Dupe Adefala spoke to CMS pioneer MA lecturer and assistant coordinator James Butler about her experiences of racism in the UK.
Dupe studied her MA with us at CMS. We knew she would have an interesting perspective to bring to this issue of Anvil and so I connected with her over Zoom one evening to have a conversation and to hear about her experience as a black Nigerian woman following God’s call to come to live, work and plant a church in the UK.
Dupe, I wondered if we could start with your story of how you came to be in England and to be the pastor of Word Fountain Christian Ministries.
Well, I’m originally from Nigeria. I was born into a Christian family, an Anglican family; we loved God, and over the years in Nigeria we went to church. My mum was particularly involved in the church. My father was not that active but his brother and children were. I’m from a polygamous family and that has its own dimension of living. I married into a Muslim family; my husband was a Muslim (although the family was not actively practising). In Nigeria, it’s not uncommon to have Muslims in the family or as neighbours.
Before we came to England I worked as a bi-vocational pastor with a church in Nigeria; I trained and was ordained as a pastor there. I came to the UK with my husband and children in 1998 to take up a role as a project accountant with a company in Wantage. We’ve lived in Oxfordshire since then. In 2002, I took up a project accountant role in Oxford University and I’ve worked in some other multinational companies.
In 2002 we planted a church, Word Fountain Christian Ministries, in Oxford with two other families. In the last four years, we’ve developed two other branches that are also growing and we trust God for them. Word Fountain has people from many African nations, not just Nigerians (Cote d’Ivoire, Uganda, Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya). I serve the church in a voluntary capacity. In 2010, I took up sessional chaplaincy at the immigration removal centre near Oxford and ended up as the manager of religious affairs before the centre was closed in December 2018, all by his grace.
So you started the church with some friends? What caused you to plant a church?
A prophetic word spoken over us in Nigeria that our relocation to the UK was more about mission than economics – that God was sending us to the UK. I came to the UK in 1990 for a company board meeting at their headquarters. This was two years after I gave my life to Jesus. I came to the UK with tracts and Bibles in my suitcase in anticipation of coming to the country that brought Christianity to Nigeria and being part of what God was doing there. After my official meeting, I would go to Oxford Street and hand out tracts. I was like an alien to everyone that I tried to give a tract to. After my 10-day visit, I just wept in my spirit at the airport and groaned. What happened to the United Kingdom? I didn’t have much understanding of contemporary mission work and the state of Christianity in the UK. I felt in my heart that there was something that God wanted me to do, but how was he going to make it happen? I did not know.
On that flight back to Nigeria – the Lord orchestrated it – I sat beside a pastor of another big church in Nigeria. I was sharing my frustration about trying to hand out tracts on Oxford Street and how I was rebuffed and he just told me that the UK is a is a mission field, and that he’s been coming regularly with other ministers to come and see what God would have them do in the UK. He told me that I should not give up, that God has a plan for every nation and that at an appointed time revival will break out. I believed and that sort of comforted me. But whether I would have a part in it or not, I didn’t know until 1997. In that year, an opportunity arose for me to come to the UK as a highly skilled migrant with my family. That’s another testimony on its own. I just believe it was God at work because he saw the groaning of my heart. We moved in December 1998.
You arrived four years before you started the church, so did you attend another church before then?
Initially we attended Jesus House in London. Jesus House was the Redeemed Christian Church of God church plant in London. But the commute was a lot, especially because we had young children. By the time we got back on Sunday, got ready for school and work on Monday, we were very tired. So we started going to the local community church. We were part of that church and then we heard another church plant was starting in Oxford, Living Faith Church, so we started with that. But we didn’t find rest in our spirit until Word Fountain started. We just had a burden for the mission that God had called us to.
We were the only black family in that church in Wantage. And so God began to link us up with other people who were having the same burden and we started praying about it until August 2002 when Word Fountain Christian Ministries started by the grace of God.
One of the things that I’ve been reflecting on is that I don’t have a great deal of experience of being somewhere where I’m in the ethnic minority, certainly not in the UK. I wondered if you could tell us a little about the experience of being in the minority in a majority-white context.
When I started my job in Wantage, I went into the company’s email distribution list, and I quickly dropped an email to introduce myself to the first name I saw that resembled mine. Twenty or 30 minutes later a lady ran up to me to hug me. I could see that she was delighted to see me. We chatted and she really supported my family settling into the UK. She was an engineer and she is still very close to us. There is a longing within each person for a kindred spirit!
