Monday, March 24, 2014

The People Who Pass - My Gypsy Story

It is time to put this story in print. It is true. I have told it many times but never written it down. I am driven to do so because of Adam Gopnik’s excellent report of the difficulties in France for the Roma and for the French.

In the early 1980's I was pastor of Pilgrim Presbyterian Church on the southeastern side of Trenton, NJ. (It has since merged with a church in Yardville.) This was an urban residential area, not far from the state prison and in another direction not far from the old Roebling steel works and State House, and in another from Little Italy. (I can tell other tales about that, but Janet Evanovich has done well enough with it.)

One Sunday an esteemed Elder of the church asked me about an old Cadillac that had been in the church parking lot for more than a week. He asked me if I could find out who owned it, and let them know that they couldn’t use our lot. The next day as I drove in the parking lot I saw a neighbor I recognized. I asked him about the car. “Yes, I saw people parking the car one day. They went into that house across the street.” I crossed the street and knocked on the door.

A man who looked very much like my mental image of a 17th century pirate answered the door. There were many others crowding behind him whom I could not clearly see. I told him that we needed the parking lot for the people who came to church events and the daily senior lunch. He understood and said he would move it, which he did.

My part time secretary had an office in the back of the church. I had claimed a large room in the basement for my office. I hated being in a basement, but it had a huge old double sided oak desk, and room for an 8 foot conference table. I installed a large chalk board on one wall for planning and teaching purposes.

One day my secretary buzzed me on my phone. The phone only had one line but it was left over from more flush times, so it had a row of I think seven buttons across the bottom of the phone, including an intercom feature. One of the unused buttons I labeled “God,” which drew interesting responses from people of various ages who used it.

“There are some women here to see you,” she said nervously. I said I would come up and talk with them. There were six women. One was grandmotherly. Three were middle aged; one of whom spoke and acted as their leader. Two were high school aged teenagers. All wore multi-colored full-length full skirts or dresses, and a lot of jingling jewelry. All had fanned out down two hallways and were examining all the rooms, offices, and the worship area. I suspected that they were “casing the joint,” but maybe they were merely curious. On my arrival they gathered around me. The leader said “We are here to ask for your help. We have need for a priest.”

“I am not a priest,” I said. “We are not a Catholic Church, but Protestant, Presbyterian. There is a Catholic Church a block away.”

“No. They will have nothing to do with us, nor we with them. We stay away from each other since ancient times. We have our own Christian faith, and you are a Christian leader, so you can help us.” I invited them downstairs to talk further with them, partly to get them away from my frightened secretary.

In my office, the leader introduced the others. “This one here,” she said about one of the teen aged girls, “has been dishonored by a man. We thought he was one of us, but he has betrayed us and insulted us all. He promised to marry this girl, but now he has stolen money and fled. Our men think that he has fled to Chicago, so they have left to get him. They will bring him back to us, and here is what we want you to do.”

“We will pay you well, to come to our place at night. You must wear your robe and vestments. We will have the betrayer bound on the floor. You must pronounce a great curse on him.”

“No, I don’t do curses.” I said many times in as many ways as I could. I explained that I and my church did not believe in curses, but only in blessings. I ushered them out.

A few days later I went to the house where they had lived. They were gone. None of the neighbors had seen them leave or knew anything about them.

Such an encounter tends to reinforce one’s prejudices. My Mother had told me of growing up in Missouri, where gypsies camped out in the fields on the edge of town. People had told her to stay away from them because they kidnapped little children, to sell, or to raise as their own. Only a few years before my enounter, in southwestern Minnesota, there was a story of how a number of cars and vans had parked in a discount store lot, entered the store, cleaned it out, and quickly left. They were not found.

We might think that after some time, maybe several generations, these people would be assimilated into the larger culture. Maybe; maybe not. I have mixed feelings because I love Django Reinhardt.

Another time in Trenton, a family came into the church asking for cash to get them to New England where they were to work harvesting apples. We were close to I-95, and were targeted by many asking for help. They had run out of gas a block down the street, they said. I asked them to take me to their car. They did. There were several very poor looking children in the backseat with many McDonald’s food bags and wrappers. I checked the gas gauge on the 12 year old GM sedan, and confirmed that it was empty.

As I gave him $10 I realized that the gas gauge was broken, and that these people made their way around the country by telling stories to secure handouts. That was how they earned their living. I was paying for a well told story. OK. Until we can build a better society, this is what they and we have to do. Then I helped organize ministers in the area into a telephone tree for “knights of the road,” so that we wouldn’t get scammed more often than we wanted, and so we could agree on how best to help each individual and family.

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