In Rochdale, the churches of St Mary in the Baum and St Chad’s welcome migrant communities from a range of backgrounds. Amongst them, West African families and Farsi-speaking migrants from Iran have arrived after escaping persecution, and Revd Anne Gilbert has worked with congregations at both churches to create a warm culture of welcome for all.
The changes started post-pandemic when the Red Cross started hiring St Mary’s to offer a wide range of support for those in need. Many asylum seekers attended, and from there a large group settled at St Mary in the Baum. Around 12 Farsi-speaking adults from this group were waiting for confirmation, so Revd Anne and Revd Leila Nikroo prepared them and ensured the service liturgy was translated into two languages.
Over time, St Mary’s has adapted further to include dual-language service booklets, a prayer tree with prayers for Iran printed in English and Farsi, and has transitioned from being a BCP (Book of Common Prayer) only church, to including translatable Common Worship services. In this way, Revd Anne supports the large Iranian community and culture, whilst upholding the integrity of the Church of England.
“The biggest thing is welcome”, says Anne, noting that the core congregation has welcomed the Iranian migrants with open arms. “It’s a whole mix of cultures at both churches”, she says, “It’s been a steep learning curve and it’s about being willing to adapt and learn, working around their needs, which shift because the group shifts.”
It is this blending of cultures and the enthusiasm of the whole congregation, both old and new, which adds to the joy of the church's services - something which is evident to all who attend. One particular visiting couple commented on the immense feeling of joy and welcome given by the intercultural congregation, so much so that people will often return to the church from further afield. Often migrant communities are moved to different areas in the region but return back to Rochdale to attend services.
Traditional celebrations are also honoured. At Christmas, one of the retired priests provided the Farsi-speaking community with a Christmas dinner, while St Mary’s introduced them to the Christingle - something which they had never seen before. Revd Anne described the joy of the families making their Christingle for the first time, truly appreciating the meaning behind it. In March, the vicarage also hosted a Chaharshanbe Suri event – the Iranian festival which occurs on the eve of the last Wednesday before Nowruz - the Iranian New Year. Food was shared and friends came from far and wide for the vibrant celebration.
Another particularly memorable celebration was for a Nigerian family and the naming ceremony of their newborn baby. This is a valued tradition where the priest is the first person to say the baby’s name, and so Revd Anne put together a service of blessing for them, distinct from a baptism. She then had the privilege of saying baby Michelle’s full name for the very first time when she was just a week old. “If people ask for something and it’s something I can do, I adapt!” Revd Anne says of the occasion.
Continuing the culture of welcome beyond the church, there are many practical ways in which all involved at St Mary’s and St Chad’s nurture hospitality. The congregation and Revd Anne have also reached out to local MPs and councillors who have been very supportive and helpful. Revd Anne has also been able to help with problems that arise in the hotel where some of the Farsi-speaking community are being housed, liaising with the council to improve their living conditions.
One particular church member was even helped in finding somewhere to live, having lost her housing as a result of receiving settler status and being forced to sleep in a bus station. After a bad storm, she arrived at St Mary’s where the Churchwarden gave her dry clothes and arranged a room in a hostel for her. “It brings so much more meaning to the Gospel, it brings a depth of meaning to people escaping persecution”, says Anne.
One of the biggest challenges faced by both Revd Anne and the existing congregation is the emotional impact of asylum-seekers being moved on to different areas. Bonds and friendships have been made, and it is difficult to see families relocated, often at short notice. To ease the moving process, Anne and other curates will often make contact with churches in the new area so that those who are leaving have a church to go to.
The Iranian community give back to the church in many ways, enthusiastically getting involved with services, helping with the maintenance of the church building, making teas and coffees, joining the choir and much, much more. Lots of the Farsi congregation also volunteer at local Rochdale charity shops, having been supported by Revd Anne and others in the church in finding the positions. Often all that is required is an enquiry to see if the shops are taking people on and assisting with online applications as most don’t have computer access. In all of these ways and many more, the Iranian community at St Mary’s and St Chad’s are constantly challenging false stereotypes. “They are always wanting to give back… their faith is inspiring; what they’ve given up is inspiring”, says Anne.
To any church member seeking to make their church more welcoming to migrant communities, Revd Anne suggests simply sitting with them and listening, offering hospitality with a brew. Although the initial language barrier may be a struggle, there are plenty of practical tools to aid communication such as WhatsApp and Google Translate; something Anne used when first getting to know the Farsi-speaking community. Anne would also encourage others not to worry about getting it wrong, and to reach out to others who are working in similar situations. “Where we are now has been through many transitions,” she says. “We started to put on a Farsi service and expected people to come, but this wasn’t what they wanted and so we stopped doing it. It’s better to talk to the community and find out what they actually want, and adapt as needed.”
If you would like further guidance on how to increase hospitality within your church, please contact David Onabanjo, Intercultural Mission Enabler, at DavidOnabanjo@manchester.anglican.org. David has also shared advice and suggestions that will be useful for anyone needing help.