Throughout November, The Huffington Post UK is running its Beyond Belief series, chronicling the remarkable lives of Britons who've taken on their faith to create a force for change.
"I got saved behind the glue factory in Welwyn Garden City. It was at an open-air meeting, around a fire.”
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Jackie Boyd became a born-again Christian in 1983, after buying his first bible in Harrods. “I know,” he says, grinning sheepishly, “it sounds funny now, but at the time I thought a Harrods bible would be a proper one, a good one.”
The 52-year-old, softly-spoken Romany gypsy was one of the founders of Light and Life, an evangelical church driving a rapid rise of Pentecostal Christianity among gypsies in the UK since the 1980s. Boyd estimates that the “gypsy awakening” has up to 20,000 followers – around a tenth of the estimated gypsy population - and it has been growing with particular fervour over the past few years.
Gypsy life is changing. The romance of brightly-coloured wagons is rarely the reality: Boyd lives in a single-story chalet, not a caravan. Three quarters of gypsies and travellers now live in conventional housing.
Light and Life followers straddle both the mystic and the modern. They believe in miracles, carry out full-immersion baptism and follow the bible's words literally. Yet the church is making some sweeping modern changes to the traditional gypsy culture: it forbids fortune-telling, drinking and smoking, as well as arranged marriage which is practiced in mainland Europe.
It supports education beyond 12 years old. Around a fifth of gypsy children in the UK don’t go to secondary school, and of those that do, half drop out. Many parents try to keep children out of schools after they become teenagers, fearing they will become corrupted by the wider world.
Light and Life also demands that gypsies follow UK laws. “Gypsies come from backgrounds where they were never really bothered about laws as such,” says Boyd.
Light and Life teaches a direct interpretation of the bible – Boyd’s conversation is peppered with quotations. Smartly dressed in a shirt and Ralph Lauren jacket, he has an easy manner that is warm but sincere: a natural preacher.
“Your morality changes when you become a Christian," he explains. "Some of the things that gypsies were into were bigamy, fortune-telling and misrepresentation. We expect a Christian to live a changed life. If they were doing something illegal, they would stop doing that. So you’d expect them to not drink any more, not to smoke any more, to pay taxes and to keep out of immorality.”
He outlines Light and Life's beliefs: “If you were trying to denominate us, we would be traditional Pentecostal or evangelical. It means we’re conservative: we still believe in miracles, we still believe in prayer, and we believe the bible as it was traditionally known.”
Boyd is a Romany gypsy, part of the group originally of Indian heritage who migrated through eastern Europe. Light and Life also has worshippers from the Irish traveller community, the other main group often called ‘gypsy’.
Thousands gather at the church's annual convention, where hearty gospel songs are sung and women cover their hair for prayer – despite wearing shorts and t-shirts. “It’s like church on turbo, we have about six meetings a day,” Boyd smiles.
Today, Boyd is one of seven 'elders' leading the movement. When we meet meet, he is sitting with an iPad in the church where he is a pastor, a pre-fab building behind a pub in Iver, a village just outside Slough. It is a humble, single story construction, bare inside save for chairs, a few pictures including one from his missionary work, and an altar with flowers and an eight-foot cross made from distressed, dark wood.
Seven years ago, this was a Catholic church, but it’s now one of 30 Light and Life missions around the country. Boyd is using his iPad to scroll through pictures of his family, whom he can’t trace beyond several generations, though one picture shows his great grandfather "Potty Alec" at a fair in the 1930s.
Morality and gypsies are not often positively associated: many people link gypsies with criminality. Some studies find they are over represented in the criminal justice system, although there are no official national statistics to back this up.
Is the stereotype of thieving gypsies unfair, I ask? Boyd pauses, considering this with sincerity. “I’m trying to be truthful and honest, being asked that. It’s not the percentage that people think. I know some gypsies who are not Christians who are very, very moral people. And there’s some bad people among gypsies. The thing about our race is that the bad gets to go around the world, before anybody hears about the good.”
As well as Jesus, Boyd believes passionately in education. He considers himself well-educated by gypsy standards - he left school at 12 but has studied all his life. “I’ve been an avid book reader all my life, been to colleges and bible school, I took theology at colleges and now I teach theology. I can understand a little Hebrew and Greek, which you need to if you want to study the bible.”
He has picked up the Romany language, to the extent where he can get by “with about 80%” of the vocabulary needed when he does mission work around the world - including in Russia which he visits four times a year.
