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Caribbean communities’ contribution to the UK

Amid the 70th anniversary of Windrush, Dr R. David Muir talks challenge, resilience and hope

June 2018 marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival in Britain of Empire Windrush, carrying passengers from the Caribbean. In his interview with the Evangelical Alliance’s editorial content manager, Naomi Osinnowo, Dr R. David Muir, senior lecturer in Public Theology and Ministerial Theology, University of Roehampton, talks immigration scandal, overcoming prejudice, the next generation, and hope for an even brighter future.

The media has been awash with stories of long-standing Caribbean residents being entangled in an immigration crisis. What are your views?

This national debacle and administrative tragedy has evoked feelings of distrust. It’s shocking and scandalous that someone like Paulette Wilson, who came here in 1968, aged 10, had been sent to a detention centre with the threat of being deported, having paid tax and even worked as a cook in the House of Commons. This is the unintended consequence of a government policy designed to create a hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants.

All government policy should have a proper impact assessment; a suitable one would have raised this issue. But, we shouldn’t allow the tragic news stories over the past weeks and months to overshadow the achievements of the Windrush generation as we commemorate the 70th anniversary, because there’s a lot to celebrate. Let’s not permit this to be the dominant narrative.

What contribution has the Caribbean community made to church life in the UK?

A former Evangelical Alliance general director wrote a book entitled Lord, Make us One – But Not All the Same. The title speaks vividly about the reality (and a perennial plea) of the unity and diversity of churches in the UK today. The country boasts a diverse Christian community, which includes black-led churches and organisations. Some of these churches were founded by pioneers such as Philip Mohabir and Bishop Sydney Dunn. The former felt called to England to become a missionary. He established an apostolic network of churches in Britain, as well as the African Caribbean Evangelical Alliance.

You say that some Caribbean communities had to develop their own churches due to harsh social conditions. Can you give any examples?

The rise of Caribbean churches is also a result of the racism and rejection that Caribbean migrants experienced when they arrived in the UK. In 1948, for instance, the very same day Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, with the first wave of immigrants from different parts of the Caribbean, 11 Labour MPs wrote to the Prime Minister to express their belief that the new arrivals were unsuited to come to the UK because they didn’t have the proper education, customs, and so on.

The MPs, who wrote those things, 20 years before Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood’ speech, claimed that these individuals, a third of whom were ex servicemen who fought in the British Army in World War II, would create discord and mayhem and spoil the tone of Britain. This implied that it’s okay for them’ to help us’ during the war, but other than that it’s not okay for them’ to be here. That set the tone for the way in which society would treat Caribbean people subsequently.

I’m aware of actual cases of rejection. What the late Rev Dr Io Smith MBE of the New Testament Assembly (NTA) experienced is a prime example. She said the first place she visited when she arrived in the UK was a church, where she sought love, warmth and encouragement, but faced indifference and rejection. In fact, she said that she was told that there was a black church down the road where she would be welcome. Bishop Dr Joe Aldred, a senior member of Churches Together in England, says there were low levels of acceptance in the church and high levels of misunderstanding from secular society, making conditions rather tough for these individuals.

Over the last 70 years, how have attitudes towards Caribbean migrants improved? 

Progress has been made. Social change may happen slowly, but it definitely comes about. You’ll now see Caribbean Christians in many of the mainline churches, for example, which is a great thing. Talking from personal experience, my father came to the UK in the 60s and didn’t have any difficulty finding a job as an engineer or buying a house. My wife’s dad also had a positive experience when he arrived in Sheffield; he was treated well by the English Christians he met.

Nevertheless, in saying this, some of my father’s friends who came to England when he did, struggled due to discrimination, rejection and racism. I guess, the bottom line is, we aren’t where we were, but we’ve still got a long way to go. Stephen Lawrence’s murder in 1993 was a real watershed. But, despite the journey ahead of us, I believe that racism should not be the dominant narrative. For some people, it defines and deforms so much of their life chances and life choices. We need to continue to tackle racism and other forms of discrimination so that all individuals can flourish.

Are second and third generation Caribbean Christians engaging in church life as their forebears did?

