by Susan Nadathur
Using the example of the extraordinary growth of Gypsies in Spain, the author explains the importance of being open and attentive to God’s movement.
God’s Spirit is traveling like wildfire across the Iberian Peninsula, but only one particular ethnic group is being significantly touched by the fire: the Spanish Gypsies. Why is that?
I have given a great deal of thought to this question after returning from an extended stay with a group of Pentecostal Gypsies in Seville, Spain. According to statistics provided to me by two missionary friends serving in Spain, only 0.7% of the Spanish population is evangelized. And yet, out of the approximately 660,000 Gypsies living in Spain today, 20% are Pentecostal Christians.
And so the question arises: why is this marginalized, historically-abandoned ethnic group so receptive to God’s Spirit, and what can we learn from their conversion experience? I have come to my own conclusions after having spent several months working with a group of Christian Gypsy families in collaboration with my brother and sister in faith, Oscar Martínez and Heidi Rivera. Oscar and Heidi have been serving as missionaries among the Gypsies in Andalucía since 1992. Their experience offers invaluable insight into this intriguing question, but let’s start by looking at the history of the Gypsy Pentecostal Movement—first in France, and then in Spain.
History of the Gypsy Pentecostal Movement
At the beginning of the 1950s, French pastor Clement Le Cossec, a former Catholic priest who later converted to the Assemblies of God, began a small ministry in Brest (Normandy). At that time, there was a clear, carefully-guarded separation between the French and other marginal groups who came to the country in search of work. Le Cossec ministered to the French instead of to the Gypsies or any other ethnic group.
His interest in ministering to the Gypsies began unexpectedly when one day a Gypsy couple entered his church. They heard the word, and at the end of the service, when Le Cossec called forth all those who wanted to accept Christ as their Savior, the Gypsy couple walked together to the altar and accepted the call. They continued to come to the church even though their relationship with the French congregation was strained by the ethnocentric attitudes of the time.
One day, the couple approached Le Cossec and offered him money in exchange for receiving the same treatment as other members of the church—pastoral visits, counseling, and support during the difficult moments of their lives. Their petition moved Le Cossec, who then decided to bring scripture not only to this couple, but to all Gypsies who had come to France to work the grape harvest.
Among those temporary workers were many Spanish Gypsies. These first converts eventually returned to their home country and, having been touched by the Spirit, began to share their experiences with family and friends.
Seeing the success of these first conversions, in 1957 Le Cossec founded the Evangelical Gypsy Mission. The primary purpose was to offer Gypsy converts training to become evangelical pastors. In 1965, the first seven Gypsy pastors arrived in Spain. These seven men founded what is known today as La Iglesia Evangélica de Filadelfia, an evangelical, Pentecostal church which is completely governed, financed, and led by Gypsies for a predominantly Gypsy population.
The expansion of Pentecostalism among the Spanish Gypsies was rapid, despite the difficult political conditions of Franco’s Spain. During Franco’s dictatorship (from 1939 to his death in 1975), Catholicism was declared the state religion and non-Catholics, especially evangelicals, were objects of persecution and discrimination.
After Franco’s death, however, the newly-adopted Constitution of 1978 guaranteed equal rights for all ideologies and religions and so the 1980s and 1990s saw accelerated growth in Gypsy Pentecostalism. In 1980, there were thirty churches in Andalucía. By the end of 1995 there were seventy-eight congregations; at the end of 1998 (the last year for which statistics were available) La Iglesia Filadelfia counted between seven and eight hundred churches dispersed throughout Spain. These churches total between 150,000 and 200,000 members (Cantón 2005, 73).
The question then arises: why this rapid spread of Pentecostalism among the Gypsies, but not among the native Spaniards? Current statistics indicate that 80.4% of Spaniards profess Catholicism as their religion, 17.2% are not Christian, and 2.3% fall into the category of “other religions.” Heidi once told me that “serving as a missionary in Spain was like digging for life in the Valley of Dry Bones. The Spaniards are firmly rooted in their religious traditions. But the Gypsies live on fertile soil.”
