Missionnary stories

With Clément Le Cossec

An interview made by Farid Djilani-Sergy

http://www.paroles.ch/ (Radio Réveil)

I – A CALL FOR HELP

Farid Djilani-Sergy : Clément Le Cossec, you are the founder of the Mission évangélique tsigane. It was born in the fifiies following a spiritual Revival among the Gypsies people, including all their tribes. For 1996, you consider that 500 000 gypsies have come to faith in Jesus Christ in Europe. First question : why did you commit yourself toward this population so badly considered ?

Clément Le Cossec : First I think that it is right to specify that the various gypsy tribes – manouches, roms, etc. – make one people. A people at the margin of our societies as you emphasize it, but who has its own traditions, its languages, its history. Why did I turn toward this people rather that the Britains I was thinking first to evangelize ? To understand it, we have to go back after the war, in 1946. I was 25. A young gypsy about 20 years old has come to church where I was the pastor, in Lille. He urged me to go and visit his mother who was ill. When I arrived in their poor little house, the mother was lying on a mattress, on the ground (that struck me). I knelt by her, I told her of Jesus-Christ, his love and the power he had to heal her. She had faith and Christ healed her. The young man was musician, but his guitar had no cord. I invited him to come and play at church I was in charge of, after having given him the possibility to repair his guitar. He came and then made me meet other Gypsies. It was my first contact with these people who live in mobile caravans. Once the war was over, they went away, going out of the camps in which they had been kept. So I had been near them for a month, praying for one or another sick person introduced to me. They had heard of the healing of the gypsy mother who had come to me. They had the opportunity to witness to the community, then after a month, they left. I have forgotten them, life had his normal course if I can say so.

The History repeats itself

A few years later, in 1950, I met another gypsy family, but this time in Normandy, more precisely in Lisieux. I met a gypsy woman I was told the story : a biblic peddler, Mr Roger, had a booth on the maket place. A gypsy from the manouches tribe, Marie-Jeanne Duvil nicknamed Azi, had been given a flyer where, on the back, was written the address of an evangelic church of the town. Some time later, one of his sons gets ill, the doctor says that there is no hope of healing. She remembers of the flyer she had been given, asks somebody to read the address for her and goes to the church. She is weeping a lot, the pastor of the church asks for her situation, and he went to the hospital with her. The whole church prayed for the healing of his son and the Lord here again accomplished a miracle, the young man was healed. The whole family came to faith in Jesus-Christ.

Two years later, in Brest, I meet again some of the people who were converted in Lisieux. They were in despair because no pastor was willing to baptize them by immersion. They had faith but they were not legally married according to the French laws. The marriage act was difficult to get because they needed to be resident at least 21 days in the town ; and the police were throwing them away every 48 hours ! One of the gypsies, a young man of 28, nicknamed Mandz, said to me : « Since the pastors do not want to baptize us, I have decided to go with my wife Pounette to a river. I will put my Bible on the grass. I cannot read but I know it is written : He who will believe and be baptized will be saved (1). After that, I will baptize my wife, and Pounette will baptize me. » When I heard him, it made an echo in me, I could not stay unsensitive to his cry of distress. It is then that I endeavoured to help gypsies. Several came to faith, we have practiced baptisms in the sea, and the Revival spread like wildfire. A year later, several hundred of gypsies were converted. They claimed to me God servants to train them but there were none. I had come to Brittany to make a pioneer work among the Britains, for there were only 2 evangelic churches for 3 millions inhabitants in this large western region. And I happened to be facing this nomadic population who asked me for pastors. Refering to the guidance of the apostle Paul, who was writing to his work companion, Tite, to establish elders in new created churches (2) I understood that I should follow the same way. After having asked who among the christian gypsies wanted to serve God, four young men who wanted to be pastors have been settled at that time. They learn to read and I gave them Bible courses. They spread with enthousiasm the good news of Jesus-Christ among their people. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and the Lord was with them making miraculous healings.

Massive conversions

Six years after this meeting in Brest, in 1952, three thousand gypsies came to faith in Jesus Christ.The need was immense, so what to do ? I have met young pastors who have accepted to take in hand the communities I had contributed to start in various towns of Brittany. I was very busy, but it is at that time that I have made « the step of faith », as we are used to saying. I have left in a young pastor's hands the church, or « the community » of Rennes, which had been created with the help of the evangelist and missionnary Douglas Scott. And I went aimlessly on the roads with the gypsy people. What discoveries ! I had to learn their traditions, their language, their way of life, and finally be adopted, all that has required time. Ths gypsy families are international. Cousin So-and-So in Paris, nephew So-and-So in New-York, parents in Stockholm or Buenos Aires. The evangelisation has begun with Europe : Belgium, Holland and Germany, but also Spain, Portugal and Italy. I took with me some young gypsy preachers that I trained.