What is the feeling of being in the minority? I would say that I’ve probably enjoyed positive discrimination because of the companies that I worked with. I believe I’ve always had favour with the managing directors and the top echelon of employers. I attended Queen’s School, Ibadan (an all-female school). I never really had issues about being in the minority. I think there was a bit of toughening up that was done in me. We were nurtured as people, not as girls. When I came into the workplace I didn’t have a sense of being a second-class citizen in whatever form, and that stood me in good stead.
Being in the minority in the UK is not just about colour, but language, culture, etc. The richness of who you are doesn’t come into play. When it’s just you, you’re always trying to lean towards the majority. There is that pull. But you’ve just got to own your own ground or be lost in the crowd.
Can you give some examples?
Yes – for example, intonation and language. When I speak, people ask, “Pardon me?” And sometimes it’s you being lost in the conversation – “What are they saying?” –and I may find it difficult to understand the question I’ve been asked. You begin to doubt yourself and question whether you really meet up to the standard. It’s those issues that I needed to deal with.
I didn’t have any problem with people not pronouncing my name very well. At least they make an effort. But sometimes you’re not sure whether it was a form of microaggression. Between 1998 and 2000, some scam messages would come through the fax machine, and some colleagues would collect those fax messages and put them on my table. I didn’t read any meaning into that. But with the benefit of hindsight, I realised that people were tying Nigeria to the foreign scams. Because I was the only Nigerian in that department, they put them on my table. I don’t know who did it; I just binned them. I felt someone was trying to say something to me in ways that I didn’t understand. But by and large, I had faith in those who came to Nigeria to recruit me.
I was given an official house to live in and an official car by my employer. I did not know the gesture was exceptional for a migrant. This was against the backdrop of Britons and other foreigners working in Nigeria as expatriates (not immigrants). Their perks included official accommodation in choice locations, cars, drivers, etc. I thought I was on the same level playing field as an expatriate. However, when my role was made redundant, I realised I was really a migrant or immigrant. It was painful. I had to fight for my final entitlements with the support of a local Citizens Advice.
So at work you’re dealing with all that and you’re expected to deliver to very high standards. You go to church on Sunday and you’re still in the minority. I think for us as a family, we had to catch up with the songs, the sometimes icy relationships, etc. With the benefit of hindsight, the pastor and the leaders of the church tried their best to help us settle, but I don’t think we also understood the dynamics of what was going on. My husband didn’t feel settled into that church. For example, there was a day when he came home and said, we are not going to that church again. I asked, “Why?” He explained that he could not understand why people who we would have seen at church would just ignore us in the town centre. I really couldn’t understand that myself. We thought of church as brotherhood. We are brothers and I don’t need to reintroduce myself to you again outside of church. But we found out we had to reintroduce ourselves outside of church. It was just not as welcoming as one would expect it to be. We considered going back to London to the Nigerian community, but the distance was too far for us and it wasn’t right for the family. Spiritually we wanted to feel at home in the church where we lived. I’m sure that our children had their own experience as well.
What are your reflections on all that has been happening since the death of George Floyd and the prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement?
I will say that the George Floyd incident was a rude awakening to the racial fault lines in our communities, and it really made one think about how much people have had to contend with because of their colour. For us as a family it became an opportunity for our children to tell us what they experienced that they didn’t tell us before. We would not have believed the stories if they told us at the time, I think. One that stuck with them was when we moved to a new neighbourhood from Wantage to Grove. There was a particular day we came out of the house to the car, and someone had written on our car, “Go back to your country”! We didn’t take it seriously, we just cleaned it off. Our children just felt that was not OK; that it was nasty.
We’ve had the opportunity to talk about how the children felt or were treated at school. We would go into school as parents for parents’ evening and the teacher will just tell you, “Your daughter has been this” and “Your son has done that”. But it is only now that the children were telling us, “Do you know this happened? Do you know that happened?” I will give an example. The teacher showed this film Roots at school and my daughter had a different take on the film. She spoke up as best as she could to say that the impression the teacher was giving was not correct. Some of her classmates thought that Africans lived on trees and things like that. So she felt in herself the need to speak up and say, “No, I didn’t sleep on trees, my family don’t sleep on trees.” But the teacher felt that she was aggressive.
