BPCA has for sometime been trying to prove the origins of the first ever Asian Christian Church in the UK. However time after time we have been thwarted by individuals in our community who have cast aspersions on the intent of our work. Every elderly Pakistani Christian you meet believes that they were the founders of the first church that was initiated at St Mary’s, Islington in London, but no one disputes that it was the first established Asian congregation.
That early church has the ability to stir up great passion as it was not only the place were several Asian Christians were married and baptized but it is also the place were Revd Daniel Singh was appointed as minister after he became the first Asian Christian Reverend to have been ordained in the Church of England. A great achievement no doubt, but one that would not have come about without the backing of the early church founders who appointed him and sponsored him and who gave their regular tithes to help establish an URDU/Punjabi Church.
In the 1950’s the first large scale migration began from India to the UK after Britain opened the doors for commonwealth citizens as they filled the employment gap left by years of war (in which Indians and many other nations contributed soldiers). These early Windrush generation peoples filled roles that indigenous people of Britain did not want and they began work in various positions in many of the national industries, such as the rail system. By the 1960’s a large number of Christian immigrants from Pakistan and India who were unable to receive the Word of God in their own language were attending indigenous churches, however many struggled to understand what was being said as their grasp of the English language was limited if not poor.
Three inspiring brothers Majeed, Najeeb and Waheeb Chowdhry all of whom could understand English decided to make a difference for their community. They understood how many in their community had a dire need for a church in their own language to ensure that their spiritual erudition continued to grow, moreover they longed for the sounds and experiences of church from their homeland which they sorely missed.
The brothers united many Pakistani and Indian Christians who they found in different churches, through work and socialising and through asking people who they knew. After gathering a number exceeding 10 they approached Revd Johnson who was the presiding Minister at St Mary’s Church opposite their home and where they were regular attendees.
Not only did Revd Johnson agree to their request but he and his wife who had a particularly good relationship with Naema Gill their younger sister, helped them begin with advice and guidance.
The initial church was led for two years in the church hall by a colleague of theirs named Akhtar Samuel after which later once they could afford a part-time minister, so they appointed Revd Daniel Singh who then led the church for at least a further 15 years. Initially untrained Revd Daniel Singh was soon trained by the Church and became the first ordained Asian Minister in the Church of England. The church ended after sometime due to much of the community having moved away from the area and various rifts and splits causing the regular church services to be abandoned.
St Mary’s Church has also generated good memories for much of the middle-aged Pak/Indo-Christian community in the UK, as for many years up until the late 1990’s it was the location for an annual Christian convention.
BPCA have managed to collaborate with many Asian Christian churches in the UK and together we have agreed to hold a convention on 3rd November 2018, to celebrate the 50th anniversary since the first Asian Christian Church in the UK. We are also hoping to unveil a plaque which will be the first of its kind and that will celebrate Revd Daniel Singh’s ordination as the first Asian Reverend in the Church of England and the work of the three founding father’s. The High Commissioner for Pakistan and Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali are already a few of the confirmed guests.
There is great mythology around the country about the dates that other churches started and who established this first church at St Mary’s. Various leaders have also claimed they are founders of the original Asian Church despite what clear historical records suggest. It leaves a historical gap and sows discord when documentation is not produced and any misunderstanding can be eliminated by reviewing the evidence. We hope the attached article dating back to 1985 which records the testimony of Revd Singh and refers to the church beginning in a house opposite the church. The property paper shown below, belonging to the father of Wilson Chowdhry, Waheeb Chowdhry, now puts that argument to bed as it clearly shows residence was at 123 Upper Street across form St Mary’s. Hopefully people can accept the record as proven and seek that we can all move on as a family of God.
We are in no way undermining the work of the many leaders that helped develop the church long after the founders had moved away from Dalston, leaders such as Dr Peter David, Iftikhar Alam, George Das and many others, who joined the church after it had already been formed. We should honour all the great men and women who helped establish the structures we have in place today for our community to worship the Lord in their mother tongue.
What is of fundamental importance is that the church family existed and still is impacting today. The early narrative itself is a tale that deserves to be told and preserved. These important historical facts of Church History as seen in documents, photos, and other personal and legal records are lost in the banter as elders grow older and leaving the hard evidence of this collective experience in albums and shoe boxes, unseen by the British church relegated to the the collective attic , shoving our heritage and faith experience to a quiet corner of society neither to be seen nor heard.
Undocumented assertions are not productive and minimize the great significance of Pak/Indo-Christians as a vital and contributing part of British society. It allows the general population to ignore or minimalize our concerns on matters of racism and human rights. Are we entering into proper fellowship with the British Church if our historical contributions remain hidden? We are here and part of the family of God in the UK.
Talking about these shared memories should help us foster genuine community and not be a point of contention. How can we let these items disappear into a neglected history? Recognizing who we are and were we are going gives an opportunity to share our story, show the light we have been given and to smile at the future.
Wilson Chowdhry, said:
“Our event on 3rd November 2018 should prove to be a unifying force for our community, so many churches have already committed to join us and we are still in the process of inviting others,
BPCA is appointing a researcher trained in socio-linguistics and anthropology to assist with a compilation of historical stories and documents that are meaningful to the founding of this parish and our diaspora in the UK. We will be conducting interviews and are requesting personal stories be submitted via written correspondence. We are taking care that those involved in the production of material are neutral and will be able to assess the facts fairly and compose the material in a harmonious manner.
Please contact us to let us know if you have any information, documents or artefacts that that you would like to contribute. Tell us why you think a historical project like this is important. (click here)