My wife and I have been the lead pastors of a church in Bulgaria for the past six years and have been running an outreach to the Roma (gypsy) community for the past eight years. We have watched this impoverished community go from bad to worse as their homes were demolished (twice) and they lived without water and power for months at a time. We have purchased land and are in the process of building homes for six families, with more to come in the future. Our goal is to see lasting change in the educational opportunities, social integration, and professional training of this community as we help lift them out of the cycle of poverty.
As I watch my colleagues around the globe grapple with the challenges of ministering to their churches and communities in the midst of a pandemic, social unrest, and economic instability, I wanted to share some hard-earned lessons that can be useful for anyone who is ministering to communities in crisis.
Bringing lasting change is all about focusing on the long game. The world is never short on crises and emergencies, and meeting people’s immediate needs is necessary but it can’t be our primary focus.
My mom once met with a Roma girl who had nowhere to live. Her first response was to tell this girl that she would be praying for her. The girl’s response was both profound and arresting; she turned to my mom and said, “You can pray for me, but I can’t sleep on your prayers.” That day, my parents brought this young girl home and she ended up living with us for a year. Now years later, this woman is leading our Children of Hope ministry. An orphan, a Roma, and an outcast – she is an example of how relationships can change hundreds of lives and bring hope to the most marginalized communities.
Investing in relationships is the most valuable thing we can do. When the crisis is over, relationships remain.
Sometimes our idea of help isn’t really applicable to people’s needs. When we first started to reach out to the Roma community, we would host a weekly BBQ and feed the entire neighborhood. The problem was that people would leave with full stomachs but remain in the cycle of poverty.
Eventually, we grew to understand that the Roma community is a relational community. A sit-down chat and a cup of coffee often meant more to them than a $100 bill. Every community is different and it is critical that you have a clear understanding of WHO you are trying to help. This makes the HOW and WHY that much easier.
There will always be people who live on the ‘hand out’, but our job is to create a culture of setting people on their own two feet and empowering them to move forward. While the most pressing needs should be met, the long term goal is that people have the ability and capacity to take the steps needed to lift themselves out of their current situation.
When we give without holding people to a certain level of personal responsibility, we enable them to do nothing. Most people who are given the chance to move their lives forward will take it, especially if they are in crisis.
You may not be the one who is meeting face-to-face with those in need. Maybe you are a businesswoman, stay-at-home mother, or a pastor and you are not on the “front lines” of a crisis. I’ve learned that one of the most vital roles we can all play is being a bridge between those in need and those wanting to help.
When we moved our family to Bulgaria, we realized that not everyone could go but many people wanted to be involved and make a difference. We are lead pastors of a church and Children of Hope is an extension of that church, but one of our most important roles is to connect those in need to those who are ready and willing to help. So what does that mean? It means we are charged with telling the story of the ones we are trying to reach as if it was our own story.
Helping those in crisis starts with realizing that we are the voice for those struggling to find their own.
There are times when you will not immediately see the return on your investment. Lasting change does not happen overnight. The young kids we were helping eight years ago are now starting their own families. At 15 and16 years old, these kids are dropping out of school to get married and have babies.
I remember going down to the village one Friday and hearing that one of our girls had gotten married the weekend before. I was devastated. I didn’t understand how all of this time and energy that we had been investing into this young girl – all of the talks about opportunity, the importance of education, and not being trapped in the same cycle as her parents felt like they were for nothing. I was ready to quit. Is this how it was going to go? Pouring into these kids only until they are old enough to work or have babies?
And then I had a realization. If I put in all of this time, all of this effort, and all of the investment and it impacts only one life, is it worth it? Yes, it is. If one child’s life is changed, if one family has a place to live and somewhere to work, if one kid graduates, if only one cycle is broken, it is absolutely worth it.
So many great ministries, non-profits, organizations, and outreaches have been started with the best intentions only to fizzle out after the initial excitement wears off. The people who have the most impact are those who don’t give up. If I could encourage you with anything today, it would be this: Keep going. Don’t give up.
If we are looking for a quick-fix or a boost to our ego – a feel-good moment or a generic photo op with a poor soul in need – we have missed the point. Helping people in crisis is messy and at times can be heartbreaking. But it’s worth it.
When you build relationships, meet people where they are at, and help lift them out of their circumstances you will find that the reward is better than any promotion, any raise, or any accomplishment you could ever achieve.
Noah Ramos and his wife Andrea are the Lead Pastors of Zoe Sofia. Noah was born in Seattle, Washington and lived in Bulgaria for seven years while growing up. Noah and Andrea met in Bible College in 2001 and married in 2003. They are passionate about building the House of God in Bulgaria and seeing people flourish in everything God has called them to be.