It’s 7:00 am on a cold, dark Sunday morning and I’m walking around the streets of Luton, thinking and praying about the day ahead. This is the parish of All Saints, Bury Park, where I was visiting this past weekend. It stretches all the way to the M1 motorway, so there’s the noise of the M1 traffic and occasional rumblings as a flight takes off from Luton Airport, but the streets here on the edge of town are otherwise quiet. Here, the detached and semi-detached houses are quite substantial, big in fact, and many have their front gardens concreted over to allow parking for 3 or 4 cars. There are cars everywhere, but fortunately the streets and gardens here are wide enough to accommodate them all. Further down in the inner suburbs it’s a different story. As I get to the top of the hill, I see a steady stream of older men, most with long beards and dressed in traditional clothes, coming out of a house in groups of 2 or 3. It’s right next to a bridge that passes over the M1, but none of the men cross over the bridge. Within a few minutes, they’ve said their goodbyes and disappeared into nearby homes; until I’m the only one still walking along the street.
Google maps tells me that the building where the men were serves as a mosque for Suffa-tul-islam UK, with prayer times listed on its facebook page. There are plenty of other mosques in the area, some purpose-built, others in houses, all meeting the spiritual needs of the ever-changing local community. And yes, it has changed a lot, even in the 30+ years since I first came here. When I first visited the area in the mid-1980’s, there was still a large Irish community dating from the 1920’s; later came people from the Caribbean, many working for Vauxhall Motors. The older people from both those communities are still living in the area, plus others from West Africa, but as their children and grandchildren have grown up and made money, so they choose to buy homes further out of town. As they moved out, their homes have been bought up mainly by families of South Asian origin, many with links to Kashmir. Official reports show there are now about 50,000 Muslims in Luton, many living in the Bury Park area….
The local churches have adapted over time too. The vicar of All Saints is Rev. David Kesterton, who also serves as area dean, and only a few weeks ago was made an honourary canon at St. Alban’s Abbey. The congregation see it as a real honour and are delighted; David does too, but he’s very modest and prefers to give credit to others for all their hard work in making All Saints what it is today, and for so many coming along to support him at the Abbey that day. He tells me he regularly gets phone calls from churches of all different denominations asking if they can rent his church or hall for their services. After the Sunday service at 9:30 am at All Saints Church, the ‘Presbyterian Church of Ghana, North London District’ move into the main church to hold their service at 11:00 am, while another church, the ‘Land of Grace Ministries’, whose members are mainly West African, hold their service in the church hall.
David took me on a walkabout on Saturday, and we called in at the local Roman Catholic Church, Holy Ghost Parish, just across the road from All Saints, hidden behind a hotel. So hidden, in fact, that despite my many visits to Luton over the years, this is the first time I even knew of its existence ~ a little oasis in the inner city. We met Fr. Kevin, who had just finished hosting a Swahili Mass for the Kenyan community and was about to start a Malayalam Mass, with Polish ones planned too. Until 2002, his church was staffed by priests from the Diocese of Dublin, on mission to Luton, but in response to changing needs over time, so it now comes under the local Diocese of Northampton. With so many cars in the area, and street parking limited, Holy Ghost Parish faces challenges of ensuring they have sufficient parking for those coming to their services; their huge carpark is now being run by NCP, the national car parking company, which is working well so far. It’s wonderful that Fr. Kevin, David and several other local clergy have joined together in many outreach projects serving the local community through their life and witness.
Over the road at All Saints, David and his team of lay leaders also face similar parking problems. Here in the inner suburbs of Luton, the streets are lined with terraced housing and the only parking is on the street. The roads are largely one-way, but there are constant problems with cars driving the wrong way up and down, and near-accidents are common.
Just down from the church is the Luton Town Football Ground, where David was formerly the chaplain, and which I visited last time in 2018 (see that report here) when I had the honour of watching Luton Town beat Plymouth Argyle 5-1, ah that was such an exciting and unforgettable game!
Over the years, the congregation of All Saints Church has declined and aged, reflecting the ever-changing local community. Some of the Caribbean families have been coming to All Saints since they arrived in Luton in the 1950’s, and they faithfully continue coming week after week. They are so lovely, and I remember them well from previous visits, Rachel, Grace and Sheila in particular. Each time we meet, we talk about their homeland of St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which has formal diplomatic links with Taiwan. In 2019, I was involved in hosting a group of young men from St. Vincent (proudly calling themselves the Vincy Boys!) who came to Taiwan for 3 months, so it was great to share that with the ladies. The All Saints vicar, David visited St. Vincent as part of his sabbatical earlier this year, and shared with me his photos and experiences this past weekend, ah it was great!
When All Saints Church celebrated the 70th anniversary of Windrush in 2018, the Caribbean members put together a beautiful display to mark their history and heritage, and it is still on display around the church. Each panel is really colourful, I love it!
In the last few years, All Saints Church, even in the midst of the pandemic and despite such a small congregation, have also opened up a new ministry, that of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. The church has become a centre for the whole community working together to welcome those people newly arrived in the UK who have fled oppression, persecution and discrimination in their homelands and are now seeking asylum. Many have arrived on boats across the English Channel, and have temporarily been assigned by the Home Office to stay in Luton, housed in hotels or other government-run accommodation. The arrival in Luton of 400 asylum seekers in the last few weeks means that centres like All Saints have become particularly busy.