As the only black girl in the whole school, she took every opportunity to give the “other” narrative – the other side of the story. Like we said, a single-sided story is not helpful. She was considered aggressive and was even punished at times. She was involved in one or two fights just trying to express herself and dignify who she was. We’ve come to terms with such themes painfully. Very painfully. I have had to apologise to my children. My children believe I’m pro-authority by nature because if you come home and tell me, this person did that to me, I’ll say, “What did you do?” I believed is all about cause and effect. So we’ve had to process some of these very emotional scars.
Whether it’s from the church or from the community, we just felt that if it was hostile, it is not a good experience for anybody. The mind does not process why or where anything happened, it is about what happened.
My daughter also reminded me of an event on the day I came to my current job. My daughter had met me after work to travel home together. I’d had a good day and we were walking towards the car park. Someone was driving out and she challenged both of us why we were walking towards the car park. “Why are you coming in here? This car park is for band whatever.” I told her my band and she apologised and left. I felt that because I’m a stranger, it was a legitimate challenge. But my daughter said, “No, it’s because we are black. If you are white, and you are walking towards a car park, nobody will ask you, ‘Why are you doing that?’ Can you see the microaggression?” And I said, “Wow, is that really why?” The awareness has been heightened, even the occasions that I did not consider before. Black Lives Matter has helped us to really process our experiences and we are still processing them.
We still talk about some of the experiences through the lens of racial fault lines, not just for us, but so that we can help others as well. We can’t go back to those experiences, but we can help others as we go forward. We can educate, not just the black, but also the white as to how things play out and the implication on social cohesion. So I believe it’s been a lot of learning and a lot of repenting and even crying sometimes. That was my experience.
How has it been being a pastor, both supporting and pastoring people who are having these kinds of experiences?
Because of the lockdown we’ve had more virtual connections. I do not think at Word Fountain we’ve had to talk about racial issues. However, there have been conversations at various meetings and on social media. My understanding is that many black males feel muzzled and are made to feel as if they don’t belong. They feel undermined as far as their skills and their ability to contribute to society is concerned. So it is about building up their confidence, encouraging them and championing the fact that it’s not going to be like this forever. The implication for younger black males is enormous. They feel that they have no face, say or place in the wider society because of stereotyping.
A good number of people feel that the attention given to racial conversation is just the “flavour of the month” effect. We need to work to get into a more sustainable, positive landscape when it comes to racial conversations and engagement. Because of that bias, many in my community do not think it is worth their time and they believe is just lip service, a box-ticking exercise. Some would rather avoid the conversation and dismiss it as, “That’s the way it’s always been – nothing is going to change.” Some have come to a fait accompli where they say, “We came into their country, they can do to us whatever they like.” They feel it is not worth wasting their time on because there’s not going to be radical change.
So we tend to hear the negatives, and that actually amplifies what people would have overlooked before. Every act of microaggression becomes amplified. We need to find ways of engaging, across the board, with education. My community needs some education, and I believe the white community needs education as well. My fear is that we may not achieve that long- standing and sustainable change unless we have honest conversations and begin to understand the roots and truths of the issues.
We have been focusing on the young people. My daughter, my son, they’ve had conversations with their colleagues, with people globally about what they consider to be issues and how they feel that we should be going forward. But it should always be progressing. It should not come to a place where we think, “Oh, we’ve dealt with it, let’s move on.” It’s not just about policies, it’s about practice and systemic changes.
What would be your practical challenges to white Christians and to CMS in response to all of this? What would you like to see?
Representation is key. Representation at all levels, not just the higher levels. To be heard, you’ve got to be seen. Culture is not formed by one person, it is a collective thing. We’re not talking about tokenism. We’re talking about vocal, visible voices in the hierarchy of the church. When I look at the education CMS deliver we do need to thank God for the efforts that’s been made so far, having a good mix of lecturers, but there has to be emphasis on getting a more representative community of lecturers and facilitators. We can’t do it by segregation; we need to move towards enculturation by integration. If we are talking about global missions, we do need the voice of every major and minor player in global missions talking about it and writing about it.
