Operation Outhouse and Beyond: Breaking the Cycle of Poverty for the Roma (Gypsy) Community

17 Nov

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A young business leader named Zsolt had an encounter with God. Up until that point Zsolt had been living the dream—big fancy house and international travel. But after Zsolt met Jesus he felt called to give up his business, sell his home and two cars, and go under the tutelage of a pastor in an isolated and largely unreached part of Romania. He moved his family into a three-room communist era apartment and started serving under this pastor. We were surprised when two years later the pastor, who was going blind, handed his church over to Zsolt. CRM staff, Brad Baker, admits, “We didn’t see what the pastor saw in Zsolt, but God did.”

One day Zsolt contacted Brad by phone, saying, “I’ve heard what you do, and I need a mentor.” Brad spent a week with Zsolt in Romania, and started to realize what a powerful leader God was developing in Zsolt.

Now Zsolt was doing what everyone was doing in those days: planting churches and preaching in a bunch of different places. But as he went from church to church he would ride by the Roma (Gypsy) neighborhood. One day he told Brad, “I never thought of myself as prejudiced, but I realized I was avoiding the Gypsies.” He was convicted. God told Zsolt not to ride by the neighborhood, but to go into it. So Zsolt put up a tent, started doing services, and people came. He went and visited them in their homes. After a few months he had 14 men ready to be baptized, followed by their wives.

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As Zsolt walked around the Gypsy Quarter, he realized there wasn’t a single toilet for the 350–400 people who lived there. That’s when the idea for “Operation Outhouse” was born. They launched Operation Outhouse by enlisting people from the local church to join in. Then they went into the Gypsy Quarter and built outhouses in strategic areas. Local Hungarian Christians and Roma working together, side by side—very unusual in Romania!

Due to prejudices about the Roma community, when the surrounding community heard about this project, they were astonished. The newspapers came in to see what was happening. These reporters, who had been extremely negative in the past, were touched by what they saw and heard—they saw the Gypsies helping out, saw the camaraderie, and heard the laughter. Three very positive articles appeared in three different newspapers that Monday, and in each the Roma people were presented in a positive light. “I think those stories were the first time in that part of Romania anything positive had ever been said in writing about the Roma people,” Brad reflects.

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Zsolt shared his vision for the Roma community with those newspapers, and as a result he ended up in the mayor’s office. Now a lot of mayors in Romania were responding to “the Gypsy problem” with bulldozers—just destroying their settlements. But this mayor didn’t feel right about that approach, and asked Zsolt what possibilities
he saw. Zsolt’s long-term dream for the community included a church and an after-school student center for the youth. The mayor agreed to Zsolt’s vision and gave him a plot of land right next to the Gypsy Quarter to use. The local news reported on the decision and, during an interview with the mayor (who is not a Christian…yet), the mayor made this amazing comment:

“Past efforts to use force and punishment to move Gypsies to change and develop have not worked ... It seems helping them is the way to go, and by calling on God to help—God’s help is also needed—[Zsolt and his church] are doing just that. And the city stands behind them!“

So over the next three years they built a church, a student center, and a bath-house for the community. What started with a small project to meet one specific need grew to something much bigger in scope and impact! But Zsolt recognized that to make a real change in the Roma community he’d have to have a long-term strategy, focused on the younger generation. The Roma youth would go to school but weren’t being taught. They couldn’t read or write and had no hope of ever getting jobs as a result.

The problem of not reading and writing impacted more than just education and jobs. One time Brad was asked to train some of the Romas in evangelism, but there was an unexpected problem: “I tried to teach them the bridge diagram (where the chasm between us and God is bridged by the cross of Jesus). Because they had never learned to read and write, they couldn’t draw the symbols for the diagram. They didn’t have the hand-eye coordination! At the end of that attempt, one of them told me, with tears, ‘If you really want to help us you’ll teach us how to read and write.’”

Zsolt shared his mission vision at local churches and eventually found an after-school teacher—a 19-year-old Hungarian girl who paused her marriage and college—to teach at the center, helping the Roma community learn to read and write.

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Today, the school continues to provide a basic education to Roma kids as well as life skills like the value of work, how to save, and how to delay gratification. For a long time this community has been stuck in a cycle of stealing and begging. “If your kids are hungry you’re going to find a way to feed them, and if you aren’t educated and can’t get a job, what else do you do?” says Brad. “
I believe that what’s being done in this community could lift the entire group out of this endless cycle of poverty. The hope is that when these kids, who are getting an education and shifting their expectations of life, become adults, things will start changing.”

Deep transformation for this community is happening! And it started with one leader who CRM was privileged to mentor, who God called to reach out in unconventional ways.

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Zsolt’s vision is bigger than just the Roma community. The local Hungarian church he pastors is becoming more visible and influential, and new people are coming to know Jesus every month through what they’re doing. He’s started a foundation called
Helping Hands Foundation that is making an impact in Romania. He’s doing mission camps to train young people in world missions, and is now envisioning a missionary training school to send Hungarians to the mission field.

Zsolt’s vision just keeps getting bigger and bigger,” Brad says excitedly. “And so many of his dreams have come true, that I expect it’s just a matter of time for these bigger dreams to become reality!”


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ABOUT: Brad Baker
has been with CRM since 1986, and lived in Hungary since 1987, where he also met his wife Agi. They train and mentor leaders and mission teams in Eastern Europe, working with CRM Ethne and CRM’s Hungarian Conext partner, Barnabas Csoport.


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