This is a guest post by Sam Anderson, Gospel Worker at Oldham Bethel Church. This blog will carry periodic updates on the work Sam is doing. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.
“So, what’s brought you up to Oldham?” is the question I get asked the most. This is usually prompted by my London accent and explanation that yes, I actually moved from London to Oldham. Why on earth would anyone do that?
I try to explain that I’ve got a job working for a church. I then explain some of my work, but I can quickly tell that it still makes no sense to the person asking. And to be honest, I think that’s fair.
In 2016, Oldham was reported by the BBC as the most deprived town in the UK. I’ve only been working here for a month and it is clear to see both the town, and the borough’s, many problems. From high unemployment to unusually high levels of people unable to speak more than a word of English, it’s no wonder that as different immigrant groups have moved into the town there has been a history of racial division. Irish immigrants arriving with Roman Catholicism to a Protestant Oldham in the Victorian period were met with great hostility. Tensions between Asian immigrants and White Oldhammers reached boiling point only 18 years ago in the 2001 Oldham riots. History repeating itself in a divided town.
Why would I, as a white Brit, move into Oldham when many want to leave?
The answer is the gospel and its call to reach the unreached. There is really no human reason I would choose to relocate to Oldham. I’ve never lived outside London and I’ve found the move disorientating and exhausting. People are different, they speak funny and live entirely different lives with different hopes, dreams and fears. The Lord Jesus has called us to follow him in a life of sacrifice and, however I might like to dress up going to Oldham as ‘strategic’ or ‘pioneering’, it’s still a sacrifice and by no means easy with my wife and I also expecting our first child in this strange, new town.
Despite the disorientating effects of making a big move and leaving friends and family in London, there are many blessings we’ve received in our short time here. We’re able to rent a large, three bed mid-terrace house for much less than what we were previously paying for our small, one bed flat in London. The cost of living in general is a lot lower. Surprisingly, we’ve bonded really quickly with a lot of the Iranian brothers and sisters at our church and have enjoyed getting to know them better (they make up at least half of our congregation). Despite the culture and language barriers, a friendly smile and welcome goes a long way. It’s inspiring to see brothers and sisters in very difficult situations, having to wait for months, sometimes years, for the home office to approve their asylum case pressing on in life and witness.
This week I attended a BBQ hosted by an Iranian family that have been at the church for a few years and have been granted asylum. It was one of the best BBQs I’ve ever been to! Their hospitality was warm, many from the church packed out their tiny living room as we devoured mountains of BBQ chicken. Along with another family, they’d built their own covered BBQ on the outdoor, ground floor, communal area of their flats, along with a vegetable patch and flower bed. Many would see them as being at the bottom of the social ladder, without much money or opportunity. But instead of moaning, like many Brits would do in a similar situation, they get on with cultivating the earth, making beautiful and useful things. Why wouldn’t you want people like that in your country, town and estate? Along with their warm hospitality, they also labour hard in making the gospel known to everyone, and not just other Iranian people, so others may know the hope they have found.
And that’s just half the church family. We have a few Brits from different backgrounds and heritages that have been faithful witnesses over the years. The church has seen a lot of change. Even when church hasn’t seemed exciting and successful, they’ve looked to serve their Master, the Lord Jesus, and not sought to live for the praise and approval of others. It’s been a joy to get to know my British brothers and sisters too. Just as I’ve been inspired by my Iranian family, I hope that I will follow the example of my British church family, pressing on in ministry to the glory of God even when it feels like no-one seems to care or notice the work we’re doing.
As I begin my role here, the Elders are keen that I listen, learn and investigate the local area and ministry opportunities. It’s our hope that I might expand existing ministries and begin new ministries to reach the unreached people of Oldham.
Whilst I continue to get to know the church family and local area, I’ve begun a weekly community football session in partnership with a local church and pastor. The sessions will be used to gather local men together, for us to get to know them better and share our lives – and ultimately the gospel – with them.
Many who attended our first football session were Iranian asylum seekers attending Oldham Bethel Church. We had to source football kit, trainers and a pitch that’s affordable so that people with little to no money could take part. In God’s kindness, he provided free pitch hire, free football kit and even some funding to buy football boots for those that need them and the equipment needed to run the sessions. Both this providence and the great enthusiasm and interest from the men that attended have been a great encouragement.
I’ve been meeting regularly with a couple of guys exploring Christianity using the Word One to Word resource that walks people through the Book of John using simple language. Disillusioned with Islam, these men are hungry for truth and it’s exciting that I get to meet them every week and share Christ with them. Sometimes I stop and praise God as I think how great it is that I get to do this full-time – it’s a joy and a privilege!
This is why I’ve been brought to Oldham. The Lord has provided the funding for our small, poor church to employ me to assist in the ongoing ministry here. I’m not here to be a gospel superman but a gospel servant. I hope that through my work, more people who thirst will find the living water that truly satisfies.