- That insatiable mobility of the gypsies was finally an advantage for the spreading of the Gospel.

- Yes, and this missionnary work still goes on today, especially in the Eastern countries. I had to go even further, to Canada, United States, Mexico or Argentina. I have travelled in 44 different countries bringing the Gospel message to the gypsy people. Afterwards I helped them to get organized in « christian churches » and men were trained to lead them.

A shared destinee

- Were they only the circumstances which led you to develop this special ministry ?

- When I was converted, at 14 years of age in Le Havre, I said to my mother : « When I am an adult I will announce the gospel to the poor ! » I had this preoccupation in my heart because our family was very poor. We had known suffering, misery and illness. My father was a seaman. Having become war disabled (that of 1914-1918) he was designated a lighthouse keeper of the Jument by Ouessant island. Then he was transfered to Normandy. We had been somehow scorned as Britains. My mother was dressed as a Britain, she had a headdress, she had to change clothes. She has suffered a lot of this situation. On my side, a teacher had expressed to me a thought which was not pleasant to Brittain ears. I could understand the rejection and the scorn the gypsies live. When we met Christ during evangelic meetings in Le Havre, everyting changed and we had then a happy life. I wished to share it with the poorest. I received a biblic teaching and I carried on my studies until one day we had to go because the war was declared. It was in 1939. I have been asked whether I wished to take over the mobilised pastors. I accepted, here again in a move of faith. It was adventure, I gave up the preparation of a future job, a life traced. When I met the gypsies I talked you about, I realized they were rejected, abandonned and poor. I said to myself : I must help them. I did not receive a special revelation, no, there was a need, somebody had to respond to it. I can say that the process triggled especially from the moment when the gypsies in Brest asked me to assist them. Somehow, I was in the situation of Paul who had to answer the call of the Macedonian(3). We had to found « rolling churches », as they were called.

II – A ROLLING CHURCH

- From sedentary, you become a traveller. You are in the thirties, you are married and you have children in charge. Was that not too difficult ?

- The decision to follow the road of the gypsies was not made carelessly. We did not have the security of a salary, this comfort that the parish pastors know. We did not have any guaranty. We could not rely too much on gypsies for they were poor. On the contrary, it was our part to help them. It was not only a question of subsistence, also we had to travel, hundreds of miles, but during all these years the Lord has answered present. Let's say that friends have taken in their heart this missionary action.

Of suite in ideas

- Have you been welcome in the vast community of gypsies and correctly integrated ?

- Yes, there has been no problems. They were very thirsty of God and had the desire to follow Jesus Christ, as a result they had a deep respect for me. Somehow, I was considered as sent by God, without needing to be paternalist. Everything went on in a reciprocal confidence. I have contributed to train men, who took over the evangelisation work of their people under their responsibility, so that I retire and leave them room. Having received a sufficient biblic teaching, they transmitted it at their turn, as the apostle Paul advocated it and as the disciples and future apostles of Jesus had been sent on the roads after three years of teaching with their Lord… For this reason, a little biblic rolling school in a caravan has been founded, but the callings becoming more and more numerous, we bought a property to be able to welcome all the future preachers. For example, we had 220 students in 1996. A biblic school was also opened in India, another is now in progress. The future preacher receives a basic biblic teaching for four to six months, then he is placed for three years under the responsibility of old preachers who have a good experience of the Word – the Bible. After this training period, if he is able to teach well and a good testimony of him is given, he is accepted as a preacher. At his turn, when he gets older, he can be in charge of youngsters. It is a rotation that asks to operate correctly on the bases settled and filled by other persons.

- How long does it take to train a future servant of God ?

- A lot of time ! At least, ten years….Youngsters were converted at the beginning of the Revival, they were between 20 and 30. When they were in the forties, they had acquired 10 years experience, that enabled to enlarge the work when they could train other people. The evangelical gypsy Mission is today led by the gypsies themselves, in France, Spain or India.

- How many pastors or preachers are counted in the « Mission » ?

