Gypsy History, Culture and Gospel Community

Gyspy church. Image courtesy of Jeff Winkowski.
Gyspy church. Image courtesy of Jeff Winkowski.

When I was a kid my summer job was to sell Kool-Aid to people at my mom’s rummage sales, which she and her girlfriends held several times each summer. 

I remember overhearing one of mom’s customers complaining, saying something about being able to “Jew down” at our neighbor’s yard sale. I wasn’t sure why but I knew at age six that this kind of talk was very wrong and it was very offensive. Yet I would have thought nothing about hearing someone say that they got “gypped” at a rummage sale, car dealership, or a candy store. In fact it was not for another twelve years before I learned that Gypsies were a race of people with over 1,000,000 people in the US, and 10,000,000 in Europe, making them Europe’s largest ethnic minority.

The term “Gyp” originally referred to a scam of sorts performed by a Gypsy person. Not only is this term derogatory, racist, and evil but simply ignorant on a linguistic level in that the root of the slur is only as accurate as “Indian” is to our Native American brothers and sisters.  Although most Gypsies are comfortable with the name “Gypsy” when used in a non-derogatory context, they are actually “Romani” people or “Romanies”. “Gypsy” is simply short for “Egyptian” as people thought them to be from Egypt when in reality their road can be traced back to India over 1,100 years ago.

The trail of the Romani people is one of prejudice and persecution, which inevitably lead to a deep self-segregation as a people.

Some of the prejudices associated with Gypsies are quite romantic and flattering but are nevertheless just as ignorant as the depiction of a cheat. They were mythologized in depictions such as the original “The Wolf Man” film, portrayed as people with supernatural powers in art films like “Time of the Gypsies” and songs like “Gypsy Eyes” by Jimi Hendrix. Some of this may seem harmless, but when a people become imaginary and trivialized how can we take a report of Gypsies being systematically killed any more that a report on werewolf attacks? Case in point, Dr. Ian Hancock of the University of Austin Texas proposes that approximately 1.5 million Romanies were killed during the Holocaust. Although a wing of the US Holocaust Museum is dedicated to their plight, this remains but a footnote in WWII history.

In 1999 in Kosovo, just four days after NATO troops arrived, roving bands of Albanian extremists attacked every Gypsy community in Kosovo. Gypsies were told to leave or be killed. In three months, more than 100,000 fled Kosovo to all parts of Europe and America after the looting and destruction of over 14,000 Gypsy homes.

According to Pastor Skip Cristo, a native Chicago Gypsy and pastor of The Master’s Touch Church in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago, Gypsies are no stranger to persecution and excessive force by the police department.

Years ago in Chicago, Cristo’s mother was frisked and thrown in jail with a group of Gypsy women over fortune telling. Fortunately (for their husbands) the women were released the next day and were at each other’s houses cooking dinner and having fun. They are a resilient people no doubt.

Because of the fact that Gypsies were not allowed to integrate or even coexist without threat of harm, a tradition of stealing and scamming (i.e. fortune telling) began among them long ago. Then the crimes they were initially backed into so that they might put food in the bellies of their kids became the very crimes they were severely punished for. Thus, living off the grid (not necessarily a negative thing) in varying degrees became a way of life that was passed down from generation to generation.

Below is a transcript of a recent conversation Skip and I had about the Gypsy experience:

Jeff Winkowski: A lot of times you go to a Gypsy website and all the spelling is phonetic and the punctuation is all off. Sometimes even the word Gypsy is spelled wrong. Reading levels indicate a low education level. Why are so many Gypsies against having their kids in school?

Skip Cristo: A lot of times Gypsies take their kids out of school because they don’t want their kids in the hands of someone they don’t know.

JW: That’s understandable.

SC: My wife and I would like to have a school for Gypsy children that also teaches the scriptures. Gypsy people would probably send their kids to a Gypsy run school. But traditionally a young boy is taken out of school when he begins to look like a little man, left with just the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. Unfortunately even some of our Gypsy pastors here in America are uneducated.

JW: Right, right, that’s what concerns me. With all this discrimination against Gypsies you’d want to follow the lead of other minority groups in getting educated in order to better mobilize.

SC: The education thing is a major hurdle right now.

JW: What do you think of fortune telling?

SC: There’s no such thing as fortune telling bro. Really, what’s being practiced here is the art of deception. Getting inside peoples heads and manipulating them for profit. I preach against it in my sermons. When the big evangelical wave hit the Gypsy community about 30 years ago, the people immediately gave up fortune telling and went to work. As far as work goes, a lot of us seal coat driveways and commercial parking lots for a living. It’s quick, easy money where you charge a flat rate and then you’re done. But the old scam was, “I’ll charge you $7 a pail.” Then the customer asks, “Well, how many pails does it take?” ”Oh, it’s gonna take at least five buckets.” Well, a bucket holds five pails. You can do the math here. It’s a rip off. Some people still do it. Fortune telling is still a problem. I have a member of my congregation that I might have to ask to leave because he hasn’t given it up, or he’s doing it on the sly. I’m not going to lie to you; some of my people live less than honest lives. But a lot of us are taxpayers, working in all manner of fields.

JW: Aside from the negative aspects of a “life of crime”, if you will, it seems like y’all are pretty tight. Whether the business practice is legitimate or illegitimate, I’d imagine you’d have to be pretty tight-knit due to the scrutiny you’re under and the constant hustling for a living depends on having a high degree of honesty and trust with each other.

SC: Even though I’m a pastor and I teach Christ is their first culture, there are aspects of Gypsy culture that I value, that I don’t want to let go of. They’re not in conflict with the scriptures. They compliment the scriptures. Or the scriptures compliment them. There’s a brotherhood. When I was twelve years old we were traveling to Louisiana and we stopped at a small town outside Baton Rouge. My dad stopped at a payphone, dialed zero, and asked if there was a fortuneteller in town. The operator said yes and gave us the address. My dad then flagged a cop down and got directions. So we went over to the fortuneteller’s house at 9 pm. The door was wide open and we were received. They didn’t know us, we didn’t know them. They hauled our family in and immediately began preparing a huge meal for us. At about 12:30 am. My dad said, “well we’re going to go get a motel room now.” They were almost insulted. They insisted we stay the night and we did. The next morning they cooked a huge breakfast for us. They said in our language, “Go in good health, God be with you” and we were off.

JW: The irony of that is that’s more love and hospitality than you see from a lot of the Church.

SC: Exactly. There was a time when Gypsy people used to just pop in on each other’s houses. You didn’t call. A call was an insult! “What kind of a person do you think I am? Of course you can come over to my house.” People used to stop over any time, day or night, even if it was for just ten minutes. There’s an old gypsy saying when you stop over, “I just didn’t want to pass your house.”


Further reading:

Gypsy Politics and Traveler Identity By Thomas Acton

The Last Bastion of Racism? Gypsies, Travelers and Policing By John Coxhead


Jeff Winkowski is a Philosophy and Comparative Study of Religion graduate of The University of Wisconsin who has worked for the last 16 years as an author, activist, and musician within the Ecumenical Christian community. Today he shepherds In The Garden Ministries and House Church in the Humboldt Park neighborhood of Chicago along with his wife, Malissa, and his son Abraham.

The Rev. Skip Cristo, Pastor of The Master’s Touch United Pentecostal Church, is an ordained pastor in the United Pentecostal Church International and has been trained in home missions work. The Master’s Touch is located at 1527 W. Edgewater St.  Skip Cristo and his wife, Millie, also leads home bible studies at your house upon request.  He can be reached at (847) 309-8187

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