Phil Sumner: At the frontline of peacemaking

For 20 years Phil Sumner, a Catholic priest, was a peacemaker between blacks and whites in Moss Side. Now in Oldham he must deal with the BNP and fears of Islam
Click to follow
The Independent Online

For one man, 11 September 2001 was always going to be a day when everything would change. Over the previous 25 years, Phil Sumner had developed an impressive reputation as the man who steadied Manchester's Moss Side through years of racial turmoil, including the race riots of the Eighties and the drug wars of the Nineties – when the city was dubbed Gunchester after a spate of shootings, machete attacks and street executions. Now he was moving to Oldham in the hope of bringing his peace-making skills to a place torn by racial strife between the white and Asian communities. It was as he was shifting boxes from the removal van that he first heard the news from New York.

It was always going to be a hard task. Phil Sumner is a Catholic priest whose religious position gave him special access to the African-Caribbean community in Moss Side where many blacks were his parishioners. But he knew little about Islam. And he was aware that some people had questioned his appointment.

In Moss Side he had been an insider; "he's white on the outside but black on the inside," one elderly West Indian woman had said in tribute in a hall packed with both black and white faces at a party to mark his departure the week before. But to Muslims he was just another ignorant outsider; "they'll just disregard him, he's doomed to failure," one prominent Asian told me around the same time. And that was before the attack on the World Trade Centre which catapulted Islam into a new order of suspicion among non-Muslims and sent ripples of fear throughout the nation's Asian communities.

A few days later, sitting in his new home in the presbytery of St Patrick's church in the centre of Oldham, Phil Sumner scanned a leaflet that a local Muslim had given him. It had been pushed through letterboxes by the British National Party, which at the general election in June achieved in Oldham the highest vote ever recorded by a fascist party in British parliamentary poll – an alarming 16.4 per cent.

The leaflet was a diatribe against Islam. Attached to it was a draft letter the BNP is suggesting white parents should send to local schools, exercising their "right" to demand their children are withdrawn from RE classes which include information about Islam. Phil Sumner sighed. "This is going to be a big job," he said.

The world had seemed a different place only the week before. At his farewell party in Moss Side, the hall of Our Lady's church was crowded with representatives of the 34 nationalities who made up his parishioners – from the original community of Irish immigrants to the Chinese for whom Fr Sumner had, by phonetic rote, learned to say the Mass in Cantonese. Earlier, the 6ft 2in, silver-haired priest had held his final service dressed, not in the usual religious vestments, but in a garment made of Kente cloth, material worn only by a king or chief in Ghana; it had been presented to him by his congregation.

And many of those present were not Catholics. In addition to Christians of various other denominations, the room was filled with non-churchgoers. There were teachers from local state schools, which have followed his example in setting up "racial identity nurturing" projects to promote positive role models. There were young men from the reggae shop across the way. There were his fellow weight-lifters from the Moss Side Leisure Centre with whom he spends three hours training every Friday (they do bench-presses of up to 150kg, though Phil can manage only 110kg, one told me). The room was full of young people who would ordinarily never go near a church.

"If I thought my community were only the people in church I would know only a very small percentage of them," Sumner told me afterwards.

It was a mark of how far he had come since he arrived in Moss Side as a young curate in 1976: "When I arrived I had a typical Catholic approach: visiting schools, homes, the sick, parish meetings – you never moved outside the Catholic system." But then came the riots of 1981 in which black youths attacked the local police station in protest at stop-and-search techniques that they claimed bordered on harassment. Shops were looted and burnt.

The young white priest, passing through the area in his boss's car, suddenly found rocks being hurled at it. With foolhardy bravery he left the vehicle and went across to the rioters. Amazed at his behaviour the rock-throwers stopped. Behind the youths he discovered older members of the black community who were protesting too, having lost confidence in the police because of the way they treated their young folk. It was while he was with the demonstrators that they were suddenly attacked by a line of riot police. The young priest had to jump over garden fences to get away. In the process he discovered he had jumped out of the Catholic ghetto and into the messy real world.

What Sumner achieved in the quarter century that followed was reflected in small measure on the final day in Moss Side which I spent with him. First came a tour of the area's five schools where he has done much, as a governor, to change the syllabus and make it a less Eurocentric one; this is work that he tours nationally to share with other schools.

