Making an Impression


[A testimony in song, composed by a congregation member.]

“Just to let you know, they’ll probably be dressing up for church,” Vicente advised me, “I think even a little bit more here than they would in Spain.”

I had just been trying to get myself together after a long day; we’d gotten back to the apartment just in time for church, so we knew we’d end up heading right back out the door.

“Really? Well, should I change? Should I find a skirt? I don’t have a knee-length skirt with me, though. But I have my dress. Should I wear my dress?”

He shook his head.

“No no, now it would be super obvious, we are about to leave. It will just make everybody less comfortable. Don’t worry about it.”

“But… should I? Do you think it’s the proper thing to do? Won’t it be strange in church for me to come in like this, in pants? And if they dress up more here… does that mean they also cover their heads? Should I bring a scarf? See, now you’ve made me all worried. What should I do?”

Another head shake.

“See, I knew I shouldn’t have said anything. Just, don’t worry about it,” Vicente responded.

Of course, walking back down the stairs in my day jeans I found his aunt Ana dressed to the nines, her hair done beautifully, dangling earrings framing her face and, sure enough, a white skirt hitting just past the knees and a set of dress heels. I sighed, feeling like a bit of a schlump — normally, I would never allow myself to break a standard culture code so obviously.

“Remind me to buy or borrow a church skirt somewhere,” I muttered to Vicente on the way out.

This evening, the church we went to was in a neighboring town. We decided to take the trusty Chevrolet, Vicente and I quickly tossing our growing back seat piles into the trunk so that his aunt and uncle had a neat space to sit.

In the following half hour, I wanted very badly to be genteel, to demonstrate that I was a calm, responsible driver for this trip, and not to engage any rumors or disapproval from the part of Vicente’s immediate family. And I drove safely, alright — so safely and carefully that by the time we walked into the simple church room, down a long dirt path and past a campsite full of Roma trailers that we could just barely make out in the moonlight, the pews were mostly full and the pastor had taken the stage.

The room was split — for the most part, French Gitans sat on the left (they would also be considered Kalo, like the traditional Roma from Spain, but who had emigrated to France over a hundred years ago), while the Spanish Roma, or recently immigrated Kalo, sat on the right. The division was made obvious, among other things, because Gitans in this church covered their heads, while Kalo from Spain did not. Everyone was with their own little family group, women with women and men with men. I followed Ana to the group that was beckoning to us, many of whom I recognized from the massive paella dinner at Louis’. Vicente was summoned to the side of the stage with his cousin Vicente the Pastor, looking out onto the densely packed congregation.

The service offered messages of hope, of fear, of salvation and strength. Some beautiful music echoed through the crowd, and different members of the congregation mounted to the altar. I am adjusting to this new style of Roma evangelism, from my family’s Anglican church; it is not unlike a combination of the mish mash of protestant churches I have observed with in my lifetime, but there is definitely something characteristic of Roma evangelism, though I wouldn’t be able to name it. But after being in these churches so far in England, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain and France so far, the particular manner of conducting the celebration catches me as something familiar, comfortable.

The only moment of discomfort hit when it came time for communion. I looked at *** for guidance, and when she stood I thought I ought to as well, but she shook her head no. Maybe it was something about the church itself, or my age, or my status, but I couldn’t stop thinking that it might very well be the fact that I had ended up wearing those damn pants.

As usual, Vicente had an opportunity to address the congregation; this time, he focused on the state of the world and skipped his personal testimony.

Vicente speaking from the pulpit. [Photo by REBEKAH]

Vicente speaking from the pulpit. [Photo by REBEKAH]

“The situation of discrimination against Roma is terrible, all over Europe,” he said. “I have had the opportunity to travel in the last four years, and have met many people from Eastern Europe, from the Czech Republic and Slovakia; and I can tell you, what they are suffering there is awful. And these people are our brothers and sisters. We need to find a way to come together, to fight for the respect of our people…”

The people seemed to be on board with the idea, nodding and murmuring to his short speech; but later, Vicente expressed his frustration at the fact that shortly following this call for collectivity a gentleman stood up in front of the crowd and said that it all didn’t matter, as long as many Roma would burn in hell for not knowing Jesus Christ. He wanted to save souls as well; but whereas some factions of every church call for justice in this life and after, others focus so much on the after that here seems to slip away from the agenda untouched.

After church, we stood around chatting for a while in the room before spilling out into the night. It had been a good idea to come to the service, but now our beds were calling.

“Can I drive?” Vicente’s uncle Louis asked, only partly joking.

“Sure!” I said happily, but silently I wondered: had I done something wrong, an illegal turn, too bumpy on the dirt road? Did he think I was a bad driver?

“You’re a good driver,” Louis said, as if answering the unasked question; “but you drive super slow!”

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