The Roma who found religionThe Roma who found religion
Views and Records
The lives of Roma (gypsies) are often portrayed as being full of poverty and discrimination. However, for some in the Bulgarian town of Lom, religion and hard work are helping them build new, prosperous lives.
The good pastor, Iliya (Elijah) Georgiev was not at his church when we arrived in Humata, a suburb of Lom.
We found him in a brown shirt, pouring the concrete foundations of a new outhouse for his animals, beside his home.
A short, wiry man, he shouted his greetings as he worked, as a cousin slung him bucket after bucket. Handshakes could come later, when the precious grey liquid had set.
Music and mirth rose from Humata, whose name means something like mud, the silt or sediment of a river.
A bloodshot sun sank at Iliya's shoulder as he worked, painting his world a deep orange.
The settlement is built on a ridge, and behind the houses, a cliff falls suddenly onto a green plain below, dotted with brown horses.
And finally a river, which flows into another river. The Danube.
But something was different here from so many gypsy neighbourhoods I have visited. Everyone was busy.
These people are Pentecostalists - a church movement which has spread like wildfire among the gypsies of Eastern Europe in particular - a form of religion which fits better with their own mythology, than the strict rituals of Orthodox or Catholic.
It is also giving a people much derided as work shy, a protestant work ethic.
"I stole, I drank, I was lazy," Iliya told us later, with a twinkle in his eye, playing the caricature of a gypsy villain, on a stage of his own carpentry.
"And then I got a life-threatening illness. And I started to pray."
That was 10 years ago.
With God's help, he said, his whole neighbourhood practises Christianity now.
Together they have built a church, rebuilt their own homes, and found an energy and purpose in their lives which seems, to a stranger at least, almost miraculous.
Sixteen people, young and old, squeezed into a living room. A babe in arms. Wide-eyed children. Toothless ladies, shy girls and middle-aged men.
"Does anyone have a problem?" asked a young man in a denim jacket.
One girl said her mother was working in Italy, and had a heart complaint.
A man said he was deep in debt. A woman said her cousin was pregnant: "Could we pray for a safe delivery?"
We sat in a circle. The prayers came thick and fast, between a chant and a mumble, rising and falling like waves.
"Now I'm going to tell you a story," said the prayer leader.
"A man was driving a bus down a steep hill. There was a cliff on one side, a ravine on the other.
"Suddenly, a child ran out into the middle of the road. In the split second that followed, he had to make an appalling choice.
"To kill the child, or all his passengers." The man paused for a moment. His audience froze.
I felt angry. Why was he telling this story in front of children?
"He drove straight into the child," the man continued.
"There was blood all over the windscreen. The passengers ran forward, remonstrating with him.
"'You should have killed us instead,' they shouted. 'How could you kill an innocent child?'
"Then there was a deep silence." On the bus and in the room.
"Then the driver spoke. 'That child was my own son,' he said, 'and his name was Jesus.'"
Earlier the same day, we sat with Nikolai Kirilov and other local gypsy leaders, in a restaurant beside the Danube. They all spoke English.
The river stretched before us like an ancient, pungent, grey-green lion, the barges on its coat just scratches.
"Ten years ago, when we started our association with Roma Lom, only 5% of the gypsy children finished high school. Now it's 75%." The numbers come thick and fast here too, like prayers that have been answered.
Until the year 2000, only five gypsies from the town had ever finished university. Now more than 40 have.
"Everything depends on education," says Nikolai, "if kids don't get good marks at school, they can't play in the football team."
There are 32,000 people in Lom, about half of them Roma. Four neighbourhoods, three gypsy sub-groups, three different dialects of the Romany language. And lots of mixed marriages.
"It's important that we teach Romany culture and language" he says. "But even more important that we teach Bulgarian. That will be more useful to them.'
After an hour of conversation, I remark that he has not uttered the words discrimination, segregation or prejudice, the normal narrative of the Roma activist.
He shrugs. "Those words have been devalued by overuse," he says. So we talk about politics.
Is he not afraid of Bulgaria's new, ultra-nationalist party Ataka, which blames all Bulgaria's ills on gypsies and Turks?
"My nightmare is that we create a crazy ethnic party of our own. Then the conflict would really start," is his answer.