Many West Indian Catholics do not attend Church in Britain because they are not made welcome and find the liturgy different and cold, a West Indian priest told PETER NOLAN.
Fr Michael Makhan, a prison chaplain in Port of Spain. Trinidad. has given up some of his holidays to visit West Indians here, by far the largest immigrant group in Britain with no chaplain of their own. He is being shown round by Fr John Robson, whose two-year-old Caribbean Pastoral Service has helped increase West Indiah Church-goin.g in Haringey. Islington and Hackney by 50 per cent.
Fr Robson spent four years working in Chile before visiting the West Indies and speaks a
tle or the French patois used on St Lucia and some of the other Islands.
"West Indian culture is very very different from English culture, as different. say, as Spanish culture from South American. There is as much variety of life in the Vv'est Indies as there is between European countries," he said.
In the autumn of 1971 Fr Robson, with the support of Cardinal Heenan, began making contact with West Indies. of whom there are about 350,000 in Britain. 80,000 living in the Westminster Archdiocese.
The priests in the three London boroughs were asked if they would like a special chaplain or the 35,000 Vslest Indians that lived there and they agreed to contribute to his support.
Fr Robson, who qualified as a doctor shortly before he entered the priesthood. also supplements his income working one day a week with a skin specialist helping treat local people under the National lhealth Service.
Ten times as many West Indian children attended catechism classes as Sunday Mass, so Fr Robson got to know them and with his knowledge of the West Indies was usually able to recall a relative of theirs he knew of and visits to the children's homes soon followed. He also began to be invited to give sermons about West Indians.
From these developed a
• "dialoguetype sermon which he gave in coneert.with another West Indian priest, asking him what it was like to be black in Britain. the problems encountered and the way people could help. Often as many as three people walked out of the Church during such sermons but after Mass so many wanted to talk to the priests he judged them a success, he said.
The bulk of West Indian
emigration took place between 1958 iind 1962, when the Latin Mass was still the norm and later We Indians visiting London churches found the vernacular Mass very different, Fr Robson said. House Masses have now become a central part of his chaplaincy and every month over 2.000 duplicated leaflets go out listing the addresses where he is celebrating them.
In these Masses Fr Robson follows the style of celebration usual in the West Indies. basically much more lively with hymns and maximum participation by those present. "Informality, gaiety and joy" were identified by Jr Robson as the key qualities of such Masses, -The faces of all those taking part light up when they begin Si ngi 11g. some ti in es accompanied by dapping," he said.
"Those attending shake hands at the kiss of peace, hold. hands for the saying of Our Father, organise, an offertory' procession and receive Commu,nion under both kinds." he said. At the end many contribute to special bidding prayers in which all are remembered. Fr Makhan, who has attended some of these Masses, was enthusiastic about them: "Fr
Robson has captured the spirit," he said.
The Mass venue leaflets also carry faseinating• contributions from members of the congregations, including a "banana recipe" which had green figs. coconuts and salted heel among the ineredients,
The growing lack of reverence recently deplored by Cardinal Heenan is not likely to be found among West Indians, as witnessed by one contribution from Mr H. .C. Gailliard, Mr Gailliard said: "In our
present day. I nOttee very little attention is paid to the clergy in public, even thpugll they are wearing the Rontan collar. Very' often you find a priest at Victoria Station trying to find a coach or bus and no one tiies to help him. I. therefore, take on my own to approach every man in a Roman collar who seems to be looking for help • „
"You can be sure they are very happy of•my little work. I also do the same in Oxford Circus, il is more difficult with nuns, since vou must be very careful in approaching them; but when I am in my uniform (postman) I do my best to he helpful to them."
Fr Robson said: "West Indians are much more religious as a group. Suffering, redemption, sanctification means a lot more to them.
The Rev Clifford Hill, a Congregationalist who works among West Indians, has found 69 per cent of those from the British Caribbean regularly attend one of the six major Christian Churches there.
Er Robson carefully dis
tinguishes between his pastoral mission as a chaplain and working in race relations. though the work overlaps at some Point.
Last week he accompanied a West Indian priest and other West Indians on a visit to a group of priests in Birmingham who would like a special chaplain to be appointed for West Indians there.
The only other full time chaplain to West Indians is Ir Tony O'Donnell in Bradford, but another, Fr Frank Leonard, has just been appointed in Westminster with the support of parish priests in Brentford and Hammersmith.
He said race prejudice was still strong enough to require a West Indian to be three times as good as a white to be given the same sort of promotion opportunities.
Catholic schools have been described as "white tusks standing out in black area of London" and Fr Robson said he found it difficult to believe there was no prejudice. "Most West Indians have been here 12 years," he added.
Catholic employers could help by giving West Indians johs, he said. Blacks should also be specially encouraged to join parish councils and diocesan commissions, but not just one at a time. "How would you feel if you were the only white on a black parish council?" he asked.
Both Fr Robson and Fr Makhan agreed West Indians had a lot to contribute to the Catholic Church here with their openness, cheerfulness and SIX) ntaneity.
Fr Makhan suggested parish priests "should make the effort to visit West Indian immigrants in their homes and in the factories. "This would break down the harriers and would he much better than having a West Indian priest coming here," he said.
Though slavery was abolished in 1834 the attitudes it fostered remained and only 10 per cent of priests serving in the West Indies are West Indians, though there are five times that many West Indian Sisters, he said. West Indians always looked on Britain as a model country and regarded themselves as British and were thus shocked to encounter discrimination here. he
said. • Caribbean bishops have become very concerned about West Indian immigrants and very often refer to the "plight of the people," he said.
Archbishop Pantin of Port of Spain had recently said in a letter that he would like his priests to pay visits ibroad to collect ideas about how the Church might be better served. Priests visiting West Indians in Britain had found "problems so great they do not want to even think about them," he said.
Next month Fr Robson moves from Wapping to a house in Highbuty, where he plans to expand his work for West Indians with the help of a French priest who has worked in St Lucia and will join him for a year, lie would also like to contact English people who have worked in the West whose support would be especially valuable.