Out of Africa: A Kenyan missionary sets his sights on Manchester

'Missionary work is easy in Kenya: people on the street listen to the Gospel message. God has called me to England. Here, Jesus is a swear word'
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Just behind the Asda superstore in Harpurhey is a side-turning that leads into the dead-end block made up of back-to-back red-brick terraced houses for five streets. It would be all too easy to miss this patch of inner-city urban decay; a fact that may just suit the current generation of urban planners in Manchester, intent on regenerating the city and its image.

Six years ago, when Cyprian Yobera moved into Clevedon Street, one of the five, this enclave in the north-east of the city had seemingly been forgotten by everyone but the dealers, the prostitutes and local gangs. The council's preferred solution was to knock it down. "About 50 per cent of the houses were boarded-up and covered with graffiti," recalls Yobera, who comes from Nairobi in Kenya. "There was rubbish behind the unused houses, young people making them into dens, drugs being done, needles left lying around and petty crime was thriving."

An odd place, then, to relocate your family from halfway across the world. But 43-year-old Yobera, his teacher wife Jayne and their two small daughters did not arrive by accident in an area designated in 2004 by a government survey as the most deprived in England in terms of income, unemployment, health, education, housing and crime. They believe they were called there by God.

Yobera is an Anglican priest and came to Harpurhey as part of a revolutionary project organised by the Church Mission Society. Once, dog-collared missionaries set out from Europe to convert the "heathens" of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Today, the traffic is no longer one-way: Africa is sending men such as Yobera back to minister to "heathen" Britain.

"Kenya has material poverty," Yobera tells me, "but we saw poverty here in a new way – a spiritual poverty. All sense of community was missing. Our minds were blown by that. Missionary work in Kenya is easy. You stand on a street with a guitar and a crowd will come. People there are very sympathetic to the gospel message. Here, even the basic Bible stories are absent. People only know Jesus as a swear word."

It is a warm summer Sunday in Harpurhey and Clevedon Street is gearing up to play host to a street party for local children, Yobera's latest effort to rekindle community spirit. A white marquee has been erected and neighbours are dropping off gifts of food and drink, balloons and party bags.

The gap, in practical terms, between what Yobera describes as finding here when he arrived and what exists now is striking. The council has been persuaded by the community to abandon its demolition plans and instead has cleaned the brickwork of the late-Victorian two-up, two-downs. Paintwork and ornate fascias have been restored, chimneystacks repointed, and gates placed over the alleys where once the dealers gathered. Yobera has even managed to extract some money for plants and hanging baskets. There is now only one house unoccupied in the street.

It started simply – Yobera hosting a barbecue outside his family home, putting out a few chairs, and inviting those who still lived in the five streets to come and join them. Contact was made. "Our children," he says, "were better missionaries than us in the first stages because they played in the street and did not see dangers we saw. They got into homes of ' other children and so we'd meet their parents. The more people got to know us, the safer we became."

Yobera's formal job title is community development worker, the Eden Project, a local Anglican initiative that aims to take the church out of buildings and on to the streets. He still leads liturgies, but that is not his main work. Most of his neighbours know him simply as Cyprian, someone who takes the trouble to talk to them, and do something to address their concerns.

Today's street party is a good example. As the once-empty houses have filled, other ethnic minorities have moved in – Eastern Europeans and Africans. There has been some tension of late down by a row of garages often used by some of the black children as a goal. Those in the houses opposite – all white families – have been complaining about the noise, damage to their cars and their prized hanging baskets. "It isn't racial yet, but it could easily tip into it," says Yobera. "I hope the party will give me a chance to get the two sides together, and perhaps even agree a rota of adults willing to take the children to the local park to play football."

As the party gets going, groups of adults emerge from behind net curtains to sit in the sun on their doorsteps. Some bring out deckchairs. The children are getting along famously. Dave, a young painter-decorator who has just moved in two doors down from the Yoberas, is organising apple-ducking. But some of the parents are steadfastly refusing to mix. Yobera moves between them, taking them food and drink, chatting and gently willing a thaw in frosty relations. Does he ever encounter negative reactions, I ask. "When we moved in, we were the only black faces in these 200 homes. We really did stick out like a sore thumb but I have never felt any racial prejudice."

Indeed, he goes on, his approach to community-building is distinctly African, based on what he learnt running the youth ministry in the Anglican archdiocese of Nairobi for over a decade. "I take an African line. 'If I was in Africa,' I say to people, 'this would be happening, What do you think?' And then I follow with questions like, 'Are there a number of people around here who would love it to happen?'" When no one objects, he takes it as a green light for action.

This enclave – like much else in Harpurhey – was built at the end of the 19th century when Manchester was known as "Cottonpolis" and the mills provided nigh on full employment. As that ebbed in the post-Second World War years, Harpurhey slid into a spiral of decay and depression, with only Bernard Manning's "World Famous Embassy Club" to remind anyone of its existence. The area had been identified by the Church Mission Society as a potential location for placing an overseas missionary on account of its prominent place in most indices of social need. Yobera remembers his first visit, in 2002 with Jayne, and hearing the story of a local 12-year-old called David. "He had used drugs so much that his brain was blown and his systems were not working. He was always drooling. But he hung around Christ Church [the Anglican parish church, a few streets away]. Two weeks before our visit, David had been found hanging, dead, from a short rope in the outside stairwell that goes to the church's crypt. It had happened while an evening service was on. We felt God speaking through that story. He was saying: 'Come and join the team and be father to the fatherless and mother to the motherless.'"

