Ruth School offers gypsy children education, hot meals, Bible study classes in poorest area of Bucharestcomment (0)
May 15, 2014
By Bob Terry
The chill in the air deepens as the sun begins to set in what is called the poorest area in Bucharest. Nearby fortunate Roma families live in crowded concrete apartment buildings several stories high. From utility poles dangle nests of electrical wires, a clear indication that someone (or a lot of someones) has tapped into the power supply, probably illegally.
Some not-so-fortunate Roma families live under rugs and blankets thrown across huge pipes that carry steam heat from a central heating plant to all the nearby buildings. The Roma peel away the insulation from these huge pipes and let the radiating heat protect them from the cold Romanian winters.
This is a hard neighborhood. Crime is high and drugs are rampant. On the street corner six teenagers hang out. At least four of them stand in the street forcing passing cars to carefully navigate the already narrow street. They are Roma, also known as gypsies.
Life for gypsies is hard in Romania. Centuries of discrimination continue officially and unofficially. Often the reputation of the group is well earned. That is why the group of teens on the street corner cause visitors to the area to feel uncomfortable.
Providence Baptist Church in Bucharest, the Ruth School and Roma have become synonymous in this community during the more than 20 years the church has targeted gypsies for special ministry. Prior to 1989 when the Communist government was overthrown, Providence was one of six Baptist churches in Bucharest and drew members from across the city. But after the fall of Communism new churches were started. Now there are 22 and most churches became more regional or neighborhood-oriented.
About the same time the new government started placing Roma in Providence Baptist’s neighborhood. Now about 30 percent of the population in the area is Roma.
Inspired by a sermon from a Southern Baptist representative to minister to their neighborhood, the young people of Providence decided to hold a Sunday activity for Roma children. Leaders were surprised when 13 children showed up from a group known to be standoffish and closed to outsiders.
That was just the beginning. Soon the outreach transformed from Sunday activities to a school. A two-story building was constructed on church property offering gypsy children free education for grades one through four in the morning and grades five through eight in the afternoon.
In Romania, compulsory education goes through the eighth grade after which children may choose to go to high school. For many Roma, however, the fees associated with compulsory education are often a barrier, to say nothing of the overt discrimination.
From that small beginning the Ruth School has grown. Today the church owns a separate school building located a few blocks away. The building provides classrooms for grades one through eight complete with playgrounds, cafeteria and computer labs.
Currently the school enrolls 200 Roma children in grades K–8 and another 20 children in the preschool program.
Brittany Garton, an American volunteer serving at the Ruth School, said education is not generally valued by gypsies but parents send their children to the Ruth School because the school offers a free hot meal, dental care and medical check-ups. For students needing extra help with academics, tutors are provided. Students participate in chapel each week as well as have the option of Bible study classes.
Even though education is not valued among gypsies and mandatory education stops at the eighth grade, 95 percent of the Roma children who complete the Ruth School program go on to high school. Of that number about 65 percent complete their high school degrees, Garton said. For those who want to go to college, the Ruth School assists with scholarships.
Funds for the Ruth School come from scholarships provided by donors primarily in the United States and the United Kingdom. The school matches each student with a donor who, for $30 a month, can provide a scholarship for a particular student and receive periodic reports on the progress that student is making in school. For more information, visit www.ProjectRuth.org.
Otniel Bunaciu, pastor of Providence, said the scholarship does not cover all the education, administrative, meal and medical costs associated with the school so fundraising through gifts and grants is an ongoing activity.
The school now has its own governing board, but Providence continues actively working in the chapel programs, offering summer programs and a number of members work at the school.
And the Ruth School project is expanding. Two years ago efforts were made to minister to Roma women through sewing classes and life skills classes.
Garton said Providence offered a sign of hope to the Roma community. “People at Providence were willing to love those who were different than them,” she said. “The church was open to building the kingdom of God to include gypsies, and the community understood the church was here for them.”
A good sign is that crime has dropped in the community but the area is still a “hard neighborhood.” Now the church is broken into only about once a year, Bunaciu said.
More importantly, some of the students at the Ruth School have accepted Christ as Savior. Some have entered the Baptist Theological Institute in Bucharest (see story, page 10) and are serving as pastors of a growing number of gypsy churches. A number also have trained to do social work among their own people.
And about the six teenage boys standing on the street corner blocking traffic? A few minutes after our car went by, all six were sitting in the balcony of Providence as the Sunday night worship service began. They were just one bit of proof that the Ruth School is changing the community generation by generation.