The Windrush Generation and UK's national day of shame

Plans for our church to mark the 70th anniversary of the landing of the HV Empire Windrush Sunday on June 24th have proved less straightforward than I had imagined. I had thought simply that we would celebrate the sense of style and fun from among Caribbean members of the congregation, have a guest speaker and a Bring and Share meal after church. We would enjoy ourselves and express our gratitude to the Caribbean community for the multi racial Britain we have become.

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Little did I think that the Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation would be under the spotlight, described by David Lammy MP as a national day of shame and lead ultimately to the resignation of the Home Secretary. It has emerged that people who came to the UK as part of the “Windrush generation”, many of whom are now elderly, have lost their jobs, homes, and bank accounts having being told that they were unable to demonstrate their legal status as British citizens. Some have faced deportation.

Ansell Wong spoke at an evening arranged by the Windrush Foundation to mark the 70th anniversary. He described his arrival in the UK from Trinidad in 1965. He said that the British Council induction at Hull University involved showing newly arrived Caribbean immigrants how to flush a toilet and how to use a knife and fork because there was a perception that they wouldn’t know how to do these things. Caribbean members of the congregation, who were in England in the 1960s, talk about being asked by young people whether or not they had a tail.

Being asked if you have got a tail is ignorant and cruel but it is not deliberate and calculated, as was the decision by the Home Office in 2010 to destroy thousands of landing cards recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK. It is this decision that has created the lack of documentation. MPs have said the targets for removing people living in the UK legally but without the correct documents could have led enforcement officers to target “low-hanging fruit”. Billy Holliday sung “Strange Fruit” about the lynching of a slave and to have our government using such imagery so loosely makes Donald Trump look a model of social decorum.

A Stephen Lawrence Day every April 22nd, as announced by Theresa May, might be taken to indicate that issues of racism are being addressed. The immigration debate over the Windrush generation children suggests the reverse. The Church of England should hang its head in shame for how it took part in the early years of racism against the Windrush generation. Mike Philips records his mother’s experience in the 1950s when she went to worship in the local Anglican church: “I went to join in the worship but after the service I was greeted by the vicar, who politely and nicely told me: “Thank you for coming but I would be delighted if you didn’t come back.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “My congregation is uncomfortable in the company of black people.”

St Stephens has a proud record from the 1960s of making Caribbean newcomers feel welcome. Rev John Asbridge, the then vicar set up the Shepherds Bush Housing Association to answer a need for rented accommodation. On June 24th we will celebrate the friendships we enjoy with each other and recognise the debt we owe to each other. We will bring food and share it together. I have learnt life long lessons of style; fun and discipline from the Caribbean ladies that have made this church their home.

Marjorie, who came originally from Montserrat, was Church Warden when I came to the parish. She said to me when I first started “Don’t worry; we will look after you”. She died last year and I will remember her openhearted generosity for the rest of my life

People of African and Caribbean origin make up 2% of the UK's population but account for more than two-thirds of Sunday churchgoers in London and 7% of worshippers nationwide. New figures from the Christian Research Association show that over the last five years black church membership has grown by around 18% compared with a 5% drop for churches nationally. The 492 Caribbean passengers who arrived on the Windrush have significance in our country’s history disproportionate to their numbers. People may not have wanted them then but we need them now. The work of @BAMEAnglican is highlighting the debt the Church of England owes to Afro Caribbean communities and how their leadership needs to be an integral part of our future.

HV Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury on June 22nd 1948. How will you mark the 70th anniversary in your church? For ideas, information or simply to make a donation contact The Windrush Foundation.