Finding Faith on the Margins

Postcard from London

By John Martin

Religion headlines in the United Kingdom mostly tell a tale of decline. The Church of England certainly has seen decline of 1 percent year on year for more than a decade. Methodists likewise seem to be suffering.

There are some green shoots. A recent report suggests the “messy church” movement is making headway. Another says conservative churches that insist on the truth of the Bible are growing. Perhaps even more intriguing is growth of a spiritual movement that until now at least stood outside the reckoning of media reporting.

Since 1980 large numbers of gypsies have joined a charismatic-style movement called Light and Life. The movement claims to comprise 40 percent of U.K. gypsies. Many of them have turned their backs on adherence to a nominal Roman Catholicism and seek to lead a life that eschews thieving, alcohol, and fortune-telling (dukering).

In July, 6,000 attended the Light and Life Convention, the movement’s annual jamboree. It’s said the continental branch of the movement, called Vie et Lumière, first took root among Romani survivors of the Holocaust. They planted this movement on a mission visit to the northwest of England.

The style of preaching is charismatic, with all-male speakers. There are miracle claims and rousing worship. “I see a great shift among gypsies today,” one preacher told the BBC. “We’ve gone from being professional liars — I was one of them. Now, we don’t want to live that life … because the Holy Spirit’s inside us. We want to go 100 percent legal. That’s what happens when you’re born again.”

Gypsies in the U.K. have their own Roman Catholic chaplain, the Rev. Dan Mason. He told the BBC says that Light and Life followers are very critical of the Church’s rituals, arguing they are not directly from the Bible. He says Light and Life provides its adherents a sense of identity and belonging, “something that as Catholics we need to take seriously and look at how we can make our parishes more welcoming.”

Jackie Boyd a church elder, wants to see the movement extend beyond gypsies. “England and Britain as a nation are going against the standards and principles of God in a big way,” she told the BBC. “So we hope to see a revival and our people saved — but we want everyone to be saved.”

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Gypsy Smith photographed in Manhattan, 1918
Bain-Library of Congress, via
Wikimedia Commons

Forerunner of Light and Life

On a wet January morning in 1889, a solitary figure stepped ashore at New York Harbor. His arrival was unheralded, but within a few months the name of evangelist Rodney “Gypsy” Smith (1860-1947) was known from Boston to San Francisco.

During the next two decades he would visit the United States more than 40 times. People crowded halls and tent meetings to hear his trenchant preaching and interspersed with tuneful solos.

Smith was born in a Romani tent in Epping Forest nine miles northeast of London. A commemorative stone marks the spot in the suburb of Woodford Green. The family got by selling baskets, tinware, opportunist thieving and dukering — fortune-telling using tarot cards. Rodney’s mother died of smallpox when he was 5. His father, Cornelius, was in and out of prison but one chaplain took an interest in him. It was the start of a spiritual journey.

Rodney Smith received no education. He could neither read nor write when converted in his teens, but William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, recognized his raw talent and he became an officer in the movement. “The Converted Gypsies,” Rodney and his brothers, undertook numerous evangelistic campaigns beginning in 1873. If anything he would be more famous in the United States than Britain.

“I didn’t go through your colleges and seminaries,” Smith would say. “They wouldn’t have me. But I have been to the feet of Jesus, where the only true scholarship is learned.”

Where possible he would visit gypsy encampments on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1980s, four decades after the death of Gypsy Smith, a spiritual people’s movement began to take root among them.

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