Biblical Values in Culture and Family
Heidi, Oscar, and I believe that the success of the Pentecostal movement among the Spanish Gypsies has mostly to do with culture. The Gypsies are already living many biblical principles inherent in their own tradition. For example, they embrace the concept of familial hierarchy, respect for paternal authority, the preservation of virginity, and honor in marriage. Gypsy evangelism does not propose a radical break with what is perceived as the “Gypsy way of life”; rather, it supports the strong family ties that are fundamental to their culture (Gay y Blasco 1999, 163).
In fact, it is this strong network of family ties that has favored the advance of Pentecostal Christianity among the Gypsies. Entire families are integrated into the church; these people later reach out to and draw in members of their extended families—which include large clans of distant relatives spread throughout the country (Cantón 2005, 357).
While in Spain, I had the privilege of observing this traditional Gypsy way of life when I spent several months with Oscar and Heidi working with a congregation of Pentecostal Gypsies from the church Dios Con Nosotros in Seville. But I also had the unique opportunity to compare and contrast what I observed with a group of Spanish Catholic families—friends of mine since the 1980s. Every day I alternated between a Spanish household and a Gypsy one. And the more I went back and forth between the two cultures, the more I began to understand why the Gypsies had been able to embrace the teachings of the Pentecostal Church and the Spanish had not.
The biggest reason, I believe, is the dynamic of the Gypsy family structure. In the Gypsy household, there is a clearly-defined hierarchy of authority. The father/husband is the head of the household, and his wife and children are respectfully submissive. Children obey their parents. Wives submit to their husbands, sisters to their brothers. From a young age, girls are taught to serve and care for their brothers (both older and younger) in preparation for their roles as wives and mothers.
Sisters serve their brothers food, wash and iron their clothes, and honor their brothers’ authority. At the same time, the boys (along with their father) adopt the role of protectors of the family. This protection is seen most significantly in the high value Gypsies place on preserving female virginity until marriage.
A young man is taught to honor a young woman’s chastity. If he violates that honor, there will be severe repercussions. A woman, it is understood, must come to her marriage a virgin.
By contrast, the Spaniards do not place as much value on extensive family ties and are—like many modern societies—experiencing the separation and deterioration of the family. It was my observation that children do not always respect their parents, and parents do not often demand that honor. My Spanish friends complained bitterly about their children’s disobedience and blatant disregard for parental authority.
That same disregard for parental authority transfers over into decisions regarding premarital sex and marriage. In general, premarital sex is more common among Spanish young adults than among Gypsy youth. Spaniards generally do not place as high a value on sexual purity as Gypsies. Pre-marital relationships are considered the norm.
Besides culture, the extraordinary success of Pentecostal evangelism among the Gypsies may be explained by a series of characteristics that make this movement attractive to them. Examples include: the simplicity of its doctrine, the autonomy given to the local churches, the raising up of Gypsy pastors, the emotive and participatory quality of its services, and the capacity of Gypsy pastors to adapt to the local culture (Cantón 2005, 76). Below we will look at several of these factors individually.
Factors Contributing to the Success of Gypsy Evangelization
Much of the success of Gypsy evangelization can be attributed to three fundamental factors: (1) the inherent spirituality of the Gypsy, (2) the rise of the Gypsy pastor, and (3) a natural acceptance and high level of tolerance for being labeled “different” (“Los Gitanos Aleluya” 1992, 1).
Inherent spirituality of the Gypsy. First, let’s look at the nature and spirit of the Gypsy. Gypsies have always been simple people, travelers who move from place to place in search of work and food. They live close to the land, many with nothing more than a wheeled caravan and a horse to pull it.