It was Boyd's drive to learn that was the catalyst for his transformation into a born-again Christian. Speaking to gypsy Christians in the 1980s – then just an informal grouping – he realised he had never read the bible, despite considering himself religious. “I was a good reader and writer, a good scholar. Me mam taught me to read and write aged five. But some of the things the Christians told me I’d never heard before.”
Sitting around an open fire with them, he felt a transformation. “The spirit of god spoke to my heart. I felt I had to cry out to my saviour, and I did that night and he came in.”
He describes his faith in everyday terms, rather than delivering a sermon. “When you understand that Jesus is your lord, you take notice from him same as somebody takes notice of their boss when they were self-employed before,” he says.
Boyd's new religious zeal led him to help found Light and Life, the UK arm of French gypsy movement Vie et Lumière, which launched in the 1950s when a pastor evangelised French gypsies, believing them to be “chosen ones”, a people victimised in the Holocaust alongside Jews.
Some gypsies are concerned that the modernisation Light And Life preaches is eroding an ancient culture. Fortune-telling is part of a much-romanticised heritage, and many Irish travellers with Catholic traditions are being asked to renounce ‘Our Lady’, the Virgin Mary as she plays a far smaller role in the Pentecostal beliefs of Light and Light.
But Boyd feels the best elements of gypsy culture are at the heart of the church’s boisterous services: “There’s part of the culture that is good and that we encourage: joyfulness, loudness, happiness, and dancing.”
Light and Life’s most transformative contribution to gypsy life is its support for sending children to secondary school. Only 12% of gypsy children received five good GCSEs in 2001 compared to the national average of 58%. “Gypsy culture was to stop children going to big school, because they learn too much bad stuff,” Boyd explains.
“Even though we weren’t Christians, we believed in morality, and so we always thought that schools were immoral places where they learnt immoral things, like sexual education. It’s not true, but that’s what we thought. But now we understand that education is very, very important.”
At first, his people resisted calls to send children to school for longer. When Boyd was young, it was unheard of for gypsy children to go to secondary school, whereas now he believes around half his congregation do.
He believes that finding Jesus naturally encourages literacy: “The first thing you want to do is read the bible, and you need some education to read and write properly.” More active social services have played a large part too, he admits.
Boyd is a heavy-set, unassuming man. He married Mary two years before he became a born-again Christian. They have two daughters and three sons, all adults now, and six grandchildren. One son is a pastor at a nearby Light And Life church.
His pride in his own children means he's wary of saying he regrets that they, like he, left school at 12. “I’m glad of the way my children are, because they are averagely educated and we was big on home education."
In the context of his own life, his conviction that secondary education will benefit gypsies seems more shaky. He says losing the gypsy cultural identity is “still a risk” despite the importance of education. "You don’t know how school will affect children. I’m not sure how it’s going to turn out in some people’s lives. I don’t think it’ll work for everybody.”
Amidst this spiritual upheaval, it could also be said that gypsy people need saving in a far less spiritual sense. Boyd’s congregation in Slough is relatively well-off, but many gypsies face serious deprivation due to their marginalisation, precarious housing and reduced access to health and education services.
The child death rate is three times higher than the national average, a gypsy’s life expectancy is 12 years shorter and suicide rates among traveller men are seven times above average. A report recently declared that gypsies endured “third world” healthcare in Scotland, as GPs and maternity services refuse to accept them.
The new way of life Boyd is teaching could help to fight prejudice against gypsies and travellers, which is the last bastion of "acceptable racism” in Britain, according to research published last month. Two thirds of gypsy children have been bullied or physically attacked because of their heritage, and many claim to be scared to go to school - confounding the education crisis. “There’s certainly discrimination,” Boyd nods.
Boyd was born in Darlington in north-east England, nicknamed the UK’s 'gypsy capital'. He moved around constantly as a child, and was afraid when becoming a pastor meant he had to “settle down” in one place. “I thought I couldn’t live like that. I’d never stopped in the same place for more than three months in all my life.”
The church pays no wage: Boyd has always worked in trade jobs, “buying, selling, markets, stuff like that,” and now runs a painting and decorating business because “it’s an honest job.”
Miracles have touched Boyd's life, he believes. He prayed for his wife Mary after their child was diagnosed with calcifications of the liver in her womb, which could indicate abnormalities. “As soon as we found out, we prayed about it and we really felt at peace. I didn’t claim to have done any healing, but the worry went from me completely. When she was born, they said bring her back in six months, and then after 12 months they said they couldn't understand how, but the condition had gone.”