- They are now 6 000 preachers just in Europe. When we think at the road travelled since the meeting in Brest when they were only 4 ! They are 4 000 in Spain, the other 2 000 are spread in the rest of Europe. France has 1 000. Not counting those in the United States or in India. There, the work has started about 30 years ago. It is known that the gypsies came originally from this region of the earth, and I had the desire to go in 1966, the year I made contact with the gypsies of India. Travelling through villages, I could see their misery and with all my heart bring my contribution to join them and help them. There are now more than 250 gypsy preachers in India, and according to governemental official statistics, there should be 60 000 gypsy villages. It is a great missionnary field where it is passionnating to work. We felt useful. There also, these poor gypsies are thirsty of God.

A people looking for God

- Which is the religion of the non-christian gypsies ?

- Generally, they have adopted the religion of the countries they were going through. In India they are hindus, in other countries they are muslims, orthodoxes in Eastern Europe or in Russia, lutherians in Finland, and they called them generally catholic in France.

- Is it not for them facade religions ?

- It is difficult to say. But we must recognized that they are not much practising, even though, for example, a good number go to pilgrims.

- They do not have a religion of their own ?

- No, not really. They believe in the existence of a transcending god who bears various names according to the tribes. My mission consisted mainly in making Jesus-Christ known to them. In no way the idea was to lecture them with morale, in saying them that they had not to drink or lie or steal, or tell fortune. I knew that in receiving the message of Christ, everything would change in their life, as it is the case for all men or women who turns to Him. Their change of behaviour could only be the work of Christ.

- How did you make yourself understood ?

- I spoke in French in France ; in India, in English, but we had always interpreters. The gypsy preachers generally speak three languages : the English, that of the State in which they live and their own idiom enriched with expressions, syntax or words borrowed from various countries.

Radical changes

- How is manifested in practice the good receptivity of the gospel message ?

- We cannot say that all gypsies are, as some people still think, rascals or chicken robbers. It is a cliche. I have met quiet gypsies, intelligent, without problems, and not at all fighter ! Some others were rascals, as there are everywhere, among all the people in the world. For example, a gypsy woman was saying to me that since his husband conversion, it was now heaven in her caravan and no more hell. She explained that before he was back home at three in the morning, he was drunk and stroke her. Now it is he who in the morning brings her coffee in bed ! We can talk here of a radical change. The non-gypsy population was surprised to observe such changes. People came from afar to see these people we generally had fear of and who were now so peaceful. When I was a boy it happened that my mother showing the gypsies was upset against me saying : « You see, these gypsies over there, they will take you. » She also gave in to the gypsy cliche « children robber ». but if you are among gypsies, you can hear the gypsy woman say to his kid : « Be a good boy, otherwise the gadjo there will marav you, » in other words « the man who is not a gypsy will strike you. » Suspicion, as we can see, is reciprocal. When we came to faith to Jesus-Christ these prejudices disappear. Normally ! There is always cleaning to do inside ourselves ! But let's say that generally the life of a person who rely on Jesus-Christ is changed, whatever he is gadjo or gypsy.

- The conversion of gypsies has been a factor of integration, in the church, but also and more generally in the society ?

- Yes, although there are some reluctances from some gadjé, about marriage for example. As far as I can judge, I think there is no problems in brotherly relationships, gypsies are now welcome in churches. When the movement of sedentarisation has become sensitive we have thought to create communites of their own. Racist considerations or of apartheid have nothing to do in this decision. We realized that when more than a hundred of newly converted gypsies joined a small church of 50 members serious problems appeared, even though everybody had a good willing. Four or five persons at a time can easily integrate a group, but beyond a certain number the adaptation is more difficult. It is because of their number that gypsy churches have been settled. Let's note that in France half of the gypsy population has come to faith in Jesus-Christ. If 50 % of the French population became truly christian, according to the Gospel, this would be wonderful ! We have now more than a hundred churches in France, among which twelve in Paris. It is now about 20 years that the gypsy evangelical Mission has adhered to the Fédération protestante de France. We can say that the christian gypsies have open themselves to others and seek for brotherly understanding. It is not rare that gypsy preachers preach in lutherian parishes or other christian denominations. Our relationships with all evangelical churches are good.

III – A FAITH WHICH KNOCKS OVER THE MOUNTAINS

- What specific things do gypsy christians bring to the church and the world ?

- What is striking in the gypsy is his faith. We can speak of the coaler faith. The gypsy is as a child, his faith is pure in the meaning that it is whole. He often says to himself : « If the Lord has said it or promised it, that must happen. »

A biblic anchoring

- It is a faith which can knock over the mountains.

