A new photo-exhibition at the Senedd pulls at a lost thread in Welsh life, writes Dylan Moore.
The history of Wales and the development of Western Christianity have been entangled for many centuries. Celtic Christianity and the so-called Age of Saints predates any notion of Wales as a single political entity; latterly, Wales has been known as a land of spiritual revivals as successive generations have turned to and from Christ, inspired by preachers whose names echo down the centuries – Christmas Evans, Howell Harris, Daniel Rowland, Evan Roberts – and hymns still sung, bereft of context, at sporting occasions and national events. As in so many other fields, Wales has had a disproportionate influence on the world, often through the mark made by individuals willing to take Jesus’ Great Commission quite literally to the ends of the earth; as a result, there are still small corners of Korea, Khasia and Patagonia that will be forever Gwalia.
Now, it seems, after a century of secularism, a new and exciting chapter is being written in Wales’ relationship with Christianity. A prominent example is in the rise of ‘faith tourism’; Korean Christians in Wales facilitate the visit of hundreds of Christians from Korea every year, including events organised last autumn to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of Robert Jermain Thomas. Christians in Korea consider Wales to be their spiritual home because Robert Jermain Thomas is the missionary who brought Christianity to the Korean peninsula.
‘Majority World Christians in Wales’ has been curated by Jim Stewart, Public Affairs and Advocacy Officer at Evangelical Alliance Wales. The exhibition intends to highlight the contribution of Christians from Africa, Asia and Latin America to contemporary Welsh life. It opens this week with an event featuring speeches from the First Minister Carwyn Jones and Conservative AM Darren Millar.
‘Majority world’ is a term roughly equivalent to ‘global south’, describing those from non-Western countries. Those celebrated in the exhibition come from a variety of backgrounds, some of which are not normally associated with Christianity, but which nevertheless have significant and growing Christian populations: Chinese, Korean, Fijian, Armenian, Arabic, Persian, Pakistani, Tamil and Malayalam cultures in Asia, plus African churches from Zimbabwe, DRC, Nigeria (RCCG churches), Eritrea (Orthodox church plus Pentecostal church), Ethiopia (Orthodox Church).
The breadth of the exhibition will itself highlight the diversity of Christian individuals and groups who now call Wales home, as well as the many multicultural churches meeting in Wales’ towns and cities every week. Christian leaders in Wales now include Pastor Emori Katalau, a former Scarlets and Fiji rugby player; Rector Mones Farah, originally from Nazareth in the Holy Land; Peter Cho and Gi Jung Song (both from south Korea) and the Rev Irfan John from Pakistan.
Beyond the church, majority world Christians such as Uzo Iwobi OBE, founder of Race Council Cymru, are having an impact on public life, particularly through contribution to third sector organisations. For example, Nexo is a Christian charity based near Caerphilly that brings Christian young people from Brazil and Argentina to work with local churches and the local community.
The exhibition will also bring to wider attention individual stories of majority world Christians, often from refugee backgrounds, who are successful in business start-ups and job creation (for example, an Eritrean in Cardiff who has started up a cleaning business and now employs eight people), as well as others volunteering in ministries such as Street Pastors, food banks or night shelters which offer a lifeline to those from all walks of life who – in these times of austerity – have fallen through the widening cracks in mainstream service provision.
One major effect of this diversification within Welsh churches has been a new and invigorating emphasis on community cohesion. Rev Irfan John’s Guinness record-breaking Nativity play promoted peaceful co-existence and the exhibition details many other examples of how faith has bridged ethnic or political divides, both in Wales and in countries of origin (for example in Sri Lanka and Eritrea). Jim Stewart says: ‘Majority world Christians are building cohesion with their wider diaspora community here in Wales. There is an excellent example from an event in Swansea last year of a Pakistani Christian and an Ismaili Muslim gaining a better understanding of the pressures and persecutions that both groups faced in Pakistan. Majority world church leaders are also building links with the Jewish community and their representative Stanley Soffa.’
Somewhat ironically, some ‘majority world’ Christians in Wales are from countries where Welsh missionaries originally brought the gospel (Rev Sangkhuma from Mizoram in India and Judith Jones, originally from Patagonia in Argentina, who works for the Presbyterian Church in Wales). Like with the Korean celebration of Robert Jermain Thomas, there is some sense in which these individuals have come back home with a mission to reconnect Wales with its own partially lost heritage.