Countryside Matters


Christian Outreach to Travelling People

The Rev'd Roger Redding

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Churches of all traditions throughout England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales have recently come together through the churches' Commission for Racial Justice to produce a report called:

'Gypsies,Travellers and the Churches'.

The needs of all travellers to be offered Christian witness and ministry has been recognized, both nationally and here in the Diocese of Salisbury.

Some of us who work with the Travelling community have formed a committee and have been active in building bridges between the settled and the travelling community.This has taken the form of helping to propose new sites fitted for the needs and customs of travelling people.For the last two years I have been engaged in working unofficially as a self appointed chaplain to these people in a very limited way. This work has been most rewarding and successful and I have made many contacts with travellers and their families.

My first encounter with travellers started two years ago when I was invited to take the funeral of an illustrious Romany named Henry Cooper. Henry had stopped travelling 60 years ago but lived in a hut on the old Shaston drove. He lived still in the old traditional way. Cooking outside and observing the rules of Romany society. I was asked if I would allow their gypsy councillor Eli Frankham to speak of Henry as a travelling man at the funeral. This I agreed to and found that Mr Frankham was very helpful in informing me about the deceased. 'Henry', he told me was, 'one of the finest Peg Knife Carvers in England'. Eli said that 'if you were to go into his hut and say that you liked something he would turn round and give it to you'. This appealed to my Franciscan spirituality and I was determined to find out more about these people.

At this point I started to study traveller culture by reading books and talking travellers themselves. One of my congregation at Bowerchalke said to me one Sunday 'if you are interested in gypsies you must meet David Rawlins when he comes round'. Up to this time I had only met with travellers who had settled on to sites either rented from the council or purchased by themselves with planning permission. I was about to meet with those travellers who still live a fully itinerant lifestyle.

David Rawlins with his family are real itinerants and spend all of the year living on the droves and byways. They live in a small bow top Vardo (a horse drawn caravan in Romani). David and his wife Eileen I found were devout Christians.

My first meeting with David was on new years day 1997. He was cold shoeing his horse Poppy at the time. From the very beginning I felt very welcome in their company. Travellers on the whole are very hospitable people, but trust has to be built up over a period of time. Most Romanies I have found love to talk and if you happen to be a priest they will open up quiet freely about spiritual matters.

Nomadic gypsies who are Christians find it very difficult to attend church regularly.

Many of them do not read so that services that are heavily liturgical are totally beyond them and make them feel embarrassed. However, there are quite a number of Roman Catholic travellers especially those who have intermarried with Irish Travellers. They are very devout and will often travel miles to see their children baptized or receive mass . The catholic church is no better at looking after them than our church and priests rarely visit travellers. I have often found that I am asked to bless children and vans of travellers who are catholic.They do not seem to mind that I am an Anglican priest.

There is also at this time an evangelical revival going on amongst travellers. This has affected mainly the Romany and Irish travellers. However it has touched a few of the New Age travellers as well. On the whole this movement tends to be Pentecostal for it was a group of French Pentecostal gypsies who came over to England after starting a church on the continent. This group has made great inroads into Roma society changing some of the well known practices such as Dukkerin (fortune telling in Romany). This has been completely outlawed by the Light and Life movement as they are known. Although Light and Life are Pentecostal they have no time for the so called Toronto Blessing, this kind of behavior is not acceptable to Roma. Also Light and Life do not accept womens' ministry . Roma society is very macho. However, women are very respected (and in some way almost feared at menstruation, as in many other ancient tribal societies, when they are kept well away from males or the horses).

The only really disturbing aspect of Light and Life is that they have alienated many of the Catholics and some of the fringe travellers who cannot cope with this high powered approach. I think that when things settle down a little then there will be good opportunities for bridge building.

I have found that this has been very much part of my role at the moment to listen impartially to both sides and try to build bridges. As an Anglican priest with a Pentecostal background but trained in an anglo - catholic college this gives me great advantages for diplomacy between both sides.

Another thing that stops itinerant Christians going to church is the fact that they dare not leave their vans unattended. The Drom (the road in Romany) is an increasingly dangerous place these days. Because travellers are no longer allowed to stay anywhere on the road by law they tend to travel in very small groups as the police are less likely to move them on. This however makes them very vulnerable to attack by anyone who takes a dislike to them or wishes to steal from them.

There are many horror stories that I could relate on this subject. It is for this and many other reasons, as I will explain, that I feel there is a need for an official Chaplain and consultancy to Travelling People.

There is a need to give these people the proper pastoral care that they as Christians deserve. Baptisms are often difficult for the itinerant because there is always the threat to be moved on. I have many times been asked to baptize an adult or child on site but have declined because of the tight parochial system I am obliged to work under. If my chaplaincy was 'regularized' I feel that these sort of questions could be addressed and dealt with, so that I was able to exercise this ministry more effectively.

The possibilities of gentle evangelism among these people are I feel enormous. It is also fertile ground for social responsibility. These are some of the most socially deprived people in the British Isles. The church needs to be made aware of the problems that these people face each day as a persecuted minority.

The kind of harassment and racial prejudice these people receive would not be tolerated for any other ethnic group.

I have already mentioned the problem of literacy among travellers. Because of their nomadic life style, and the problems of continually being moved on, many travellers are denied the most basic education. There are cultural barriers especially with the Roma, who do not like modern sex education which to them seems decadent.

Schools are very reluctant to take on travellers. As a school governor I have experienced some of this prejudice. Heads of schools at times are put under terrible pressure by parents and governors that they don't want to be come a 'Travellers School'. The Ofsted system has in its own way compounded to feed this particular evil in that it demands that schools literacy tables are kept at a certain level. This makes heads who might be sympathetic to travellers needs wary of taking travelling children into schools.

I think that a regular Chaplain could be a good Ombudsman in these sort of situations. The Chaplain could be a good link man for church charities (such as the Childrens Society). Finding out how they could be more constructive in their help in giving a traveller friendly education scheme. Also it would be helpful to try to help adult travellers who would love to learn to read, but again because of the problem with being constantly moved from their traditional achin tans (stopping places in Romany) they find it impossible to attend class. It would be a good idea if we could organize through the charities a travelling classroom to help this situation.

One of my parishioners informed me of a lady who ran a ministry to travellers. She lives in a nearby village and worships at the parish church. In her spare time she runs a visiting ministry to Travellers and has a particular gift with New Agers and fortune tellers. She also has a vast knowledge of Roma culture and the laws that restrict travellers lives. I have found her a very good bridge builder. She like myself is also a champion of travellers who are in need.

Each year this lady organizes an ecumenical tent at the Great Dorset Steam Fair, and she invited me to take part in the mission which gives people a place to have a rest and a cup of tea while at the fair and, if they like, someone to talk to.

The mission also looks after some of the traders children while they are at work at the fair. Each morning a good number of travelling children and traders children enjoyed themselves at the tent. This year I was put in charge of evangelism at the mission. We had a communion service early each morning and a short service in the afternoon for all who wanted to listen.

Steam Fair and Wedding
Great Dorset Steam Fair