“Sightings” usually sights religious news and trends with a metaphorical “naked eye.” No one needs a telescope or a microscope to spot most of our topics.
Snappy headlines, prime-time signals and messages gone viral call attention to them.
For a change, we’ll focus on an almost-always-overlooked population and its people of faith: the Romani.
I picked up on the Romani thanks to an almost back-paged story in the “Christian Century” by Philip Jenkins.
He, more dependably than anyone else, keeps up, and keeps us up, on world Christian trends.
Trusting him, I read on to see what followed his small headline, “The Church of the Roma.” Who cares? Who should care?
What caught my eye was Jenkins’ final paragraph on the Roma (Also known as “Gypsies”): “For centuries, mainstream Europeans hated and feared Gypsies because they were not considered true Christians. It would be ironic if the flourishing Roma churches stand out as devout Christian bastions in a secularized Europe.”
It would also be ironic if chroniclers looking for signs of religious life in such a Europe overlooked them.
A near-overlooker, I do keep one eye on Pentecostal surges here and there. Jenkins and others foresee a Brazil in which Pentecostals may soon outnumber the other faiths; they have already broken the monopoly of Roman Catholicism in that once-mostly-Catholic Latin American nation.
One cannot miss the Jenkins-noticed growth toward dominance by Pentecostalism in sub-Saharan Africa.
Also, thanks to scholars and missioners at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, I get regular reports on Pentecostalism and its growth.
Hoosier Lutheran—yes, Lutheran!—contacts keep me up to date on missionary efforts from the American heartland to the world of the Romani.
I’m aware of some small, conservative American-Lutheran bodies that carry on evangelization and support work in the camps of the Gypsies.
They all know that such work is not popular, mainly because Romani people are not popular.
When, long ago, “the Gypsies” came every few years to camp along the river in my little Nebraska town, we were told to watch our wallets and lock our doors.
These years, the scary stories of abused wives and daughters, noticeable enough on their own, but inescapable to anyone who reads anti-immigrant blogs, are familiar enough.
And now? Jenkins tracks the Pentecostal and evangelical growth in Roma communities within Spain and France, but the Romani are most visible in Romania and Bulgaria.
“Spain alone has a thousand Roma churches and perhaps 40 percent of French Roma are evangelical or charismatic. The Roma population of Romania’s Orthodox churches is steadily bleeding away to Pentecostalism.”
The new Roma church style differs from the old, as it relates to more familiar forms of Christianity, masters organization techniques, promotes education and has begun work to emancipate women.
In many places, church leaders “have helped wean Roma people from involvement in crime and substance abuse.”
Back to irony: Pope Benedict XVI announced efforts to counter secularization in Europe, but we hear almost nothing about successes.
The heirs of established-church Anglicanism and Lutheranism report little. This is not the day to define, analyze, defend or critique these Pentecostal/evangelical successes.
But biblically informed observers observe that there is something biblically nuanced about movements which, though obscure and once powerless, are now changing the Christian Church in European and other parts, while the big and powerful churches rarely prosper. Yes, how ironic.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. This article first appeared on Sightings, a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and is used with permission.