God-given talent: Saka, Rashford and Sterling lead the way for British black Christians | Euro 2020

IIn the reception area of ​​the former Bukayo Saka school, the brightly colored flags representing the nations competing for Euro 2020 have not yet been removed. And last week, the 450 students at Edward Betham Church of England Primary School had one final euro-related task to complete. “We made a card to send to Bukayo,” school principal Caroline Chamberlain said.

“A4 format with 15 sheets – one for each class.” They wrote to say how much he inspired them and what a wonderful example he sets. So many of our students have told us of their disgust at the abuse suffered by English footballers. They cannot understand the behavior.

England’s newest football hero has a strong connection to the school on the outskirts of West London. Saka has already donated an Arsenal shirt, which has pride of place on the school’s “wall of achievement”. A letter he sent thanking former teachers was proudly framed. And for a school that actively promotes Christian ethics, it would be difficult to think of a better model.

Like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, his English teammates, Saka wears his faith on his sleeve. Until he moved with his family two years ago, to be closer to Arsenal’s training facilities, he frequented the Pentecostal Kingsborough Center in Uxbridge. Winning the London Young Player of the Year award this year, he tweeted “God’s Work”, making it clear where he felt the credit for his main performances really lay.

“I love the way Bukayo speaks with such passion about his beliefs,” says Chamberlain, a practicing Anglican. “In the old days, you didn’t hear as much about practicing Christians or practicing Muslims. It seemed like famous people in particular didn’t really talk about their faith. I remember Alastair Campbell’s “we don’t do God”. “

In football, a sort of religious transformation has taken place, driven in part by an influx of devout players from overseas such as Brazilian Liverpool goalkeeper Alisson Becker (another Pentecostal Christian). Signs of the cross on the pitch and hands raised in prayer before games and after goals are now commonplace.

Matt Baker is the national director of Sports Chaplaincy UK, which provides pastoral support to professional footballers. He recently told the Premier Christian News website: “There are a lot more believers and there are definitely more Christians. We have seen an influx of Faith players over the past 20 years. We are told that in society people are less interested in spiritual matters and that few people go to church, but I find it is actually the opposite in football in particular, on the player side. .

Bukayo Saka of Arsenal and England. Photograph: Patrick Elmont / UEFA / Getty Images

The most successful England team since 1966 illustrates the trend. But perhaps more importantly, 70 years after the Windrush Generation brought their faith as well as their hopes and dreams to the ‘motherland’, it also highlights the distinctive contribution black British Christians such as Saka are making. to national history. Alongside Saka, Rashford spoke of the example of his devout Christian mother, Mel, and said that “the faith we have in God is shown by the people that we are”.

In a biography of Pep Guardiola, Manchester City manager Raheem Sterling is depicted reading the Bible ahead of a training session, as the usual locker room commotion and banter continues around him. In interviews (with Campbell among others), Sterling has said the importance of his faith is “massive.” Chris Powell, former England international and a member of Gareth Southgate’s coaching staff in the tournament, was another black Christian presence in a collective that has captured the hearts of the country with its humble approach and celebrated commitment to causes. social networks of players such as Rashford.

Selina Stone is a former community organizer who now teaches political theology at St Mellitus College, London. She specializes in Pentecostal Christianity and its impact on issues of social justice. “Saka, Sterling and Rashford embody the best of the British black Christian tradition,” she says.

“Faith and spirituality are really at the heart of their life. This continues to be true for black youth even though they may not yet be in the tradition of the church in which they grew up, or may not necessarily be able to name the church.

“In some Christian practices, there is a feeling that faith is endorsing a set of beliefs – you read the liturgy, recite the creeds, adhere to the doctrine. Black Christian traditions are more about the embodiment of faith, how you live out what you say in a Sunday service, how attentive you are to the felt needs of those around you as part of your engagement in the faith.

Marcus Rashford of Manchester United and England.
Marcus Rashford of Manchester United and England. Photograph: Patrick Elmont / UEFA / Getty Images

The reasons for this distinct emphasis may be as much historical as theological. In A History of English Christianity 1920-1985, priest and historian Adrian Hastings wrote that during the 1950s, the first black Christian migrants to Britain received a cold reception from mainstream churches. According to Hastings, they “found the existing churches for the most part stilted, old and very uninterested in them.” The majority black churches (BMCs) that subsequently emerged embodied the collective resilience of communities doing their best to cope by helping each other. Pastors also acted as community workers and advocates, and churches provided social and religious services.

“When you think of 1948 and the 1950s and 1960s,” Stone says, “you had a significant number of people from the Caribbean who moved to the UK. Churches were not only places of spiritual renewal, but also places of spiritual renewal. sources of social and economic capital. These are the places where you find out about the housing supply and can join informal credit unions to borrow money together. These kinds of initiatives are quite natural for communities trying to survive in a whole new context. Churches have been very important to black people in this country. “

This social heritage and tradition is evident at Kingsborough Center, where prayers have been said throughout the past week for Saka. The church operates a nursery, a food bank and offers advice to businesses and social enterprises. As overall church attendance in Britain continues to decline at a breakneck rate, BMCs such as Kingsborough are booming.

“London’s black Pentecostal churches are the fastest growing,” Stone says. “There is a deep commitment to religion and spirituality, even among Millennials who are no longer officially in church. For Saka, Rashford and Sterling, there is clearly a recognition that there is something of God’s blessing upon them to be where they are, as well as a recognition that, having been so blessed, they must take responsibility for helping others.

Contemplating the horrendous online consequences of Euro 2020, former Saka pastor at Kingsborough, Reverend Tunde Balogun, simply said “racism has arisen”.

The preparation for Euro 2020 has also been dominated by racing, amid controversy over England players ‘kneeling’ before matches. This gesture, a plea for tolerance and a protest against racial injustice, has been caricatured by the right as propaganda in the name of “awakened” liberalism and the so-called “Marxist” Black Lives Matter movement. But aside from dividing, that characterization fundamentally missed out on what was most interesting about a team that came to championing a new and diverse sense of English.

According to Balogun, “Gareth Southgate and his amazing team represent our collective effort in nation building. Thanks to Saka, Sterling and Rashford, British black Christians and the best of their traditions were at the center of this story.

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