The only Jesus-follower they may ever meet

England’s old industrial heartland has many inner-city areas where most families speak Urdu or Punjabi, and mosques dot the skyline. In one such area, OM writer Nicky Andrews spent the day at the Welcome Place Hub* (WPH) a Christian community project led by OMers Stefan* and Louise*, blessing Muslim residents through service and friendship.

England’s old industrial heartland has many inner-city areas where most families speak Urdu or Punjabi, and mosques dot the skyline. In one such area, OM writer Nicky Andrews spent the day at the Welcome Place Hub* (WPH), a Christian community project led by OMers Stefan* and Louise*, blessing Muslim residents through service and friendship.

A small shopfront in a rundown Victorian parade announces the Welcome Place Hub, a former disused barbershop rescued by a group of city churches. Volunteer Alice* gives me a tour. The rear lounge is a homely place where above childrens’ toys some Bibles sit discreetly on an upper shelf. Their Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and Pashtun scripts also rotate through a computer slideshow of Bible verses. I wait for Stefan in the front office, the point of welcome for residents of this deprived area. A poster displays the weekly timetable — English classes, advice sessions, sewing lessons, Mums’n’Toddlers, computer skills, homework club and coffee mornings.

Reflecting God's love to local people

Stefan arrives, fresh from teaching English to unaccompanied minors from Afghanistan who struggle educationally at a local school. He and Louise have served here since 2018. With a rich background in English teaching and ministry with foreign students, they share God’s calling to serve Muslim peoples and a fascination for other cultures. “Especially the food!” laughs Stefan.

“We long to build bridges of friendship between Christians and Muslims so we can share the gospel in a meaningful way,” he continues. “Our vision’s based on 1 Peter 3:15, about answering everyone who asks us why we hope in Christ, in a gentle respectful way. This locality is 90 per cent Muslim and almost all our friends live within a half-mile radius. It’s a real privilege to be the only Christians most of them ever meet,” he says.

An unusual respect for women

Advice-seekers might come just the once, but up to 20 ladies come regularly for English lessons; relaxing in the rear lounge, removing their veils, they soak up an atmosphere of care and respect. One time Stefan opened the front door to a group of them, with the greeting ‘salam Alaikum.’ This shocked another female visitor. “She said, ‘I can’t believe you’re treating them with such respect and not letting differences stop you from providing them with a service,’” Stefan recalls. A long conversation ensued, the woman even joining the team for their midday devotions, and asking all sorts of questions. Louise’s own story, of finding faith from a non-Christian background, has often gently challenged ladies’ assumptions about being born into a religion.

The constant need for prayer

The team often encounter rigid preconceptions about Christianity which people learn from childhood, in madrassas and mosques. “Most seem closed to any spiritual dialogue,” Stefan comments. But sometimes, when a man shares his heartaches during an advice session, he’ll accept Stefan’s offer of prayer for his situation.

“Prayer is key,” says Stefan. “While remembering it’s God’s work to save people, we need to keep strong spiritually as individuals, plus each day at noon, we put aside an hour to pray, worship and study God’s Word together. We feel weakened if we don’t do that because you can really sense a deep spiritual heaviness over this whole area.”

Blessing through English lessons

During our chat, women have been arriving for their English conversation session run by Alice in the rear lounge. I’m really curious to attend: today’s discussion starter is ‘beauty’ and after a lively half-hour chatting as a group, we sit in pairs for further practise. Aaminah* tells me in hesitant English, with a hint of pride, that she has an English friend who encouraged her to start language learning; she’s persisting, even though her British-born children cringe at her efforts. “And now you’re my friend too,” Aaminah whispers shyly, touching my arm. “Are you coming back tomorrow?” asks her friend Lamisa* with hopeful eyes and I feel awkward explaining that I’m only visiting today.

Soon the ladies rise to depart, carefully re-attaching cloths over their faces to make the niqab, but I see their eyes smiling through the slits. It’s a blustery March day and Aaminah and Lamisa battle to control their voluminous cloaks against the bitter wind as they head off down the street. They are soon lost to sight amongst other black-cloaked women, beyond the Asian supermarkets and the travel agents advertising flights for the Hajj.

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