This wasn't in isolation: he says he has witnessed a woman in Kent standing up from her wheelchair. A crippled girl danced at another prayer meeting, and a deaf girl in Moldova regained her hearing after being prayed for. “She was holding her hands to her ears because she couldn’t stick the noise. She was crying and laughing at the same time,” he tells me, still amazed.
One of Boyd’s greatest influences is Davey Jones, another elder of the church and his cousin: “We believe, and Jackie believes too, that there’s nothing that can help our people more in these situations than integration,” says Jones. “We have to move to integrate [with non-gypsies]. Jackie’s an educated man, so we know the importance of this. Education doesn’t take away from culture, it adds to your culture. We are part of this country and of society and we have to play our part in it, in every way.”
Although they are related, Boyd and Jones didn’t meet until their early 20s as their families travelled in different areas. Today, they are each other’s support. “If I was to assess Jackie in a couple of words I’d say he was as steady as the Rock of Gibraltar,” Jones tells me. “If he says he’ll be there, he’ll be there, without any fuss. That’s what you need in people.”
Jones says evangelising is Boyd’s particular strength: “He’s a very level-headed man, and very keen for mission work because he has a love for his own people. He’s stern without being serious.”
But some observers say that alongside modern ideas, some of the church’s other, more conservative values could be damaging its cause. Dennis Latham, a volunteer to National Federation of Gypsy Liaison Groups, says Light and Life is “getting people on the straight and narrow” but is concerned it promotes male dominance over women.
An evangelical Christian himself with a church affiliated to Light and Life, he explains: “They won’t let a woman preach in a church. I disagree with it, because modern teaching is that women have got equal rights. I’ve seen Light and Life put women out if they spoke out.”
Boyd is open about women's exclusion from preaching, and justifies it by pointing to the bible in front of him: “As the bible says, do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over man. It’s only the bible, it wouldn’t be a problem if not, but it is.”
When I point out that placing men above women seems at odds with his modern approach to things like education and fortune-telling, he shifts awkwardly in his chair. “I can’t help that. We’re not Protestant or Catholic; we’re a bible-based church so we don’t have to defend what we believe. We just say listen, [gestures to a bible] there it is, that’s what we do.”
Other observers have darker concerns about this inflexibility over women's rights. Although she is not familiar with Light and Life specifically, Bernie O’Roarke, a former campaigner for Irish Traveller women and children, claims that some born-again Christian movements tacitly permit high levels of domestic violence among gypsies.
A study cited by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2007 found 81% of Irish Travellers had experienced domestic abuse – and often more severe and sustained violence than non-gypsies. O’Roarke has spoken to women fearful that “the violent men would go to church and speak to a preacher, confess everything and all of a sudden everything was alright.”
Boyd denies this firmly, saying it is a “bizarre statement”. “I’m against any kind of violence, especially domestic violence,” he says. “If people continued in domestic violence they would be asked to leave the church.”
He sees improving society as a crucial part of the church’s role – on Saturday nights he feeds homeless people with the five Light and Life churches near London. But despite promoting education and law-abiding behavior, outright activism is not his agenda.
He wouldn’t go as far as to campaign for gypsy rights, for example issues around land ownership - gypsies are encouraged to buy land yet councils frequently refuse their applications. “The bible says that we don’t get involved in stuff like that,” Boyd insists. “I would go out of me way to help anybody in any given situation, but gypsy rights are not my main calling.”
“As a church, we’re not heavy shepherds in telling people how to live. How you bring your children up is down to you. We tell you spiritually what you should do, but I can’t tell you how to live your life physically.”
Gypsies have historically been almost invisible in UK statistics – they were first classified in the census only in 2011. A report from Anglia Ruskin University last month was the first to ever comprehensively assess life for gypsies in this country, raising awareness of the crippling prejudice they face.
For some gypsies, Light And Life’s rise offers the chance to be born again in more ways than one: to start a new tradition to disassociate themselves from the past.
But Boyd’s part in this revolution only goes so far. If forced to choose, he identifies as a Christian, rather than a gypsy. For him, it all comes down to one man. “When Jesus said we are born again, there’s no better word for it, because you look at everything through different eyes,” he says. “Since that moment around the fire, I’ve built a relationship with the Lord and he leads me through his word. He’s still changing my life every day.”
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