Students yelled as they jockeyed for positions around the racetrack and rooted for their cars as they shot down the track. Cheers followed each heat as winners beamed and losers tried to be gracious.
Miniature Soap Box Derby® (also called pinewood derby) cars eased conversations in English, brought cries of excitement and opened the door to sharing God’s love during Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Heartland’s recent mission adventure in Slovakia.
“It was kind of crazy,” team member Matthew “Matt” Thompson of Ashworth Road Baptist Church in West Des Moines, Iowa, said. “They all wanted to race at the same time. It was really cool to see them get excited to race.”
The high school junior and his mom, Heartland Moderator-elect Nancy Thompson, joined the regional CBF’s latest trip to Slovakia, a partnership that began in 2010.
Jekh Drom (One Way), a non-profit based in Vazec, invited the Heartland contingent to minister to students — with the local school each morning and with children from the nearby Roma (Gypsy) settlement each afternoon.
Matt and Heartland Coordinator Harold Phillips worked together to come up with a fun activity that could be used to connect with children. Matt credits Phillips with the idea of building derby cars.
They originally thought they might use the large ride-able version. But the price of the large ones and the cost to ship them to Slovakia prohibited that option. While researching the larger cars, Matt and his mom discovered the miniature version. They purchased car kits and sent plans for the racetrack to CBF field personnel Shane and Dianne McNary to have it built in Slovakia.
At the school, children were divided into small groups of three or four, with a team member assigned to each group to assist with one car, Matt explained. “They were all really excited and engaged,” he said.
The Heartland team took enough cars to allow each child from the Roma settlement to have his or her own.
And they didn’t hesitate to help each other. When some students grasped how to make the car, they would turn to assist those who didn’t, he added.
Phillips noticed the cooperative effort at the school. “For example, there was one screwdriver per kit and they each would pass around the screwdriver so each kid in the small group put in one screw,” Phillips said.
“Watching that was fascinating because of the way the kids shared. My expectation is that one kid would take the screwdriver and want to put in all the screws,” he said. “…[I]t was fascinating to watch that little part of the group dynamics of school kids in that part of Slovakia.”
The activity allowed English conversation to flow more easily with schoolchildren, Phillips said.
“Working on assembling a car kit made that the focus and so kids were more relaxed to speak English,” he said by email. “It was less stressful for them and more casual.”
Races for the Roma children took place on Thursday afternoon at the town community center/town hall, with each participant receiving a medal. They proudly wore those medals to school the following day.
Jekh Drom, which focuses on the Roma, is a local not-for-profit in Vazec set up in part to act as a go-between for grant money from the European Union to assist the Roma community. In the past, “the city would get a grant from the EU to work with Roma and then would ‘hold their nose’ when they gave the grant money to those who worked with Roma in town,” Phillips explained.
The Roma people are still looked down upon by other citizens. Jekh Drom requests money directly from the EU, rather than relying on the city to do so.
The derby cars indirectly boosted Jekh Drom. At the end of the week, school officials asked McNary if they could keep the track. “Shane said the track was not his — that it belonged to Jekh Drom,” Phillips explained.
“Shane says it was one of the first times the local majority people have asked Jekh Drom…for anything…. [T]he status and credibility of Jekh Drom was enhanced and elevated as a resource for making a positive addition to the local community.”
Not only did Jekh Drom benefit, so did Matt Thompson. He had wanted to make another international trip since he had gone to Haiti with Ashworth Road a few years ago. “I wanted to see the cultural differences…and it was a perfect opportunity,” he said.
He was particularly struck by the Roma people’s generosity even in the face of poverty. The Roma invited team members into their homes and offered food and drinks. “Even though they don’t have a lot,…they would still offer hospitality,” Matt said.
He said he also learned “not to judge people at first sight.” Though it seemed that no one in Vazec liked the Roma, “it turned out they are some of the best kids you could meet,” he said.
McNary admits he was a bit concerned about using the derby cars. “I confess that I was uncertain, but the Thompsons’ preparation for the autos, the whole team’s participation in each component of the week’s activities and the blessed presence of God’s Spirit made for a fantastic week,” he said.