More tea, Papa?
I RECENTLY tracked down a black-and-white photograph of my great-grandfather, Canon Emmanuel Ene, who was ordained in the Church of England in Nigeria in 1940. He is dressed in his priestly garb, and his smile reaches across the generations. “Papa Nnukwu”, as he was affectionately known by the family, presided over churches in Igbo-land, in the rural areas of the south-east of Nigeria.
In writing my new book God Is Not a White Man: And other revelations, I have taken a fresh look at the stories that have shaped my Christian identity — even those from before I was born.
One story about Papa Nnukwu stands out. Before getting married, brides-to-be would often come to stay with his wife, my great-grandmother — Mama Nnukwu — to learn how to be good Christian wives. Despite having heard this most of my life, it was only in recent years that I realised that what this meant was teaching Nigerian women how to bake cakes and serve tea in china cups. A bit of a contrast to the vibrancy and intense flavours and spices of our native food and ways of being.
It’s no wonder that even my own Christian faith has been difficult to extricate from the notion of Englishness.
AS I write, I am preparing for an appearance on Radio 4’s Start The Week (26 April), alongside the novelist Jeet Thayil and Canon Giles Fraser, in which the three of us will be discussing our books.
In reading Canon Fraser’s Chosen: Lost and found between Christianity and Judaism (Books, 23 April), I was struck again by the way family histories and encounters with faith can shape our own. Just like my photo of my great-grandfather, Canon Fraser owns a sepia image of a distant relative, Samuel Friedeberg, who presided over the great Victorian synagogue in Princes Road, Liverpool, in the late 19th century.
An encounter with his great-great-uncle’s ghost causes Canon Fraser to embark on a journey to understand his own identity as an Anglican with Jewish heritage — and as someone who, as Disraeli once described himself, is “the blank page between the Old Testament and the New”.
Down the generations
LAST year, Christian Aid Week fell in the first few weeks of lockdown — those days in which we were terrified of an invisible virus, and getting used to the fact that other people were a danger to us. Social distancing inevitably meant that our biggest fund-raiser — which mobilises 55,000 volunteers in churches and communities up and down the country, usually raises about £7 million, and has taken place every May for more than 60 years — could not happen in the normal way.
I had recently been promoted into a new job, heading up the division that includes community fund-raising, and so felt a real sense of responsibility to those living in poverty around the world, for whom Christian Aid exists. And, selfishly, taking over the reins and leading the worst Christian Aid Week in history would not have been a great look on my CV.
But last year taught me a lot about the resilience, passion, and creativity of our supporters and volunteers. Most of them are in their seventies and eighties, and have been tirelessly committed to Christian Aid for decades. Our challenge comes as, over the next few years, those older supporters rightly choose to put their feet up rather than pound the streets posting red envelopes through their neighbours’ doors. Perhaps their grandchildren will take up the baton — even if that baton becomes digital rather than physical.
WHEN my mother-in-law died, a few years ago, my husband and his siblings faced that most dreaded of tasks: clearing the house that had belonged to their family for nearly 40 years, and in which they had all been born.
Each of them waded through the contents, choosing to give away piles of clothes, and kitchenware, and books, including a number on theology (my late mother-in-law was a Methodist minister and theologian, alongside being a family lawyer and a Rainbows leader).
I salvaged a few of the books; my husband came home with a chest full of items from his childhood, including a large iron money-box depicting the story of Jonah and the whale. My three-year-old son loves it, and occupies himself with transferring coppers into the whale’s mouth, releasing them, and then repeating the process.
My husband has taught him to say to my parents on video calls: “Granddad and Grandma, I’ve run out of money for my money box. Do you have some for me?”
World without end
IN THE strange days of early lockdown last year, one of the praise and worship songs that got me through was the UK version of “The Blessing”, which went viral on social media and included singers and worship leaders from different denominations across the UK.
I watched the video over and over again. There was something profoundly comforting about it at a time when we were all doing our best to keep away from each other and avoid contact with an invisible virus that would kill tens of thousands of people in our nation.
The comfort I found was in this reminder of God’s faithfulness throughout the ages — a never-changing, ever-present comfort for us, as God had been to our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and beyond. “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures for ever, and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100.5).
Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster, and head of public engagement at Christian Aid. Her book God is Not a White Man will be published by Hodder & Stoughton on 27 May at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15), with an online book launch. chbookshop.hymnsam.co.uk/events