Gospel Work in the Gypsy Quarter of Perpignan, France
An interesting account of a work being done for God among a people whom the world despises.
The North American readers of Truth and Tidings may not be aware of who gypsies are. Indeed in Britain the popular image of the gypsy is of someone living in a horse-drawn trailer, selling baskets and other wares, poaching to furnish his table with game birds and other delicacies that the common mortal can only dream about. The “gypsy boy” of the well known gospel hymn belongs to the 19th century and in no way corresponds to the gypsies of our day and age.
In continental Europe, the gypsies are an ethnic group numbering hundreds of thousands, originally from the Balkans and the Near East, divided into three main tribes. In France, the biggest tribe is that of the Tziganes, whose swarthy features suggest that their ancestors were from Pakistan rather than Europe. They are evenly divided between the “nomades”, travelers living in trailers moving around the country and the “sedentaires”, those that settle in a town taking over a quarter and sadly creating a situation of squalor and delinquency.
The town of Perpignan is in the south of France, about twenty miles from the Spanish border on the Mediterranean coast with a population of some 100,000 souls.
Twenty-five years ago an assembly was formed there and continues to this day. As many towns in France, Perpignan has its “gypsy quarter.” For some years now, I have been working in this part of the town, visiting from door to door, gaining the confidence of a population despised for their poverty and their violence.
Five years ago, I was looking for a room to have some Gospel meetings. Pitou, one of the elders of the quarter told me that whenever there was a room free, it was immediately occupied by a family, but, he added, “Why don’t you preach on the square?” I replied that to do this, I would need the permission of the city council. He laughed and said, “Here, we give the permission, don’t worry about the city council!”
Two or three days later, I parked on the square, set up the loudspeaker, the four or five of the believers who were there with me sang a couple of hymns, and then for a half an hour, I preached the Gospel. We have been doing this for the last five years, most evenings we would have thirty or forty people, sometimes more, listening to the Gospel. Many times police cars have stopped to listen to me preaching but have then moved on probably realizing that the message of the Gospel can only bring good to this sad, sad quarter. When children try to disturb the meeting, one or two of the older gypsies intervene to let us preach. One evening, as I was preaching, several buses stopped, and in a few minutes the square was completely surrounded by armed police. During the preaching, stony-faced policemen listened to the Gospel, but it was not for that reason that they were there. They had been warned that an armed Moslem terrorist was hiding in the quarter and they had come to arrest him. Whether they found him or not, we don’t known, but over a hundred policemen heard the Gospel that night on “Place Cassagnes.”
During the summer, we have a weekly meeting on two different squares. The first on “Place Cassagnes” sees many Arabs gathering in the warm summer evening. They listen and their Imams, the religious leaders, don’t like them staying. However, as the Lord enables, we continue to preach the blessed Gospel that the Lord Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners regardless of race and of creed.
The second square, “Place Puig,” is very noisy, but each time there are always a few sitting on their folding chairs waiting for us to come and preach the message of salvation. A few weeks ago, I fixed a gospel chart against the wall, but few paid any attention, for hardly any can read or write. However, we know that the preaching is appreciated, so many in this terrible part of Perpiguan have seen the effects of drugs. One man that I know is always dressed in black. One day I asked him why he was always in black and he told me how his son had died from an overdose and he could never forgive himself for seeing what was happening and not intervening.
This account of the work in the gypsy quarter would not be complete without speaking of the markets. I have mentioned the squares. In France, the markets are to be found everywhere. Each week, in every village square, you will come across the market with stands selling everything from material to meat, from brushes to Bibles. Not that there are many Bibles sold, but generally Christians in this country have realized the vital necessity to make the Word of God available to the population, hence the fact that on many market squares, you may find a Bible that you wouldn’t find in a bookshop.
Most Monday mornings you will find me on the “Place Cassagnes,” with a Bible stand. There, you will find Bibles, Scripture portions, and Gospel tracts. Three weeks ago, an Arab came up to me. He picked up a brochure that I had written on the origins of Islam. In this brochure, I had set out the fundamental differences between Islam and the Gospel. “Monsieur,” he said, “You say that Mohammed is not the prophet of God.” “That’s right, for Christ is the only Savior of sinners,” I said. He replied, “Some of my friends think that you are a vile blasphemer that should be punished, but I have told them to leave you alone.” He walked off, followed by two or three Arabs who had listened to the conversation. Some years ago while I was talking to a few Arabs, a woman was listening. Her uncle had been a Roman Catholic Bishop in Spain, but she knew nothing of the Gospel. When the Arabs moved on, she spoke to me. She then started coming to meetings in the Hall and subsequently got saved and baptized along with her sister, and came into fellowship in the assembly in Perpignan.
Experience in the gypsy quarter has taught me the value of open air preaching. You may be pleased with your message in the comfortable surroundings of a Gospel Hall, but when you are in the open air and your listeners walk off, then you realize that you are not touching their hearts and consciences. The odd heckler is invaluable. There is nothing like intelligent critics to show you when your preaching lacks reality and directness! But nothing warms the heart like the moments when you can see your listeners drinking in the word of the Gospel. I have seen Moslems realize that their ritualistic prayers cannot save them, Gypsies coming to the truth that so-called miracles cannot bring peace with God. Opposition comes from Moslem fundamentalists, from fanatical Pentecostals, and from cynical drug dealers, but we thank God that the Gospel is preached to the poor (Matt 11:5). This, then, is one aspect of the work of God in the land of France. It may seem to be nothing spectacular, and lacking in great results, but we leave that with God.