I walked into a one-room church called Betel the ﬁrst Sunday in December 2010. It was chilly inside the building but the sounds of the chorus being sung by over 100 Gypsies –mostly women and their children – warmed my body up. They were singing “Silent Night” in their language. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard.
This trip to Romania was my ﬁrst missions commitment. Trips like this were usually not my thing. But there was something different about this one.
I didn’t know how these Gypsies would feel about me or about the group I was with when we walked in. I didn’t know how I would feel about them. That is why I prayed for ﬁve seconds before walking into Betel.
“Jesus, please use us and help us be a blessing.”
I was in a group of eight and the ﬁrst to open the door that morning was Seraﬁma, the Russian of the group. As we continued to walk in, the pastor at the pulpit saw us and with brightened, grateful eyes, beckoned us to come to the front of the church. He too was Gypsy, and we walked to the front left side of the church to where he was, in an area where a choir in a Baptist church in America might sit.
The women and children ﬁlled every part of this room. I certainly didn’t expect so many Gypsies would join in one building to worship God.
Isabel Fonseca wrote in her book, Bury Me Standing, “Gypsies lie. They lie a lot – more often and more inventively than other people….You didn’t have to be Romanian to wonder: was there something about the Gypsies themselves that made them so wildly and universally unpopular?…they were…criminals…thieves and cheats…”
Fonseca – who is Gypsy herself – also said, “I knew all this. But I didn’t know, for example, that Gypsies were offended by the sight of female knees.”
In passing the Gypsy congregation that morning, we were passing women who no one outside of this room wanted to be around. In fact, two children in the front of the congregation caught my attention. They were joking with another:
“You’re a Gypsy.”
“No – you’re a gypsy.”
“NO – YOU.”
Each woman in this crowd was both a thief and a victim. This is not my generalization.
This was part of their testimony.
It was evident that God was present in Bethel that day, saving and speaking, alive and working. Just like He is here and now as I write on a cold January day in New York City.
I wore earrings the ﬁrst day back in New York. They were were large and gold because I love the way they mix and grabs people’s attention. I wore a dress that goes above my knees because it showed off my awesome new tights (swirly black and gray) from H&M. If I walked into church that Sunday in Romania with what I wore my ﬁrst day back in New York, I would have been stoned. Because jewelry in Gypsy culture is considered hedonistic. Likewise, wearing a skirt about the knees is offensive.
The Gypsy women at Betel were thieves at one point in their life. They couldn’t organize themselves in their culture to attend classes and therefore couldn’t read. They had children so early in life that it was common to see a preteen playing with a new doll that was given to her while she was nursing her newborn baby. The following attributes made you feminine in Gypsy culture: cooking, cleaning, having babies at a young age, not wearing jewelry, and making sure that skirt hemlines remained below the knee.
However, with differences and all, the Gypsy women at Betel had something that I hadn’t heard my whole entire life.
The Gypsy women sang “Silent Night” in their language.
They sang even though no one liked them and even though they were cheaters and liars and stealers. They didn’t do or once do those things to be against a God they love and serve but because it was so engrained in their culture. And they are a work in progress, like we all are.
The women taught me something important that day. They taught me that being a woman isn’t about the dress or the jewelry I wear. It isn’t about how skinny or pretty I am. It isn’t about how great of a wife I’d be some day. It’s about the song that people hear.
Being feminine has to do with the song my heart sings.
Tiffany Charbonier is a native Brooklynite who is obsessed with everything about her borough. She loves to write, edit, mess with her SLR, and talk about art, the beauty of being single, and how to care for the parts of the world she travels to. She’s also currently amazed with how reading manuals to products actually helps.