After spending the whole afternoon with my friend Ramon trying to debate about Roma identity, pride and prejudice, we decided to visit the Evangelical Roma church of Filadelfia in the neighborhood of the 3000 homes.
Ramon was worried about his clothes and echoed a concern for my informal appearance, remembering how the doctor of Camarón told me 2 days ago that I did not look like Roma but like a sort of exotic gangsta. Since I respect very much the Roma Filadelfia Community, I was especially worried that even being raised in a Christian community myself, the Pastor and the members of most of the church could feel very weird about my current history.
The Filadelfia Church was born during the late 50’s in France, where a group of Spanish Roma, or Kalos as we call ourselves, received for first time Gospel and Pentecostalism, which focused and prioritized personal experience and social change as the key elements of the Christian experience.
By a strange twist of fate El Culto, as we call the movement, has produced the most representative organization regarding Roma Grassroots all over Spain, taking a leading role in the social change and in the daily life of hundreds of thousands of Romanies.
It is hard for people outside of the context understand the importance or the overwhelming influence of the church. But anyway, Bekah and I were very clear from the very beginning of this trip that one of our first goals is to raise the voice of the grassroots, who are humiliated up until today and depreciated for their honesty and their politically incorrect speech. Since we are trying to take the community approach far from any kind of elitism, I would ask instead: who the hell are politicians or activist to judge the allegiances of humble Roma communities?
Filadelfia church became an almighty stakeholder in the communities without having any kind of political representation, so it is a very interesting organization for this research.
All Ramon told me was that we were late to the service, but that maybe we could have a coffee with somebody. We arrived to the church as people were leaving the service, and met a very dark skinned man who came forward to introduce himself, and a thin old man dressed with perfect elegance… they were the Pastors of the church. Now the show had started, as I was afraid; Ramon, who is not evangelical, and me, a guy who calls himself Magneto, were trying to explain to the evangelical ministries that I was supposed to go India with my Canadian friend in a Chevrolet Alero.
I very much appreciate the fun of these situations, as ridiculous as I feel they are and as many times as this is happening, since I realize how surreal our plan actually looks.
But then something amazing happened. This dark big man asked Ramon where my family came from and he said Alicante, and then the big man told me, I’m from Alicante too — and he asked me which part of Alicante my family was living, and when I said Callosa de Segura a small town in la vega baja, he said, “Im from Callosa too!”
I was surprised and then I told him I’m the grandchild of the aunt Rosario; then he was shocked and said, my wife is aunt of the wife of your uncle, and then suddenly we were Family! My surprise was even bigger when I turned and I saw a woman who I recognized, she was my aunt Paqui!!
So in 5 seconds I passed from being a strange sort of hippy to a member of their family!! That’s how amazing it is to be Roma, and I guess lots of my friends and brothers can tell very similar stories a/bout how small is our world and how big are our families!
After the unexpected family encounter, the Pastors invited us for a coffee. Ramon was laughing, saying that I have more family in the 3000 homes than he did himself, and finally we came to a little room where we were attended with total kindness. The thin old man was leading the conversation with elegance. To my surprise he even started to speak some words of English to communicate with Bekah. I was shocked that an old Roma pastor of almost 80 years knew English! I can ensure you, this is not usual.
He started to relate his story before we started to record him. He was the Uncle Pepe Pisa, father and founding member of the council of Filadelfia, the Uncle Pepe that designed the structure of the church, starting in Elche till the last parts of Extremadura, crossing Spain, including Andalucia and the Canarian Isles. He has raised hundreds of churches and preachers all over Spain.
He did not have any formal education himself, and he challenged practically alone the impossible mission of bringing social change to the poorest communities of the country. In contrast to many other founding members of Filadelfia that were almost unable to write or to read, he was self-taught and possessed a brilliant analytical mind.
He explained to us how he dedicated his time in the past years to traveling throughout the world, especially in Romania, Bulgaria and France, where he created an early network of small local churches. This was the heart and the key of his success: local work.
In one moment of the conversation I started to talk about European funds and international networking. He cut my proposals down very fast. “We will never collaborate with any institutions in the near future,” he said, “since we are not allowed to tell a single lie. I know personally some of the most important Roma activist of Spain and Europe,” the old guard of the Christian people said, “but we will never lie to get money or even work with corrupt people. The price is too high.”
While he was talking, a little girl came to interrupt him, squeezing herself in between him and Ramon at the table. He has 31 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren!
After a while talking he referred to some Roma NGOs which he supported and how he was finally forced to attack them for their corruption. “The European political agenda is a tricky game,” he said, “a world of liars and impostors. It is not our place.”
But even being a simple youngster I felt the need to reply, so I started my explosive speech: what about the millions of Roma suffering discrimination and being murdered?, what about the corrupted people who represent us and steal our children any possibilities of future?, what about the political lobby we need in order to stop the practical slavery in which most of our brothers live? Was he saying that the Church would never position its communities against the current situation we have?
There is no way to change this without the grassroots. I do believe it is the time when Roma grassroots must have access to the world of the political decisions, not represented by nondemocratic activists and self-made leaders who are killing us with their indecision and crises of identity, but by the people themselves, and by the church if necessary. In the church we seem to lack faith in change and justice, even if we claim to be believers.
He listened carefully me, and finally he agreed that political lobby is essential. Life in the 3000 homes is exactly the same as in most Spanish Roma communities, he said: humble street sellers, fathers of families, iron pickers, people facing serious structural discrimination.
“Society seems interested in the creation of Ghettos,” he explained. “It created ghettos, we were born in Ghettos, we were raised in Ghettos; so, now, we are Ghetto.”
He told me how some days ago he was fighting with a policeman. He was blaming him — “you create this Ghetto,” he said to the policeman, “3000 homes is a Ghetto, why do you complain of our situation if you put us here, why didn’t you put some Roma in Triana and some in Sevilla? No, you wouldn’t, because you prefer our children to be surrounded by human tragedy and misery, making sure they know since childhood very clearly that they are Roma and poor.”
The old preacher was indignant about the reality he has lived for many years. “We in the Church have the will to bring change to the whole world; we have a huge interest but a lack of means. But we make our best,” he said sadly.
He talked largely about his good relations with many non-Roma, especially with other Christian denominations. He also explained how the structure of the Church is the great difference between Filadelfia and other movements; the structure itself, he explained, is based on a system of agents, bylaws, Elders, Pastors and a general council. This structure is not based on other Christian organizations in the world, but on exclusive and innovative strategies, which were created by less than 50 Roma men during the early 60’s. His revolutionary approach is based on a system of zero tolerance to the incompetence and a strong regime of sanctions; a way to guarantee no moral or political deviation will ever be easily forgotten. So the moral argument is the strongest power of the church — like politicians, any scandal or mistake will be analyzed by the whole church in Spain and reported to the council.
A real revolution, as Ramon said, especially between a people who naturally distrust leadership due to hundreds of years of discrimination and due to the lack of political leadership inside the community.
Our conversation as a whole took almost one hour. Eventually the Old Pastor needed to go, the people were waiting for him in the door to close the church. Before he left he proclaimed a final statement that made me smile: “My advice? Find a Bible and buy it! I’m a believer, I’m an evangelical.”