by Mike Creswell
People once feared the Gypsy Ivan Zahariev. He was a criminal and sometimes vicious when he was drunk.
And looking at Berkovitsa, Bulgaria, the little Gypsy town where he lived, you'd have been hard-pressed to expect more from him. It's a humble collection of homes strewn up and down a hillside. Untreated sewage runs down the middle of dirt streets, where in the summer naked children play.
Gypsies are second-class citizens at best in Bulgaria-poor, ill-treated and scorned, as they are across much of Europe. Berkovitsa, with few jobs and low incomes, reflects this status.
But when Ivan Zahariev accepted Christ as his Savior, his life changed. After his conversion, Baptist missionary Bill Wardlaw taught him the Bible and discipled him. Ivan, the warehouse worker and drunk, became Ivan, a polished preacher well-versed in the Bible, a leader.
Ultimately, his entire village changed, too.
Today Ivan is pastor of a growing church in Berkovitsa, which has a population of about 3,400. Especially popular are the weekly children's classes that teach music and Bible stories to about 100 children. Their main teacher is the daughter of Victor Stefkov Georgiev, the town's former mayor.
Georgiev says crime has fallen sharply in Berkovitsa in the past decade. Even smoking and drinking have decreased by 70 percent.
Other local improvements: Last fall ground was broken on three new buildings-a public bathhouse, needed because few houses in town have indoor plumbing; a health center to provide much-needed basic medical care; and a new Baptist church building to replace the tiny rooms the church has long since outgrown.
Not one, but three area mayors came to the church's groundbreaking-unheard of for a Gypsy village.
But Ivan is looking far beyond a single church. He is looking toward churches for all his people.
Ivan began preaching in a local prison. Response was so positive that the pro-Communist government gave him a permit to preach in other prisons across the country.
And his preaching in the "Rom" Gypsy language on radio programs six times a week has brought responses from far and wide.
Recently when he preached in a town for the first time, a man came up and hugged him, weeping. "I've listened to you preach on the radio for three years, and now I have an opportunity to see you," the man said.
In the town of Damyanovo, believer Natalie Kamenova recalls how excited she and her sister became two years ago when she heard a Gypsy-language broadcast-Ivan was talking about "New Man." At the time, they missed getting the response address but the next week wrote it down and sent a letter. Two weeks later Ivan came to visit.
As a result, a Bible study started. Now there's a fledgling church, meeting upstairs in a house once owned by Joel Chiron, a French missionary who works with Ivan in the area.
Similar churches have sprung up in towns between Sofia, the country's capital, and the Danube River, which stretches across Bulgaria's northern border.