- Yes, and that is why the spiritual Revival among this people has been accompanied by numerous healings. Jesus has said that the sick will be healed, therefore the gypsy does not doubt of it. It is an acting faith. That said, the gypsies are not choir children. Their conversion testimony which is from a heavy past has so more impact. Soon, conventions have been organized and settled, gathering today 5 000 caravans, that is to say about 20 000 gypsies. The authorities were invited – maires, deputes, prefets, ministers, etc. I can say that the gypsies were not embarrassed to talk about Jesus-Christ. They have a boldness which maybe lacks to the christians of more classical churches. Not abled to read or write, the « arab telephone » and direct testimony, better than the flyiers thrown in letter boxes, have enabled a quick spreading of the gospel. Its impact has been great.

- Does the Bible exist in gypsy language ?

- Yes it was integrally translated by Mattéo Maximoff, a well known gypsy writer. There are other translations, in roumain for example, thanks to the preacher Chamu. The difficulty consisted in translating a text in an oral language, but we cannot deny that these works have contributed to implant the good Word in the hearts and the spirits of the gypsies open to the gospel. We mainly use the Bible in the country language in which the gypsies we talk to are, and that they know generally well.

A priority : preach Christ

- I guess you have not limited yourself only to the announce of Jesus-Christ. Do you speak of «the follow-up work ».

- Yes, but first we have to « preach Christ » according to the apostles formula. It has always been a priority for me. What we do in the framework of the gypsy evangelical Mission is not only bringing a material help, what a lot of humanitary organizations do each in their sector and with competence. We bring a plus, Christ himself. We do not lose the sight that our first goal is to speak of Christ, the living bread come down from heaven.(4) We have to understand that there is no possible salvation for man out of Jesus-Christ. He has come to earth, he has lived as a poor, he has brought the good news of salvation by grace. Speaking of himself, he said that « God has so loved the world that he has given his son. »(5) God is love, this love has been revealed by the gift of Jesus-Christ to men. Our message is crucial for the future of human being, because Christ not only came to earth to bear our sins, to expiate them, and forgive us, but Christ has risen from the dead, he is alive, and he is with us every day. He gives the strength we need to carry on the road he has traced for us to bring his gospel. The apostle Paul wrote that we have everything plentifully in Jesus-Christ (6). Jesus is not the property of a religion, he is, if we can say so, at the disposal of all the men God wants to save. Jesus said to the disciples to go to the world, to make at their turn disciples, and to teach them all he has prescribed.(7) The salvation message has to be well understood. If we do not make by ourselves the experience of conversion how could we communicate to others the spiritual realities the gospel supports and the testimony which goes with it ? It is essential to assure the doctrinal bases to a true life of faith. Being not only a converted but also a disciple, we can then impart what we have received. The apostle Paul, he again, asks his companion Timothee to confide what he has heard from his mouth « to men able to teach it to others. »(8) This makes a snow ball, but everything starts with Jesus-Christ. We do not spread the doctrine of a simple man, of a chief or a guru, we proclaim the gospel of the Son of God. We are at his service, and personally, when putting myself to the service of gypsies, it is to Jesus-Christ that I surrender and I serve. I teach them to serve him also, and not to serve a man, whoever he his ! I was only a simple tool between God's hands. On a certain way the proselytism does not consist only in « bringing souls to Christ », as we say, but also to assure that they are effectively founded and rooted in Him. Of course a minimum of organization is needed, and it is why when a property could have been bought, a cultual association has been settled so that it was an association business, in other words the church, and not of a man. The structures of the gypsy Mission are there only for one objective : the progress of the gospel among the gypsy people. The material organization is so secondary, at the minimum level. Moreover, the gypsies love particularly freedom, they would not like to feel cramped in a too finicky organization.

The hazards of the nomadism

- Precisely, from the perspective of the material organization and especially the relationship the gypsy movement can have with the authorities, what can you say ?

- At first, it was difficult. There was the parking issue, the nomadic status has never really been accepted. Our action has always had a social dimension. Nothing more normal for a christian than to help his needy neighbour. I have settled another association with a more social aspect, to treat these parking questions. Many other problems were – and are still today – actual. Gypsies have learnt how to negotiate with local authorities, departemental or national.The situation is today far better than that it was about 40 years ago. The pending questions are now more at a european level.

