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How the Last Become First

I am sitting in a small improvised cafe in the open, in the central square of the Gypsy quarter of Sliven, a city in southeast Bulgaria. Right next to me is Boris Andonov, the pastor of a growing Gypsy church. About a dozen young men-ages 25 to 35-are with us. We are discussing Christian Reconstruction and the change it can produce for the Gypsy community in Sliven and Bulgaria as a whole.

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"I am reading Unconditional Surrender now."

"Liberating Planet Earth."

"Luther's Commentary on Galatians."

I interrupt the testimonies with a question, "What about The Institutes of Biblical Law?"

A short few seconds of silence. The pastor then says, "It's a big one. We are still learning to read big books. Some of us here learned to read not full three years ago. Not a single one of our parents learned to read and write. They had to sign documents with prints of their fingers covered with ink."

He pauses for a few more seconds. "Little by little. One step after another. We are still learning."

I am sitting in a small improvised cafe in the open, in the central square of the Gypsy quarter of Sliven, a city in southeast Bulgaria. Right next to me is Boris Andonov, the pastor of a growing Gypsy church. About a dozen young men-ages 25 to 35-are with us. We are discussing Christian Reconstruction and the change it can produce for the Gypsy community in Sliven and Bulgaria as a whole.

Two of the young men around the table came to our annual Worldview Conference in Bulgaria this year. This is when I learned that there is a whole Gypsy church of about 300 members that has been influenced by the books I have been translating into Bulgarian. When asked about whom the influence was that led them to my translations, they pointed to Nikolai (Niki) Valchev, an old friend of mine, and a professor at a local Presbyterian seminary started and supported by Korean Presbyterian churches. The seminary is specifically focused on training Gypsy pastors. Niki, himself a follower of Christian Reconstruction, used his position to teach his students that faith applies to all of life, not only to their personal life and their going to heaven. His patience and faithfulness was the key in converting them from fundamentalism and dispensationalism to postmillennialism and theonomy.

And they are now working to change their community. Or, at least, starting to work.

At the conference, while listening to their testimonies, I suggested that they should focus on training their children. "Start your own kindergarten of sorts," I said, "or something to help parents break the curse of generations of illiteracy, ignorance, and lack of intellectual discipline."

"Mr. Marinov," they said, "we are already doing it. And we will show you our school when you come visit us."

Where to Begin

Indeed, the school was the first stop of my visit to their community. An old grocery store, right in the central square of the Gypsy quarter, the place where the open market is, where everyone goes to meet friends, have a cup of coffee, or just hang around and play backgammon or cards-the last activity very common these days, with unemployment on the rise and Gypsy unemployment approaching seventy percent. The door was open so that we could hear the children reciting after the teacher whatever he was teaching them. When I entered, I had to exercise a great deal of self-control to stop myself from crying: one-hundred-plus children, ages six through thirteen, sitting calmly and repeating after the teacher the names of the continents, the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet, events from the history of Bulgaria, and others. Instruction was done the old way: oral repetition and memorizing. Not that the children couldn't read; all of them could, but the community didn't have the resources to buy textbooks for all of them. The teachers told me they had to scavenge the local government schools to get old visual aids like maps, alphabet and math tables, etc.

Then, at the end, they had catechism instruction. The class was split into two teams of fifty-plus children each. The two oldest boys were appointed captains of their teams. One captain read a question; his team repeated the question. Then the other captain read an answer; his team repeated the answer. They did about twenty-five questions and answers that way, before the class ended.

As amazing as this is, in a community where the generation of these kids' grandparents still has about a seventy percent illiteracy rate, what was even more amazing was that all these children remained in their seats for more than half hour without moving, and that without any visible sign of forced discipline or class management-and that at the end of the day, having had three hours of school prior to my arrival. And they all participated eagerly, raising their hands at every question by the teachers, competing to be picked to answer. An American public school psychologist would be hard pressed to find a single child in that room who could be diagnosed with ADHD.

Boris Andonov, himself a Gypsy, told me after school, "These children have a better education than any of our parents had. But even better, the local government school principals compete to have our kids enrolled in their schools."

"But my goal," he added, "is not to rely on the government. We have relied on the government for too long, and our minority has remained the lowest and most despised minority in Bulgaria. This school is only the beginning. My dream is to see a generation of educated, self-motivated parents, who will homeschool their children and will produce a generation of even better educated and self-motivated children. And these children you saw today will be that generation."

He admitted that as a temporary measure he would have to use the government schools: the average income in the Gypsy community is $1,000 per year, and very few of the parents can read. But at least the children can be given good momentum, in motivation and discipline. "Only we, as their parents, can provide such motivation. The government's agenda is to keep us uneducated, for then we as a community can be manipulated to vote for corrupt politicians."

Freedom on the Horizon

Boris then told me, "I know it very well: We won't be free until we have fathers and mothers who can and would take responsibility for their own children. And I have a plan how to get there. And my plan has to do with less government and more self-discipline and taking responsibility. Within a generation, this ghetto," he pointed around us, "will be completely different. And that without any government help."

