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Britain’s Gypsies are converting The evangelist Spirit is moving through the community

Would you hand over your soul to this woman? Credit: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

Would you hand over your soul to this woman? Credit: Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images


November 10, 2021   6 mins

Stood outside a shopping mall in Kent last December, Uncle John demanded my soul — and he is the kind of bloke you’d hand it over to immediately. He’s not my uncle, but an early convert to the evangelist Light and Life Gypsy Church. Now a spiritual leader of the church’s Dartford branch, he took in this strange gorja — that’s a non-Gypsy — as one of the family.

When you’re writing about religion, people tend to confess a lot of crimes to you. Some have done their time; others have a heavy weight on their souls. A former boxer, crook and ten-out-of-ten sinner — ten commandments, that is — Uncle John soon came clean. “I plotted a couple of murders, love,” he confided in me, our bond sealed as we faced down Arctic winds together. “Never went through with them, but I had murder in my heart, so in God’s eyes, I broke it.”

But Uncle John was born again on 16 January 1994 and has been spreading the word ever since. He spends his weekends pacing pavements, sporting Ugg boots and a worn bible covered completely in black gaffer tape, offering whomever will have him a kind ear — and a dire warning about the End Times.

His 37-year-old nephew, Bill Boswell, told me he thought his uncle “was punched in the head too many times when he said that he’d got saved”. But then Bill, too, was born again: his life changed forever on 15 May 2005 at 7:45pm; now he is the breathless preacher and leader of the Dartford branch. And while he always has a twinkle in his eye, Bill is deadly serious. His conversion wasn’t merely personal — he believes there’s something to the fact that the Spirit is moving in the Gypsy community. “God is calling His people now. It’s the most vague and most precise answer I can give,” he told me.

This emphasis on the Holy Spirit is a hallmark of Pentecostalism. Exact figures are hard to come by, but it’s thought that the UK is home to around 3 million Pentecostals — including, by some estimates, up to 40% of British Gypsies. (It should be said that the Dartford boys refer to themselves as Gypsies: a word that has been reclaimed with pride.) Light and Life alone, with 33 congregations in Britain and a total of 20,000 followers, claims it is home to 10% of the nation’s Gypsy population.

Pentecostalism is, in short, “Evangelicalism plus”: after accepting Jesus as Lord and Saviour, believers are filled with the Holy Spirit. This often involves speaking in tongues. The faith is defined by direct experience of — and personal interaction with — the presence of God, and all the miracles that come with it: success in matters of the mind, body, spirit and wallet. Pentecostalism is also notable for its lack of overarching authority, and its ability to look and sound like any local culture. Among the Gypsies, it often manifests as a mystical view of the world, and an embrace of what we might call “traditional values”. Music is central to worship.

Far from outliers, these Gypsies are part of a global movement. Pentecostalism is probably the fastest growing religion on earth. With 600 million followers worldwide, and counting, it’s estimated that by 2050, one in 10 — or one billion people — will be Pentecostal. In 1980, 6% of Christians were Pentecostal; now, over a quarter of the world’s 2 billion are part of the faith.

The appeal is, in many ways, obvious. From its earliest days, Pentecostalism has been the faith of the downtrodden — not that of the rich white Westerners with which it is so commonly associated: the red-faced, hellfire televangelist and his soft-focus wife. The denomination came into being in Los Angeles in 1906, led by the son of freed slaves; it spoke to the “negroes, poor, lowly, ignorant and despised,” as one early observer put it. Then seen as the bastard child of Evangelical Christianity, Pentecostals are now a force to be reckoned with no matter where you look, rapidly converting existing Christian believers, and taking hold among many peoples in Asia, Latin America, and Africa.

But, with considerable competition, Britain’s Gypsies appear to be among the fastest Pentecostalising groups on earth — along with many of their Romani cousins in mainland Europe. Up to a third of the 12 million Gypsies, Roma and Travellers across Europe are Pentecostal or have at least attended a Spirit-led church. Light and Life’s evangelicals mightn’t always do things by the book, but in two years of travelling the world exploring this fascinating and rapidly growing movement, they are the most of the book people I have encountered.

