TWENTY-FIVE miles from the docks at Tilbury, in Essex, where the MV Empire Windrush docked in 1948, the nave of Westminster Abbey was temporarily converted into a shining silver sea on Friday, as a troupe of young actors transported a 2000-strong congregation back 70 years.
At this service held to celebrate their contribution to Britain, members of the Windrush generation watched as men and women in fedoras and carrying suitcases re-enacted a story that began with a call to the Empire’s subjects to help rebuild the Mother Country, and ended with prayers for a future built on love, not hate.
The physical theatre expression of the testimonies of the first Windrush arrivals, directed by Roy Alexander Wise, started with a recitation: a young woman read out the first few lines of William Blake’s “Jerusalem”, invoking the “green and pleasant land” to which the people of the Caribbean had been invited.
The group proceeded slowly up the nave, divided by a great expanse of silver cloth, raised and lowered gently to evoke the waves of the Atlantic. They passed rows of seats where you could see those later celebrated as “giants” on whose shoulders this young generation stood, including the actress Floella Benjamin (Baroness Benjamin).
Others were depicted on the cope worn by the Dean of Westminster, the Very Revd John Hall. Commissioned by the C of E’s National Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, and created by Terry Duffy, it features a photo-montage, featuring, among others, the Jamaican-born Speaker’s Chaplain, Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin. It also alludes to the racist murder of the teenager Stephen Lawrence. His face was among those lighting up screens on the Abbey’s pillars: a reminder that the story included much to lament and repent.
Hymns to God as refuge and foundation included “O God, our help in ages past” and “My hope is built on nothing less”. Music was played by the Shern Hall Methodist Youth Steelband as the congregation arrived. They were also treated to a harmony-rich performance of “Jesus, hold my hand” written by Albert Brumley, a southern-gospel composer who was a member of the Church of Christ.
It was sung by a special Windrush 70th Anniversary Choir, in a bright array of red, yellow, and green, and led by Karen Gibson. Among those jiving along in their seats was the Prime Minister. In the quire seating, a woman in a shining purple suit and hat was on her feet, harmonising. “Amen!” she shouted as the final words rang out.
The reference to a “valley dim” in the last verse was swiftly picked up in the second chapter of Roy Wise’s dramaturgy. The narrator, standing in the pulpit, read accounts of the reception of the new arrivals, including the notorious boarding-house sign: “No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks”.
Among the testimonies was one from a churchgoer who had missed going to church in her Sunday best; she had been asked not to return after her first visit.
The first lesson, God’s message to the exiles in Babylon in Jeremiah 29, was read by Prebendary Hudson-Wilkin; the second, by Jayden Hamilton, a nine-year-old who read confidently from 2 Corinthians of those “afflicted in every way but not crushed”. His father, Donald Hamilton, said afterwards that he was “extremely proud” of him.
Giving the address, Canon Joel Edwards, the Evangelical Alliance’s first black Pentecostal general director, alluded to the fact, that, “in recent months, the word ‘Windrush’ has evoked a great deal of emotion and legitimate anger.”
He recalled the arrivals with their “double-breasted suits, starched, ironed dresses — and the suitcases or, as we call them, ‘grips’” — and members of the congregation chimed in with the last of those words spontaneously.
His remarks drew parallels between the 70 years of Hebrew exile in Babylon and the decades that had passed since the arrival at Tilbury. Both groups had had to ask themselves: “How can we sing the Lord’s song, in a strange land? . . . How can you be yourself, in a place where you weren’t born?” He noted that, in Babylon, the exiles had “rediscovered themselves” and produced leaders. This had happened, too, in the UK.
He also noted “cold realities”: over-representation in Britain’s prisons and mental institutions, knife crime, under-achievement, and racism — “sometimes too much policing and not enough protection”.
“No community decides its future alone,” he concluded. “Whatever it means for the Windrush generation to be black and British is a political task for everyone.” Christian faith was “all about future hope; and Windrush resilience reminds us supremely of the conviction that God our helper in ages past will always be our hope in years to come.”
Before the last hymn, prayers were read in a final chapter of the drama. The young speakers paid tribute to the “giants” on whose shoulders they stood, naming some of a “great cloud of witnesses” cheering them on — in fields that included politics and the arts.
The mood afterwards was jubilant. Throngs of people greeted one another and captured moments — such as young black servicemen gathered by the grave of the Unknown Warrior — on their phones.
Among those present, Sophia Jones, senior communications manager at the Mothers’ Union, said that her parents, Ishmael and Thelma Jones, had arrived from Jamaica in the late 1950s. SOPHIA JONESIshmael and Thelma Jones
The words of a new anthem by Shirley J. Thompson which had been sung during the service, “Psalm to Windrush: for the Brave and Ingenious”, had moved her to tears. “It said ‘And now we pass the baton on, To our children, and their children grown, Holding dreams, and hopes, and plans, Their heads held high.’ And that is me, and my children,” she said.
Her mother, a nurse, had established a nursing home, and her father’s family had clubbed together to buy their own home. The family had experienced racism, and her parents had always said that Jamaica was home. “When you pass the worst, we will go back.” They had finally returned in the 1990s.
Representing her family and the MU, and sitting with younger and older generations, had been very moving, she said: “We have all lived here all this time, and I just felt so proud.”
The Government has announced this week that 22 June is to be an annual celebration of the Windrush generation and their descendants, and it will be supported by a grant of up to half a million pounds.