A FREE CHURCH pastor who is a member of the Gypsy community hopes that Covid-19 will change people’s perceptions of Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT) communities.
A pastor in Light and Life Church Ministries, Walter Winter, said that members of his congregation and community were doing their part to ensure social distancing as well as to raise money for the NHS.
“When the country went into lockdown in March, I only ever left the site that I live on to buy food,” he said. “Other sites have decided that people will only leave once or twice a week to go to the supermarket. We’ve got Facebook and WhatsApp church groups replacing evangelistic meetings in tents that used to range from 400 to 500 every night.
“The idea that Gypsies and Travellers are law-breakers is false: we have really stringently upheld the lockdown rules. If this was portrayed more widely in the media, then it would break the stereotype.”
He also spoke of charitable efforts by GRT communities that had gone unreported by the media. “A young girl held an online NHS fund-raiser where she raised over £30,000, encouraging people to throw pies in their faces for donations. Last Christmas, on Facebook, there was also a drive for Gypsies and Travellers to donate items to foodbanks, to the point where some of them ran out of storage space. Our church also does a lot of outreach work with the homeless.”
Specific difficulties were faced by GTR communities, he said. “There have been evictions carried out in places like Surrey, which are applauded by politicians, but if people are caught on the road pulling a caravan, they can be pulled over and fined. The police have been called out by people claiming that we leave mess and faeces everywhere, but have then found no evidence of that.
“We don’t need that sort of aggravation and stress when we’re just trying to live somewhere and follow the rules. They keep saying ‘We’re all in this together,’ but sometimes it can feel like it depends on your ethnicity.
“I run my own business as well as being a pastor. I pay tax, I’m not a thief; I’m the opposite of the stereotype, as is my wife. We don’t drink or smoke or go to night clubs, but we can’t get away from the negative images people have of gypsies.”
The Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, said in February that areas of society were still “tainted with varying degrees of prejudice” against GRT communities, (News, 28 February), while the Church of England’s 2019 General Synod carried a motion from the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, aimed at challenging racism faced by such communities (News, 1 March 2019).
The Minister for Home Affairs, Communities and Local Government, Stephen Greenhalgh, voiced concern that, among GRT communities, “some families lack basic amenities, including running water, adequate sanitation, and refuse-disposal facilities, all of which are essential to limit the spread of the virus and keep people safe.
“Many will no longer have access to places they may have relied on for water and cleaning purposes, due to closures of leisure centres, churches, and petrol station toilets. The closure of many recycling centres has also had an impact on the disposal of refuse.”
The Education Champion at the Luton Roma Trust, Paul Sayers, said: “Most of the community are on zero-hours contracts or are self employed, working in frontline jobs where they are more at risk of coming into contact with the virus, and, because most have low levels of English literacy, they struggle to access any support that is being put in place at this time. Already vulnerable, many of our beneficiaries have lost their jobs and are struggling to put food on the table.”
The national Roman Catholic chaplain for Gypsies, Roma and Travellers, Fr Dan Mason, said: “On sites, lots of families live very close to each other, and if someone does fall ill, then it’s very hard to self-isolate in a caravan. However, the younger travellers are very au fait with technology, which has been a spur to greater literacy among the community. Many of them have WhatsApp and Facebook prayer groups, and are able to stay in touch whenever they have concerns.”
He echoed Mr Winter’s words about the persistence of damaging stereotypes that made Covid-19 an even more challenging experience than for most people. “Last month’s Channel 4 Dispatches programme, The Truth About Traveller Crime, really angered a lot of families. The title alone played to a lot of people’s prejudices, and was particularly irresponsible, given we are already in a situation where they are feeling fearful and apprehensive of other people.
“The police in Essex, where I work, were very concerned that it could lead to a rise in hate crimes. The comments on social media were particularly appalling.
He continued: “I don’t condone any law-breaking, and I appreciate it’s very frustrating for settled residents when there’s suddenly an unauthorised encampment; but the travellers in permanent sites are the ones who experience the backlash, which is really unfair. It’s a very small percentage who settle somewhere without permission, and often they do it because they haven’t got anywhere where they can legitimately stop.
“The lack of land available is a problem, and the level of prejudice experienced by them on a daily basis is shocking.
“It’s always worth being careful when making this analogy, but, after Jews, Gypsies were one of the main groups during the Holocaust who were sent to the gas chambers, and that was only 60 years ago. That anti-Gypsy and anti-Traveller sentiment is still very prevalent.”