Recently, Bill invited me to return to Dartford for a meal and some music, in a church that was packed to the gills with young families on a wet Wednesday night. He likens the Gypsy conversion to the parable of the Great Banquet, told in the Gospel of Luke: no one turns up to a feast, so a servant is sent out to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame”. The blessings of the Kingdom of God are available to all who will come and believe. The Gypsies, Bill believes, have gone hungry for too long, and it’s time for them to pull up a chair at the table.

Over roast potatoes and lemonade, Bill’s wife Becky — a fellow gorja but very much part of the culture she married into — believes there’s a reason why Pentecostalism is speaking so strongly to the world’s marginalised peoples: “we have the humility to submit ourselves before God.”

Recent history plays a strong part in explaining the mass conversion, too. An unwanted, stateless people no matter where they landed, Gypsies know all too well that, when events take over, they need someone in their corner. Indeed, they are often forgotten as victims of the Holocaust alongside the Jewish people; as Bill puts it, “it seems like whenever they get persecuted, we go through it at the same time.”

In this context, the Spirit coming to their people immediately after World War II, in France, is significant. In 1950, in the Normandy region, a poor Gypsy woman named Madame Duvil-Reinhart turned to a Pentecostal church for help: one of her sons was dying from an acute illness. The doctors had told her to give up on him and focus on her other children. The church didn’t, though, and prayed for the boy until he miraculously healed. The entire family converted on the spot.

They ultimately formed a church called Vie et Lumiùre (Life and Light) — and, in the 1980s, set sail to convert their British cousins (Bill jokes that the English opted to call their church Light and Life, because “the French say everything backwards”). They’re looking to save anyone they can — hence Uncle John and the lads eyeing even my wretched soul — but during those long, cold days of street evangelism, I could see that the Gypsy lads have a soft spot for people they see their former selves in: the homeless; the bleary-eyed, hopeless men emerging from betting shops. They would lend them a patient ear, say a prayer for their souls, and buy them a sandwich and a warm drink if it helped.

Light and Life set the most store in saving their people. After all, as one churchgoer lamented to me, they were the last group to hear the good news. The appeal of the faith for Gypsies, then, is similar to its appeal to North Korean defectors, and increasing numbers of Latinos in the United States, among other groups: Pentecostalism affords marginalised communities a kind of spiritual citizenship — an acceptable way of being an outsider.

Yet Becky believes there’s much more going on than people turning to God at a time of crisis. “There’s rich Gypsies. There’s poor Gypsies. There’s people with healthy families and all the things that the world has to offer — but many still feel there’s a void, an emptiness in there,” she told me. “Coming to Jesus is just as powerful to them as it is to people who have hit rock bottom.”

Pentecostal conversion is a way of navigating both this life and the next — or, as a friend put it to me, it offers solution and absolution. Church is a place where Gypsies can belong, and a place where they can practice their culture away from the council signs hastily erected to stop people parking their caravans, the screaming tabloid headlines about your people’s “free-for-all”, the pub bans on your lot coming in for a drink. “God has made us more civilised than we were,” Bill once told me. “Gypsy culture used to be travelling, running to and fro. Now, once most of our people become saved, they stay put.”

Salvation is also a form of assimilation: this is what I’ve learned from spending time with the Light and Life Gypsies, and a host of other disparate peoples around the world. For all the raucous positivity of the Light and Life worshipers, I can’t help but feel that their practice has seen a retreat of the Gypsy culture to inside the church walls. With God’s help, they’re now “acceptable” in modern Britain.


Elle Hardy is a freelance journalist who’s reported from North Korea and the former Soviet Union. She is the author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World.

ellehardy

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

I once built a Guatemalan guy a Pentecostal Church out of a destroyed building post Hurricane Katrina, for the Central American community (although I was paid well, but I did get to know them a fair bit) – (they later moved into a proper church after the rebuilding of the area – this was right after the hurricane)…

I was very moved by them all, there is a goodness in them. The very young Priest did not speak English, he worked as a concrete finisher, and he had an aura of a holiness about him – I met the American head of their Church, a Bishop from Houston come to open the church for its first service, and again his charisma was astounding. The front of the church had a full band set up, drums, keyboard, guitar and base, and the music was pretty much the Central American Polka kind – very upbeat. A couple times I would come in to do some work and a man would be laying in front of the cross, face down on the floor with his arms spread out in motionless payer, and I would leave.