This leads to the second thing: the narratives. I do not think my community write enough. The black community seem to be more involved in the practice than the narrative. There are not enough black theologians contributing to or even challenging the current narratives. I do not think we should just be given this space for political reasons, I think those spaces need to be earned. The danger is that my community will want to create its own class of educators and simply do the black versus the white, whereas we should be looking at integration, we should be looking at walking together, we should be looking at facilitating together, standing side by side and making Jesus the focus.
Thirdly, my concern is for the next generation. I believe an institution like CMS can develop level playing fields for the next generation to facilitate that integration. And the earlier we do it, the better, so that the next generation of apostles, prophets, evangelists, teachers and pastors can take the theological lens to look at what we do and why we do it. If we don’t, the next generation will remain polarised. It doesn’t have to be big numbers: 10 people in the next generation who are interested in making this thing happen with CMS, just facilitating and amplifying their voices. That’s what I’m looking for – a model of what is possible. But it needs to be created intentionally. We should seek to recruit people who will shape things and are concerned enough to make a difference.
So three aspects. Representation, narratives and the next generation. And then maybe we can look at the literature. The book selection needs to expand. I’m not just talking about CMS, I’m talking about the curriculum of universities and theological colleges. There are some very good literary contributions from the BAME community, and they need to be allowed to have a space.
Thank you; these are really important challenges. As you say, we have been working on diversifying our teaching and reading lists on the pioneer training at CMS, but there is much more that we need to do. You were talking about racial fault lines and polarisation; perhaps you could say something about the fact that we tend to have white churches and black churches and fewer mixed and diverse churches. What’s your feeling about the way forward there? And have you seen any ways that steps can be made forward in those kind of conversations?
I think it is important that it is a natural process. There are some initiatives that are bringing us together. Love Oxford is a very vibrant gathering of Christians that’s been taking place for some time now. It has been championed by St Aldates. And the pictures are colourful – it’s what the church should be. That just tells us how rich the kingdom of God is. How rich the kingdom of God is! This is richness that we need to begin to build upon.
There’s a difference in the music, but I believe that some people are finding common ground now. In the black churches we can preach for 40 minutes while in the white church 10 to 15 minutes is considered OK. In the black church we can typically stay in church for two hours or more. Two hours is modest! Three hours, four hours… White churches don’t see the reason for such long services. So we need to challenge ourselves. Where is the balance? Is there a way that would not just satisfy us but will also please God? Then there are different beliefs about the manifestation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. Some will say it’s OK to speak in tongues. Some will say no, speaking in tongues is for private, for edification. There are real issues about the theology.
I believe both sides need to be praying. We should be dependent on God, the owner of the vineyard to help us to see our excesses and our inadequacies on both sides. We need to own up to the fact that neither is perfect and we need to begin to hear God together. There must be something that God wants to say to us that will bind us together with a cord of love that is not easily broken. I don’t think it is something we can force feed or make happen. But we need to be prophetic in our conversations. Not condemning or undermining but trusting God that there is a gift from the white church that the black church needs and there are gifts from the black church that the white church needs. It is pictured in Rev. 7. We are the multitude from different nations, with different languages, and I think it’s time we begin to rehearse that picture. We hope and pray for the unity of the faith as Jesus desired.
Dupe, thank you. Thank you for sharing so honestly and openly. You said when I first contacted you that you hadn’t experienced much racism, but I find it a little shocking to hear all your stories and what you have experienced. They may not be extreme examples, but they are really painful to hear and I recognise my own guilt as you speak. I think what you have shared helps us to open our eyes to the suffering and discrimination around us every day. And thank you for reminding us of the hope-filled vision of God’s Kingdom, of every nation praising God together.
Thank you. I believe the more we talk, the better we heal and the better we become – because someone has said it is not what we’re going through, it is what we’re becoming that really matters. I pray that the conversation will be redemptive. And that’s something I say to my children. How can we allow the redemptive grace of God to help us in this journey?
I want to thank the Anvil team for holding this conversation and I look forward to reading what others are saying. God bless.
Pastor Dupe Adefala is a wife to Bode Adefala and a mother of three biological children. She stewards a church called Word Foundation Christian Ministries, based in Oxford, where God has called them to raise a people of inheritance (matured sons of God). She is also the current president of International Ministers Fellowship (UK chapter), a non-denominational, living and living network of ministers of the gospel. She is the managing chaplain at a UK prison, where she leads a multifaith team of staff and volunteers, and is the author of the book The Mysteries of Marriage. She is a lover of God and of his people.
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