FEBRUARY 4, 2014
BY AL MELLINGER
Meeting Bishop Nikolai Vasilev you would not know he is the lead pastor of the largest Roma Church in Bulgaria. He is quiet and unassuming, and yet cares for and loves his people very much.
Bishop Nikolai is a Roma, commonly known as a Gypsy. Unfortunately, as a people group, Gypsies do not have a good reputation and are not well treated or respected in Bulgaria. Nikolai grew up in a squatter’s village on the edge of Samokov, a town in southwest Bulgaria, and became a Christian in 1988 when his brother invited some guests to their home who shared the gospel message.
At that time, communism still ruled, and the church was illegal in Bulgaria. The band of believers began meeting in a member’s home. During one prayer time, they interceded for God to send someone to preach to and teach them. Nikolai felt the move of God and said, “I want to be that man.” So began Nikolai’s journey as a deacon in the church. Eventually, he was ordained as a pastor. Now, he serves as the bishop of the independent Bulgarian Church of God, the first Roma to be elected as the leader of their denomination.
On what was once the Samokov city dump, a small church was built shortly after the fall of communism. People began to attend and find the Lord. Many additions and expansions have been made to accommodate the number of people coming to services. Now, about 25 years later, attendance for most services is more than 800, with standing-room-only crowds. It is the largest Roma Church in Bulgaria and, most likely, the Balkans.
But this church is more than services and meetings. They assist many smaller churches in nearby villages, sending leadership teams to help with evangelism and church construction. They have offered a feeding program for widows and orphans who have fallen through the cracks of social services. A training center was opened to help Roma women learn how to be hairdressers, allowing them to generate income for their families. Since most gypsies speak Roma at home, the church has had a language ministry to help preschool children learn Bulgarian, so they are not behind when they start school.
With unemployment high (about 90 percent currently in the Roma village where the church is), resources are very limited, which means from time to time the church programs are not running, in spite of the needs and desire. The church does the best they can and always looks to God to show them what they need to do next! Bishop Nikolai does not receive a salary and therefore also has a job outside the church (as do most of the Bulgarian pastors).
Through our partnership with the Church of God in Bulgaria, Free Methodists in the United States and the United Kingdom have the opportunity to draw alongside this group and help them as they reach out to their own people. “Nikolai has a passion for God and belief that his people can make a difference in their society,” says Rev. David Carr, U.K. overseer for this Bulgaria work. “He is a person of strong character whom God has raised up to be a leader of this movement.”