A segregated town that needs the unity of the gospel

There was an interesting piece carried in Sunday’s Observer regarding Oldham. The piece was headlined: ‘We must not live segregated lives’, said May. But in divided Oldham, that’s not always easy. The article goes on to details the issues surrounding the 2001 race riots and goes on to discuss the divided nature of Oldham and the kind of interfaith and race relations work going on in the town.

Entirely unsurprising to anybody who knows the town, the article states:

Ted Cantle, the author of the Home Office-commissioned report into community cohesion following the 2001 riots, told the Observer that Oldham remained one of Britain’s most segregated towns. Official attempts to foster integration across the region where some of the rioting took place had been “lukewarm at best and probably non-existent at worst”.

Cantle, whose report expressed concerns over communities living entirely separate or “parallel lives”, added: “Those areas are still there – white communities on one side and Muslim on the other – and with all the pressure over the years on Muslim communities there has been a sense that they have gone further in on themselves.”

Oldham Bethel Church is sited in Glodwick, the predominantly Asian area of the town within which the 2001 riots took place. The article rightly notes that, in Glodwick, ‘levels of deprivation are among the highest in the UK’. Given all of this, several things seem worth noting.

First, Oldham Bethel Church is exhibiting a greater level of community cohesion than the surrounding neighbourhood. Glodwick is predominantly Pakistani with a large minority of Bangaldeshis also present. Oldham Bethel Church, by contrast, includes White, Black and Asian members from Britain, Caribbean, Europe, Middle East and Africa. White Brits now make up only half the congregation. Diversity of nation, culture and ethnicity are seen week by week – and in the week – in the church building. Within the Asian monoculture of Glodwick, Oldham Bethel Church expresses diversity that is wrought by God through the gospel.

Second, Oldham Bethel Church is engaging in the greater level of community cohesion than the surrounding neighbourhood. For over a decade, we have run English Classes from our church building. We have welcomed people from all over the world speaking a variety of different languages and subscribing to various religions and none. In our current cohort, we have people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Kurdistan, Iran and Kurdistan, Afghanistan, Albania, Romania, Moldova and Guinea Bissau. We’ve seen people from Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and Africa come through our doors. Again, in the South Asian monoculture of Glodwick, Oldham Bethel Church is reaching out and drawing in people of different ethnicities and cultures. Week by week, the local community in Godwick will see white, black and Asian people all coming together to learn. More than this, the church intended for the lessons to lead to lasting friendships which, by God’s grace, are happening. It is only because of the gospel-hearted endeavour of certain members of the church that cohesion in Glodwick is thriving in our little corner.

Apart from our English classes, we have seen good numbers of Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims come to engage in our regular cultural dialogue evenings. Here, our white, black and Middle Eastern members go and spend time with local Asian Muslims. Each month we present on a topic from a Christian perspective (always with a view to sharing the gospel) and our Muslim friends share on the same topic from a n Islamic point of view. Each meeting allows time for questions followed by a shared meal. I’ve never really thought about it before but it must be striking that, regardless of the topic, our repeated refrain is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the fruit of it is helpfully in plain sight as our black, white and Middle Eastern members all sit in those meetings. It is notably more diverse than the exclusively Asian makeup among our Muslim friends. My focus has always been on the gospel message we go to proclaim each month to the c.50 Muslims regularly in attendance listening. It strikes me how the presence of our diverse group of members so helpfully illustrates each month the power of the gospel we are proclaiming when weighed against the exclusively Asian makeup of those with whom we meet.

Third, just as we are showing the diversity of the gospel to those in Glodwick, we are painfully aware that the segregated nature of Oldham means that the white urban unreached in areas such as Holt’s Estate, Fitton Hill and Alt are simply not going to wander over to Glodwick. We cannot rely on people looking from a distance and travelling over. For many indigenous white people, Glodwick remains a “no-go” area (at least, this is how they feel). As important as it is to show the power of the gospel through our diverse membership, the way we are going to reach these other local estates is to plant a church in their midst. We want to show the power of the gospel in precisely the same way – being made up of diverse people who are all united in Christ through the gospel – those people will only see it if it is evident in their own communities.

Oldham Bethel Church cannot rely on people in a segregated town with a history of interracial violence to suddenly overcome decades of tension and wander into our church. The power of the gospel will not be witnessed in our drawing people from nearby areas into our church, it will be witnessed in a diverse group going to those areas and being a church among those communities. As we plant churches of diverse people, unified by the gospel of Jesus Christ, and work together as churches across different segregated areas of the town, we will witness to the genuine unifying power of the gospel. In a segregated town like Oldham, it is the unity of the gospel that is urgently needed.

Oldham Bethel Church is still looking for a ministry trainee to join us in September 2017. We are looking for a gospel-hearted person who has a love for the lost and desire to see God’s people grow. If you have any interest in Muslim outreach or working among the urban unreached, there are great opportunities for you to learn in this unique context. You can find more details at the FIEC job board.

If you are interested in church planting, we would love to get in touch and speak about how you may help us to plant in areas of Oldham that currently have no gospel witness. We would love to discuss our plans for reaching the unreached in Oldham and multiplying gospel witness in this needy and segregated town.