A rainy morning in Salford; a small congregation in a large parish church (St James); familiar hymns and liturgy… Nothing unusual so far. However, this ‘typically English church’ is being led by a Kenyan. Salford seems a surprising destination for a man who has spent most of his life in Nairobi. Why is he there and what is his vision for his church and surrounding the communities?
Cyprian Yobera began his time in ministry as the youth pastor at All Saints’ Cathedral in Nairobi where he was responsible for about 1,000 young people. In 2003 Cyprian moved with his young family to Harpurhey, a deprived inner-city suburb of Manchester. Cyprian worked there as a community worker with CMS for seven years before moving into church leadership at St James’ in Salford at the beginning of 2011.
So, how did Cyprian end up in this part of the world? “Yeah. A long story…” he began, “The short and long of it is that we felt the call of the Lord to come ... Coming to Harpurhey, for us, was quite a sacrifice – even materially it was very different from Kenya - but we felt the call of the Lord.” Cyprian shared how he had initially been moved while reading of the decline in the church in the UK. “Coming from a place which is generally thriving as Christianity grows and looking back at our ‘parents’ who brought the gospel to us and they are struggling was the first thing that struck me.”
Cyprian went on to explain how a suggestion made first by a cousin and then later, much to his surprise, by the Archbishop of the Nairobi, led him and his wife Jane to pray seriously about a potential move. Following an interview and selection process with CMS, Cyprian and Jane (his wife) visited Harpurhey and were told about the area and its many problems. In particular, they were both deeply affected by the story of a young man who had taken his own life on the church grounds two weeks prior to their visit. “That story really hit us, basically pointing to how dire the problem was, inspiring us to join the team in Harpurhey so that as many as possible would be saved.”
What did Cyprian feel that he brought to ministry in such a different context? “We were used to community and the wider extended family” he replied. “We missed it in Harpurhey and we felt God was saying, ‘They’re not missing it because they don’t know what they’re missing. You need to bring what you’re missing into play because it is something that families need, it’s something that communities need, it’s something that our society needs because it’s become such an individualistic society.’ I can tell you I’ve never seen so many people suffering from depression and so on in one place as I saw in Harpurhey. When people have problems they keep them to themselves and they can just rot away in their own home because there isn’t sharing of the problem. I come from a community that carries the burden together.”
“Typically in Kenya for example, if a child has done well in their exams and they need to go for further study, the community gets together and raises the funds needed to send that child off, if it is abroad or if it is locally, to send them to university. They’ll pull together – they’ll sell a piece of land, they’ll sell a cow. We are very used to that and that is totally alien to the people we came to. We may be able to do some things on our own but if we are helped to do them, it lessens the load so much, especially emotionally. You feel supported when you are part of a community.”
“People are more willing to consider something that might be life-changing for them when they’re in a group, when they’re supported, when the message that they are receiving is reinforced by someone significant to them. Where there isn’t anyone significant to you, where there isn’t someone that you’re sharing anything with already, it’s very, very difficult. So, in an individualistic society the gospel will not move.”
“However, if people were all together and already shared some values and then one thing came into that and they started to consider it then an individual might say, “My mate is giving it a hearing. I trust my mate. Therefore I will give it a hearing.” This is an African concept. The missionary was successful in Africa partly owing to the fact that we already shared values as communities. When they came to my village the village was functioning as a community. We shared values and beliefs and behaviour – we shared a lot of things and that’s what community is.”
As Cyprian continued to share his vision for St James Church a word that came up time and again was “hope”. Hope for the congregation that had been without a leader for six years; hope for the broken communities surrounding the church. He shared how excited he was when he heard that “Hope” was actually the name of the parish – it’s also the name of the pub across the road.
Cyprian’s aim is to gradually implement changes to the way that the church relates to the people in the surrounding area. His goal is create a dialog with the people of the parish as to how the church can serve them, fashioning the ministry of the church in response to the feedback that they receive. Cyprian elaborated, “If they say, ‘we want safe space for our teenagers to hang out on a Saturday night’, then we will open our parish hall and put non-alcoholic drinks on there and we will have a musician or whatever suits the kind of people we’re attracting. So that on Saturday night you find the place packed - it is safe, it’s for our parish and there is an aspect of our truth, an aspect of God in it.”
A further part of Cyprian’s strategy is to make use of the church’s established role within the parish – weddings, funerals and baptisms, Christmas and Easter services – in order to create opportunities for members of the congregation to build relationships with people living near to them. He shared an example of how he sees this working in practice: “I called up a lady who lived close to a family who were asking for baptism and I started to foster a link between them. I asked the church member to come for the baptism service so that the family sees them and then I held back on the baptism certificate for this lady to take it later on and for there to be a natural contact again. I’ve then asked this lady to think of creative ways and excuses for knocking at that family’s door. For example, 'The weather is good. I’m taking my own kids to the park. Would you join me, or if you can’t come, can I take your two children with me?' Those kind of natural, 'I’m your neighbour, can I give you a hand?' situations. Then occasionally we’ll have a function at church. So all the while we’re not saying, 'I’m doing this because I want you to come to church' but rather, 'I’m doing this because we just want to be community. But today there’s something happening at church. I’m taking my kids. Would you come?' We hope to build hotspots all around the neighbourhood – every time there is a baptism, or there is a funeral, or there is a wedding, we will send a person close to that area that has agreed to participate in this with us. I believe it will happen.