Perhaps the picture below, which hangs on the living room wall of one of the sisters from Dios Con Nosotros, sums up the Gypsy spirit better than any words could. It is an old black-and-white drawing of a Gypsy family stopped on the side of the road. Their horse is dead. The question written on the picture asks, “What are we supposed to do now?” The answer below reads: Esperemos en un Dibel. Simple. Just wait on God. God is not named, and some will criticize that the answer literally reads, “on a God,” but the point is that the Gypsy has never had any trouble accepting that there is a God.
Remember, the Gypsies are believed to have traveled to Europe from India, where they most likely worshipped many gods. They come from a mystical people, and have always been connected to nature—which for them proves the existence of God. According to the oral history of their people, the Gypsy has always believed in a divine being called Dibel, who brings blessings and faith to the people.
Rise of the Gypsy pastor. The inherent spirituality of the Gypsies is an important factor, but the key to the success of Spanish Gypsy evangelism is often attributed to the Gypsy pastor (“Los Gitanos Aleluya” 1992, 1). The pastors in La Iglesia Evangélica de Filadelfia are raised up from their own people. They understand the mysticism the Gypsy has inside, as well as the simplicity and transparency of the people.
Parting from this base of faith in the natural, however, the Gypsy pastor uses a theology based more on the concrete and practical than on abstractions. It is necessary to watch a Gypsy pastor preach to see that his approach stems from an intrinsic understanding of how Gypsies think and feel. He adapts the lessons of Pentecostal Christianity to the reality of Gypsy ethnicity.
At least seventy-five percent of the Gypsy population is illiterate, including many of the pastors. Many have never read the Bible, but they know the Word intimately, and can remember and quote scripture with amazing authority. The pastor of Dios Con Nosotros, Manuel “Pepe” Serrano, once said that while unable to read, he acquired his knowledge of the Word on his knees—spending several hours in prayer each day as he worked through the rigorous training leading up to candidacy.
Pastor Pepe is a superb orator, as are most Gypsy pastors. Pulling from the Gypsy tradition of storytelling and oral history, they keep their words simple, employ repetition and dramatization, and incorporate the use of multiple images and gestures. The base of this movement is not doctrine, but life. Services grow from the emotions of the people—with significant external demonstrations of faith. The pastors are loud, their congregants ecstatic.
In their songs and prayers, the pastor and his people are spontaneous and uninhibited. They are sentimental and able to accept biblical truths without questioning. A miracle is a miracle, a salvation a salvation. It is this simplicity that characterizes not only the Gypsy pastor, but the people he leads to faith.
Another important factor concerning the Gypsy pastor is that the degree and kind of authority he has over his congregation is very similar to that of the family patriarchs, known as “old Gypsies” or “men of respect” (Gay y Blasco 1999, 157). These older men incarnate those virtues that imply great wisdom. They have a deep knowledge of Gypsy law and of the proper Gypsy way of doing things.
They have considerable understanding of what is correct morally, are upright in character, and are knowledgeable of human nature. They are always seen as truthful and consistent, and their word is trusted. They behave morally, are self-controlled, and are called upon as mediators in times of crisis. There are clear parallels between the roles or figures of the mediator (men of respect) and the minister.
Converts put great emphasis on the exemplary behavior and moral character of the ministers. Among the pastor’s virtues, it is more his righteousness or respectability than his doctrinal knowledge that is considered significant (Gay y Blasco 1999, 165) and worthy of emulation.
Natural acceptance and a high level of tolerance for being labeled “different.” Gypsies can identify with their pastor because he is one of them. He shares the same history, culture, and values. This is perhaps where Catholicism failed to fully reach the Gypsy population. With the imposition of Catholicism during Franco’s Spain, many Gypsies “converted” to the faith, but never really considered the religion as “their own.”
It was always seen as a “payo” (non-Gypsy) religion. With the spread of the Iglesia Evangélica de Filadelfia and Pentecostalism, however, the Gypsies finally had something of their own with which to identify. And with centuries of persecution, marginalization, and exclusion, they had no trouble being labeled as “different” once they converted. The Gypsies have spent most of their history being accused of being different, non-conformists, and problematic. Only now, they are different for Christ.
