We Are All God’s Beloved Children. Interview with Mikuláš Vymětal

I’m always glad to talk about my work with minorities

Vymětal MikulášAfter graduating from the Technical Engineering High School, Mikuláš Vymětal (*1971) went on to study the Protestant Theological Faculty of the Charles University. He spent a year and a half studying Jewish theology in Israel and a year in Germany studying Jewish studies and the Old Testament, which was also the topic of his Doctoral Thesis. He was the pastor at the Prague-Horní Počernice congregation for five years, then he became the pastor of the Prague seniorate and the youth pastor. He has been leading the congregation in Beroun for the past three years, and he is also the ECCB’s preacher for humanitarian activities, minorities and socially excluded individuals. He is married and has two daughters.

 How and why did you become a pastor for minorities?

As the youth pastor, I focused on figuring out what young people were really interested in. To give an example, I found out that they were much more captivated by topics such as “love and sex” or “death” than by the Heidelberg Catechism or the Lord’s Prayer. A lot of young people would also show a great interest in social issues, so I tried to stay on the same page with them. When I organised the discussion evening called “Christians and Squatters – What We Have in Common and What Divides Us”, the participants asked me afterward to be the preacher at the “blockade” sermon in the town of Krupka in the Teplice region.

Was this related to the anti-Roma protests in the region?

It was a service held in order to block a march of far-right extremists (the Social Justice party) in Krupka. I knew that something very similar had recently taken place in Nový Bydžov and that the police had intervened quite brutally, several people had been seriously injured. However, at the time of these events in Krupka, I was away at the other end of the country, preparing a children’s camp. I learned that the police was once again dispersing the protesters and that people were being injured. This feeling of helplessness made me take a more active stance, I started cooperating with the activists who had already been taking the part of the Roma people for a long time.

I believe this was in 2011, we reported the events in the Český bratr magazine.

Yes, other priests were also active and doing great work, such as the Šimonovský family infoto Veronika Karlíková (7) Rumburk who came up with the activity called “A Light for the Šluknovsko Region”, in which Roma and non-Roma people would always meet on Fridays in various churches. My activist friends, however, would meet during the actual marches, right in front of the houses of the poor Roma people, where the hostile crowd was heading.

 I remember some of these activities mainly focused on children.

Yes, we felt that when a thousand people are marching toward the houses and screaming hateful slogans, it was our duty to get the children’s attention, so they could focus on something else and not be afraid. And since I was the youth pastor at the time, we discussed this with youth groups and came up with the “Shoebox” event, which the readers are most probably familiar with.

Has the “Shoebox” event become popular?

foto Veronika Karlíková (8)I wanted the whole church to get involved; the congregations form a network that spans the whole country. There is a social dimension to the Gospel – it is good to transform it into actions. And indeed, this Christmas charity, sending gifts to Roma children, is still working, many congregations are now organising the activity on their own.

Why do you think these anti-Roma moods have subsided lately?

Since 2013, the (hard-to-define) hate of the society has turned against Muslims and refugees in general. In cooperation with my Roma friends and people from the church, we began organising gatherings to support peaceful co-living. Muslims were quick to join our gatherings, as this gave them an opportunity to speak out about the situation they’ve been facing.

How else can one help the poor and the socially excluded?

Every Wednesday, the congregations of the Prague seniorate hand out food (soup in the winter, sandwiches in the summer) to homeless people in front of Prague’s Central train station. This may look like charity from the 19th century, but around a hundred people always come and appreciate the help.

 Which groups of people do you believe are most prone to facing social exclusion?

There’s a number of such groups in the Czech Republic. They are people the society hates – Muslims, refugees, Roma people, but also other groups of people that are not talked about that often, such as the poor and homeless people, people who have been released from prison, addicts of all sorts, mothers with children staying in asylum houses, or people with a different sexual orientation, which is an issue especially in churches; even rich people, however, can face social exclusion. When a there is one factory-owner living in a village, giving work to hundreds of people, his position in the village society is the worst you could imagine…

Specifically, what can you offer to our church’s congregations as the pastor for minorities?

I can provide them with contacts, and offer the possibility of a personal visit. I am always happy to visit individual congregations and talk about the current situation that various minorities are facing. I usually bring a representative of one of the minorities, so they can speak about their experience.

Let’s get back to the Roma people for a moment. What makes the Roma community strong?

foto Veronika Karlíková (26)They serve as a real example of what a strong, functioning family means. The families I know usually live in poverty and have many children (which is also the Christian ideal), but they are very coherent and show a strong ability to withstand pressure from the outside, to cling together when times are tough. I also think one of their strengths is their emotionality: they know how to show firm support, they have a very strong temper, but their fights are over in an instant. “Roma anger lasts for two minutes”, says a Roma proverb.

What makes the Roma community vulnerable?

I see two problematic aspects. One is the discrimination which has been there for centuries and is still very noticeable in the Czech Republic today. There is still very much pressure on regular schools not to accept and integrate Roma children. The result is that the Roma become a more and more closed, segregated community, hostile toward the non-Roma, often prone to drug addictions and other problems.

