Wales has a long and rich Christian heritage, with a reputation for being “the land of revivals” owing to the many religious awakenings that have taken place since the 18th century. The broadcaster Huw Edwards, in the television series “The Story of Wales”, was emphatically clear that you could not tell the full story of Wales without reference to its Christian heritage.
Wales is, on the whole, less diverse than other parts of the UK, but recently Evangelical Alliance in Wales has sought to explore and map the increasingly diverse and multi-cultural nature of Christianity in Wales today. It was with a desire to capture this change in demographics and to tell the encouraging story that the Alliance’s Jim Stewart planned and organised an exhibition that ran in the Senedd building, part of the National Assembly for Wales, in Cardiff Bay for two weeks in June this year.
‘Majority World Christians in Wales and their contribution to Welsh society’ opened on 20 June, with a launch event bringing together over 100 Christians in Wales from different cultural backgrounds, along with other distinguished guests.
Its aims were: to celebrate the contribution that Majority World Christians were making to Wales; to encourage Christians in general; to be a testimony to politicians, civil servants and the general public; and to nurture an interest in Christianity among visitors to the exhibition.
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The ethnic diversity of Wales’ Christian population has parallels to other parts of the UK, but with some differences. There are West Indian and Chinese Christian communities, for example, that have been established in Wales now for decades, while the Tamil, Malayalam and Filipino Christian communities – as elsewhere – have an abundance of healthcare professionals amongst them.
In 2001, Cardiff, Newport, Swansea and Wrexham became designated ‘dispersal areas’ in Wales for asylum seekers to be housed while their cases were being processed. This meant that, for the first time, churches in Wales started to experience asylum seekers turning up at their Sunday services. As refugee communities grew, and as asylum seekers were granted their papers and settled, Christian communities also developed, such as the Birhan Fellowship (comprised of Eritrean and Ethiopian Pentecostals), the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and also the Farsi-speaking Iranian believers, who attend a number of English-language churches, but also meet up together for services in Farsi throughout the year.
Each Majority World Christian community in Wales has its own story. The Armenian community for example formed in the 1980s, before the days of the internet, with its founder placing an advert in the local paper asking for other Armenians to get in touch. Their identity is linked to the 1915 genocide and they come from Armenia, Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
There are a few Christian connections that are unique to Wales as well. The Welsh missionary Robert Jermaine Thomas, who was martyred in 1866, is credited with bringing the gospel to the Korean peninsula, and Christians from South Korea come to Wales on mission in their hundreds every year, as they see Wales as their spiritual home. There are currently four Korean churches in Wales, with many others residing in missionary centres to focus on prayer, and with three South Koreans leading English-language British churches.
Welsh missionaries from the Presbyterian Church of Wales brought the gospel to parts of North East India and, stemming from this, Rev Hmar Sangkhuma from the state of Mizoram (over 80% Christian) has been working for the Presbyterian Church in Wales since 2006, motivated by a desire to help the “Mother Church” in its time of need.
Finally, there is a link in Wales with Patagonia in southern Argentina, where Welsh settlers arrived in 1865 in order to establish a Welsh-speaking colony. Christianity was, and always has been, a part of this community and there has been a strong connection between the Argentinian Welsh chapels and chapels in Wales. Judith Jones from Argentina is currently ministering in Wales as a youth and children’s worker.
The exhibition launch was a very encouraging and cathartic time for many of those present. Majority World Christians felt honoured to have their work praised and acknowledged in such an iconic building by Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales. First Minister Carwyn Jones was due to give the keynote speech and, although he had to give late apologies, the Welsh Government spokesperson who took his place spoke glowingly of the exhibition and the diverse Christian communities whose stories it told.
By Jim Stewart, National Assembly Liaison Officer, Evangelical Alliance Wales