So what can we learn from the success of the Spanish Gypsy Pentecostal movement in Spain? Most importantly, we must be open and attentive to God’s movement in our lives and our ministries. Like Le Cossec, we must prepare for surprises, respond to them, and move in God’s will. I went to Spain initially for the purpose of researching Spanish Gypsy culture for a book I was writing. I was a fiction writer, a creator of stories—not a theologian, not a missionary. I was also a Christian who worshipped a surprising and awesome God.
From the moment I walked through the railed door of Dios Con Nosotros in the Gypsy ghetto of Tres Mil Viviendas, God made it clear to me that the experience I was about to have had nothing to do with my book and everything to do with my growth and faith.
But like Le Cossec, I did only what I was called to do. I researched my book. My pastor told me clearly before I left for Spain that I was not being sent to Spain as an evangelist or missionary, but as a writer. As I conducted my research, I understood my pastor’s words. While I shared prayer and praise with my Gypsy brothers and sisters in Christ, God began to use me. I was able to pray for and with a number of brothers and sisters. I was able to strengthen their faith as they strengthened mine. I was able to see the need of this congregation to which I had been sent.
They needed what I had so often taken for granted: my literacy. They wanted to learn how to read the Bible. Pastor Pepe wanted to write a book on his teachings of the Book of Revelation. I later learned that one of the most significant repercussions of Pentecostalism on the process of change taking place among the Gypsies is that there is an important movement within the Iglesia Evangélica de Filadelfia directed at the development of literacy skills among its members.
The obvious purpose of this movement is to allow its converts to read the Holy Scriptures. I am praying for a way to return to Seville so that I can establish a literacy program for the brothers and sisters of Dios Con Nosotros and help Pastor Pepe write his book.
A Catalyst for Dibel
Oscar and Heidi remain in Seville, where they continue working arduously in the field to which they were called. In this country, where less than one percent of the forty million inhabitants are evangelical Christians, Oscar and Heidi have their work cut out for them.
Oscar is assisting a local pastor in a Pentecostal church in the impoverished sector of Tres Mil Viviendas. He ministers to the men while preaching the word. Heidi is helping to set up Sunday Bible classes while ministering to the women and children. It is in this teaching that Oscar and Heidi believe they are fulfilling God’s will for their lives and mission.
Oscar corroborates what was said before, namely, that Gypsy pastors are revered more for their righteousness or respectability than for their doctrinal knowledge. In effect, Oscar is doing exactly what Le Cossec did when he began the Evangelical Gypsy Mission in 1957: he is preparing Gypsy pastors to preach to their own people. Le Cossec served only as a catalyst; God used him to bring the word to one Gypsy couple, who then brought it to several others, who then brought it to a nation.
Le Cossec did not establish any of the churches in Spain, nor did he found La Iglesia Evangélica de Filadelfia.
He prepared seven men to raise up their people. Seven Gypsies. We are each called to plant the seed, to tend it, and then to let it flourish in its natural soil. Oscar, Heidi, and I will continue to plant seeds among the Gypsies in southern Spain. We will tend to them and help them grow. But once they are firmly rooted, we will step back and wait on Dibel. We will wait on our amazing and awesome God.
Cantón, Manuela. 2005. Gitanos Pentecostales. Sevilla: Junta de Andalucía.
Gay y Blasco, Paloma. 1999. Gypsies in Madrid. New York: Oxford International.
“Los Gitanos Aleluya.” 1992. Mercaba. Accessed November 11, 2010 from www.mercaba.org.
Susan Nadathur lives with her husband and daughter in Lajas, Puerto Rico. She writes young adult and literary fiction and hosts a blog (crossculturalencounters.blogspot.com) dedicated to providing an intimate look into the customs and beliefs of evangelical Spanish Gypsies. Susan’s contact email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
EMQ, Vol. 47, No. 2, pp. 150-157. Copyright © 2011 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.