The most memorable, I listened to a number of their hours long services, all in Spanish, was the Pastor doing a sort of liturgical chant without any music, maybe 15 minutes long, of what must have been a full Biblical story in the most amazing way – absolutely flat tonally, not any change in voice at all – just a very long mono-tonal chant which was incredibly moving – although it sounds flat it was not – it was amazing to listen to, very beautiful indeed… I have likely attended several hundreds of church services all over in my life, and theirs was amazing in parts – although really long….

This is good to hear, a Pentecostal congregation are a benefit to society.

Last edited 2 years ago by Galeti Tavas
Peter LR
Peter LR
2 years ago

Over 10 years ago the BBC Today programme ran a study on Pentecostalism describing it as “the fastest growing movement amongst the working-class in the world “. So it’s good to see it continues as it seems to produce significant change for good in people.

David McKee
David McKee
2 years ago

Excellent article, covering a subject most journalists would run a mile from. I remember well my conversion experience – and it really can be as dramatic as John and Bill related.

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
2 years ago
Reply to  David McKee

Me too!

Ed Brown
Ed Brown
1 year ago
Reply to  Miriam UĂ­

Me too. I was just 8 years old, 72 years ago and still in love with the Lord Jesus Christ, whom I will see and be with in the not too distant future.

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
2 years ago

Really interesting article! I was aware of how widespread Pentecostals have become, but very touched to read this account of the Spirit’s move among the gypsies. Have they any thing to do with Irish travellers?

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Miriam UĂ­

The few Irish Gypsies I know are already Christians. I have never enquired about what type, but the Church figures largely in their lives.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

Of course they are.. Catholics…

William Murphy
William Murphy
2 years ago

If you see “Documentation Centre” on a German town map, it is probably a Holocaust museum. The one in Heidelberg is unique as it records the oppression and mass killing of the Roma people. I was the only visitor when I called. Heidelberg is the German centre for the Roma people.

https://www.stripes.com/news/heidelberg-germany-museum-explores-nazi-persecution-of-gypsies-during-holocaust-1.164975

Last edited 2 years ago by William Murphy
Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
2 years ago

It’s great to have a good news story in these columns for once and it’s wonderful to read about what the Father is doing through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit amongst the Roma people. It’s thrilling.
The same thing has been happening amongst some churches in mainline denominations often referred to as charismatic renewal. In the Church of England many churches in the Evangelical tradition have experienced new life in the Holy Spirit and are growing and planting new churches. Very few churches in the Anglo Catholic tradition and none in the Liberal tradition have experienced such renewal because they are not open to it. That is a major reason why they are in decline.
The Holy Spirit renewal has also given rise to new, independent churches many of which are vibrant and growing.

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
2 years ago

This is happening in Ireland too!

Mark Gourley
Mark Gourley
2 years ago

Thank you – but I believe it’s a shame to argue between traditions, all of which have riches to offer.

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

It doesn’t seem to do any harm, so I won’t be too critical. However, my strong impression is that God dislikes clapping and abhors a guitar. It is my strong feeling that he prefers the King James Bible and a few dignified hymns. I suspect Jersalem is his favourite, though ‘Abide with Me’ gives it a fair run. I don’t think he minds a bit of incense and prayer – smells and bells – but anyone waving their hands in the air, or throwing themselves face down, should be taken aside and quietly told it is not his sort of thing at all.

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
2 years ago
Reply to  Dan Gleeballs

I loved what Rev. Nicky Gumbel (of Alpha) said about this verse: ‘Therefore I want the men everywhere to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or disputing… 1 Timothy 2:8
‘This was the traditional form of prayer. I often jest that ‘if you go into a church and see everyone with their hands in the air say, “This is a traditional church practising ancient forms of worship.” If they all have their hands down by their sides that is fine also. Just say, “This is a modern, trendy church experimenting with new forms of worship!”’

Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago
Reply to  Miriam UĂ­

He was clearly a delight.

I do think though, that there is a fair difference between holding up hands pressed together in prayer
 and holding them overhead and apart – as if waving goodbye to a train or indeed, dignity.

The latter, trance-like posture in evangelical churches demeans us all.

