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 Lumière (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.