Gypsies for jesus

Once they were passionate, ear-ringed bandits who inspired Bizet and Mr ime; then they became a byword for drink, drugs and dissolution; now, converted to `the cult', the gypsies of Madrid are trading in flamenco songs for a place in the choir eternal. JUSTIN WEBSTER reports. Photographs by MIKE GOLDWATER

A dreamy look comes over Pedro's dark face and he begins, with a hint of pity, to try to answer my queries. We are sitting in a chabola, a shack of patched-together planks and aluminium belonging to his neighbours, Jos and Maria, in Los Focos, a gypsy shantytown on the edge of Madrid. "You come out feeling," he glances around the sparse shelter, "...there aren't words to describe it. It's a very wonderful thing. You wouldn't exchange it for anything. Not even drugs make your body feel so good, not even drink. Nothing. It's fulfilment which really fulfils you." Jos nods his agreement while he stokes the stove in the middle of the cleanly swept concrete floor. He invited me in as it began to rain and my first impression was how neat the inside of the chabola was compared with the explosion of colourful refuse spread over the wasteland outside, and how incongruously smart their eldest child, a girl of about seven, looked in a dress of crushed black velvet. I reached Los Focos by walking up a dusty lane flanked by head-high walls of rubbish - tyres, cans, carpet, rotting food and building materials - past two huts where a team of social workers have their offices and a kindergarten. "Here comes a payo!" shouted a little boy, identifying me immediately as a non-gypsy. A few years ago, up to 200 visitors an hour came to this spot when Los Focos was a kind of out-of-town supermarket for heroin for the rest of the city. But now the onlypayos who regularly come here are social workers or the police. In the past nine months, the drug trade has come to a complete standstill. Instead, many of the 250 gypsy families of Los Focos have found something they believe has redeemed them from certain doom: an evangelical creed called the Church of Philadelphia, or, more simply, "the cult". The women washing clothes at the concrete basins in what serves as the main square are all solidly in favour of it. "It's beautiful," says one of the younger ones earnestly. "It's got rid of the mafia," says an older, heavily built resident, as she scrubs the clothes and sends suds flying. "You know what the mafia is, don't you?" Some say it has made their husbands less machista, or stopped them drinking. "How is it not going to be a good thing if those who had vices now don't have them and you can speak directly to God?" demands Carmen Pardo, the mother of several teenage children. The men are more tight-lipped and tell me I should speak to Jesus, the priest who comes daily to the shantytown to conduct a service just after nightfall in the only shack which can boast a few breeze blocks and a corrugated-iron roof in place of the usual mesh of scrap. But Pedro is more expansive, perhaps more confident because he grew up with payos in Valencia. He moved to Los Focos to join his extended family at the age of eight, when the first shacks were being constructed 22 years ago. Unlike most of his neighbours, who, if they followed any religion, worshipped one of the Virgins without going to church, Pedro was brought up a practising Catholic. He is now one of the most diligent attendants of the cult, a devout "Alleluya", as followers are often known. Like others in Los Focos, he and his family are on a waiting list to be rehoused as part of a project supposed to have been completed in 1990, but which is still dragging on at a snail's pace. Gypsies who have given up their nomadic way of life in the past two decades have increasingly found themselves in a cultural no-man's-land, wanting to live in a house or flat without knowing anything about the life that goes with it. Like the others, Pedro earns enough for his family to live on by dealing in scrap or occasionally selling clothes or fruit on the street. "The cult is against drugs and against alcohol and against the sin of robbery and swindling and against the sin of committing crimes," he explains piously. "It helps you spiritually and economically." Economically? "I say to God, for example, `I need to sell these four boxes of fruit so I can feed my children' and the Lord says, `You will sell them.'" Pedro claims, for no clear reason, that because the cult members ask for specific things, such as the curing of a baby's fever, they are not "religious". To him, the word sounds too official, too much like going to church and forgetting about God afterwards, which is something the Alleluyas do not do. Maria, a big, pale-skinned woman, fixes me with her intense eyes and asks if I'm a Christian; I say yes, but not much of a believer. "Ours is the true faith," she affirms. Pedro says he has the gift of speaking in tongues, and describes his visions in detail. Then he tells me he can see from my eyes that I am not a follower of the cult. "If you have the Holy Spirit and I have it, there's a sudden shock, like a woman and a man when they fall in love, you see. As soon as I saw you, the Holy Spirit said to me in my heart, he is not an evangelist. He does not know God." He explains all this in a gently superior tone, and asks me not to be offended. When Jesus finally arrives, in a Ford Transit van just like the ones which have been ferrying scrap back and forth all day, our conversation is brief. I explain that I am here to find out about the cult and would like to attend a service. He smiles a glassy smile and says no. They are angry with local journalists