Next month is International Black History Month and it leaves me feeling uneasy. It’s not because I don’t agree with bringing Black history into the frame or ensuring that so many stories about people and places are made visible, or that we are challenged regarding racial justice; rather, my uneasiness is because it can look as if people only need to think about all these things for one month of every year.
Black History Month is a call to see the past differently and to live the present with a new perspective. It’s not simply about the acquisition of knowledge but it’s also about seeing differently and being changed because of it. This year’s theme is ‘Sharing Journeys’ and the focus is on exploring the lives and stories of the people who came to Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is much to celebrate, and much to lament.
Some of the stories I have heard from Black people during my years of ministry, not least here in the Diocese of Gloucester, have left me feeling deeply sad and ashamed of the Church of which I am part. It is not only the stories that are shocking but the fact that often those stories haven’t been voiced voluntarily because it’s just accepted as normal, or people don’t want to rock the boat or make themselves vulnerable, particularly if it doesn’t change anything. Other stories have given me joy and I’ve discovered new things in the history of particular places. Did you know that the Revd Bryan Mackey is thought to have been the first Black vicar in England and became the rector of the parish of Coates in 1799 and then also the curate of neighbouring Sapperton parish in June 1813?
Our villages, towns and city are more ethnically diverse than people often acknowledge or see. I am struck by this every time I visit a village school and I dare to suggest that there are stories yet undiscovered which will pleasantly surprise as well as those which will shock.
One of my favourite restaurants for a very special occasion is Memsahib’s Lounge in Cheltenham. Not only is the food amazing but the restaurant looks back over the past few centuries and celebrates the empowerment of Indian women and their connection with Cheltenham. There is a wall which tells stories of which I was unaware and which provoke a range of thoughts and emotions within me.
As the month draws to a close, the clergy conference takes place under the title of ‘Sharing God’s story, sharing our story’. In this coming Black History Month, I wonder if we can seek to hear stories from across our contexts and communities which engage with ethnicity and racial justice and enable us all, whatever our ethnic heritage, to see differently as we participate in God’s story of love, justice and reconciliation. And may it be for more than one month only.
With my thanks and prayers as ever,