Then came a visit to St Wilfrid's Enterprise Centre, a former Grade II-listed Pugin church which, when the diocese decided to close it, he bought for £1 and turned into 6,000sq ft of work units for local people to set up their own businesses. It was a drop in the ocean; 85 per cent of young black men in the area were unemployed. But St Wilfrid's became a symbol of the area's economic regeneration which has since attracted new blue-chip employers to Moss Side.

The day also included talks with a representative of the city council about the credit union set up among local people; a meeting of the team of lay people he has established to take over the traditional priestly tasks of running the parish; and a meeting of the Moss Side and Hulme Community Forum to review, at his departure, the saga of the area's relations with the police and media – which, after years of stereotyping, misunderstanding and tension, have become much less problematic. Changes to police stop-and-search policies, which were pioneered in Moss Side at the behest of the local community, have now been adopted across Greater Manchester and were praised as a model for the whole country by the Lawrence inquiry.

Phil Sumner's role in all this was acknowledged in a leader recently in the Manchester Evening News. His "open-hearted and even-handed tenure" had made a "deep and valuable contribution at every level", it said.

The Moss Side that Phil Sumner has left is one far less bruised, traumatised and alienated than in previous times. "There's far less anger about the place," he said. Outside his old presbytery, property developers are building a second group of private town houses after the first, built three years back, rose in value from £70,000 to £110,000 in that time. "People want to live here now," he said, taking a final look around the place that has been home for over two decades.

Oldham, he knew, was going to be very different. There he was to be on the front-line between two faiths. His first encounter with the community there came only days after the US bombings. David Ritchie, the senior Whitehall civil servant who is heading up the public inquiry into the Oldham riots, had invited the town's religious leaders to have dinner with him in the upper room of an Indian restaurant. At the long table the Muslims positioned themselves at either end, with the Christians in between. The first imam to speak had been imported by his mosque community comparatively recently and spoke only in Urdu. One of the other Asians began to translate. Here, Phil Sumner must have thought, people do not even share a common language.

But then the Muslim leaders began to set out their problems. There was education – "our boys leave school early because they feel there is nothing for them". There was training – "there are no youth or training centres for Asians". Unemployment – "if you apply for a job from an address with a postcode in an Asian area your letter is binned". Discrimination – "Oldham Borough Council employs very few Asians, and those are in menial tasks." Housing – "there is a lot of damp, but the council won't give improvement grants". The local paper – "it gave huge headlines when a £5m grant was given to an Asian area, but said virtually nothing about the £53m which went to a white area". The police – "they harass our young people and they don't come when we ring to say the Islamic Centre is being attacked. Worse still they are biased in the way that they collect statistics – they say that 60 per cent of racial attacks are on whites not Asians but then they press Asians to describe crimes against them in non-racial terms, and encourage whites to do the opposite."

"It was uncanny," said Phil Sumner, after the gathering. "These were the very same complaints I've heard for the past 25 years. I was expecting some problems in common. But I was amazed at how exactly they mirror the concerns of the community in Moss Side. Of course, I haven't spoken to the council, the police or the Oldham Chronicle yet, so I have only heard one side of the story. But there is clearly a huge perception of mistrust. And, in terms of addressing it, Oldham seems years behind what's happened elsewhere."

The terrorist atrocities in the United States have significantly upped the ante on all this. A Muslim community which already felt undervalued and aggrieved is now also afraid and resentful that its religion is seen by the rest of society as tainted. Trouble-makers such as the BNP seem eager to underscore the idea. "The mentality that led to mass murder in the USA is the same that leads to so many attacks by Muslim thugs on whites... on the streets of Britain," says the leaflet it has put around Oldham."

Phil Sumner sees a link, too, but from the opposite end of the spectrum. "The feelings of suspicion and humiliation which are evident in the relationship between Muslims and the West at international level are mirrored here at local level," he explains. "What has happened in New York only makes it more urgent that the problems are addressed in places like Oldham too. And that means addressing the deeper issues."

The church is good at burying issues with words, said the Rev Mark Banda, the Baptist minister back in Moss Side. "Fr Sumner is one of the few people who try to do something practical about them." As he settles to the task over in Oldham, Phil Sumner is under no illusions about the size of the problem but, he is beginning to think, at least Moss Side has given him some inkling of where to start.

Comments