News Articles

Roma live on the fringes of society

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Why did you wait so long to come?” Saidi* asked through tears. A Gypsy in one of the countries of Northern Africa and the Middle East, Saidi said, “My father is already dead and in hell because no one came to tell us about Christ. Even today, there are going to be people [who] die and go to hell.”

Gary Shelton*, a worker committed to Gypsies in the region, wrestled with answering the first known believer among Saidi’s people group. To say he was waiting for better evangelism methods or language skills would not work. In the end, Shelton had to say it was his fault and the fault of every other Christian who did not give up everything and follow Jesus.

“Ever since that time, I’ve given up lots of activities I used to spend my time doing,” Shelton said. “We rearranged our time, our schedule, for sowing the Gospel. When I sat down with Saidi that day and he shared his burden for his people, God said to me, ‘That’s how I feel about it. That’s how I want you to feel about it.'”

When Shelton moved his family to work among the Gypsies in the region a few years ago, their commitment was an answer to the prayers of five churches in the United States that were petitioning God to send laborers to the field. Approximately 1 million of these cousins to the European Roma Gypsies live in Northern Africa and the Middle East, although to most people there, they are considered invisible.

Since their migration from India, this group of Gypsies has accepted the local Arabic language, making it harder to identify them among the people, yet easier for Christian workers to communicate with them. Even with the assimilated language and nominal adherence to Islam, they see themselves on the fringes of society. It’s a stigma that gives them a bond with foreigners.

“I’ve found out sometimes that outsiders trust outsiders,” Shelton said. “Gypsies most of the time feel like they’re outsiders, like they don’t belong. They’re pretty trusting of me.”

Being the first foreigner many Gypsies in the region have seen has opened doors for Shelton in some of the transient Gypsy tent camps. His strategy sometimes consists of visiting and demonstrating his interest in their personal lives. This initial bond can lead to sharing Bible stories in Arabic.

“A lady asked me if I’d ever had my palm read,” Shelton said of one such Roma encounter. “I said, ‘No, God’s the only One who can know the future and everything about me. I know a story about that.'”

The other type of Gypsy — those settling in one place — are being reached through Saidi. When Shelton first met Saidi in a café, he had no clue of his ethnic background. After learning about Shelton’s ministry, Saidi bombarded him with phone calls, suggesting they work together. Shelton finally asked Saidi why he continued to call him. He replied: “One day when I die and stand before God, I want Him to accept me.”

Saidi accepted Christ that day. Some weeks later Shelton discovered Saidi is a Gypsy — a member of his focus people group. Saidi shares his newfound faith and introduces Shelton to his Gypsy friends. Now a handful of Gypsies have accepted Christ and meet for discipleship training.

“When I met Saidi, that’s when the door opened,” Shelton said. “He was the door — the key — to the Gypsies.”
*Names changed for security reasons. Dea Davidson is a writer for the International Mission Board.

    About the Author

  • Dea Davidson