Rooted in Spain since the XVI century and currently sedentary, the Spanish gypsies live in a world apart. Named gitanos, after an alleged Egyptian origin, they are confined to marginal neighbourhoods where they keep following their own traditions, against the rules and away from the law of the payos (non-gypsies). Surprisingly, in the last decades, something is deeply renovating this community: the spread of Protestantism.
The Evangelist Church of Filadelfia; a spontaneous institution created by the gitanos following the path undertaken by the French pastor Le Cossec, is having a profound influence on the culture, the economical organization and the social issues of the Spanish gypsies.
It's a faith coming from the bottom, vastly spreading among the poor neighbourhoods and the extended gypsy families at a surprising speed. The Iglesia (church) pursues the tolerance and the dialogue between gitanos and payos. It is predominantly frequented by women and is open to everybody. Even non-gipsies can become pastors. Currently, with more than 4000 churches it is the fastest spreading religion in the Iberian Peninsula. It’s 400.000 followers rank 10% of all Spanish religious believers.
Pope Benedict the XVI repeats it as a motto of his pontificate: “ Catholicism is fading away to extinction, specially in those countries which used to be rich in faith and vocations for the priesthood” and, of course Spain is among them. “It has been a while since Catholicism is loosing ground against the advance of the Evangelist Churches, which are more flexible, more participatory, smaller and closer to their herd”, states Professor Cantón Delgado of the Sevilla University's department of Social Anthropology, who has studied Protestantism in Spain for the last twenty years.
It is beyond question, the fact that the Evangelist movement has had a positive effect on the Spanish gypsy community and on the deviant behaviors that afflicts it such as alcoholism, drug abuse and domestic violence; thanks to the creation of projects for personal and community self-empowerment.
It is a matter of fact that it has contributed more than any other national charity to the reduction of drop-outs among gypsy youth and to the rehabilitation of drug-addicts. It also intervenes in the penitentiaries and in the suburbs of the major Spanish cities.
The pursuit of personal and spiritual empowerment, enticed by the faith, also have given a pride of belonging to the “gypsy peoples” after centuries of prejudices and persecutions. Some people firmly believe that the gypsies are descendants of the lost tribe of Israel, the tribe of Dan, and that they have worshipped the Holy Scripts since the time of the early Jews. If this is true then their history of persecution would depend on their faith, in a destiny of eternal diaspora shared with the Hebrews.
The celebration of the iconoclastic, anti-hierarchical and libertarian spirit of the gypsies finds a space of expression in the religious mass, called El Culto. It is a mix of popular faith, mystical ecstasy and gypsy musical tradition; a loud flamenco-based party, with songs written and performed by acclaimed singer/ pastors.
But there is a deeper function performed during El Culto, based on the ancestral interconnections between religion, theatre and magic. Throughout this collective ritual a show is enacted: social integration is performed and, at the same time, experienced by the audience. During the hour of El Culto, in the stage of the Iglesia, you show your respectability and you find its confirmation from the others. So one cannot be considered the black sheep of society any longer, because he's the purest lamb in the flock of the Lord. This is how an habitually mistreated community builds its self-esteem, on the path towards its redemption.
“The Lord is here ‘cause its herd needs him. A big round of applause for the Lord!”