“OJCZE NASZ (Our Father),” reads a prayer card at the Lady chapel of St Botolph’s, Boston, “którys jest w niebie (who is in heaven)”.
It lies in a basket filled with prayers in many tongues, a gesture of welcome to communities in need of an outstretched hand. A statue of Mary stands by a blue pot bearing three candles. Icons look on.
“The Eastern European community still feel they are visitors,” explains the Team Rector of Boston, the Revd Alyson Buxton. “Part of the Church’s role is to say ‘This enormous sacred but public space is everyone’s space.’”
Since 2004, thousands of migrants have arrived in Boston from the EU. According to the 2011 census, 10.6 per cent of the population comes from one of the “accession countries”, including Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Last year, Policy Exchange said that it was the least integrated place in England.
Further press attention was sparked by the EU referendum, in which 76 per cent of local voters opted to Leave, the highest percentage in the country. In the wake of the result, Ms Buxton criticised a lack of attention from the Government, and warned of overstretched public services. She also spoke of a division that would require “intentional action to heal” (News, 1 July).
The launch of the multilingual chapel today is part of the effort to care for all the souls in the parish, including the quarter of the congregation who come from Eastern Europe.
Among those asked to light a candle at the opening is Jurate Matulioniene, who arrived from Lithuania seven years ago. Mrs Matulioniene, a university lecturer, chairs the Boston Lithuanian Community and teaches English as a second language. Boston is her “second home”, she says.
Contrary to some reports, she believes that most Lithuanians are “fully integrated. . . I do not agree that they are not trying to learn the language. They are trying so much. They are sleeping just two or three hours and come to ESOL classes.” Learning English takes time, she points out, particularly given scant opportunities to practise it in workplaces that lack time for conversation or English workers.
It is a “not a very easy moment for England and European people”, she reflects. Those next to her in the pew here are hoping for the best, in post-Brexit Britain, but there are worries, given that they have lived here for years, bought houses, and raised children. She encourages optimism, pointing out that they have “worked and contributed to the economy and the local way of life”.
“We came not only to take but also to give,” she says. “To contribute our hard work and also our sharing of cultures. . . Most of the people from our community, they are trying to be positive and contribute to the local and English life.” She can understand local anxiety about the number of migrants arriving, she says, and believes that the referendum was “native people’s decision, and we have to respect that”. She is also hopeful that “good will will win”. Eastern Europeans feel “very welcome” at St Botolph’s, she says.
That welcome includes an invitation to share food. Today is the last in a series of four weekly free community lunches, and the café is packed with people being served with pancakes by local college students. With funding from the Near Neighbours Common Good Fund, administered by Church Urban Fund, almost 600 people have been fed, from pupils at local schools to elderly worshippers.
Staffing a stand is Julian Thompson, who founded Boston More in Common in October. The owner of an electrics business and a Brexiteer (“because of the bureaucracy and also that Boston was not getting any financial help at all”), he had done “nothing like this before”, but was moved in the wake of the referendum result to counter the narrative of animosity portrayed in the press.
“They were looking for the bad and we need to look for the good,” he says. “There are a lot of myths and misconceptions on both sides that need to be addressed. We need to understand them and they need to understand us.” He is planning a series of joint events to forge links and promote dialogue, including a river cruise on the Boston Belle.
“Communities are already talking to each other,” he says. “People say that migrants are not connecting with us, but it’s not easy for people to move in, they need to be asked. It is common sense, really, but as human beings we do not always get that. They need inviting in.”
Ms Buxton agrees: “If we put out a general invite, they would not come. We have to be very specific and invite them as individuals and groups.” Press reports “have not helped”, she agrees, “but what it has done is galvanised the community to actually speak out and make a difference”.
At the launch of the chapel there is a reminder from Alison Fairman, who chairs the Friends of St Botolph’s and is an honorary freeman of the town, that Boston has a long history of looking outwards. St Botolph’s, known as the Stump, was built with wealth accumulated from wool trade with the continent.
“This house of God was multicultural even back then,” she tells the crowd. “Everyone came to this place of hospitality and spirituality.” Today it is “a place of no barriers”.