Service of Thanksgiving to commemorate 40 years since the arrival of Asians in the United Kingdom from Uganda

Sermon: Saturday 15 June 2013

Service of Thanksgiving to commemorate 40 years since the arrival of Asians in the United Kingdom from Uganda

The Rt Revd Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester

“Who is my neighbour?”

In East Ham in 1976, as a newly ordained Curate, I discovered that my neighbour was a Ugandan Asian.  The family had moved in to the terraced house next door to ours, and a relationship developed through the sharing of delicious curries across the garden fence.  It was my first experience of the way in which global events shape local experience in our great cities.  And it was, in a way, a preparation for finding myself here in Leicester as Bishop more than 30 years later.

Of course, those of us who are proud to live in Leicester and to be part of its story today, recognise that we’ve had much to learn from the great migrations to this city beginning with the Ugandans expelled by Idi Amin.  The advertisements placed by Leicester City Council in those days read:

An important announcement on behalf of the Council of the City of Leicester, England: In your own interests and those of your family you should accept the advice of the Uganda Resettlement Board and not come to Leicester.’

Today we give thanks for the fact that thousands of Ugandan Asians ignored that advice and for the fact that our City Council has become a beacon of good practice in enabling this city to welcome those who came in the 1970s and to benefit enormously from them.

There are many whose reputations and example showed the way at the time.  Prime Minister Edward Heath made it abundantly clear that the British had a proper responsibility to British passport holders being forcibly evicted from their country.  This was the first time since the Second World War that ordinary British people offered their homes and hospitality to those whom they’d never seen as they did with the Ugandan Asians.  Within a year more than 5,000 private individuals had opened their homes as an initial staging post to the new arrivals.

It wasn’t of course all plain sailing in those days – stories which some of you will remember of being attacked by skin-heads and the dire forebodings of some politicians made life difficult and uncomfortable for many.

But to their great credit the Ugandan Asians responded in a spirit of gratitude and self help.  Within 15 years all of the nearly 30,000 Ugandan Asians who had come here had settled down and made a new life.  And never before in British history had a persecuted group established itself so well in such a short time, without becoming a drain on public resources.  And this is indeed an outstanding example to all minorities.  Indeed perhaps the greatest contribution of the Ugandan Asians is not simply their participation in the economy and our civic life but in terms of the historical example they have set to other minorities here.

Although many Ugandan Asians came to Britain, some went to Canada, Australia, the United States and even India.  Family members were scattered around the world and formed a vibrant international network.  This gives the Ugandan Asian community a unique global and cosmopolitan awareness.  They bring to our communities a way of looking at the world that is grounded in global interconnectedness.

But the Ugandan Asians have also profoundly enriched our culture.  They have built mosques, temples, gurdwaras and community centres.  They have developed festivals, written short stories and poetry in Gujarati and have produced a rich, vibrant literature about their experiences in Uganda and Britain.  And, not least, they have profoundly transformed our shopping culture, often living over the shop, opening until late and serving things that cannot be found elsewhere.  All of us who live in Leicester know this from our familiarity with the Belgrave Road and many other neighbourhoods.  And today we remind ourselves that our city and our country simply were not like this in the early 1970s before these migrations began.

So today’s celebration is an opportunity to remember how far we have come in 40 years.  This was in the 1970s a country not short of prejudices, with a glass ceiling for many people of Asian origin.  Today, we have made progress as a nation which we should be proud of in becoming both a multicultural country and a meritocracy where people from any religious or racial background can reach the top as the debate in the House of Lords to mark this anniversary so clearly demonstrated.  Four decades ago entrepreneurship was often looked down on, while today those skills demonstrated by the Ugandan Asian community are celebrated in this country.  Those corner shops are in some ways the icons of our economy, the entrepreneurial success stories of individuals who went as complete strangers to every High Street in this country, opened their premises, won customers, made friends and, as we’ve seen repeatedly here in Leicester, put time and energy back into their communities.  In spite of the proliferation of the giant supermarkets, that network of local shops and services established over four decades provides the focus and the glue for so many of our neighbourhoods.

The question put to Jesus is who is my neighbour?  The story of the Good Samaritan is perhaps the best known of all the talks told by Jesus to illustrate the kind of world which reflected God’s purposes for human beings.  The discussion is not about reward, about fame, power or wealth, but about being fully alive – what the Bible calls ‘eternal life’.  The answer Jesus gives to his questioner entails duty to God and neighbour.  The first duty is clear, but the second more complex – ‘who is my neighbour?’  The question is put to a religious teacher in an occupied country surrounded by hostile nations.

And the answer involves an outsider, a foreigner, an historic enemy who illustrates neighbourliness as something which transcends nationality, culture and creed.  Neighbourliness is practical, costly, risky and Godly.

And this is what we have learned through the arrival of Ugandan Asians, and subsequently from further waves of migration from Africa and the Sub Continent in more recent years.  Here we have worked to establish the St Philip’s Centre to enable people of different faiths to understand each other and to work together for the Common Good.  Here we have partnered with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Church Urban Fund to establish dozens of local neighbourhood initiatives through the Near Neighbours Programme to build friendship and trust.  Here we have built the Faith Leaders Forum to take forward often sensitive conversations about the difficult and troubling tensions which can arise between us.

These things are important because in the last 40 years the question ‘Who is my neighbour?’ raises ever more acute questions.  As a small country in a time of massive global economic change, we are understandably worried about excessive immigration.  We have to be sensitive to the concerns of people about their cities and their neighbourhoods being transformed at a speed that is difficult to adjust to.  But we also have to be alert that restrictions on immigration do not harm our economy, our universities and the very fabric of our nation.  We have to be sure that they do not break up families and render those who are traumatised by violence and oppression in their own countries even more desperate and destitute.  That is why we need to learn the lessons of the last 40 years and apply them in new ways in our day.  The Ugandan Asians were able to settle in cities like Leicester, because we were able to make ourselves open to their stories, even when they conflict with ours.  And we must continue to do this, and be ready to hear how we are experienced as a nation by those who have not received the kind of welcome the Ugandan Asians received.

We need to be ready to hear of the pain, and anxiety of those whose image of us is anything but our image of ourselves.  We British of every colour and creed need to build a nation that continues to let our world be enlarged by the presence of others who think, act and interpret reality in ways radically different from our own.  In his enthronement sermon two months ago, the new Archbishop of Canterbury spoke of the way the example of Jesus Christ has helped shape our history in this country.  He said:

For more than a thousand years this country has to one degree or another sought to recognise that Jesus is the son of God; by the ordering of its society, by its laws, by its sense of community.  Sometimes we have done better, sometimes worse.  When we do better we make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.  Slaves were freed, Factory Acts passed, and the NHS and Social Care established through Christ liberated courage.  The present challenges of environment and economy, of human development and global poverty, can only be faced with extraordinary courage.’

My hope is that in celebrating the story of the Ugandan Asians and their encounter with this country over the last 40 years, we will recapture that vision, which is essentially a spiritual vision of what makes for flourishing societies.  As the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks wrote in his book The Dignity of Difference:

‘We will make peace only when we learn that God loves difference and so, at last, must we. God has created many cultures, civilisations and faiths but only one world in which to live together – and it is getting smaller all the time.’

The experience of sharing a nation home with Ugandan Asians in the last 40 years has taught us much about how to love difference as God does, and together we give thanks for that today.

© The Rt Revd Tim Stevens