While exploring the relation between Pentecost and Faith at the Margins, I came across a song written in 2019, which in many ways made me think of Leeds. One of the greatest joys of living and working in Leeds is the diversity we experience across the city. The diversity of foods, of musical and artistic expression, and above all the diversity of language.
As I’ve been meeting people around Leeds, I’ve seen the way in which language can be a barrier to participation in community. I’ve also witnessed the desire of people to preserve the distinctiveness of their native language and culture, which is often threatened by the pressure to conform and blend in. The gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost celebrated the diversity of cultures in Jerusalem, overcoming, but not supressing, differences of race, culture and language and upsetting the conventions of religion and authority as the Good News reached those on the margins of society.
It’s estimated that there were 15 commonly used languages in Jerusalem, and that most people would have had a working knowledge of at least one other language (probably Greek or Latin) besides their own native tongue. By way of comparison, in Leeds today there are at least 85 different languages spoken, and for many, English is a second or possibly even third language. Then as now, being unable to communicate in the dominant local language may lead to people being excluded from key activities. Today, despite the work being done by translators and organisations such as HELP (Harehills English Language Project), people across the city struggle to engage in education, healthcare and work due to difficulties with spoken and written English.
HELP operates out of St Aidan’s Church in Harehills in 2006 to provide free English Language courses to anyone over the age of 18 in Leeds. There are now seven different classes taking place on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and a creche to enable women from the local area to attend classes.
Theologian Thomas Bohache writes:
The first disciples ministered in multiple languages to people of many nations of different colours, practicing various religions. Yet together they felt God’s presence and power, and the Spirit gave them ability without distinction to glorify God in their very diversity. Can we do any less in today’s world?
Thomas Bohache, “Pentecost Queered,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, 2015, pages 568-569
Overcoming the language barrier in Leeds is not about making everyone the same, but is instead about celebrating the diversity of people in the city. A diversity which in turn reflects something of the Glory of God.
Streets are filled with many people, voices raised in every tongue,
Bring first-fruits of their harvest, gift to God from old and young.
In the midst of celebration, comes a new unsettling sound:
A cacophony of praising, Word alive, Spirit unbound!
God is here, speaking our language, speaking as we do,
Christ alive, here in Spirit, and turns the tables, upsets conventions,
Brings a new church to birth, today a living Pentecost.
Mighty wind blows through the city, sweeps a new age into birth,
Holy fire to burn the boundaries, and ignite God’s work on earth.
Aramaic, Persian, Coptic, Parthian, Arabic and Greek,
Heard and understood and spoken, God in multi-lingual speak!
God is here ….
Wake up call to every nation, chaos melts, new paths made plain,
Harvest now for new creation, these the first-fruits of Christ’s reign.
We, God’s Church, arise for action, move in faith to break new ground,
Spirit, take us to the margins where your living work is found.
God is here ….
Words and Music © 2019 Raj Bharath Patta and Clare Stainsby.