A taste of heaven
Many of the Windrush generation and beyond had a poor experience in traditional churches, meeting casual and sometimes cruel racism. Some even met a closed door. By contrast, many Baptist churches kept their doors open.
One example is John Bunyan Baptist Church in Oxford: its minister in the 1980s Michael Bochenski reflects on that time, and the power of a warm and interested welcome
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)
If then why not now? This vision of a heaven to come where peoples from across the world unite, far beyond the temporary barriers of language, skin colour, tribal loyalties and national fervour, has long inspired me. Like many of my generation of Baptist ministers it was the remarkable ministry of Martin Luther King (Jnr) that helped to encourage me into ministry. If a Baptist minister, starting from a Baptist church pulpit, can transform communities, a nation, a world, then bring it on! Though the scale will be different, others of us too could seek to work with and from a local Baptist church to transform the communities in which God had placed us.
My first call to a pastorate, after ordination training at Regent’s Park College Oxford, was a surprise. I remember saying to the then Area Superintendent, Hugh Logan: 'I am looking for a church that has lost something of its past glory but is open to God’s future. And I am prepared to go anywhere to find it.'
The surprise was that the call came from just three miles down the road – to Cowley, East Oxford. John Bunyan Baptist Church, been blessed by the long fruitful ministry of 'the minister who rode around Cowley on a bicycle' Sydney Crowe, and his wife Ivy. The impressive 'glazier’s paradise' new church they had been instrumental in building was full of light and beautiful wood. It was also dominated by a huge pulpit with an open baptistery below it and (above both) an acoustic sounding board which more than one baptismal candidate described as 'a diving platform'. By 1980, however, the church was largely an elderly white one, albeit one blessed with a few very committed young families, a handful of Afro-Caribbean Christians and a strong Welsh contingent (many of whom had come to Oxford from the 1930s to find work at the Morris Motors factory).
'When you show an interest in people they will show an interest in you and the church', a wise pastoral tutor had said to us all in college. They were words I never forgot. Visiting and praying with people in their homes has long been the best way I know to see churches begin to grow again. There is no easy alternative to the slow patient, building up of relationships.
So when a few more West Indian Christians began to turn up at Sunday worship I made it a priority to follow them up. A phase of significant church growth began, I think, with Aunty Ethel - a much loved and trusted friend to the local West Indian community. As she began to make us her church so did others Among them, Wilfred, who I led to faith and baptism, and later his wife Mary who once said this to me: 'he can make a fool of himself if he wants to but you’ll never get me in that pool'. We did (!) after Mary went forward at a Billy Graham Mission England rally.
Then there was Winnie and her young daughter Suzette both of whom I had the privilege of baptising. Suzette was a young teenager then, and is still a Facebook friend all these years on. Some of those joining us had had poor experiences of traditional churches and trust did not come easy. In the course of the home visits and conversations a familiar picture (to anyone seeking to build a multi cultural church) emerged. Sad stories of casual, and sometimes cruel, racism when first they sought to worship in English churches. Amelia Gentleman’s Windrush articles in The Guardian reveal that seven decades on that same ugly racism towards these courageous pioneers never went away.
Ah, but when a minister and a community (or indeed a nation) give a warm welcome and seek to build a genuinely integrated faith community, in contrast, vast resources of kindness and love, talent and skills, loyalty and commitment open up. That was an experience I was also to benefit from in my most recent pastorate in Rugby, Warwickshire where the outstanding ministry of Reg and Moira Harvey in the 1970s had similarly seen a growing West Indian Christian community presence emerge in the Baptist church. That multi-cultural dimension was to be further strengthened during my ministry in Rugby many years later, with a growing Chinese and African Christian presence too.
As a recently 'retired' Baptist minister I find myself these days learning to, in the words of Nigel Wright (in How to be a Church Minister), ‘...wrestle less and rest more...’ while also working through ...‘inner reflections on positive and negative experiences, (and) processing disappointments and successes’. The request for this Baptists Together article was then a timely one. For occasionally in ministry there are times when heaven clearly touches earth. As the Baptist faith community in Cowley grew – we experienced many baptisms during the seven years I ministered there – so did our commitment to the community around us. Some Asian Christians too joined us as God continued to work. Our Church meeting, protesting at NHS cuts in 1986, appealed for higher taxes to cover the many and growing needs of the NHS. A call that to this day remains relevant! The emergence of a pensioners’ rights group, which for several years it was my privilege to lead, was another feature of an outward looking missional vision.
By the time we left JBBC in 1987 we were leaving a genuinely multi cultural faith community which had nearly doubled in size. Throw together Revelation 7, the inspiration of a Martin Luther King and a minister and church who believe in both and – well – you get a small taste of heaven.
Image | Contraband Collection | Alamy Stock Photo
Michael Bochenski is a former President of our Baptist Union. He served in four UK pastorates and was, for a time, the Rector of the Baptist Theological Seminary of Poland.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of Baptists Together magazine
Do you have a view? Share your thoughts here.