If you want to understand the beginnings of South Asian ministry in Britain, you need to read this book!
Marlin and Barbara Summers served as missionaries in India and Pakistan, and then came to Wolverhampton in 1972 (when he was 60) to plant a church, the Asian Christian Fellowship. It was the first UK Asian church in which almost all the members were first generation followers of Jesus.
The first half of the book describes their ministry in India and Pakistan, an important story in itself, but perhaps even more important as it prepared them for this next stage. Through it Marlin and Barbara learned ‘to persevere… to love the people they were called to work among’ and to understand their culture (p 60).
In the early 1970s there were a few thousand Asians in Wolverhampton, mostly Punjabi Hindus and Sikhs. Marlin opened a bookroom, where he could make contact with people. Barbara then visited their homes. Fluent in Hindi, she was warmly welcomed by the women, many lonely and discouraged by life in the UK. One of her most memorable visits was to the home of Jagdish Uppal and his family. She explained the good news of Jesus and the family prayed to commit themselves to him on that first visit. Jagdish became a leading member of the fellowship.
Not many responded so quickly but as Barbara continued to visit, people turned to Jesus and began to meet in small groups. Their strong attachment to Asian culture and the reluctance of English churches to adapt or even welcome them meant that they would need to become an Asian church, worshipping in Asian languages and culture. In December 1974 the first meeting of the Asian Christian Fellowship was held in a room of the Methodist Church.
The bookroom and visiting continued and soon they attempted a mass outreach to 4000 Asian names on the electoral roll. They visited the homes with a copy of Luke’s Gospel.
The new church members encountered strong family pressures and struggled to identify which aspects of their culture needed to change and which did not. But growth was steady and there was evidence of changed lives: people felt a new peace, some gave up dishonest practices and others sought reconciliation. From 1980 to 1990 there was an average of one baptism a month.
At various stages there were challenges to the leadership, leading to division (p 173-176). With Marlin’s advancing age this became an issue: ‘Marlin probably didn’t bring on younger men into leadership fast enough,’ an observer commented. There were faithful and capable leaders, but a lack of clear recognition and designation (as for example in Acts 14.23 or Titus 1.5) led to competition and jealousies. The Directory of Asian Ministries (1999, 2008, 2011) lists three to four Asian churches in Wolverhampton. They emerged from the original ACF, which continues, under strong and godly leadership. It is good also to see that more of the historic English churches are reaching out intentionally. All Nations Church, a thriving multicultural church, is led by Steve Uppal, Jagdish Uppal’s son.
What was the secret? Prayer was the basis – local people had been praying for the Asian community for years and that continued. Marlin and Barbara showed great courage, singlemindedness and hard work. Above all they spent time with people, through visits, personal conversations and teaching, just as Jesus did. ‘This is perhaps the greatest lesson of their lives for the present church’ (p 188).