Upon Mount Zion, There Shall Be Deliverance The Church and My Political Awakening

The church was where I had my political awakening. For nearly five years, weekly sermons, prayer sessions and testimonies, gave me an education, about being African in the UK, that I couldn’t get in school.

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London, United Kingdom

I’d been looking forward to wearing my kente dress all week. It was the first time since moving to the UK that I’d gone to a tailor and sewn an ‘African dress’. For six years, I’d been embarrassed by all the clothes I’d brought with me from Ghana. Maybe because it was too much colour for a grey and dull city like London. Or maybe I didn’t want to stand out more than I already did.

It was a thanksgiving celebration at Zion Hill’s Ministries, an evangelical church that my parents began in our living room in Barking. In just five years, the church had grown from eight people to 60; had become a cherished space of comfort for African immigrants in the Barking and Dagenham communities of East London, expanding to occupy a hall space at the town’s leisure centre. For my family, we had a reason to celebrate: earlier that week, we had received our British passports. After a five-year journey, we were finally British citizens.

The author at a church event. © EILEEN GBAGBO

I was not directly involved in the passport application process. I remember having to sit with aunties and uncles as they filled my character references. Most nights, I’d stay up with my parents filling various forms both online and on paper, while my parents gathered all the evidence—bank slips, paycheques, utility bills and various letters from the most important people in our life testifying that we were a good Christian family and an ‘asset to British society’. I then helped my parents to study for their ‘Life in the UK’ test, mainly because I’d been studying a lot of the history at school, and it was still fresh in my mind. They passed the exam and, a few weeks later, we got the letter saying that our application was successful as well as inviting us to a ceremony with the Lord Mayor of Barking and Dagenham.

The church was a source of support for my parents during the process of acquiring a British passport. They would hear anecdotes from aunties and uncles who had gone through a similar process—their do’s and don’ts, recommendations on who to approach for character references and key phrases to use. I believe that also knowing that a whole community was lifting them up in prayer offered extra encouragement during a process that forced you to make every aspect of your life visible for the reward of being called a citizen.

‘The church was a source of support for my parents during the process of acquiring a British passport’. © EILEEN GBAGBO

The thanksgiving service was more like a hall party than a church service. At our church, praise and worship usually lasted about 20 minutes but was extended to about 45 minutes that Sunday. Aunties and uncles whipped out their handkerchiefs and formed a dance circle and everyone was pushing someone to join in. I’d never heard so much Ewe being sung before. Almost 150 Ghanaian, Nigerian and Kenyan men, women and children raised their voices in praise of the Lord. My position as an observer was firmly cemented with me playing the keyboard (I wasn’t going to embarrass myself through my inability to dance). My mum and dad carried on dancing when they told the church our testimony. I remember they specifically requested one of my favourite Ewe gospel songs, ‘Vovome’, (meaning perfect liberty). Now, thanks to Joe Mettle and the Bethel Revival Choir, I play that song every day on Spotify during my commute to work.

‘The church was where I had my political awakening.’ © EILEEN GBAGBO

Sundays were for being unapologetically Black. The high street from the station to the church hall would be full of African aunties in gele, accompanied by over-Vaselined children in coordinating prints. On Sunday, East London was a James Barnor or Kwame Braithwaite photo series. Inside the church hall, the talking drum and electric drum kit sat side by side for the transition from Hillsong to Borborbor. The younger instrumentalists sat next to the ‘Agbeyeye’ (meaning full of life) group that led the Borborbor and Agbadza jubilations.

In church, I could escape from the harsh reality of being a Black immigrant in the UK. But outside those four walls, the reality hit hard. Once, my class was going on a school trip to France, and we all had to fill in a form with passport details. I had filled in and given in my form and before the end of the day, my form tutor asked me to stay behind to discuss a problem. She told me that because I didn’t have a British passport, I may not be able to go on the trip. They hadn’t anticipated that I may need to apply for a visa. I got a letter explaining this to give to my parents. It was that night my mum and dad explained to me that they had been going through the British citizenship application process for about seven years; that they were on a work visa that didn’t extend to me. I then overhead them complain about the school being racist for not considering that I might need a visa to go on the trip. Luckily, we applied for my visa that same night and I got it just in time for the trip.

At the border checks, however, the teachers singled me out to talk to the officers about my passport and that was the first time I truly felt visibly othered. That was my first introduction to my position as an immigrant and someone in the diaspora. I didn’t yet have the language to describe these situations, but I yearned for the relief and the comfort of Sunday service.

‘On Sunday, East London was a James Barnor or Kwame Braithwaite photo series.’  © James Barnor courtesy of Galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.

The church was where I had my political awakening. For nearly five years, I sat through the weekly sermons, engaged in prayer sessions and listened to testimonies, receiving an education that I couldn’t get in school. From my fellow church members, I learned about racial injustice, social inequality and the kinds of discrimination that African immigrants faced while living in the UK.

