Back in 2010 I had the privilege of addressing the AGM of the Churches’ Network for Gypsies and Travellers. This is what I said.
Thank you for the privilege of speaking to you today. In the company of so many notable and renown figures I feel very much like a Lion in a den of Daniels! I am not a Gypsy or a Traveller. I don’t have a lifetime of experience working with Gypsies and Travellers to support them in their struggles against ignorance, misunderstanding, prejudice, persecution and indifference. But I am a Baptist Minister and a pastor and a Bible teacher. So I want today to remind us all why we as Christians should care about Gypsies and Travellers. And my reasons are neither sociological nor merely pastoral, but Biblical and theological.
We should care for Gypsies and Travellers because God cares for Gypsies and Travellers. We should care for all people because God cares for all people everywhere. But beyond that the Bible tells us that God cares for certain groups of people in special ways, and Gypsies and Travellers are very much people that God cares about.
The first thing I want to remind us of is that God is a God of Justice. The God of the Bible, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, is the holy and righteous God. He cares passionately about justice. God cares that people treat each other fairly.
I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God!
He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. (Deuteronomy 32:3-4)
The Lord reigns for ever; he has established his throne for judgment. He will judge the world in righteousness; he will govern the peoples with justice. The Lord is a refuge for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble. (Psa 9:7-9)
God is a God of justice. And God expects his people to care about justice too.
He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
In Britain at this time, as it has been for many years in many places, Gypsies and Travellers are the most persecuted of ethnic minorities. They not only experience opposition and conflict from local people in settled communities. They face institutional racism in planning laws which can directly oppress Gypsy-Traveller lifestyle and heritage. God is a God of justice and the injustices imposed on Gypsies and Travellers make God angry.
Christians have always been at the forefront of the battles for social justice. Abolishing slavery. Racial justice. Gender equality. Safeguarding children and vulnerable adults. It is to our shame that many churches have so often sided with the settled community in oppressing Gypsies and Travellers, when we should have been fighting for justice with them. But God says in Amos 5:24
But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
Then let us remember just how much God cares about the poor and marginalised I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor and upholds the cause of the needy. (Psalm 140:12)
As well as caring for justice for all men and women and children, God has a particular interest in specific groups of people. There is a triad which we find mentioned no less than 18 times in the Old Testament, “the alien, the fatherless and the widow”
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing. And you are to love those who are aliens, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:17-19)
Aliens. Outsiders. People who don’t belong. People who don’t quite fit in. These are the kinds of people God really cares about. It was Bishop of Liverpool David Sheppard who in his book in 1983 drew the attention of the churches to God’s “Bias to the poor”. We find this principle throughout the Old Testament and especially also in Luke’s Gospel. God has a special care for the poor and the marginalised and the oppressed. Remember the words of the Magnificat, which may Christians use in their worship every week.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.
Remember God’s blessings promised to the poor and the woes on those who are rich and well fed in the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6. God still calls his people to show the same care He does for the alien, the fatherless and the widow, the outsiders, anybody marginalised by society.
“Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter. (Isaiah 53:6-7)
I have spent time amongst the rural Poor in Uganda and eaten in homes and churches in villages which are hours walk away from the nearest borehole supply of safe drinking water and where most of the village have never seen mains electricity. I have visited orphanages in Bulgaria where the budget to feed children and teenagers is just 15 pence a day. But then I discovered we don’t need to travel thousands of miles to sub-Saharan Africa to find people who are cut off from running water or mains electricity, or quality healthcare or secondary education. It isn’t only in eastern European countries that whole sections of the population are ignored and even persecuted by the state. They live just a few miles up the road from me. They are Gypsies and Travellers.
In a subsistence economy the poorest of people can survive working the land. In sharp contrast, those who are most disadvantaged in a cash and credit economy like ours are those who are without an address; until recent advances in mobile phones, those without a telephone line; in today’s virtual cyberworld, those without landline broadband access. They are today’s outsiders.
Our God is a God of justice. He has a special care for the outsider, the poor and the oppressed. So it is no surprise, although we so easily forget that the true People of God have always been exiles, wanderers, and refugees. In the Jewish Feast of First-fruits Deuteronomy 26:5 commands, “ Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean,”
Then, to borrow a memorable phrase from Martin Burrell’s book, Epistle from the Romanies, Jesus Himself was a Romani. John 1:14 is best translated, “The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us.” Jesus spent the first two years of his life as a refugee and spent his three years of ministry as a wanderer. Jesus was a Romani.
Of course I don’t mean Jesus was ethnically Romani. I mean he was ethically Romani. Or more precisely, if we are looking for Jesus’s lifestyle and Jesus’s values in today’s world we won’t find them in any groupings in the settled communities, but rather among Gypsies and Travellers. Jesus Himself said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) Christians are not supposed to chase treasures on earth. But the settled community, and very many churches, have forgotten these Kingdom values. The vast majority of people reject Gypsies and Travellers, just as they reject the church when the church is being true to its roots, because their values stand as a rebuke to the materialism and territorialism of society at large.
Kingdom people should always be pilgrim people. Different Epistles describe Christians as “aliens and strangers in the world”. The Apostle tells the Philippians, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20) For so many reasons, Christians should have a closer affinity to Gypsies and Travellers than to any groups in the settled community.
One more thing. Jesus tells us that the second of the greatest commandments is to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. To feed the hungry and the thirsty and to welcome in the strangers. The Parable of the Good Samaritan teaches us that our neighbour is the person in need who God brings across our path and calls us to care for. Most Christians and most churches have a good track record for giving to meet the needs of the poor in the third world and the second world and even the homeless in our own land. And we recognise the gospel imperative to work for social justice. Christians have been at the forefront of initiatives to break down barriers and to bring reconciliation between ethnic groups throughout the world and in our own communities.
Well – Gypsies and Travellers are our neighbours too! But Gypsies and Travellers are the “invisible neighbours”. The neighbours we don’t see, often because we choose not to see them. The neighbours we manage to ignore without our consciences troubling us too much. The neighbours we so often fail to love. Even though in lifestyle and values and frequently in a shared Christian faith, Gypsies and Travellers are often closer to us than the neighbours who live next door to us. Gypsies and Travellers are very much the neighbours God calls us to love.
Why care about Gypsies and Travellers? God is a God of justice and calls Christians to fight against injustice wherever we find it. That’s why we should care. God has a preference for the poor, the aliens, the outsiders, and calls Christians to care for them in any ways we can. That’s why we should care. And the people of God should always be pilgrim people, following Jesus the Romani living as aliens and strangers in the world, called to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. There are just a few very good reasons why Christians should care!