It doesn't sound too far a cry from the vocation of those European missionaries who went out to Kenya at the start of the 20th century and converted Yobera's own grandfather to Christianity. But he refuses to join those who now regard such history as imperialist, patronising and faintly embarrassing. "My message is one of thank you. Thank you that you have brought the word of God to us because it is from that heritage that I became a Christian. But that same message that was so crucial back then is not taken seriously here in Britain any more."

What is very different, however, is Yobera's missionary methodology. For him, it is not a case of standing in the pulpit, reading his Bible and urging conversion. Or identifying himself as a priest. Rather, he is reluctant even to mention the M-word. "We've not been upfront that we've come as missionaries," he admits. "We don't say that. People here know we work in the community and they appreciate that. They know we go to church. Our work now is about the things that need to be in place before they can start to respond to God."

Isn't there something misleading about this approach? "No," he says calmly but emphatically, "because we believe they are not ready for a very in-your-face discussion of belief. I liken it to trying to speak on the phone before you dial. What is vital in the initial stages is rebuilding of community, which is Godly in itself." This omission of Yobera's makes it somewhat difficult for me – here to make a documentary called "The Mission Men" for the BBC World Service's Heart and Soul – to garner just what the locals think of Yobera's work. "When they are ready, I will mention God," he tells me, "but I know their response now to the word 'God' will be a shutting of the door."

And today, all doors are open, though the hoped-for reconciliation between the community's factions has yet to begin. "People here have felt disappointed by the church for a long time," he reflects as he stands watching the scene unfold. "My feeling is that church and state were too close together in this country, so when people felt marginalised and ill-treated by government policies, it was blamed on the church too."

Changing all that will be, he acknowledges, a longer process than he initially foresaw. He brought his family over for three years, has already extended that commitment for another three and is about to do so again. His daughters are going into the sixth-form soon, but Yobera is still, he believes, in the first stage of addressing the community's practical needs. Only when they are being met can he go on to tackle their spiritual ones. "Opportunities are beginning to occur. One local lady who saw us working on a community garden, and asked why we were doing it, became curious about church. In childhood she would go but had stopped. We invited her back and now she is a strong participant and on the parish council."

Yobera picks up his guitar and plays as the children career around playing musical chairs. It is chaotic and Dave is struggling to keep order. A couple of parents from the opposing camps saunter over to help with the game. They don't exactly embrace, but, in this moment, under the watchful eye of the man from Nairobi that they know but don't quite know, they are briefly part of the same thing. Small steps, but, arguably, significant ones.

Missionaries: an ungodly history

The Bible is essentially a missionary book and its call to "Go ye therefore and teach all nations" has been fundamental to Christianity from the start.

Saint Paul, in the first century, was the prototype missionary, travelling around the Middle East preaching and writing about Jesus. From the 16th century, the word of Christ started spreading beyond Europe and into the "New World". The abiding image of the missionary, however, belongs to the 19th and early-20th century, when hundreds of thousands of men and women of faith from Europe and North America, most famously including David Livingston felt called to venture out in pith helmets and dog collars to spread the Good News to "heathen" peoples, whether they wanted to hear it or not. Some would carry their personal belongings and quantities of bibles and hymn books in coffin-shaped suitcases. They anticipated dying on the job, and many did, either through disease, or – for an unfortunate few – as martyrs at the hands of those they had gone to save. Such a fate, however, was seen in the militant missionary mindset as "God working out his purpose", in the title of the classic 1894 missionary hymn.

Today, this chapter is widely regarded with a certain distaste, the missionaries' connection with imperialism and disregard for existing belief systems among those they sought to convert striking an unhappy note. Likewise, with hindsight, the fierce competition for souls between the different Christian faiths sits uneasily with the core biblical message of love. Yet at the time, the stereotypical Irish missionary priests of Catholicism fought it out in the mission field with Protestant pioneers such as William Carey, lauded by his co-believers at the start of the 19th century as "the father of modern missions".

Each side armed itself with "improving" literature. The Anglican Church Missionary Society was, in the early 1900s, producing over 5,000,000 books and pamphlets, including titles such as Missionary Heroes: Stories of Heroism in The Mission Field, which described attempts to convert the Inuit people of Greenland. The Eskimos, as the missionaries called them, were "dwarfs, ugly and repulsive looking to the last degree... [whose] habits were beyond belief for uncleanliness". As the tide turned against colonialism in the middle years of the 20th century, so too did public opinion about missionaries.

Yet numbers of Christian missionaries have never been higher than today. Some, such as the Albanian nun, the late Mother Teresa of Calcutta, even attract widespread acclaim in secular society. Their methods may often be radically different from their Victorian forerunners, but their basic inspiration – to evangelise – remains the same.

Peter Stanford presents 'The Modern Mission' on the BBC World Service 'Heart and Soul' from Friday