Pioneering Women by Roy Francis

In this, the month we celebrate Black History, the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked an interest in the history of the Black presence in Britain. The ‘Windrush Period’ is a pivotal moment in this story, and in 1948, when the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in East London, of the 1,000 passengers on board, 257 were women, with many of them travelling to Britain alone. 

One thing we can be sure of is that they packed a Bible with them, as a reminder of the words of the hymn they always sang in church:  ‘I must have the Saviour with me, for I dare not walk alone.’ As women, they came to help in the reconstruction of Britain, as well as to make up for the shortage of nurses in the newly created National Health Service. Many of them were Pentecostal Christians and, once settled, they combined working with raising a family, as well as setting up businesses in hairdressing and dressmaking. They also ran ‘pardners’ (a saving club) to buy their homes; pay for relatives travelling to Britain, and later to buy their churches. Three women stand out among many in the early years of this and the establishment of Black Pentecostal worship in Britain. They are: ‘Mother McLachlan’, Bishop Walters and Pastor I O Smith. 

MOTHER McLACHLAN – Church of God in Christ

Mother McLachlan was one of the women who played a vital role in establishing the first Caribbean Pentecostal church in Britain. She came to Britain from Jamaica in 1950 and, along with a few friends, started a series of prayer meetings in her home in Navarino Road, Hackney, North London. In the same year, Bishop Charles H Mason – head of the Church of God in Christ in America – also came to Britain to attend The World Pentecostal Conference at Westminster Central Hall in London. 

Mason heard about the small group of Caribbean Christians in the capital, sought them out and arranged a meeting. He met Mother McLachlan, who told him about her prayer group and her plans to start a church. Mason promised to help and, as soon as he got back to America, sent over one of his church members, Mrs White, to London to help Mother McLachlan. Together they set about growing the church, first moving it out of Mother McLachlan’s front room and into a rented hall in Sussex Gardens in Brixton, South London. 

In 1954, Mother McLachlan’s husband, Bishop Oswald McLachlan, arrived from Jamaica and took over the running of the church. Together he and Mother McLachlan established another branch in Camden Town, North London, and in 1957 went to America to attend the Church of God in Christ National Convention. While there, the church in London was formally recognised, and Bishop McLachlan was appointed its Overseer. Some of the early names associated with the church in London were: Elder Payne, Elder Marsh, Elder Edwards, Elder Campbell, Elder Bell, Elder Anderson and my parents, who were both former members. 

The church in London became the largest Black Pentecostal church in the UK and, as Caribbean Christians continued to arrive from the West Indies, the church became the place for Black Pentecostal worship. By the end of the 1960s, things began to change however, as Caribbeans started to settle in other parts of Britain and not just in London. At the same time, the Church of God of Prophecy, the New Testament Church of God, and the Seventh-Day Adventist Church were all establishing themselves, and those who had been members of these churches back in the West Indies now had a church to go to in Britain.       

BISHOP WALTERS – City Mission

Bishop Walters was another woman who stood out during the early years of the Caribbean Church in Britain, and one I can never forget. She was a remarkable woman and a recognisable presence amongst the sea of men.

I remember my first encounter with her was when she and her group from the City Mission Church came to my father’s convention. Bishop Walters was a ‘big’ woman with an incredible aura and an all-embracing presence. She stood tall, and her womenfolk, dressed in military uniform, seemed to float around the church like butterflies. I was the one playing the organ at the time, and although I’d seen White Salvation Army women in uniform before, I’d not seen a Black Pentecostal one, dressed as Bishop Walters and her ladies were. They were ushered to the front to sit in the seats reserved for the ministers, and as soon as a chorus was raised, Bishop Walters and her lady friends swung into action. They clapped their hands and stomped their feet in an exaggerated way, and moaned and groaned as jazz musicians do when they’ve struck a new chord. I was captivated and enthralled, as I’d never seen or experienced anything like this before. I know we clap our hands and stamp our feet in church, but not how Bishop Walters and her ladies did, and I looked forward to when she was ‘called’ to speak. All I can remember is that she ‘turned the church over’. I later got to know that it was the City Mission Church in Jamaica that had pioneered hand-clapping and feet-stomping in Pentecostal churches, and here it was, in its purest form – the real thing – on display, right before my eyes, and as a young person, I was captivated.  

PASTOR Io SMITH

Pastor Io Smith was a different woman to Bishop Walters and Mother McLachlan – but no less formidable. Sister Smith, as I affectionately remember her, was one of the few women in the early days, who was not prepared to play a peripheral role, nor let any male church leader dictate to her or try to keep her in her place. Her vision and calling were far too wide-ranging for that, and she was far too wise to let that get in her way. 

She was a Jamaican, who knew when to strike and when to hold back to fight another day. Based in Leytonstone, East London, Pastor Smith was the first woman within the Black Pentecostal church in Britain to actively and consistently work within the community. She saw the historic mission of the church as one not confined to the four walls, but one that should be out in ‘the byways and hedges’. Apart from pastoring a church in Leyton, Pastor Smith set up several community projects and initiatives, which included youth clubs, Christian training institutes, a senior citizens club, summer schools and a youth hostel. She was respected by the British Church establishment and, in 1994, was awarded an MBE. She was the first Black Pentecostal church leader to be invited to take part in the annual Remembrance Day Service, held in the presence of the Queen at the Cenotaph in London. After a lifelong time of service in Britain, Pastor Smith returned to Jamaica and, in 2008, died there. 

Extract taken from: Windrush and the Black Pentecostal Church in Britain

www.royfrancis.co.uk – Out now!

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