IV – A SPIRITUAL REVIVAL WITH SOCIAL FALLOUTS

- Can you say that this spiritual Revival has had social fallouts and has contributed to a better aceptation of the gypsy population ?

- Yes, certainly. The gospel is a « power of life », its fallouts overtake the strict framework of what is called the « spiritual ». I give you an illustration.

Going to help gypsies of India

We have decided to do something in India, because I have been touched by the miserable situation of the gypsies from the Narikoravas tribe. The village chief had come to me and said : « See, our children receive only one rice meal per day. Help us to give them a second one. » I talked about it to christians who agreed to support the action I wanted to launch for the gypsies of India. So, a first boarding school was created, and today we have 18 boarding schools where we welcome 900 gypsy children we save from hunger, through a sponsorship system. We can see that here again the gospel leads us to act with charity.

- At the end, did you not favoured the sedentarisation of the gypsies ?

- No, not necesarily, because we have « moving churches ». Actually, it was the gypsies themselves who judged good to sedentarise. From a spiritual point of view that appear to them more advantageous. They could thus attend their church at any time. This sedentarisation process has favoured their alphabetisation, and a better knowledge of the Bible. Personally I consider that the travel should continue, I am against a too general sedentarisation. Most of them are sedentarized for six months per year, and travel the other six months, in the good season.

Go until the end

- You are 76, has the travel stopped ?

- Oh no ! Last year we have travelled a lot among which England and Holland.

- And in January we have gone again to India, where we still think of bringing our contribution. Maybe we will stop one day but, for the moment, my wife and myself, we are committed in an active retirement. We must go to the end. The pastor who was announcing the gospel in Le Havre and because of whom I got converted was 20 years of age more than me. When we went together to Madagascar to serve God, about 6 years ago, he was 90 ! With God's grace, we can always go further than we think.

- You can be pleased, I think and with good reason, of the life you have lived. Is it finally difficult to be useful to others ?

- All is difficult, you know. When I was young, I wanted to be a long way sea-captain (my school friend has become one), I would have travelled all around the world. Each commitment has its constraints. Finally, I have travelled a lot, with as a premium the joy to serve Christ in various conditions.

- We must have a spirit of sacrifice to serve Christ ?

- Yes, but if we love him, we are happy to serve him, even though we had to suffer painful annoyances. It is by love to him and for others that we do it, not counting on gratefulness or glory. If we have the good state of mind, believe me, there is always something to be useful for. We will always find persons around us who need the salutary presence of Christ, which we have to announce. Whatever our age or abilities, if we are decided to follow the way of Christ, there is at least a thing we all can do : to pray and witness a little, whatever the manner, about the love we have received from God. We have to persevere and be able to say like Paul at the end of his life, « I have completed the course. »(9)

Precisions

- The crowds who rushed around Jesus seem to be attracted especially by physical healings they were looking for. The interest and the popularity the gypsies have manifested in large numbers for Jesus were also self-interested ?

- I do not think so. We have to realize that the primitive church based its faith on an acting Christ. The apostles themselves after the Pentecost – the gift of the Holy Spirit -, were laying their hands, and miracles happened in the name of Jesus. Think at the apostle Peter whose shade healed the sick.(10) The miracle was a part of the message delivered by the apostles and I think today we must continue to get inspiration from this Spirit who animated the church of the first centuries. The gypsy faith has been founded on the person of Jesus-Christ and on the power of God, not on the miracles themselves. It is in that meaning that we can say that their conversion was not self-interested. And if there are miracles Christ is the author of them. The gypsies did not consider the preachers as healers, but as people sent by God, it is different. They know that it is Christ who heals, we have always insisted on that : it is Christ who saves and He who heals. He is at the center of our message, our action and our heart. I will add that it is not sufficient to reason, or put into equations in order to denounce better, or even ridiculize what we are called to believe. The gypsies have this merit not to have erected on a pedestal and censored an intellect which I certainly do not deny the usefulness and the necessity when it is used properly. Maybe, because of that, they have more easiness to open their hearts to Christ and the gospel, what our materialistic societies have difficulty to realize. The question stays whole and we are all concerned : are we really thirsty of God ?

1 Mark 16 : 16

2 Tite 1 : 5

3 Acts 16 : 9

4 John 6 : 51

5 John 3 : 16

6 Colossians 2 : 10

7 Matthew 28 : 19-20

8 2 Timothee 2 : 2

9 2 Timothee 4 : 7

10 Acts 5 : 12-16, specially verse 15