Romanies descended from a migration out of India in the early years of the 11th century. At that time, Hinduism would have been at the root of their beliefs. When they arrived in England many centuries later, outsiders observing them, were convinced they had no religion at all and were wild and heathen by nature. The traces of Indian roots remain evident today in the language still spoken. From the Sanskrit influences we have 'trusul', meaning 'cross', and ‘Devel’ is the word for 'God'. From the Hindi and Persian, we have 'kengeri' for 'church'.
It was believed that time spent amongst non-Romanies drains the spiritual energy, which could only be recharged by returning to an all-Romani environment in the family homes and camps. Ritual cleanliness still prevails.
Food preparation, personal hygiene and domestic arrangements must be kept pure and unpolluted. Separating of conditions is essential in all things, and the avoidance of all things 'morchardi'. The preference is for food to be prepared freshly and for left overs to be discarded promptly.
Some Romani groups in France, relate how Christianity first came to their people. They tell how a female leader of tin-smiths, Sara, who lived on the banks of the Rhône, spotted a boat sinking. Onboard were Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Mary Salome, and Saint Mary Jacobi.....the three Mary's who comforted Jesus at His crucifixion. Legend has it that Sara rescued the unfortunate women. The festival of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is held every year in the Camargue in her memory.
Generally speaking, the Romani of any area will follow the predominant religion of the land through which they are travelling or have settled, be that Protestant, Roman Catholic or Orthodox. The early little 'Tin Tabernacles' provided mission churches for the Gypsies who camped locally. The one in the woods at Bramdean, took 5 days to build in 1883 and drew it's congregation from families camped on the nearby common.
Where Gypsies wouldn't go to a local church, the church went to the Gypsies. In England the Gipsy Gospel Mission tent took to the road in the 1800's. In 1915 the Rev. George Hall published 'The Gypsy Parson', which further promoted and publicised the interaction between the church and the community.
In 1901 'Gipsey Smith - His life and work' was written by Rodney Smith himself. Born in a tent beside a large oak in Epping Forest in 1860, Rodney was the 4th child of Cornelius Smith and Mary Welch. For years he never knew his place of birth, only that he was a child of Gypsies, brought up in a tent and waggon. Deeply affected by the death of his mother from smallpox, when he was still only young, her conversion to Christianity shortly before her passing made a lasting impression on him. From being a mischievous little poacher and pilferer, the youthful Rodney reformed.
Receiving forgiveness and Christ in equal measure whilst at a Methodist meeting, he and two of his brothers began to preach. At the age of 17, he was invited to address a congregation by William Booth of the Salvation Army, a career which took him round the world more than once. The Gypsy boy liked to stay on the move. He was probably the first Gypsy person ever to be awarded an M.B.E. A memorial stone in Epping Forest was erected in his memory, a tribute to the best known evangelist of his time.
Rodney's nephew, the Rev. Bramwell Evans also achieved fame, as the much loved 'Romany of the BBC'....where he talked about nature and his travels in the countryside.
Following the success of Rodney's gospel tent, the Mission vans became very popular, closely resembling the Gypsy vans in style and pulled either singly or by a pair of horses. They would travel to the nearest camp or village and set up in the midst of the waggons and tents. The itinerant missionaries had the creature comforts of a bed and stove inside, along with a portable music organ which was used to play rousing hymns to attract a crowd. Over the step- board (used as a platform for preaching) a canopied porch could be attached, to provide protection from the elements. Then, as now, it pays to advertise. The outside of the van was liberally lettered with bible texts and quotes.
At hop times and harvests, they would visit the local farms and orchards, doing a roaring trade in baptising babies. Converting heathens was a pastime that all participants appeared to enjoy. Preachers and Parsons found a ready audience who enjoyed the attention and entertainment. It encouraged abstinence from alcohol, fidelity, and family values. The Romanies were able to ascend a few rungs higher on the ladder to moral high ground, as well as some of the younger ones picking up some much needed literacy skills.
The Rev. Rodger Redding from 'Christian Outreach to the Travelling People' stated: "The possibility of gentle evangelism amongst these people, are I feel, enormous. It is also fertile ground for social responsibility. These are some of the most deprived people in the British Isles."
What is interesting is that in some cases Romanies and their entire families took on the role of itinerant preachers, themselves travelling with missions and attracting large audiences.
If that was the first revival, in the 1950's, we surely saw a second one. Founded in Brittany in the 1950's by Clement le Cossec, the Light and Life movement already had a large following in France before it crossed the water to England. Light and Life now train their own leaders from within the community and Gypsy Churches are networked across the country as well as mobile missions being set up as well, for Travellers to just pull on. Whether you are a follower of the Movement or not, it has certainly led to changing perceptions, regarding the social and political perception on Gypsies, nudging us yet another rung up the ladder.
(c) Ryalla Duffy 2017