase it for them. Instead, the Roma meet in homes and call their preschool a “mother’s club” to avoid further discrimination.

Surmounting Hurdles
The hurdles of racism and persecution continue to plague the Roma even as they embrace faith in Christ, according to John Lesondak. However, the power of the gospel propels the Slovak church in Kosice to overcome prejudices and reach out to the Roma in Vitkovce. “Believing Slovak nationals are taking more and more leadership of the ministry to the Roma, falling in ove with these people whom others in their country hate,” John observed. “Slovaks are reaching out and standing with the Roma at the risk of being labeled part of the problem themselves.” John and Kathy realize that their job is almost finished as Slovak nationals assume leadership of the ministry among the Roma. “That’s what we really want to see—nationals owning the work is the real goal, but we are experiencing withdrawal pains,” admitted John. Letting go of relationships with people they love, like Katka, is difficult. “It is so rewarding—they love us so much and are so hungry to learn and honor God,” said Kathy.

Yet, Kathy acknowledges that it was God who opened doors to ministry with the Roma and He will continue to lead as He did in those first visits to Vitkovce. “I found potatoes on sale at the market, so I bought them,” she recounted. “I had no idea that gift was perfect timing for hungry families. It’s fun to see God do this. You feel pulled along and just try to keep up with what He’s doing!”

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Slovakia: Pray for 10 new church plants, 10 new church planters, and 10 new core teams in 10 years. 

SLOVAKIA: Pray for the recruiting of faithful missionaries to expand the team’s reach across country. 

Pray for two women, Monika and Andrea, who have recently come to faith against the odds in a hard-to-reach, largely atheistic European city.

Pray for Monika, that God would continue to heal her, give her a new purpose, and protect her life from physical harm, and for Andrea, that she would grow deep roots of faith and be a witness to those like her—unlikely subjects—of the reality of the grace of God.

DAY 29: Pray for the identification, training, and appointing of leaders for new ministry opportunities across Europe.

DAY 28: Pray for national leaders being developed and cared for in Muslim-majority nations across Asia and the Middle East.

DAY 27: Ukraine: Pray for an end to the war, ministry to those who are displaced, and for spread of the gospel.

DAY 26: Pray for connection, encouragement, and support for wives of church planters in East Asia, facing both internal conflicts (family/church) and external (government) pressures.

DAY 25: Pray for Japanese church members not returning to church because of fear of the coronavirus. Pray for their faith to thrive in the midst of the continuing pandemic.

DAY 24: Pray for continued development of ministry candidates in the Timothy House program, a two-year residential training program to develop West African church planters.

DAY 23: Ethiopia: Pray for Ethiopia ACT’s family advocates, who care for the physical and spiritual needs of families affected by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other communicable diseases.

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