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A Taste of Heaven?

By Author unknown.

David Wise

Pastor of Greenford Baptist Church,

member of the Baptist Union Racial Justice Working Group and council member of the African and Caribbean Evangelical Alliance.

This article is a reflection on my sixteen years' experience of pastoring Greenford Baptist Church, a church that has changed from an almost entirely white English congregation to one that now has a black majority with approximately fifteen nationalities (including Africans, Asians, Caribbeans, Europeans and Latin Americans) in membership. The transformation has been gradual but with some significant steps.

When I came to the church in October 1987, apart from the white British, there were only half a dozen Caribbeans attending. The worship style was quite formal with organ or piano and the superintendent warned me that this was a conservative church that was not going to change! Now, in spring 2004, not only are the majority of the people who attend on a Sunday morning black, but the church leadership, the singers, the musicians, in fact every area of our church life has begun to reflect our cultural diversity. This is true not only of the personnel, but also the way that we do things such as Bible teaching, prayer, worship, and even the structure of some of our meetings. I do not mean to imply that we have arrived; we are very much a work in progress. We have moved a long way, but it has not been an easy pain-free journey.

The 2001 census shows that 44% of our local community are white, 30% Asian or Pakistani, and 17% African, Black British or Caribbean. In comparison, in our congregation Asians are under-represented and Africans over-represented. I am not sure what started the initial very slow growth in the numbers of Caribbeans attending on a Sunday morning. I think that it was perhaps the evangelistic efforts of a local hairdresser, one of our church members, whose parents had come to the UK from Dominica. However, in the course of pastoral visits, I do vividly remember Caribbeans telling me of their hurt and pain at the way they felt they had been treated in the UK and sadly were continuing to be treated at GBC. They particularly expressed that they did not feel that their blackness was welcome. So, about twelve years ago, I set up what was to be one of the most painful leadership meetings that I have ever attended. I invited two of our Caribbean men to meet with our all white Leadership Team to share honestly with the team how they felt as a part of GBC. They took a huge risk in bearing their souls. They talked about their pain, not just as recipients of conscious racial prejudice on a daily basis from non-Christian people and structures around them, but also in church. Their experiences ranged from being on the receiving end of 'well meaning', but hurtful, comments like "I don't see you as black, but just as my brother in Christ" (which they felt denied a part of their identity) to feeling ignored or excluded because of their culture.

In response to the shared hurt and pain, members of the leadership were in tears as they confessed their own racial prejudice, most of it unconscious. For example, one realised with horror that they had never invited a black person into their home, although every week they had people from the church family around for tea. From that point on, we set ourselves the task of tackling racism, conscious and unconscious within our church family. We did this through Bible teaching and testimony in our meetings and, more effectively, in our one to one encounters with people who were part of church. Sometimes this involved painfully challenging people about their attitudes and actions, and always alongside this continuing to listen to our Caribbean members' feelings and experiences.

A key turning point in the process of facing up to the reality of racism in our society (which was still often denied by white members) and its consequent impact in the church came after an Asian family in membership of the church was attacked. The family's story is long and complex, but in essence, after moving from one part of our area to another, they suffered a series of racially motivated attacks that culminated in a very serious assault in the middle of the night which left three of the four family members in hospital with injuries that will scar them for the rest of their lives. The local authority and the local police had both failed to give the family any protection during this period, even though the various attacks had become more serious. Our collective church outrage at the way this family was treated led to us holding a public meeting, in partnership with a local action group, with speakers including Neville Lawrence and Suhkdev Reel. This meeting resulted in significant media coverage and a sudden marked change in the attitude of the police towards the family, who eventually, with our strong encouragement, made a number of complaints to the Police Complaints Authority, most of which were upheld. This process galvanised our church family, exposing all of its members to the ugly realities of our racist society. Our actions were recognised by the local community, resulting in us being asked to make a submission to the second phase of the Stephen Lawrence enquiry.

One of the toughest challenges has been the development of genuinely culturally diverse leadership and ministry. To tackle the issue at senior leadership level, I have invested a great deal of time in leadership training and development. We have run a series of Leadership Training Groups which have concentrated on issues of developing Christian character and maturity alongside skill development and confidence building. This has been hard work, and not without bitter disappointments. However, the presence of people from other cultures as part of our leadership (our photographs are prominently displayed in the entrance) has communicated effectively to all that there is no glass ceiling in this part of the Kingdom of God.

Harder still has been the process of trying to develop worship that reflects the different cultures within the church. It was very difficult to persuade people who were not white British to get involved with our all white British singers or musicians. A turning point came after an international evening where we managed to persuade all sorts of different groups to provide, not only food that reflected their cultural origins, but also elements of entertainment. A group of our West Africans performed some songs that they had sung in their own churches back home and, as a result of people's appreciation, we managed to persuade several of them to join our singers' team. Sadly this did not become a success story as the leaders of the singers and musicians had a very Western view of what constituted worship, good vocal practice and good musical skill. Our black brothers and sisters found themselves feeling devalued and marginalised and we soon ended up once again with a virtually all white team. It was not until after the singers and musicians leadership resigned from the church that we were able to again see people from our other cultures become involved. We have now made a little progress with some of our West Africans leading worship, increasingly in their own styles (instead of being David Wise clones!), but it has been a very slow process. We have still not succeeded (except on rare occasions) in seeing prayer on Sunday mornings reflecting our congregational diversity, although we have begun to see this in some of our smaller prayer meetings.

