Ministering at the margins

by
17 March 2017

Paul Wilkinson investigates the Church’s efforts in reaching out to travelling communities

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“THERE is a great opportunity that I don’t think the Bishops have really begun to respond to,” says the St Albans diocesan Chaplain to Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma, the Revd Martin Burrell.

He was appointed in 2015 to minister to these minorities that, often shunned by the “settled” popu­­­­la­tion and lumped together as if they were a homogeneous group, have distinctly different back­grounds.

Although many Gypsies have been here for centuries, most Travellers have roots in Ireland, and there has been an influx of East European Roma since 2007, when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU.

Mr Burrell estimates that there are at least 50 church projects around the country that assist Travellers generally, but these projects are isolated, and there is no co-ordinated national effort. He chairs the Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers, and Roma, an ecumenical group that is trying to pull the schemes together so that they can learn from each other.

The level of religious adherence among the groups is as varied as their origins. While Irish Travellers have roots in Roman Catholicism, few of the longstanding English Gypsy communities would attend Church of England services reg­ularly, although they traditionally seek out its clergy for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

Mr Burrell believes that successful ministry is possible among the communities that already turn to the Church of England for the occa­sional offices. “They look to us with a measure of respect,” he says.

In 2005, while working as a parish priest in Kent, he built up a com­munity of more than 50 English Travellers, who regularly attended his meetings. “There was a latent faith, but nowhere to develop it or worship it. It was just waiting to happen.”

He now works among a population of about 2000 Eastern European Roma in Luton, mostly from Bulgaria and Romania. He helped to establish the Luton Roma Trust, set up in 2011 to provide support and a place of worship. Today, a congregation of nearly 100 meets in a former Anglican church. “It is nothing remotely like an Anglican service, though — its Romanian Pentecostal.

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“It would be wonderful if all the work I have done could have happened in a fully integrated Anglican way — and we did try quite hard to do that at first — but it became pretty clear early on that they had a very definite way of running their churches in a very definite fundamentalist theology which doesn’t fit well with Anglican practice.”

He estimates that about a third of Roma people in Luton attend the town’s three Pentecostal churches. “It’s a huge thing compared with other mainstream denominations, which attract a tiny percentage of the population,” he says. “They are going to church not just once a week, but maybe twice, or three times, and for services that don’t last an hour, but three hours.”

 

ANOTHER Travellers project was launched at St Michael’s, in the Berkshire village of Horton, near Slough, which has a long-established Romany community. There, the Assistant Curate, the Revd Joseph Fernandes, set up a service that he called “Travelling Home”.

“The community has always had a very close relationship with the church, where there are family graves, and have held weddings and baptisms, but they have not really been part of the church commun­ity,” he says. “The idea was making the church relevant to them, for them to claim ownership and make a link with the place.”

The first service — as much a social gathering as an act of worship — was held in July 2015. A second, last July, attracted 250 people, and included a blessing of the church­yard in recognition of the Traveller tradition of looking after family graves. Its popularity led to a third service at Christmas.

The result has been an increase in Travellers’ attending regular Sunday services. “It is partly because we are now trying, metaphorically, to speak a language that they can under­stand, to relate to them in terms that are relevant to them,” Mr Fernandes says. “We are also trying to preserve their core identity, not trying to compromise it.”

One of the event’s organisers was Kathy Atkinson, a Romany who is training to become a licensed lay minister.

“Travelling Home is now expected every summer, and we have talked about expanding it,” she says. “We really like it, but it was Joseph’s blessing of the churchyard that really endeared him to everyone and built that bridge.”

While proud of her heritage, Kathy has managed to create links with the world outside her extended family. “I work as a PA to a property developer in Windsor. I try not to differentiate between the two com­munities, but I can. I speak Romany if I need to. I think of myself as fairly decently educated, and there’s no reason why Travellers can’t be.

“I consider myself to be a Berkshire girl, born and brought up here, but my husband is not a Traveller; so I sort of have a foot in both camps.”

Five generations of her family are buried at St Michael’s, including her grandmother, who used to take her to services when she was a child. Kathy’s faith lapsed though her teens, but she re-engaged after her father died, six years ago.

She believes that there has always been a latent Christianity among Travellers. “We have a heart for God, but I don’t think it was being expressed, possibly because pre­judice from locals kept them out of church.

”In my granny’s day, there was a real apartheid at school: Gypsy children were not allowed to start, have break, or lunch at the same time as non-Travellers, or sit at the same tables — or even hang their coats on the same set of pegs. If children were treated like that in school, I can’t imagine they would have felt particularly welcome in church.”

 

THE diocese of Bath & Wells has recently created the post of a Chaplain among nomadic people. The Revd Martin Gillmore’s remit extends beyond the usual Travellers: “It’s any community that travels,” he says.

“The diocese has a large mixed Traveller population: circus people, fairground folk, New Age travellers, who tend towards a paganism theology-philosophy based on Gaia and the Earth, and a lot of boat people who come from a New Age background.

