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The plight of Roma, Gypsies and Travellers - and the responsibility of non-Roma Christians 

 


God is moving among Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, and there is a growing ecumenical witness there. More Baptists could be involved, writes Thomas Acton 



Roma1

20th AGM of the Roma Support Group in London, 23 November 2018. Thomas Acton is Patron of this charity

 


A couple of years ago two dark-skinned, dark-eyed, sisters in their twenties with long black hair came for the first time to a service at Brentwood Baptist Church. Cordially welcomed by the members who were on duty to spot first timers, they hesitantly said that they were careworkers and had just moved with their husbands to a tiny flat just off Brentwood High Street. They had come from Romania.

Smiling broadly at the older of the two, I said “Mishto avilyan! Katar aves andar Rumaniya?”

Both sisters were shocked; first that I had spoken in the Romani language; second that we realised they are Romani Gypsies, (life is much easier in Britain if people think they are just Romanians); and finally third when they realised that Brentwood Baptist is a congregation where Roma, Gypsies and Travellers have been welcome, since the 1930s, when Pastor Henry Ford organised outreach with tea and buns to the Gypsies who used to camp regularly in the yard of the Robin Hood Inn. Some of the many descendants of those visitors are among the Gypsies and Travellers who now own a dozen or so small caravan sites around Brentwood since 1988, helped by the Brentwood Gypsy Support Group which has been partly based at the Baptist church.

C... and A.. and their husbands G... and M..., and now C...’s and M...’s little son D... have been part of the Brentwood Baptist Church family ever since. C... and A.. had been brought up as members of an evangelical church in Romania, and indeed, in their late teens been sent on a mission to evangelise Roma in Macedonia.




Roma-led churches

 

Rodney Gypsy SmithThere have been occasional prominent Romanies in churches, like the great Gypsy Smith (1860-1947) facing down prejudice in the mainstream. And indeed there have been Roma-led Baptist churches in Lom in Bulgaria since 1923; visiting them, so very Baptist in atmosphere, and yet so Romani in culture, was one of the most moving experiences of my life.

But the existence of mass Roma-led churches for Roma is usually dated back to the creation of the Assemblies-of-God-linked Vie et Lumière (Life and Light) movement in Brittany in 1951. Although like most evangelical movements it is somewhat fissiparous, its successor denominations now number hundreds of thousands across the world, some worshipping in the Romani language brought by Roma from India a thousand years ago, and others in local languages like French, Spanish or English.

Their amazing witness has sometimes galvanised other churches to recognise the talents of Roma, Gypsies and Travellers, most notably between 1989 and 1991 when a series of conferences led Pope John-Paul II to come down firmly on the side of recognising and respecting the  Romani, culture, language and struggle for social justice through the International Romani Union. I was present at the audience on 27 September 1991 when John-Paul II announced the new policy to around 60 people, 40 of them Roma, Gypsies or Travellers, and ten of those, Pentecostals. A decade earlier, Pentecostals and Catholics had been demonising each other; now they implicitly recognised they had a common saviour.
 



A spirit of unity in England - and the creation of the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma


In England this new spirit of unity was recognised by Richard Solly, a Roman Catholic layman, then working for “Churches Together”, who set up the UK Churches Network for Gypsies, which, from the start included ministers from the Catholic, Anglican, Nonconformist and Pentecostal traditions. For a while its main function seemed to be as a solidarity movement for often isolated non-Gypsy clergy who were getting a hard time from their congregations – and sometimes even their denominations or bishops – because they were extending the love of Christ to Gypsies.

But gradually a broader, braver, more confident vision took hold. It began to liaise with churches led by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, and as the number grew of Roma seeking asylum from the wave of violence and racism that was released in Eastern Europe by the fall of communism, it became the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma (CNGTR) and began to hold periodical rallies or “Road Shows” around the country in different churches, to bring Gypsy, Traveller and Roma Christians and their friends in mainstream churches together in a local witness.
 




Roma 7 Solly handover


Richard Solly hands over the running of the CNGTR to Martin Burrell at a meeting in Kings Cross station buffet, February 2014.
 



At one in 2016 in Brentwood Baptist Church (pictured below) we had English Gypsies, Roma, Irish and Scottish Travellers, local ministers – and the deputy Mayor of Brentwood.

