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Faith centres and their role in keeping communities active

As Black History Month begins, our equality lead highlights the work of those striving to ensure everybody can enjoy the benefits from sport and physical activity in the West Midlands.

3rd October 2022

by Aedan Wolton
Equality lead, Sport England

October is Black History Month and this year’s theme ‘Time for Change: Actions Not Words’ presented an opportunity to highlight some incredible work taking place in a culturally diverse part of the West Midlands.

But first, let's take a look back.

Black history in sport

Black people have been living in Britain as far back as the 15th century and have played a significant role in shaping British society, culture and sport ever since.

In 1895 Arthur Wharton (pictured below seated to the left of the trophy) joined Sheffield United, becoming the world’s first black professional footballer.

Eleven years later, Jimmy Peters broke ground as the England national team’s first black rugby union player. Shamefully, a title he retained until Chris Oti was capped some 80 years later.

Picture of Arthur Wharton , the world's first black professional player, with his teammates from Sheffield United in 1895, next to a trophy.

Migration to modern Britain

Between 1948 and 1971 the Government invited Caribbean people to live in Britain to reduce the post-war labour shortages.

The first ship, the MV Empire Windrush, carried nearly 500 islanders to UK shores; its passengers becoming known as the first of the 'Windrush generation’.

Predominantly Christian, Caribbean communities faced discrimination from white churches and began establishing Black Majority Churches (BMCs) as early as 1948.

Increased African migration in the 80s saw the number of BMCs increase dramatically and there are now around 4,000 in the UK - with as many as 240 BMCs in the London Borough of Southwark, alone.

Black people have been living in Britain as far back as the 15th century and have played a significant role in shaping British society, culture and sport ever since.

Black Majority Churches in the West Midlands

A YMCA in Wolverhampton hosted the first BMC in the West Midlands in 1953. Known as the Black Country, due to the rich coal seam that sat just below the surface of the ground, the increasingly industrial region attracted a range of communities seeking work opportunities.

Today, the percentage of Black and South Asian people living in the Black Country is higher than the national average.

These are communities who are more likely to report living with impairments or long-term health conditions and more likely to experience discrimination than their white British peers.

As a result, it’s perhaps unsurprising that activity levels have historically been low in the region. However, a thriving network of Black Majority Churches came together with the local Active Partnership, Active Black Country (ABC) to change this through the Get Out, Get Active (GOGA) approach in 2020.

Mobilising Black Majority Churches through the Get out, Get Active approach

GOGA is a national programme that has helped more than 30,000 disabled and non-disabled people enjoy the benefits of being active together.

Delivered in partnership with Activity Alliance and a range of other organisations, GOGA takes place in 21 location across the UK, including the Black Country.

ABC is running a three-year GOGA programme that explores the potential of faith centres to reach the most inactive disabled and non-disabled residents.

Set to launch in early 2020, the project had to rapidly adapt to changing needs of local communities amid the first wave of coronavirus (Covid-19.

In its early stages, Bethune Smith (ABC’s faith and activity co-ordinator) worked alongside the newly formed consortium of black-led churches (Churches 4 Positive Change) to oversee the distribution of activity packs and exercise guides to help local congregations stay active during lockdown.

The programme expanded significantly throughout the course of the pandemic, engaging faith leaders from a range of backgrounds and cultures.

Resulting in yoga classes in Sikh gurdwaras, chair-based exercise classes in Black Majority Churches, and a range of cross-community outdoor activities when coronavirus restrictions allowed.

Closing the Gap - inequalities in sport and physical activity

Over the summer, Sport England hosted webinars with colleagues from Active Black Country and the GOGA national programme as part of our #CloseTheGap2022 events - a series of workshops and conversations dedicated to tackling inequalities in the sport and physical activity sector.

In the Active Black Country webinar, we heard how GOGA harnessed the potential of faith-based networks to engage black communities who had otherwise struggled to be active.

We’re so impressed with the cultural competency demonstrated by Bethune, Mike and the team that we wanted to celebrate their successes as part of this year’s Black History Month.

Find out more

Active Black Country

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