I currently serve as a Mission Enabler in the diocese of Canterbury. We run Ignite services geared to people who are on the margins, who wouldn’t feel comfortable in a regular Sunday service. It can be quite chaotic, but it’s growing week on week, which is very encouraging.
I’ve ministered, mentored, and provided strategic direction for the police, in NHS management, and higher education. Now, I provide ministerial training for ordinands and clergy. Throughout, I wanted my work for those in my care to be in line with the limitless scope of God’s love, protection, direction, and abundance.
I experienced abject poverty as a child, and violence and discrimination through my teens. I had two options: to fight the abuse or to dismantle it. People often choose the former, but our heart and head working in tandem can have an incredible impact if we choose the latter.
My father’s family are Romany gypsies. My mum’s were really not — they were in the police and military. My parents separated before I was born, but with my older brothers, I spent time with my father. So I grew up bi-cultural, if that’s a word.
It made sense to mum for me to miss school to earn money landscape gardening with my brothers, because we were short of money. She did what she thought best by her family. It wasn’t till I was 19 that I realised that life was a struggle because I’d missed my education; so I was adamant that my children wouldn’t miss school. The family also thought wives should stay at home, but eventually me and my wife both decided that that wasn’t right for us.
In the Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller [GTR] community, things just have to be a little bit louder, a little bit out there. Everything’s just that more garish than in Gorger [non-Gypsy] culture, but I’m not that kind of person. Once I became my own person, I rejected that kind of outwardness. People sometimes say they can tell I’m half-Romany, but, in my thoughts and practice, I’m settled. I don’t travel. I live in bricks and mortar, and commute like other people. But then, there’s a part in all of us that longs to get away for a bit of an adventure. For GTR people it’s a lifestyle rather than a wish.
My mother was a rock. She kept me and my brothers grounded when we had abuse from neighbours, our home was burnt down, or we experienced incredibly dark spiritual attacks. She guided us from storms to still waters. She demonstrated what family should be.
Family life for me and my brood these days is much like anyone else’s. We endure the troughs and embrace the peaks. My children have never gone hungry; they understand the importance of education; they know what university means. They mostly only know the God who gives them water rather than the God who pulls them from the pit, and for that I’m eternally grateful.
Sitting by an open fire, allowing thoughts to scurry outwards and upwards like burning embers, was something I’ve practised for years. It’s common in GTR circles. They much prefer to be outside than inside, and that’s something I held on to. I built two firepits in the garden, and, during the first lockdown, I decided to put on Facebook and live-stream my sitting by the fire, making a hot brew over the flames. No talking, just sitting. A few folks, mostly men, joined in by chatting on the live video.
When guys started joining, I opened my garden. Getting guys to talk seems difficult till you bring in a fire and secluded spot. Hand them a brew and give it a few minutes. Hearts and minds from all walks of life heal quickly. I started Fireside in April 2020, and the conversation’s still happening.
Mixed parentage is seen in some communities as undesirable: a weakening of bloodlines or a dilution in one’s racial or ethnic identity. I eventually came to see my cocktail of parentage as an expansion of God’s human tapestry. It didn’t mean much to me growing up; but, in recent years, I realised I had a unique, if somewhat lonely, vantage point on two Christian cultures separated by suspicion and reaction.
I wanted to teach RE. With only two GCSEs and half a diploma to my name, I approached Canterbury Christ Church University. Eight years later, I became the first person of Romany heritage in the UK to be awarded a Ph.D. in theology, leaving with a postgraduate certificate in higher education, an associate fellowship with the Higher Education Academy, four awards, three funded research posts, and countless lecturing hours.
My dissertation research on what GRT people believe, and why it’s important to education-providers and the Church, provided very few answers and many questions. The answer to those questions would be a Ph.D. on Traveller theology. There are as many Traveller theologies as there have been GRT Christians, but I hoped to bring them together. Gypsies and Jesus is about the impression God has made on a people.