Roma5 Scottish-Irish Traveller
 




Roma3 Martin BurrellToday the network’s leadership is predominantly Anglican: its Secretary and Chair are the Revd Jonathan Herbert, and the Revd Martin Burrell (pictured), experienced diocesan chaplains to Gypsies, Travellers and Roma. They get regular challenges, inspiration and resources from the Church of England’s redoubtable National Adviser on Race and Ethnicity, Dr Elizabeth Henry.

There is also heavyweight representation from the Salvation Army (from Major D. Blowers who has set up Slovak Roma-led congregations along the North Kent Coast) and from the national Roman Catholic Chaplain to Travellers, Roma and Gypsies, Fr. Dan Mason and supporters from the Catholic Association for Racial Justice. The Roman Catholics and the Salvation Army have substantive and serious policy documents on Roma in the UK and globally, while the Anglicans hope to see one adopted at a National Synod next February.

I am the only Baptist on the CNGTR steering group.

 

Roma 6 Worship at one of the R
Worship at one of the Roma-led Salvation Army congregations in Maidstone, Kent

 



'Make the stigmatisation a thing of the past'


The CNGTR has a mission to mediate, between Roma, Gypsies, Travellers and the mainstream churches, the Roma-led churches, a British society in which racist anti-Gypsyism is still curiously acceptable, and to help those who are trying to do this internationally.

In Britain we add our voice to those who say that those English Gypsies and Travellers who have lived in tents and caravans for centuries, and have a cultural aversion to bricks and mortar, have a right to secure accommodation sites without them being made pariah ghettos, or subjected to cruel evictions such as at Dale Farm.

Equally those who wish to live in houses have the right to do so without living in fear of being hounded out if their ethnicity is exposed; and this is doubly true of the Roma who have fled unemployment and oppression in Eastern Europe. The image given by the press is of criminals and beggars; but in truth the vast majority are like C... and A..: working at low-paid jobs, still sending money back home, studying hard to get more qualifications, and above all dreaming of a better life for their children.

 



Roma2

A  commemoration of the Nazi genocide of Roma 2 August, 2018 by Roma organisations, including CNGTR members, is addressed by a Rabbi

 


Research has shown that although the great majority of Roma children who arrived here from Slovakia were forced into schools for the educationally sub-normal, in Britain, they have achieved nearly average achievement levels in mainstream schools. Roma immigrants are scared that Brexit will mean that the UK government will especially target Roma for deportation as the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments did even when there was the principle of “free movement”. We need to make sure this does not happen; that the bricks through windows, the thoughtless racist exclusions, the victim-blaming, the problematisation and stigmatisation of a whole people, become things of the past.




What should Baptists know and do?


First, be aware that there is an established Baptist witness: not just my lovely Brentwood Baptist Church, not just in Bulgaria, but scattered across the world. From the United States the Co-operative Baptist Fellowship has sponsored precious Bible Translations, and outreach to the Dom Gypsies of the Middle East (there is a lively Dom Gypsy church in Jerusalem!). But we have no coherent Baptist national witness in the UK and we ought to have.
 


Roma 5 Acton Valdemar Kalinin

Thomas Acton (right) with Valdemar Kalinin, member of the CNGTR steering committee, whose translation of the Bible into Baltic Romani was published this year

 


Second, be aware that there may be Roma, Gypsies and Travellers right in your church, concealing, or even trying to forget their ethnic identity. They should not have to. Does your church really welcome everyone?

Third, you can get involved with the CNGTR (which has a public Facebook group), go to its rallies which have been re-named “This is our story, this is our song” events. When C... and A.. went to them, they met up with other equally serious young Roma women who had immigrated from other countries who understood them  because they had the same experiences, hopes and fears. Marvellous testimonies of the grace of God under pressures that most non-Gypsies will never have to face, just tumbled from their lips.

God is using the incredible movement of the Spirit among Roma, Gypsies and Travellers to tell the whole church across the world that he is on the move, that something new is coming. As a denomination, we should be on board.



Image | 
Gypsy Smith | Wikimedia Commons 
All other images | Thomas Acton



Thomas Acton, OBE, emeritus Professor of Romani Studies at Greenwich University, is a Baptist layman who was a contemporary of Paul Fiddes in the John Bunyan Society at Oxford. He is a member of Brentwood Baptist Church where he was dedicated, baptised and married.

He has published 11 books and dozens of learned papers on Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

 

 




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Baptist Times, 07/12/2018
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