Hospitality and welcome are close to the heart of all who follow Jesus. Our Christian story begins with a family seeking sanctuary in an unfamiliar place. Our teachings include the parable of the Good Samaritan. Our faith tells us to meet others with kindness and fellowship no matter where they may have come from.
Many of our congregations have worked hard to create a culture of welcome and are very good at it. They are good at inviting people to join them in worship and in building relationships with new members. Our congregations are places where God’s love is felt and shared.
Yet across the piece we are not always as successful as we’d like to be. Those of us who are not directly harmed by racism may lack understanding of how it impacts people from ethnic minorities, and we may not realise how it affects churches. So despite our best intentions, we may fail to welcome, include and support people from ethnic minority backgrounds. How can we do better?
As our national poet Robert Burns wrote:
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
Now is our chance to do just that. Two ministers and an elder have kindly agreed to share their personal experiences with Ascend. The full stories will be used in smaller group sessions and training, but here are three short excerpts:
Worship gifts rejected
“Our early days in the Church of Scotland were hard. We came expecting to be fed and to serve, and so received a warm welcome from the minister. This was not the case from the rest of the church, but it did not deter us becoming involved.”
“Our children probably bore the brunt of rejection, with my daughter particularly being made to feel unwelcome in the young people’s worship group. She’s a talented musician whose skill was recognised when she visited a local congregation. They asked, ‘She’s so good, why is she not playing in your own church?’ but nothing changed.
“She is now a gifted worship leader who is no longer part of the Church of Scotland. We know of similar stories – young people who could still be part of our denomination had they been made more welcome.”
Always seen as outsiders
“During lockdown I volunteered to deliver food to local families but have never been asked to go anywhere. When I phone ahead of a delivery, people tell me not to bother, they will be fine.
My family are used to being called names out on the street. “When are you going back?” is a regular holler, asked even of our Scottish-born children. I am used to being asked my opinion on the latest racist attack or controversy in the news but without hearing the question-asker demonstrating any desire to learn. People regularly speak to me about “Your people” with no idea what nations we are each from, only the colour of our skin.
“Over these last 22 years there have been more quiet periods and then times of increased harassment. This last year has been much worse.”
Humiliated for sitting in the ‘wrong’ pew
“I had grown up in a Presbyterian church in Kenya; the church felt like a second home for people, especially since the struggles for independence left many displaced. It was a place of hope and welcome…It was painful to be rejected as I had left my family back home and was starting over in a new place with just my Scottish husband and young son.
“One example of being made to feel like we didn’t belong in my early days here was when we sat in the wrong pew at church. In my tradition, we never sit at the front in our churches but find a space where everyone is free. I didn’t realise that pews were designated for different people. After my family had sat down, the pew owners stood in the aisle but did not acknowledge us; someone from the church came and asked us to move. It was embarrassing and humiliating because I didn’t understand what we had done, and my thoughts immediately turned to my skin colour; how could it be anything else? I was a Christian like them!
“We moved to the back row, and on our next time at church, we sat at the back again; nobody sat with us. The three of us sat in the pew that would hold six people, whilst others would squash into the other ones. If we sat next to people, they would move away, and if I questioned it, I was told, ‘Oh, they are just giving you space’. It was a subtle hostility.”
The Research Group on Ethnic Minorities is expected to deliver a report next year. It will give us some feedback on what we’re doing now and some ideas to try out. In the meantime here are some tips from what the volunteer researchers have learned:
Seven tips from the volunteer researchers.
- Involve new arrivals in after-service activities—this can be as simple as helping to serve tea/coffee.
- People from ethnic minority backgrounds say they are constantly asked questions like ‘when are you going back to …?’ or ‘where are you really from?’ – even when the person has lived here for many years. Nurture a sense of belonging by focusing on what you share and by avoiding constant referrals to a person’s country of origin.
- Design worship and activities that celebrate the diversity within your congregation. Find out what your new members expect from worship and include it. For example, services in Africa often feature dancing, clapping and expressions of praise.
- Organise activities such as a welcome club or English conversation corner and events that make space for listening and learning from one another.
- Include people in the life of the church by inviting them to join your groups and committees and to take leadership roles.
- Rather than doing things for people do them with people. Take opportunities to listen to people’s experiences and pay attention to their needs and expectations.
- Ensure someone is looking out for your new members, including children. Don’t assume they will just find their feet. Ask how they are doing and check back.