We know that, anecdotally, a significant amount of young Caribbean Christians attend mainstream churches and churches like Hillsong and New Frontiers, as opposed to majority Caribbean churches. Of my own two young daughters, one is going to a pioneer church and the other isn’t keen on church in the traditional sense; she is much more concerned with doing work with young people beyond the four walls of the church and engaging in social action and community organising.

Additionally, the second and third generations may feel that the churches that their parents and grandparents went to do not meet their needs. Their education, aspirations and lifestyle are different, so churches that cater to an older generation might not provide the answers to the questions that they’re asking. A lot of young people go to the likes of Hillsong and similar churches because they relate to the youth culture on offer, the preaching style and the spirituality portrayed.

The factors mentioned may go some way to explain forecasts of a decline in membership among Caribbean churches in the UK. Although the figures are anecdotal, Peter Brierley’s church statistics for 2010 – 2020 indicate that by 2020 attendance levels at the New Testament Church of God, Church of Prophecy, and Ruach will not rise significantly. But, let’s not be pessimistic about the future; God has a way of engendering revival.

With the recent news stories on gun and knife crime in London, it would seem that a number of young black men in the capital are choosing a life of crime over a life in church. What are your thoughts? 

I’m always suspicious of the narrative around gang culture or violent crime, as it doesn’t pay homage to what is more common. Most Caribbean children and young adults strive to do the best they can in order to make better lives for themselves. Most of these individuals aren’t involved in gun and knife crime. We are talking about a minority that is alienated and disenfranchised.

The church has to step in to help these young people and young adults who feel as though they have no stake in society and have gone off the rails. We need to offer them alternatives, encouraging them to go against the grain of the negative and destructive forces and behaviour they see around them. We must offer a lot more support, social teaching and political education to young people, to enable them to make the right choices.

What specifically do you think churches can do to help?

Churches can reimagine how they use their resources to engage young people effectively and efficiently. I implore church leaders to look at their finances and invest more into youth and young people’s work. I know churches can’t do everything, and it might seem difficult, but churches are the very places where people can find hope and a steer to a meaningful life. If the church is not doing that, it is failing in a significant part of its mission.

When I was younger, I had safe spaces where I could go and play; perhaps churches can provide safe environments for youngsters to come and talk about the difficulties around peer pressure or involvement in gangs. Some churches and Christian organisations are already doing this; they are diverting young people away from crime and are prophetically addressing topics such as knife and gun crime, active citizenship, and community cohesion.

It’s crucial that we acknowledge that many churches are already doing this type of work, and many meetings and consultations have been organised. But, we have the capacity to do more.

What’s your hope for the next 70 years? 

Hope is what keeps us alive and what gives us energy. It’s what we struggle for so that we might be able to get insight. In the absence of hope, we are left with despair and hopelessness. Jesus came to give us hope and invite us to partake in a new a reality. I look back on my own pastor and former general director of the Evangelical Alliance, Joel Edwards, and how he encouraged a whole generation of young Christians to be the best they could be and to make their contribution to society. I think about people like Angela Sarkis, a former governor of the BBC, and all she has achieved. I ask myself: what has stirred them to do the things that they have done?

I believe that these individuals, and the many like them, have an unshakeable belief that God wants them to be the best that they can be in their generation, and I rejoice in that. I’m thankful to God that we, Caribbean migrants, have made significant strides across a number of institutions in the UK. I believe in the years to come that we will continue to make a difference. From these third and fourth generation Caribbean Christians, there’ll be a new leadership that will inform and influence all sections of society. It will bring a new zest, realism and pragmatism to the struggles they see. I’m hopeful for Caribbean Christians – all Christians in the UK.

Dr R. David Muir has served as director of public policy at the Evangelical Alliance.

About the author

Naomi joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2018 as editorial content manager. Positions with publishers and within the marketing and communications faculty of a higher education institution, plus stints as a reporter, have enabled the media and cultural studies graduate, who has an NCTJ diploma in newspaper journalism, to hone the necessary skills and qualities to serve members well.

See more from Naomi Osinnowo

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