for writing stories about drugs and the cult, and the heads of the church have banned all contact with the press. I must speak to the head of the church for the whole of Madrid. Evangelical fervour has swept through the one-million-strong gypsy population in Spain at the speed of a Mediterranean brush fire. According to the Spanish Association of Gypsy Presence, about 30 per cent of gypsies in Spain are Alleluyas. The Church of Philadelphia itself says it has 90,000 officially baptised members and about 500 churches across Spain. There are now 70 churches in Madrid alone; ten years ago there was only one. And yet gypsies would not have seemed obvious converts to a puritan faith. George Borrow, the Englishman who translated the first book, St Luke's Gospel, into Romany in the last century and tried unsuccessfully to evangelise the gypsies, certainly did not see it as an easy task. The closest he came to making any converts was when he managed to lure a group of gypsy women to his lodgings in Madrid and get them to read the Bible, as he recounts in The Zincali: or an account of the Gypsies of Spain (published in 1841). "For the first quarter of an hour we generally discussed upon indifferent matters. I then by degrees drew their attention to religion and the state of souls. I finally became so bold that I ventured to speak against their inveterate practices, thieving and lying, telling fortunes, and stealing a pastesas (by trickery); this was touching upon delicate ground, and I experienced much opposition and feminine clamour. I persevered, however, and they finally assented to all I said, not that I believe my wordsmade much impression on their hearts." The phenomenon might have had more impact if payos and gitanos (gypsies) did not live, to a large extent, as separate communities. Centuries of mutual mistrust mean that, even today, many Spaniards view gypsies with more suspicion than they do immigrants. Their reputation for being wolf-like - untamed and untameable - is alive and well but, for Spaniards, completely lacking in the romantic charm that inspired French artists like Mrime and Bizet. They are now seen as work-shy tax-dodgers rather than colourful bandits, and are easily blamed for the ballooning of social security costs and the rise in street crime. Physically, they are unmistakable from other Spaniards, not only because of their racial differences - there are blond, pale gypsies as well as ones who could easily be taken for Indians - but because of a distinctive way of dressing which, even when very similar to the payos, is somehow louder or sharper. At the root of their sense of identity are their tight-knit families, which can comprise as many as 2,000 people, governed by tios, literally uncles, the elders. The fact that they form a recognisable community after hundreds of years in Spain says as much about strict family discipline as it does about their persecution. "Nobody knows for certain what the origins are of the gypsy people," explained Felipe Garcia, who has been a priest for 23 years and was among the first Spanish gypsies to be converted. "But we are definitely Oriental, and came to Europe many years ago. Our customs are very close to the Jews in things like weddings and respect for elders, and as regards the unity of our people, so it is possible there might have been a link once. Our customs are especially similar to those of the Old Testament." Garcia's church is at the opposite social extreme to the one in Los Focos, showing how the cult has penetrated all levels of gypsy society. Located in El Rastro, Madrid's flea market, it is attended by the families of wealthy antique dealers and owners of clothes shops, and the women's side is thick with fur coats. Arriving in time to join the congregation filing into a long, narrow, windowless room in Sant Blas, you would see the women taking their seats on the right, forming a blaze of colour, the men on the left, shaking everyone by the hand and God-blessing them. A girls' and a boys' choir face each other in front of the lectern where the preacher stands, alongside a guitarist, drummer and organ player. The heavily made-up teenage girls adjust their microphones and as soon as the guitar starts up there is a sudden barrage of music, the girls singing at the tops of their voices in an unmistakably flamenco style, the boys keeping the rhythm with hand-heldpercussion, until the whole church is swinging and clapping. The Catholic Church has been taken completely by surprise by this sudden upsurge in religious activity. Its priests say they are too overstretched to meet the needs of the gypsies and some are even critical of the cult for being too spiritual. "We do notagree", said Pablo Castorro, a Catholic priest who visits Los Focos, "with this type of religiosity, which only thinks of the soul and of God the Saviour but later does not come down to earth and get involved with the problems of these gypsies." Despite its name, the cult has nothing to do with the United States. The word Philadelphia was picked out of the Bible by the gypsies themselves from the name of one of the seven churches of Asia in the Book of the Apocalypse. The title originated in France, when a group of Hungarian gypsies who had been converted by Frenchmen met and evangelised three Spanish gypsies who were working in the vineyards near Perpignan, and who then returned to Spain as preachers themselves in the early Sixties. "They started preaching the Gospel in the face of great difficulties," said Felipe Garcia. "It was something so new and surprising - that a gypsy who couldn't read or write was preaching the Gospel - that at first it