The centre, in the church hall, is open two mornings a week, and groups of asylum seekers come through the doors seeking clothes and toiletries, help with filling in forms, English classes, advice, and often just a friendly face. Despite the cold, we had about 30 on Saturday, often there’s more. The volunteers are from the whole community, Christians and Muslims, men and women, some are former asylum seekers themselves, while others have lived here all their lives; all have chosen to volunteer their time and energy to help. The centre – and the running of it – is highly organized, with the actual church being the place where stocks of second-hand clothes are on display, while supplies of new underwear and toiletries are stored and sorted, all available for the volunteers to find and distribute as needed, depending on the request. The supplies come from local community donations, as well as charities working in this field, and the project is now formally registered as All Saints Luton Asylum Seeker And Refugee Support. A few years ago St. Alban’s Diocese made an introductory video about this ministry, featuring David the vicar and their curate Jo. It’s well worth watching….
That video was a great introduction, but things have moved on a little, and Jo has since left All Saints for her own parish. The project is now run by vicar Rev David Kesterton with his wife Susan, and churchwarden Sandra Miller. Susan works virtually full-time on the project along with her role in charge of safeguarding, and churchwarden Sandra also serves as lay reader and treasurer, among many other things. As a nearly-lifelong resident of Luton, I asked Sandra where she was all the years of my previous visits ~ it turned out she only came to faith in 2014, through David leading her father’s funeral, and she’s been coming along to All Saints ever since. What a testimony she has! The three of them are incredible, and are on hand for every session, helped by all the volunteers. Games are set out for the children, there’s an English class, tea and coffee are served and help is provided for those applying to get clothes, shoes, toiletries or other help.
When I visited on Saturday, I met asylum seekers from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Georgia, nearly all young men, some older men, and a few women and children. All were polite, modest and keen to participate. I took a group of 8 to practise their English, so I got them to introduce each other. In that group was a professional footballer, a biomedic, a chef, a teacher, a factory worker, a builder and a young man from Sudan who had studied to Masters level in Mainland China on a scholarship and so could speak Chinese. All had come on boats across the English Channel in the last few months and attributed their safe arrival to the hand of God. They’re not allowed to work while their asylum applications are processed, which could take up to 5 years, and they survive on fairly basic financial allowances and barely adequate or often unsuitable food. With so much time on their hands, their big challenge is to learn English, and for those who are struggling with even recognizing the English alphabet, it is a particular burden. I spent much of the English class trying to encourage a young Syrian man with no English to go up to the counter and ask for tea or coffee, and then cake or biscuits, for us all. With some encouragement from others in the group who went with him for moral support, he did it – and he was so happy!
Many churches in the UK doing similar work among asylum seekers are blessed with resources like having lots of people who are willing to volunteer their time and energy to help. All Saints, Luton has a very small core group, and it is so wonderful that David, Susan, Sandra and others in the church have taken the lead in this ministry. Nearly everybody running the church service and refreshments on Sunday is also volunteering to help with the asylum seekers ministry. Special mention to Sam and the refreshments team who do both the asylum seekers’ refreshments as well as for the Sunday service. They are all so dedicated!
The Sunday service is also in some ways an extension of this ministry, as I saw for myself. David had asked me to send my sermon in advance for translation (Google Translate to the rescue!) into Farsi, and he also includes notices and some of the prayers in Farsi too. Some of the asylum seekers do speak good English, so they can help with some of the translation requests.
On Sunday, about 20 asylum seekers from Iran came to the Sunday service, one woman, the rest were men, and a few others too came from other countries; in total they made up over half the congregation. Some of the Iranian men have been baptised, and others are taking Bible Studies. It is no secret that being baptised can help with an asylum application, but there are also many who are genuine seekers and we hope and pray that they stay the course. They all listened intently to my sermon, and during the Holy Communion, all came up for a blessing, followed by them all going to the high altar for the monthly prayers and anointing for healing. It was great to see such a full church and so many young people. After the service, I shared my PowerPoint of Taiwan in the Lady Chapel, which some also attended. As I left, one of them was volunteering to wash up the cups and saucers from the refreshments. It is just such a worthwhile ministry.
A big thank you to David, Susan, Sandra and all the saints (yes there’s so many of them!) at All Saints for their amazingly warm welcome this past weekend. Over the years I have been mightily blessed to have been linked with All Saints. The original link was between my home church in Heighington, Co. Durham, where the then vicar, Rev. Philip Thomas knew Rev. Sam Prasadam through Sam’s role as CMS (Church Mission Society) Area Secretary for the NE of England. When Sam then became vicar of All Saints in the mid-1980s, along with his wife, Rev. Jemima Prasadam, so he suggested a church link between Luton and Heighington, a north-south, urban-rural connection, with exchange visits and prayer. That was my first visit to All Saints, and I remember Jemima taking us on a tour of Bury Park, going into a mosque, a Hindu temple and a Sikh gurdwara, and meeting all the people there. When I joined CMS in 1989, All Saints offered to support me as I went to Tanzania, and they’ve supported me ever since. Thank you! All Saints celebrate their centenary next year and they are already looking forward to welcoming Jemima back together with her daughter, Rev. Smitha Prasadam, now chaplain of St. Alban’s Anglican Church, Copenhagen, Denmark.
David, Susan and Sandra kindly entertained me to a lovely meal on both Friday and Saturday evenings, although on Saturday at the vicarage, the vicar’s dog ate the quiche before we did! They also very kindly hosted me to stay the weekend at a local hotel chain, which is how I really came to be walking the streets of Luton at 7:00 am on a Sunday morning, building up an appetite for the buffet breakfast that was to follow! It was truly a great weekend, in fact this was my last CMS link church visit of this home leave, and what a way to finish. I am really grateful to everyone for their warm welcome, their hospitality and their kindness over the years. Thank you David, Susan, Sandra and all the saints of All Saints ~ and please do pray for them and their really incredible ministry among the asylum seekers of Luton. Thanks be to God for His many blessings, and long may they continue to be poured out on the wonderful people of Luton!