The other aspect is the gradually disappearing Romani language. When Slovak Roma were seeking work in Czechia in the fifties and sixties, they were often illiterate, did not know Czech, but they were very good at their Romani language. Nowadays, I am afraid most of the Czech Roma are on Facebook, but their knowledge of Romani is fading away, which is quite a pity. The language is facing imminent extinction in our country.

What do you most often discuss with the Roma people?

I organise Roma-Czech services, where the Roma participate in preparing the liturgy, prayers, sermons (we sometimes invite Roma preachers), and music. Also, I often talk to my Roma friends as a pastor. It is interesting that when they find out I am a pastor, they often want to talk about their dreams. They want to talk about faith and about their dead relatives visiting them in their dreams and what this means for them in the present or in the future. Other times I also try to help them with their social situation – for example when they have smart kids, I try to help them get admitted into “normal” schools, which means resisting a lot of pressure.

Is there any meaningful help you would like to provide in the future?

I regularly meet with rabbi Sidon who has proposed that Christians and Jews could donate part of their restitution funds to talented Roma who would raise the whole community, improve its reputation.

How do the Roma people perceive us, members of the ECCB?

They trust pastors and church is an important place for them. However, many of those who arrived from Slovakia stopped attending church, because its doors were not open to these people. Still, they preserved their faith. I see may open doors in our church today – some people have adopted Roma children, some of ECCB’s parish houses host Roma meetings organised by non-profit organisations… I always welcome these activities as the pastor for minorities.

Why was a Roma flag put up on the ECCB’s headquarters on 2 August?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring WWII, a large number of Roma people were killed in concentration camps. They were persecuted just like Jews, only this is less talked about. The fact that a pig farm still stands at the location of the former concentration camp in Lety u Písku, where many Roma people died, shows an extreme lack of respect. In order not to forget the suffering the Roma people have been through, 2 August has been declared the Roma Holocaust Day. That is why a Roma flag was flying on the ECCB’s headquarters in Jungmannova street, but also at the office of the Jewish Community in Prague and at the Hussite church in Žižkov. On the same date, a religious and cultural night was organised at which Roma food was served and Roma and Jewish dances were shown. The cultural night also included worship.

What about people with a different sexual orientation? What is your experience with them?

For these people, the issue does not only concern their sexual orientation, but their whole inner self, their worldview. This is why they often assess their life – often very painfully – from a religious point of view. Even in our society today, it is not easy for them to accept who they are and openly admit it. Many churches react very harshly to such “coming-outs” and present God as somebody who condemns such people. Which, however, is contrary to our perception of the Gospel, which says that God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth”. (1 Tim 2:4).

Is there any sort of a platform for people with a different sexual orientation?

The Logos association, which is a Christian ecumenical community of “queer” people and their friends, has been working in the Czech Republic for years. During the Prague Pride festival, an opening and a closing service usually takes place in the church of St Martin in the Wall, which is always attended by many. I believe it is important for these people to hear that God accepts them the way they are, that the Gospel brings hope into their life.

Are there any new developments in your work with refugees? They are also a minority in our country.

There are few refugees in our country and they are staying in detention and asylum centres. Others are integrating into the society, for example the elementary school my younger daughter goes to is attended by three children from the group of Iraqi Christians that came to our country as part of the project organised by Generace 21. Part of the Czech society, supported by certain politicians, has taken a very negative attitude toward refugees. I believe, however, we as Christians should focus on helping the few thousand refugees we have committed to accept, and creating an atmosphere in the society that will make life in our country bearable for these people.

How is dialogue with the Muslim minority going?

At the beginning, I approached Muslims with quite a bit of anxiety, but nowadays I have many friends among them. In addition, our discussions about faith have shown that Muslims can enrich us, Christians, in several ways. Sadly, what I see today is that they are the most discriminated of all the minorities – by nearly the whole society, including the police. Unfortunately, this also concerns our church, the ECCB, where you will also find people who disagree with this discrimination. I find this difficult to understand, given that we as Protestants also used to be a forbidden and then unwillingly tolerated minority in the past.

Could you say something about the recent meeting of the Muslim community at the Jiřího z Poděbrad square in Prague, at which terrorist attacks were publicly condemned and their victims mourned? This was an event you organised together with a Catholic priest and several Czech Muslim organisations.

DSC_8690Already the prophet Muhammad condemned terrorist violence in the Qur’an. Most Muslims have a very positive relationship with Christians and the murder of an elderly priest during a mass is an act of unthinkable brutality to them. This is why Muslims have visited Catholic masses at several places in Europe, to show solidarity. The so-called Islamic State, with its brutal attacks against Christians and all non-Muslims, is striving to build a barrier between Muslims and non-Muslims, to make them enemies. However, the two terrorists who murdered father Jacques Hamel have achieved the exact contrary: Muslims are showing their solidarity, and Christians are accepting it.

What would you say to our readers to conclude the interview?

I would like to thank the members of our church for the support I have been receiving on all levels. I come in contact with all sorts of people that the Czech society tends to exclude – rich Muslims, poor Roma, people with a different sexual orientation and many others. I often feel embarrassed when I realise how I myself had been basing my judgment of these people on prejudices before I actually met them. I feel it is essential that I don’t do my work as an individual, but that I was entrusted with this job by my church. Many adventures I have been through in the past few years have changed my faith and taught me something I would not have expected: to trust my church.

The interview was led by Daniela Ženatá.