wasn't accepted. Gypsies did not believe that one gypsy could teach another. "Since vice, sins and drugs have increased, people have decided that the best place for their children is the church," Garcia continued. "And one of the groups which has suffered from drugs most has been the gypsy community." But undoubtedly the group which has given the church its biggest boost recently, and is also giving it its first doctrinal dilemma, are the famous and often notoriously dissolute flamenco singers and dancers who have embraced the faith. Ramn El Portugues, one of the foremost living flamenco singers, is an Alleluya. He has a sad, doomed face, and was a heroin addict and alcoholic for 28 years. His conversion came when he was on his way to Cannes two years ago to appear at an awards ceremony. His lungs were about to give out from years of abuse, and his doctor had told him not go. So when he felt himself going into a coma he got down on his knees and prayed, broke down crying, and by the following day had recovered. "Now I sing on a glass of water where before I needed a bottle of whisky and three grammes of cocaine," he said. "And I sing better than ever." The problem for the cult is that flamenco performers have become so closely associated with drugs that many of the followers want the singers to give up performing in public. Peret, the first famous convert to the cult, was the founder of "ramba catalana", which he fused out of flamenco and rock, particularly his hero Elvis Presley, and which was later made famous by the Gypsy Kings. He spent nine years singing only in church. But he left the cult in 1991, and was, therefore, able to perform at the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Barcelona. He is now highly critical of the cult, accusing the pastors of using it to make money and saying that he was brainwashed. "Artists are condemned," he said, "because the cult prevents them from working."

Ramn, however, says the most puritan side of the cult is already getting less rigid. "It's changing. Singing gypsy flamenco in church was banned to begin with - `Ooh,' they'd say, `this is too wordly' - but God is changing people's attitudes because He knows it comes from the heart. Those of us who have been in the profession for 25 years and have sung in the best theatres of the world don't go to church to steal the show, we go to thank God and sing in the way that is natural to us. If God wanted us to do it differently, He would have put it in our hearts." Still curious to find out what the cult in Los Focos is like, I go back on a Saturday evening to try one last time to persuade Jesus to let me in. As I arrive I see his white van turn up the road and then head off down the main street. Little groups are already forming outside as it begins to get dark. Some of the men are wearing ties with their leather jackets; all are spruced up. As I have lost sight of the van, I decide to wait with the rest of the congregation. The ones I have not met before ask me the usual questions: are there any gypsies in England? How long does it take to get there in an aeroplane? But I am struck by how two clean-cut boys talk about the cult in almost fanatical terms. "This life isn't worth anything," says one. "The devil opens your mind, but God opens your heart," says the other. One of them turns out to be Jesus's son, and when I say I want to attend the service he says he will ask his father on my behalf. I go along with them to the church door and as the service is about to begin I am ushered in to a pew near the front. A man shuffles in alongside me, and exclaims, "Hombre, you are coming to heaven with us!" The service begins with a hymn, but the sound of the guitar is drowned by the distorted sound of one of the members of the chorus bent double, singing furiously and tunelessly into the microphone held between his knees. None of the voices from the women's side of the church can be heard. Two visiting preachers give sermons. The first is severe, but the second, a short man with an ample beard and wild, staring eyes, builds up to a climax of passionate ranting, his screams distorting into an indescribable blur of noise. "Why do I live in poverty after 23 years of knowing the Lord?" He searches the faces of the congregation in the dim light, and then bellows the answer at the top of his lungs: "Because I want to be poor on the earth to have riches in the Kingdom of Heaven!" Lowering his voice, he turns to a passage in the Old Testament and slowly, with great significance, reads the story of a man who was put to death for breaking the law. "He and all his family were stoned to death outside the village," he dwells on each word and repeats the line menacingly. In Spanish the word for village, pueblo, also means "people", so the message to a purely gypsy congregation carries an extra meaning. When it is over, we file out into the darkness. I say goodbye to a few of the faces I recognise. On the shantytown's main street I feel someone touch my arm. "Pedro!" I recognise him from his rotund outline. "I saw you in the cult," he says. I stand uncomfortably for a moment in the darkness without knowing what to say. I feel a sense of disgust at the preacher's sermon, as if he had forced his listeners on to their knees for their small dose of hope. I wonder if, in shaking off the stigma of wolves, the gypsies are in danger of becoming sheep. So I just make a farewell gesture and turn to go. "God bless you," I hear him say, as I stumble off up the uneven mud track, past the shacks now all lit up by their own generators and past the walls of refuse.

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