Inquisitive, adorable, scruffy, dirty kids, deeply rutted muddy roads and no sewerage system. Scrawny horses and carts, old cars that seemed about to disintegrate, suspicious locals. This was typical of the villages we first visited in 2005 when Tim first took his tent to Bulgaria. We were there to share the Good News amongst the Roma people in villages around Plovdiv. It was an awe inspiring time. We saw God at work in salvation and healings; it was like being in the middle of a sovereign revival. Many of these people had such open hearts. In stark contrast was their poverty and awfully primitive and unhealthy living conditions. Was I really in Europe or a third world nation?
For decades the Bulgarian Roma people have been marginalised and ostracised. They are not integrated with the rest of society. Educational levels are modest, not helped by the tradition of marrying in their early teens and soon starting families. Few have the basic skills required by a modern business employer. Those who do find any sort of unskilled employment earn a pittance usually working long hours in poor conditions. Poor diets and unhealthy living conditions are rampant and few can afford much healthcare. Despite great resourcefulness most struggle to make ends meet or even to keep warm in winter. The lack of local work opportunities results in many mothers and fathers seeking seasonal labouring work abroad, leaving children with their grandparents. In this financially constrained environment we started to teach and encourage faith for finances amongst the people and churches with whom we developed relationships. Whilst our hearts are always drawn to giving money to these impoverished folk this is not a long term solution to their financial poverty.
Could this poverty cycle be broken? Over the years as we fellowshipped with the people and began to understand their culture better it was clear that there were those who wanted to break out of the cycle but didn’t have the resources. Some of their ideas and vision seemed unworkable but there were a few who had already started to pursue their vision.
Could these people demonstrate that with some financial, practical help and encouragement they could break out of their poverty cycle by creating small businesses? It was from this a few years ago that Break the Cycle Loans (“BCL”) was established through Spearhead and KC21, our home church in Aldershot. These individually structured interest free loans for small businesses are made to key people in the churches to whom we relate. We do not advertise this facility but do look for people of integrity and faith who can become beacons in their communities and demonstrate what is possible through their own enterprise. I visit Bulgaria on a regular basis but with a Cyrillic script and foreign language our communications are enormously helped by an interpreter who also takes a personal interest in the people and sends us reports.
We have made loans to travelling market traders enabling them to increase stock and turnover. One industrious lady had taken a loan to finance a business without totally understanding the terms of the commitment. She was burning out by also having to take on another demanding job as she sought to meet the loan commitment. Out of this crisis BTC refinanced the loan to help her concentrate on the shop.
One young man who had been made redundant started to grow crops. We’ve helped him with a small farming project, growing peppers and other vegetables. There was a good first season but in the second season the weather was less friendly and there was also strong competition as other European producers off loaded quality vegetables at low prices.
Another couple have started creating a small building for retailing clothes and detergents and in the longer term hope to also use it as a modest internet café so that children can communicate with parents when they find seasonal work abroad.
The loans have reflected the difficulties of the economic cycle and the regulatory transition of Bulgaria as it implements moves to conform with European Union requirements. This has been a significant learning curve especially for these Roma borrowers but even in this there have been testimonies of God’s hand in these ventures. These Roma people need our prayers as they seek to prove God in their tough situations.
One borrower had delayed meeting a particular regulation and without warning two policemen and two tax officials descended on the premises. When they found out her husband was a pastor the policemen immediately left. The tax officials were amazed that she expressed regret and didn’t make excuses for failing to meet the requirements. The tax officials were obliged to levy a fine, making it as modest as possible, and told her to appeal against it, even explaining and helping her to do this. Some equipment was needed to make the business tax compliant and we were able to help her. On appeal the fine was quashed. One of the tax officials even asked her to pray for his sick family.
We’ve had to decline some projects because we didn’t consider them viable despite some good skills by the applicants. Our focus is not just on the economics of a business but also pastoral considerations. This has borne fruit in one family in particular whose wider family finances were transformed as together we helped them to address some issues.
Although we have no specific targets for expanding BTC I would love to see the creation of businesses able to provide employment for people in the community. We look to God for adequate finances to meet any project that we want to pursue and would value your prayers and support as we look to God for inspiration and wisdom.
By Martin Wade