For those readers who are wondering why this is touching and why it would make me cry, let me give some background:

Gypsies are the lowest, most despised and outcast group in any nation of the Balkans, and, as a matter of fact, in Europe. It has nothing to do with their genes; it has to do with their culture. It is arguably the oldest surviving pagan culture in Europe; and when I say "pagan," I mean pagan in all the possible meanings of this term. There is no vice nor sin that is not present in the very fabric of their culture. They self-consciously live off the backs of the surrounding population; the popular saying among the Gypsies in the Balkans is you know if the economic situation is tough, if there's nothing to steal.

Girls are taught from an early age to pickpocket. Their communities are drowned in all kinds of sexual immorality and Gypsy girls are often sold by their fathers to pimps; they make up a large portion of the prostitutes in Europe. Babies are deliberately disabled after being born to grow with twisted limbs and be sent to beg on the streets. The average lifespan for a Gypsy in the Balkans is 45-50 years, due to the wide abuse of alcohol and narcotics among them, to say nothing of the frequent murders in the feuds and the vendettas between the Gypsy clans. When they settle, they usually simply occupy private lands as squatters and force the victim to put up with them on his land; when they live a nomadic life, a village or a town that has the bad luck to have a Gypsy caravan passing through town will often see private and public property vandalized, and tons of garbage left to rot everywhere. In some European nations, like the Czech Republic, local authorities still designate areas for Gypsy ghettos, and even build walls around them and institute curfew for the Gypsy population.

Individual Gypsies, of course, break out of that life of sin, dependency, and poverty, and become civilized; some of them even prosper in highly qualified occupations like doctors and engineers. But for the majority of them, breaking out of their community is not easy. The Gypsies, being of Indo-European descent, still keep the old system of clan organization traditional for the Celts, the Persians, and the other Indo-European peoples: one can say Gypsies may well be the oldest surviving pagan culture in Europe. Not the family, not the individual, but the clan in the person of its "prince" is the center of the communal activity among Gypsies. They have their own tribal law, as old as the world, unwritten but known by everyone, and the central part played in the justice system of the clan is the "prince."

Economically, the "prince" of the clan has the right to all economic proceeds-from pickpocketing, beggary, stealing people's crops, witchcraft, etc.-and then he distributes them as he sees fit. As a result, it is not uncommon to see the "prince" living in a huge brick house and having Mercedes-Benzes for him, his wife, and his immediate family, while the rest of the clan live in houses of mud and use old horse or donkey carts for transportation. The hold of the clan on the minds of its members is very strong; and only in the very rarest of the circumstances can a missionary achieve a breakthrough and snatch a few individuals out of the clan and convert them to Christ. The good news is that in the modern society, clans are not able to compete successfully against the larger world out there, or against the disintegration caused by their own wickedness and sin. When a clan disintegrates, the individual members are left helpless in a world where their Gypsy culture is viewed with disgust and hate. A determined pastor or a missionary can achieve significant success among these individual members.

Normally, though, it is quite dangerous to work among Gypsies, for a clan head may decide that the church presents a competing authority. And when a pastor is determined to change the very culture, this is now a clear danger to the traditional Gypsy way of life.

Boris's way of dealing with clan culture is the way of individual and family productivity. He wants to teach all his young people to become entrepreneurial, independent both spiritually and economically, and future-oriented. He says he learned that from the books and articles of Christian Reconstruction translated into Bulgarian.

When I told him that his job is much tougher than mine, having to work in a culture that is as remote from any Christian cultural influence as possible, he protested, "If it wasn't for your ministry and the books you've translated and the articles you've written, our job would have been impossible."

Changing Our Habits

He is blessed to not be alone in this job. His brother is helping him as a second pastor. More than a dozen young men, all reading and learning from Rushdoony, North, and Bahnsen, not to mention Calvin and the Puritans, are determined to change the culture of their community. More than any other concept, "changing our habits" was the often-repeated combination of words. "We have to change our habits, our relations, our view of law and justice, and our view of work and the future," Boris says.

At the conference I delivered a lecture on the Biblical value of work. The two young men from Boris's church who attended the conference said during my visit to their town, "Our community is especially guilty of that pagan hostility to work. Our church needs to hear that message more than any other message." One of the young men who were having a coffee with us told me he was planning to enroll in the university to study medicine; his whole attitude to time and life has changed, he said, and helping men have healthier lives now suddenly had value in his eyes.

"Boris," I said at the end of my visit, "if you continue down that road, you know what is going to happen. You will put many other pastors to shame, and especially the Bulgarian ethnic majority."

"I have no intention to put anyone to shame," Boris retorted. "I only want to take my people closer to Christ and His Kingdom. We have been given the wrong message all these years. We now see hope, for our community and for our children. I want Reformation and Reconstruction for this community here, for the glory of God. I'll leave it to God to exalt or to put to shame, as He pleases."

* * * * *

"Why is the Protestant religion gaining so much ground among the Gypsies?" asked my friend Kalin later that week.

Kalin is a well-known journalist who made a name working for Radio Free Europe in the 1990s. We became good friends ten years ago when we worked on starting the first libertarian organization in Bulgaria. I shared with him the story of my new Gypsy friends, right before my interview for Bulgaria On Air, a national TV station where Kalin presently leads a political commentary show.

"Because," I said with a smile, "the Bible says that the last shall become first."

"Well, I see," he said, "but what is the immediate motivation for them?"

"For the first time in their lives, and in their history," I answered, "they have hope."