Christian faith in GRT cultures primarily plays out through tangible means. Liturgical practice is often perceived as superstitious, and faith grows not just from hearing but also by seeing the power, grace, and love of God in a world that’s all but rejected them.
Would it accurate for the press to report all football fans as hooligans because a few are? That would imply that children and pensioners in attendance were also criminals. Were the elderly and the generations before them criminals, and should their children understand themselves as deviant? We don’t make such jumps in logic where football fans are concerned, because that would be foolish, discriminatory, inaccurate, and dangerous. But GTR people are tarred with this brush every day and have been for hundreds of years.
Much of what has been written about GRT people has been done by non-GRT people, whereas GRT communities historically pass down tradition, information, and learning orally.
Our theologies can be the catalyst to how we are; so we must expand our theological vocabularies to include other voices. And remember, if you can’t hear the voice of the oppressed, it’s because your knee’s still pressed against their neck.
“Gypsy”, “Romany”, and “Traveller” isn’t just semantics: GRT people have been killed over the label by which they identify. It’s easiest to think of “Roma” as an umbrella term for many GTR ethnic and racial identities, such as Gitano in Spain and Sinti in Germany. In many parts of Europe, “Gypsy” is seen as an insulting term, whereas in England and other countries, “Gypsy” is a common self-identification.
The Church is ideally placed to make improvements in relationships and legislation a reality. Many rural churches could offer temporary stopping places for pre-approved families travelling through the local area. They could charge for this, and it would provide opportunities for meaningful outreach.
On a national level, dedicated chaplains have begun to be appointed to dioceses. It’s not too difficult to see how Church and Parliament could engage more readily with voices so often represented by others.
My earliest experiences of God were rather full-on. When I was seven, I sat reluctantly through a youth event during a Christian conference while my mother was in the main service. We were encouraged to pray out loud together about something we were worried about or hoping for. With my eyes shut, I felt an overwhelming tingling and lightness. I began to pray. It was only after a minute or two that I realised everyone had gone quiet. At this point, I stopped, realising I wasn’t making sense. I opened my eyes to see two of the youth leaders close to tears. A whole minute of speaking in tongues without knowing what speaking in tongues was.
God’s continued to manifest through my life in natural and supernatural ways. Sometimes faith and the Holy Spirit are more accessible when you’ve learnt that before and after everything is God.
Life’s too short and precious to be angry. But there’s definitely some tension if I get my socks wet, or someone puts milk in the tea before the teabag.
I’m a lifetime gym-attender. Lifting weights and conversing about God and life with people that many folks would cross the street to avoid brings me happiness. Listening to my children excitedly tell me about their day. Spending time with friends, long hikes, playing tug with my dog, rain after hot days, Victoria sponge cake. . .
A crackling fire in the woods while the rain greets the canopy of the trees above is the best sound.
Hardships pave the way for green pastures. God often plays the long game. Despite my many faults and mistakes, God’s never stopped loving me and has never left me. Giving interviews about Gypsies and Jesus all in the same year that I preached in St Paul’s Cathedral and had a book published — that all gives me hope.
I pray continuously. My mother’s always been a natural intercessor, and I realised early that prayer changes things. Going through life in a moving vessel without a navigator isn’t advisable. My conversations with God are often about my children and wife, my own insecurities and anxieties, creation and our impact upon the planet. I pray this message he’s given me will leave my lips as it entered my heart, and I can serve him and the flocks he gives me, reflecting his heart for us.
If I was locked in a church with anyone, it would be a toss-up between Elvis, pre-fall Adam, or Father Gabriele Amorth. He went AWOL from the Italian fascist army in the Second World War, and eventually delivered more exorcisms than anyone else in recorded history. Imagine spending time with someone who faced down evil their whole life and still wants to celebrate the goodness of God.
Dr Steven Horne was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Gypsies and Jesus: A Traveller theology is published by DLT (Books, 2 September).