Coinciding anniversaries of auspicious moments: migration, work, church and faith

By Margaret Byron

Margaret Byron was born in St Kitts and Nevis and migrated to Britain. She is currently a lecturer at the University of Leicester but prior to that lectured at King’s College London for 16 years. Margaret attends a Methodist Church in Leicester where she serves as a steward.

The year 2023 is the 75th anniversary of the birth of the National Health Service, the anniversary of the 1948 British Nationality Act and an important year for the passage of migrants from British colonies in the Caribbean on ships such as the SS Empire Windrush seeking to exercise their right to live and work in the UK.  They expected to find work, higher incomes and a better standard of living. They also imagined a warm welcome.

It is not coincidental that the post-war migration from the Caribbean occurred during the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS). Thousands of women who migrated to Britain during the post-war era went directly into training as nurses or related occupations in the NHS. Some were recruited directly from Caribbean islands such as Barbados and Jamaica but many more came directly to the UK and found positions once here.

Despite the essential roles played by Caribbean Nurses and care workers in the developing NHS, these migrants faced frequent racist hostility within and beyond their workplaces.  Their survival of such hostile environments and in most cases making a success of their careers, revealed deep resources of strength and faith.  

Christianity in the Caribbean had a complex and indeed contradictory history. The attempts by Christian missionaries to convert slaves to the Christian faith was in direct opposition to the inhumanity of slavery itself and the collusion between the Church and the Planters in sustaining this.  The faith that emerged among enslaved and later emancipated populations came of unimaginable struggle and pain. This faith was to sustain later generations as they fought for socio-economic progress, often via migration from the 1880s to post WWll.

Their faith led them to seek places of worship which often proved to be unsafe. .

Caribbean migrants sought solace in the Church in Britain as they had been taught for generations before them in the Caribbean. Sadly, many found that the rejection experienced in the workplace was a microcosm of a wider societal exclusion that extended to church.

‘They said ‘you can’t sit there – it is the place of this man or that family’.

‘The minister wouldn’t shake your hand after the service’.

‘They asked why we came to that church’. ‘We were unwelcome’.

Many moved to set up their own places of worship, at times in their own home spaces. Some of the resulting ‘Black’ churches have survived in a variety of forms into the present day.

Despite many obstacles, across Britain Many Caribbean Methodists persevered with their attendance and over time were accepted as members and some were elected to church stewardship. Women have featured prominently in this group.  

By the 1980s Caribbean women were finally gaining overdue recognition as valuable senior nurses and over the last three decades their presence as church stewards has risen significantly. As a Caribbean migrant and attendee of Methodist churches in Leeds, West London and more recently in Leicester, I have admired the leadership and fortitude shown by the generation of post-war migrant Caribbean women in the Church.  

Critically, their often quiet but determined trailblazing opened the doors for the next generation of Caribbean women in the church, some of whom have become ordained ministers. Their work set the stage for more recent migrants to Britain, from, for example, Zimbabwe and Ghana, to combine their careers as nurses with vital roles in the Methodist Church and wider society.  

We give thanks to God for all the blessings we encounter. We recognise the determination and leadership of Black women in the Methodist Church whose lives are manifestations of the protest song mantras:  

‘We shall overcome‘ ( American civil rights movement ) and ‘Change is gonna come’ ( Sam Cook) .

Change is happening and the work against racism and exclusion must continue within and beyond the Church.