In church, people shared their confrontations with institutional racism such as being taken to court for making the same mistake a White colleague had not even been reprimanded for. I heard how Africans carried the burden of being expected to assimilate into English society and suppress their African-ness by spending weeknights in the pubs to ‘fit in’ with their British colleagues when they really wanted to be home with family or at church. I sympathized with their encounters with everyday racism such as being told they were too loud, that they didn’t dress right for the job or that their names were too hard to pronounce. I felt their passion when they shared testimonies of triumph, of breaking through. Like, the testimony I heard from a church member (let’s call her ‘Auntie Grace’) a few weeks after I came back from France.

Auntie Grace was married to an abusive White man and they had two kids together. She had sought help from social services, her doctor and teachers at her children’s school but they all dismissed her. Auntie Grace was a recent migrant to the UK and only spoke enough English to get by. She had escaped from her husband with her children, but she had very little money to rent a place to live. Even worse, the home office had refused her application for settled status. But after months of fasting and prayer, she explained in a testimony, the home office acknowledged that it was a mistake, and gave her ‘indefinite leave to remain’.

Often at night vigils the church held at the end of the month, I would hear people praying, ‘Holy Ghost fire come and strike any racist managers! Destroy anyone who stands in the way of my progress, O God!’ It seemed like the church was the only space immigrants could speak freely about racist encounters and could be assertive in their demands against racial injustice. A lot of prayers were directed at the various difficulties people were encountering, from managers at work, to systems, laws, rules in place that seemed to hinder their progress. Prayers were also about the journey to getting the red passport. The process was such an anxiety-inducing one that many African immigrants sought solace in prayer and bringing their worries to a higher being. As a child, I couldn’t understand it, but night vigils were cathartic for them.

‘In church, I could escape from the harsh reality of being a Black immigrant in the UK.’ © EILEEN GBAGBO

After I got my passport and the thanksgiving service that followed, I paid more attention to UK immigration policies, watching various documentaries on the BBC and reading about people’s stories on the internet. The immigration policies I was learning about at the time cut off undocumented immigrants from access to healthcare and other public services. For example, one auntie that suffered from a chronic illness could not get the support she needed as she could not even register at her local doctor’s office. The UK Independence Party (UKIP) had started to gain nationwide prominence. They were an anti-immigration and white supremacist organization hoping to gain election into the House of Commons. Their presence in the social fabric of the UK brought racist rhetoric back to the forefront and dominated conversations and debates on primetime news channels.

Hearing those church members’ stories of struggling day to day because of policy decisions and, ultimately, their quest for security in a new country radicalized me. I could no longer accept the ‘good immigrant’ rhetoric being promoted in society, the idea that as an immigrant in the UK, you must be exceptional or contribute significantly to British society to be recognized and even accepted as a citizen. In 2016, the writer, Nikesh Shukla, brought together a group of journalists and cultural commentators to compile a book, The Good Immigrant, on this issue. Its synopsis read:

A black or Asian Olympic gold medallist or the winner of a reality TV programme is considered a ‘good’ immigrant by a host nation wanting sporting success or culinary entertainment. ‘Bad’ immigrants are ‘job-stealers’ or ‘benefit-scroungers’ or, worse, potential terrorists.

Then, the Windrush Scandal hit the news headlines in 2018, exposing the hostile environment created by the UK home office and bringing the lamentations of my church members to the national consciousness. The Windrush generation were migrants from the Commonwealth who arrived in Britain after the Second World War to help to fill UK post-war labour shortages. The home office kept no record of those who were granted indefinite leave to remain and did not issue paperwork to migrants. Many of the Windrush generation believed that since they came from colonies, they would automatically be British citizens. In 2010, the home office destroyed documents belonging to many in the Windrush generation, effectively leaving their legal status in limbo.

When I learned about this I was outraged, but not surprised. Maybe I was relieved at the exposure the news got. The church alone should not have to tackle the institutional racism that immigrants had long dealt with. In the church, we opened the floor to hear personal anecdotes of the Windrush Scandal. Several church members had friends and colleagues who were now filled with anxiety over whether they’d be deported to a place they did not call home.

The author with her parents. © EILEEN GBAGBO

The red passport didn’t mean much to me until I went to university. It meant I paid lower fees as ‘home student’, that I was able to travel to various European counties without a visa. I knew my adult life was easier because of my British passport—it was easier to apply for jobs and master’s programmes in the UK, for instance. But I would not be able to hold up the red passport as a shield every time I came face-to-face with racism. I would always remember that after we became British citizens, my family and I wore traditional clothes to the thanksgiving ceremony we held at our church. That I had asked my mum and dad why we dressed that way, and my mum had replied that, ‘this country is not ours despite what the papers say’⎈

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