In my novel CITY OF SORROWS, many of Diego’s family members belong to a Pentecostal Gypsy church located in their neighborhood. This church was based on one that I worshipped in. You may wonder, as I did, how Pentecostal Christians came to establish churches among the Gypsies in Spain. Here’s a little of that history, which actually starts in Brest, France with a French pastor named Clement Le Cossec.
At the beginning of the 1950’s, Clement Le Cossec—a former Catholic priest who later converted to the church of the Assemblies of God—began a small ministry in Brest (Normandy). At that time in France there was a clear, carefully-guarded separation between the French, and other marginal groups who came to the country in search of work. Le Cossec ministered to the French, not to the Gypsies or any other ethnic group. His interest in ministering to the Gypsies began unexpectedly when one day a Gypsy couple entered his church. They were not turned away. They heard the Word, and at the end of the service when Le Cossec called forth all those who wanted to accept Christ as their Savior, the Gypsy couple walked together to the altar and accepted the call.
After that day, they continued to come to the church—even though their relationship with the French congregation was strained by the ethnocentric attitudes of the time. Then one day, the couple approached Le Cossec and offered him money in exchange for receiving the same treatment as other members of the church—meaning pastoral visits, counseling, and support during the difficult moments of their lives. Their petition moved Le Cossec, who then decided to bring the Word not only to this couple, but to all Gypsies who had come to France to work the grape harvest. Among those temporary workers were many Spanish Gypsies. These first converts eventually returned to their native country and, having been touched by the Spirit, began to share their experiences with their family and friends.
Seeing the success of these first conversions, in the year 1957 Le Cossec founded what he called the Evangelical Gypsy Mission. The purpose of this mission was primarily to offer training to Gypsy converts to become evangelical pastors. In 1965, the first seven Gypsy pastors arrived in Spain. These seven men founded what is known today as La Iglesia Evangélica de Filadelfia, an Evangelical, Pentecostal Church which is completely governed by, financed by, and lead by Gypsies for a predominantly Gypsy population.
The expansion of Pentecostalism among the Spanish Gypsies was rapid, despite the difficult political conditions of Franco’s Spain. During Franco’s dictatorship (from 1939 to his death in 1975), Catholicism was declared the state religion and non-Catholics, especially Evangelicals, were objects of persecution and discrimination. After Franco’s death, however, the newly-adopted Constitution of 1978 guaranteed equal rights for all ideologies and religions and so the 1980’s and 1990’s saw especially accelerated growth for Gypsy Pentecostalism. In the year 1980, there were 30 churches in Andalucía. By the end of 1995 there were 78 congregations, and at the end of 1998 (the last year for which statistics were available) La Iglesia Filadelfia counted 700-800 churches dispersed throughout Spain—comprising a total of approximately 150,000 to 200,000 members.The question then arises: why this rapid spread of Pentecostalism among the Gypsies, but not among the native Spaniards? Follow me to the next entry for some exciting answers to this provocative question.