Greg Moreison
Greg Moreison
2 years ago
Reply to  Miriam UĂ­

Great comment! Nicky Gumbel is a Very Good Thing (and I happily say that as a traditional catholic), he is a man of faith and principles and a very charismatic preacher.
However I have to say that I think the ‘orans posture’ probably more accurately survives today in the rubrics of the canon of the old Roman rite than in the more enthusiastic motions popular in Evangelical and Pentecostal churches.
(Not that that’s any reason for them to stop, mind you – how other Christians address God in their own church is not my business. Personally I have found the Evangelicals and Pentecostals I know to have a fervour of faith and intensity of prayer life that puts me utterly to shame, whatever our differences in doctrine).

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago

Will their fellow Travellers repent for invading and squatting on farmers’ property and stealing from local residents? Or aren’t they Pentecostals?

Lucy Browne
Lucy Browne
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Do you repent for all the bad things your ethnic group have done, David?

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy Browne

What ethnic group is that, Lucy?

Lucy Browne
Lucy Browne
2 years ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

I’ve got no idea what his ethnic group is, Peter, but I don’t suppose he’s repenting for the ‘sins’ of people with whom his only connection is shared ethnicity. So why should GRT people do so?

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

I know many Gypsies who despise the “travellers” who leave a mess for others to clear up. Gypsies are proud to call themselves that, and I only made the mistake once of calling my friend a traveller once! Firmly told never to call her a traveller again. The Gypsy who visits around here gets angry when her family are blamed, she has a regular stopping place for each season.
A true Romany Gypsy will never leave a mess behind in farmers fields or otherwise, shame it isn’t true of some of the non travelling community. I get sick and tired of picking up their litter , usually from fast food outlets.

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
2 years ago

It’s wonderful to read about a positive trend in the world, for a change.

Lucy Browne
Lucy Browne
2 years ago

Standing, Elle Hardy. Uncle John was standing.
You’re a journalist
 please write something for us to read which doesn’t start with a wince-inducing grammatical error.

Lucy Browne
Lucy Browne
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy Browne

Great article, though; interesting and thought provoking. Thank you!

Philip May
Philip May
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy Browne

I was confused about that too.

Jean Nutley
Jean Nutley
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy Browne

At least it didn’t begin with “so”! Could have read “So, I was stood outside…..”

Claire D
Claire D
2 years ago
Reply to  Jean Nutley

Or “Hwaet”. . . .

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
2 years ago
Reply to  Lucy Browne

Stood reads accurate to me in the sense that he wasn’t standing there on his own happenstance, but he was stood there by a higher calling.

David Batlle
David Batlle
2 years ago

Pentecostalism is a bit much for me, but I won’t deny the good it does in peoples lives, and I have utter respect for it. God bless them.

Patrick Heren
Patrick Heren
2 years ago

Fascinating. In our part of east Kent, the travellers were mostly Catholics. One large group suddenly found its faith when a young priest came 2 or 3 times a week to be with the head man of the group who was dying of cancer. Their faith seemed strong to me. Another example of the Holy Spirit at work among the marginalised.

Andrew D
Andrew D
2 years ago
Reply to  Patrick Heren

Romany Catholics?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Well, that’s going to muller the fortune-telling and palmistry.
I guess they can fall back on selling clothes pegs, sharpening knives and doing driveways with this bit of tarmac we’ve got left over from another job.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

Latinos in the United States would very likely be surprised to learn they are “ marginalized”.

mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

It is certainty, actually a necessity, of guero politics that everyone who is not them is called marginalised. Once they are out-bred and therefore out-voted by “la raza odiada” they will still use such terms but without any defacto power they will look rather silly. Viva California Alta y Sonora Norte.

geoffrey cox
geoffrey cox
2 years ago

‘Stood’ – the first word – should be ‘standing’, and it should be ‘worshippers’ in the last paragraph. Passing pedant.
Very interesting article.

Douglas Cumming
Douglas Cumming
1 year ago

In my home town of Gibraltar, there are no local Gypsies, yet we have a flourishing branch of the Spanish ‘Filadelfia’ movement, the equivalent of ‘Life and Light’. The congregation are all gorjas (‘payos’ in Spanish) but are led by a Spanish Gypsy pastor who travels in from Spain for the meetings..

Last edited 1 year ago by Douglas Cumming