here’s a recent article that I wrote about the fantastic roma outreach program that I work with in budapest. part of my job as an english communications associate for the reformed church in hungary is writing english articles about various things happening in the wider church, and with my connection to the YOU+ME ministry, I was the perfect person to sit down for a chat with the rev. istván lakó to discuss how this ministry is different from other roma outreach projects and the tangible ways in which it has impacted the community. if you’re interested in reading more articles that I’ve written, you can click here to head to the RCH’s english website!
Rev István Lakó is the assistant pastor at the Salétrom Street congregation, and when the church started a ministry to the Roma in the community three years ago he jumped on board eagerly – he’s now responsible for the faith activities that YOU+ME puts on, like the worship service and the community events. Being centered in an urban area like the eighth district changes the way ministry to the Roma is done here, and that’s something that Lakó is very interested in.
One of the biggest differences that Lakó sees is the relationship between those who are serving and those who are being served through this ministry. The team from the Salétrom Street congregation decided at the beginning of their work that they would not give people hand-outs, but they would instead have people work for rewards. “We wouldn’t just hand out some food or some social support just because they are poor and we can afford it. We think that it would lead to an unhealthy relationship. As we are speaking and thinking about the church, symmetrical relationships are better,” says István.
This kind of attitude has worked out quite well for the YOU+ME team, and they’re seeing what a tangible difference it makes for the clients that they serve. One such example is their behavior point system for the children who attend their after-school program. At the end of the day, children receive a certain amount of points based on their behavior that day and they can then use these points to buy prizes for themselves and their families.
“In the beginning of the school year we didn’t give [the children] pencils or pens or anything, but they were able to buy them for themselves, so it’s a kind of social support because they didn’t have to pay for the items, but still they work for it and they are the ones who earned it. It’s a very different situation because this way they feel very proud and it’s a very good way to start the new year – they don’t have to be ashamed that they’re missing some basic educational tools. Even the adults are very proud of their children and it’s an actual help for them because then they didn’t have to pay for or worry about this,” muses Lakó.
This system of working in order to gain help is something that has not only impacted the children that the ministry works with, but the families as well. One year the team bought a baby stroller and gave it to a young woman with a young child. The staff knew her personally – they had baptized the child and even visited her regularly. István says that, “Since she knew us, and she knew this community, she had a strong feeling that she wanted to give something back in return for the kindness she had been shown. You would think that this family lives in very poor circumstances, so you would say, ‘We don’t need anything in return because we are so good,’ but she brought back many baby clothes. She washed them and so it was nice, they were good clothes and she had this feeling that she needed to give something back.” The team has a lot of stories like that – people who have been helped by the church and can see the good work that is done there, and so they reciprocate the kindness however they can.
Another difference in the program that Rev István Lakó runs, compared to others around Hungary, is the way learning and relationships are approached during the after-school program. The YOU+ME team does not have specific teachers for specific subjects, instead, they focus on building relationships between the children and their one-on-one tutors, so that it feels more like spending time with a friend rather than studying. “Many times the biggest problem is not with homework, but with motivation,” says Lakó. “So we decided to build relationships – that’s why we try to form learning or study pairs and the children can meet with the same people week after week. If it happens that they become friends, then it’s a very different situation than just saying ‘Come, come and learn and learn more and even after 4 o’clock you have to learn more!’ because instead they are just coming for their friends. They’re thankful that somebody cares and that somebody asks what happened in the school. Many times it doesn’t happen like this in the family or in the school.”
The YOU+ME team is also unique in that the majority of volunteers live in the very neighborhood in which they are serving. The people who come to help out are not just enthusiastic about the work they are doing, but they’re deeply invested in it as well because they’re a part of the very community that they help. It happens regularly that volunteers run into the families that they work with in the midst of their day-to-day life – on the way to get groceries, headed to the tram stop, and even on a stroll around the neighborhood. The people who work at YOU+ME walk in the very same dirt as the clients that they are serving, and this makes for more authentic service.
The people at YOU+ME have volunteers from all walks of life involved in their ministry. “What happens at YOU+ME is that anyone who comes in and sees something they can help with, we are glad and we don’t question their heart because they may not be Christians or something. For example, we have an old guy who lives in this neighborhood and he saw that children are playing chess here and it turned out that he’s an official chess player and he’s retired and he wanted to teach children for many years now and he offered his help. Now he comes and the children are enthusiastic and he already went, with some of our children, to a competition,” says Lakó.
In this set-up, it is not just Christians from the Reformed Congregation at Salétrom Street serving non-Christians, but it is anyone who feels a calling to help, Christian or non-Christian, helping anyone who needs it, Christian or non-Christian. The mix of volunteers and clients at YOU+ME is a vast melting pot, filled with people from all walks of life who come together to make the Magdolna neighborhood a better place.
István says that this kind of service is far reaching in the community. “The man who teaches chess to the children is not Christian at all and his friends started to mock him because he goes to a church – they are curious as to why he wants to help. Now he has to face this question about what the church is in this place and in his life. So far he was just thinking, ‘Okay I don’t care about the church’ but now he’s involved and invested. Even if we don’t bridge the gap entirely and we don’t attract him to come to services, he still starts to ask and somehow explain his presence here. He’s not just giving, but he’s receiving something and he’s facing some questions which he might avoid in his regular life. I do love these kinds of interactions – you cannot plan or prepare for this, but it just happens.”