“There is also a substantial group of non-traditional Travellers who have taken up an itinerant lifestyle. For instance, there is a community who have failed to cope with living in London and other big cities, and so live in benders [simple shelters made of flexible branches, or withies] in Ashdown Forest.”

His interest in Travellers goes back to his schooldays in Milford Haven, when his walk home from school took him past an encamp­ment. “I have grown up knowing Travellers as friends pretty much all my life,” he says.

In the 1990s, while studying at a Bible college, he lived with Romany gypsies when the course required him to spend time in a different culture.

“That was when I really came to see it as a calling. The Lord puts in your heart a kind of passion, and I developed a love and a respect for them. I love being with the Roma; they are so vibrant and genuine, and when they come to faith there is an appreciation of what God has done for them that I don’t see anywhere else.

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“Being a nomad seems to nurture spiritual openness. Sometimes, some­­­­­thing to do with not being very culturally focused on the written word enables people to think at an astonishingly advanced conceptual level of theological thinking. Being transient must make change and new ideas a way of life. Suffering persecution on account of their identity means they get some aspects of faith in Jesus Christ like no one else.”

He began his chaplaincy work last summer after the diocese “took my arm off” when he offered to help. “It’s proving to be quite exciting,” he says. His first job was helping a Roman Catholic priest in Bath who had been invited to visit an Irish Traveller site. “We prayed with five Traveller ladies and their children. I am not quite sure what happened, but you could see the Holy Spirit was very much at work.

“Over a short period, things seemed to change so much: their hus­­bands stopped swearing and bawling at their kids, and they started turning up at church. Those five ladies had experienced a very clear encounter with Jesus.”

He finds a hunger for scripture, and describes Bible classes that start at 7 p.m. and don’t finish until 1 a.m. He also says that the work is unlike any previous mission that he has been involved with: “I don’t think there will ever be a case of: ‘This is the finished product,’ where you end up building a church or a school. Here, you are dealing with a nomadic group, and that absolutely challenges everything we perceive that a church should be. There isn’t a building, there’s no hierarchy, and, if you have a group that disperses, how do you call that a congregation?”

 

FR DAN MASON, who became the Roman Catholic National Chaplain for Gypsies, Roma, and Travellers last summer, first became involved with Travellers in 2011, during the Dale Farm siege in his parish at Crays Hill, Essex. Images of the illegal but longstanding Irish Trav­eller site barricaded against bailiffs who were attempting to demolish
it went round the world. He subse­quently became Brentwood dio­cese’s Traveller Chaplain.

“My role is two-fold: offering spiritual support and helping priests working with the travelling com­munity; and also social action and advocacy — looking at some of the issues particular to the community, such as availability of sites, educa­tion, mental health.”

Much of his work in Essex is with Irish Travellers. “They do have a strong sense of community, but it is not fair to say they only mix with themselves. Sometimes that occurs because of the prejudice and rejection they experience. One of the great strengths of the church is that it is one of the few places where settled and Travellers can come together on a level playing-field with a common purpose.”

Fr Mason warns that the Church cannot be complacent about the rise of Pentecostalism, with particular reference to the Light and Life Church, which grew out of a French movement in the 1950s, and now claims about 20,000 followers — about a tenth of the estimated Gypsy population — in its 33 UK churches.

“The phenomenon of the Light and Life Church has posed quite a challenge to us,” he says. “In some ways, it is a good challenge, because it forces us to consider whether we have been as welcoming as we could be. There are also sociological fac­tors there: the worship tends to be lively, and they have big prayer conventions, which are oppor­tunities for young Travellers to get together.

“What encourages me about it is that Travellers are seeing relatives leave for other churches, which makes them become more aware of their own faith, and want to become more knowledgeable about it.”

 

ONE of the founders of the Light and Life Church, Pastor Jackie Boyd, is a British Romany Gypsy who still works as a painter and decorator in the Leatherhead area, in Surrey. “We are reaching out to our own people,” he says. “We have a knowledge of them — how they think and breath.”

He describes his church as “fundamentalist in a good way”, and attributes part of its success to disillusionment with mainstream religion. “It is a reaction to some of the bad things that have happened in the established Churches. Maybe it is turning us inwards, and pre­venting integration with the rest of society, but some of us don’t like what we find out there. We think they have become too liberal, offering a watered-down version of the Bible.”

Mr Boyd recently met church leaders in Norway to discuss their refusal to admit Gypsies to their churches even as recently as 100 years ago. “They refused to apolo­gise for that,” he says. “We are still the most persecuted people in the world. We are the only community it is still possible to racially abuse with impunity.

“I still wouldn’t tell anyone I didn’t know well about my back­ground: I wouldn’t get any work; it would be death for me.

“I think, because Gypsies have been marginalised for so long, when they do find Christ they feel es­pecially empowered, because, sud­denly, someone is saying that they have the same rights as everybody else.”

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