DURING repeated lockdowns and the closure of public facilities, taps in churchyards have been a lifeline for Traveller communities.
Churches in some areas have actively encouraged Travellers to use their tap to collect water, as leisure centres and other facilities remain closed.
Jonathan HerbertThe Traveller Dave Rawlins, a Pentecostalist, plays the mandolin
The pandemic has hit Traveller communities hard, as regulations made it illegal to take to the roads in lockdown, and they faced a shortage of pitches.
Canon Jonathan Herbert is the only funded chaplain in the UK to Gypsies and Travellers, covering Dorset and Wiltshire, in Salisbury diocese. “Those without access to clean water and the ability to wash are more vulnerable to Covid,” he said.
Large funerals have also been banned during the pandemic. Mr Herbert said: “Funerals are culturally hugely important to the Traveller community. We’ve been encouraging people to line the streets safely, or the edge of the churchyard, during Traveller funerals, when it has only been possible to have close family at the graveside.”
Mr Herbert attended the funeral at Poundbury, in Dorchester, last month, of Dave Rawlins, who, with his wife, Eileen, had lived in a bow-topped wagon pulled by a horse, for 50 years. It was a meeting in 1997 between Mr Rawlins and a vicar in the Chalk Valley, near Salisbury, the Revd Roger Reading, that was the beginning of modern Traveller chaplaincy.
Mr Rawlins was a Pentecostalist; 80 per cent of Romany Gypsies are Christian, and many identify as Pentecostal or Anglican. Many in the Irish Travelling community are Roman Catholic, and many Roma are Pentecostal or Salvation Army.
The Churches Network for Gypsies, Travellers and Roma (CNGTR) has urged the Church to speak out in support of Traveller communities, and against hostility and persecution. It is encouraging every diocese to appoint a chaplain for Travellers, and nearly 100 people have now signed up with an interest in this chaplaincy.
A legacy of the discrimination faced by Traveller communities was suspicion about the Covid vaccine. A drive by the NHS to get vaccines to members of Travelling communities was having some success, but many were still suspicious, Mr Herbert said. “There is some suspicion, because the Travelling community has been persecuted, and has not found it easy to have access to health care or education. They have suffered tremendous discrimination, but these communities are very resilient, somehow.
“Many Travellers who are still leading a nomadic way of existence would love to settle down, or at least have a base to travel from, but there is a national shortage of Traveller sites and safe stopping places. A report by [the charity] Friends, Families and Travellers, published in January 2021, recorded 1696 Traveller households waiting for pitches, whilst there were only 59 available. Travellers on the road face constant eviction and harassment and abuse from local residents made fearful by an often hostile media.”
The Government was also introducing a Bill to criminalise trespass, which would be “disastrous for nomadic peoples”, Mr Herbert said. He called on the Church of England to act as a “mediator to build bridges between residents and Travelling communities”.
The CNTGR is asking the Church of England to find land for Traveller sites, and to work with others to counter hostility to these communities.