MY MUM often tells the story of her first months in the UK, part of which was her wanting to find an Anglican church here, similar to the one that she had been used to going to in Guyana. I’m guessing that she was missing the familiar, and had hoped to find some semblance of it in this new and often hostile country. She looked up the churches in the area, and found one not too far from where she lived.
After a few weeks of attendance at the hour-long services, the vicar waited for her at the end of the morning, extended his hand to shake hers and said: “Thanks for coming, but don’t come back, please.”
It was a slap in the face to have been invited to the country to work, only to find ignorance and discrimination in all areas of society, and, further, to be so casually dismissed from the one place in which she should have found refuge. Karen Gibson’s mother when pregnant with KarenIt is a shocking and painful story, but one that has become part of the collective family memory.
SOME weeks ago, I had some business to look after at a church near me. I took Mum along. As we pulled up outside the building, I had a strong sense that I wanted to take her inside with me. I wanted the Vicar to meet her. I didn’t know why — maybe it’s because people are instantly drawn to Mum’s warm and embracing nature. As we strolled along, she casually informed me that this was the church that she had visited and had been banned from all those years ago. I was incredulous, as she had never before identified the location that had caused such grievance.
We walked inside and were quickly greeted by the Vicar, a friendly and trendy lady in her early forties, who sauntered out in her sports gear with the biggest smile. She greeted us with hugs. As we exchanged pleasantries about how life was going, and the new prayer area installed in a corner of the building, I mentioned that this was the place my mother used to attend, many moons ago. It was the Vicar’s turn to be incredulous. With a rare sensitivity and genuine interest, she asked: “And how was your experience — was it a good one?”
I looked at Mum, who said nothing, but simply bowed her head with a wry smile. The Vicar then turned to me with wide, enquiring eyes and a quickly reddening face, and queried: “Really? Is that what’s going on here?” I also said nothing, giving her a knowing look.
Suddenly, without giving it a second thought, and to the great surprise and consternation of Mum and me, this wonderful, love-filled woman dropped to her knees in front of Mum, and, with heartfelt repentance, poured out the most impassioned apology. I was stunned. Mum simply smiled her forgiveness back, and, with her customary stoic approach to life and all its thorns, responded with “It’s all right. That’s life.”
WEEKS later, we returned to the church, where I was to hold a community gospel concert. Several members of the neighbourhood, as well as friends and family, were in attendance — black and white, old and young, all faiths and none. Our Vicar welcomed them all, and there, once more, with tear-filled eyes and perhaps with a deeper understanding of the injustices suffered by the Windrush generation, she begged forgiveness of those who had been wronged by the institution that she represented.
Such a gift! What a precious moment! Who would have thought that, 50-odd years later, in the 70th year of the Windrush, reconciliation and healing could be found through the love and conscience of a woman who had not been born when the offence had been committed, but who cared enough for an old woman she had never met to embrace her on bended knee.
What many didn’t know at the time is that this incredible woman of the cloth had left the side of her own ailing mother to do what she felt was the only thing she could do: confess the sins of her predecessors, beg for forgiveness of those wronged, and, in so doing, help to heal the wounds of a community.
Karen Gibson is the founder and director of the Kingdom Choir, which performed at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex (News, 25 May 2018).
Listen to an interview with Karen Gibson on the Church Times Podcast