These difficulties are often aspects of what is sometimes termed a 'postcolonial mindset'. It has been so very hard, and sometimes simply impossible, to persuade spiritual, gifted, intelligent, articulate black men and women to take on profile or responsibility within the church. When I have sat some of them down to talk through what the issues really are, sometimes they vocalise the feeling that, as black people in a white country, they should keep their heads down and not rock the boat. Some tell me that they feel that, if they take a prominent position within church, it would be wrong because it would be (in their understanding) replacing white people. I have tried using the imagery of the church being a body and emphasising that every part of the body is needed to actively function properly for the body to do all it is designed for. I have even gone as far as telling people that they are robbing us as church by not sharing with us the gifts that God has evidently given them. However, this has often not been enough to change people's actions. Alongside this is the challenge of the use of language. We are an English-speaking church and even though, for a considerable number of our church members, English is a second, third or even fourth language, we have only had one church member who was not reasonably fluent in English. It has been so far an unsuccessful struggle to encourage people to accept that using their own first language in public prayer is alright. Yet, when I ask people privately, they are clear that they cannot express themselves in English with the fluency or passion that they can in their first language.

One area in which I think we are doing well is the enjoyment of our cultural diversity while holding together a strong and genuine sense of unity. Obvious examples of this are events involving food and/or entertainment when we are wonderfully enriched by an often vast mix of delights. For me, even more interesting is recognising God at work within other people's cultural norms. A few years ago during a prayer meeting one of our Nigerians fell to the floor as we were praying for him; afterwards he related how he knew that God was doing something special for him. He said that he felt a cold presence enter the room and envelop him and the next thing that he knew was that he was lying on the floor and knew immediately that it was God's Spirit. For white English people a cold presence usually signifies evil, but in Nigeria coolness, not additional heat, is welcome and refreshing!

To enable me to continue leading the church through this transition, I have taken time to invest in my own development. In my childhood I have no recollection of there being anybody other than white British living on my council estate or in any of the schools I attended. I have had a great deal to learn. The first major investment was a sabbatical taken twelve years ago that I used to look at issues concerning racism, and also to begin to explore what it means to be a multi-cultural community. I spent two months in South Africa, some of that time staying in Soweto as a guest of black evangelicals. Many people opened their hearts and lives to me which helped me understand something of what being a victim of racism does to someone. I also learned something of what it means to move from being a victim to being a survivor, and then for some people to become combatants against racism. The second insight came from meeting white people who had been strong supporters of the apartheid regime, but had come to be convinced that racism was evil and subsequently had repented of their racist attitudes. In exploring multi-cultural church, one of the most profound moments for me was sitting with a black theologian in a church that was predominantly white. He taught in a Bible school which the white Christians were very proud of describing as being racially integrated. The church that we were attending that morning described itself as multi-cultural. In stark contrast, this black theologian described both the church and the college as white institutions that had a few black people attending. He talked passionately about his experience of the white structures, the white food and the white agendas. In his view everything was done on the basis of white is right and blacks were welcome to come along. This led me to reflect on what it means to be a genuinely multi-cultural church as opposed to a place where people from different cultures attend, but where one culture dominates. I came to see that at Greenford, we were doing white church, we were so eurocentric that other cultures were pushed to the margins.

After my return to ministry in Greenford, I decided that I needed to explore these issues further. A few years of not making much progress led me to the conclusion that I needed to do some structured study. The choice was to do a part-time post-graduate degree in biblical interpretation over three years with my dissertation exploring the multi-cultural interpretation of scripture from within a London local church context1. The key insight for me from this was that I had been reading and teaching scripture simply from a European perspective. The post-graduate study also helped me to begin to find tools to enable people to apply scripture in their own cultural contexts. This has resulted in major changes, not only in my epistemology, but in my practice. Sunday morning teaching has now become a dialogue rather than a monologue. During the teaching I ask questions that are intended to draw people into engaging with the biblical text often by encouraging them to imagine or feel. As we conclude I work to get people in the congregation to vocalise how the biblical passage and truths apply in their particular context.

I have recently returned from my second sabbatical, this time exploring cross-cultural communication and mission. It is far too early to asses the full impact of this on me or GBC. However, as a result of my visiting around two dozen churches set in different cultural contexts (including Albania, Italy and Jamaica as well as the UK), we have decided to experiment with a very different format on Sunday mornings. Our previous format, largely unchanged for forty years, was the standard British Baptist model commencing with twenty to thirty minutes of worship including notices and offering with everybody together before the children and young people left for their groups, leaving the adults together for an hour of Bible teaching and prayer. We currently start with forty-five minutes of worship followed by a break for tea and coffee. We then have teaching for an hour in age groups before we come back together for another forty-five minutes to share together what we have been learning, to hear testimonies, to celebrate good news and support those in difficult situations and we conclude the meeting with an opportunity for prayer ministry. Most weeks this is followed by a fellowship lunch which is an important element in sharing and building community. Our hope is that this new pattern, which is only an experiment at the time of writing, will give us the time, structures and opportunity to more fully incorporate aspects from our constituent cultures.

One final, but hugely important element that has helped equip me for leadership during this ongoing change has been my open and deep friendships with people from other cultures. These friends have been willing to share themselves with me to such an extent that I have been able at times to glimpse things from the inside of another cultural perspective.

Leading the church over the last sixteen years has been at times deeply frustrating, at other times excruciatingly painful, but overall hugely rewarding. I continue to be excited by John's vision of heaven with people from every nation, tribe and language worshipping God together (Revelation 7.9). The challenges are not over for us, there are whole areas of drawing on our existing diversity that we have yet to achieve. We have little visual material on display that reflects our makeup. There are significant ethnic groups within our local community that we have so far failed to reach. The challenges are not over for me either. I am just about to start learning my first foreign language. I hope this will enable me to communicate with some of those living around me who do not speak English, and perhaps to help me understand something of the frustration of those who use English at GBC as their second or third language.

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You are reading A Taste of Heaven? by Author unknown, part of Issue 31 of Ministry Today, published in June 2004.

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