As a Sikh child growing up on what she refers to as “the most racist street in the UK at the time,” Cham Kaur-Mann recalls visiting an Anglican church not far from where she lived.
That’s where she first “got introduced to someone called Jesus,” as she puts it. “I remember thinking that I would like to have a friend like Jesus. And obviously the pictures of Jesus [in the church] were very blond-haired, very pale skin, blue-eyed. There was something that happened in that time—that a seed was sown that never left me.”
Years later, while she was at university, Kaur-Mann decided to give her life to Jesus. “Yes, I will follow you, no matter what,” she said. “And of course, life would never be the same.”
Today, Kaur-Mann, whose immigrant family lives in Birmingham and hails from the largely agricultural state of Punjab in India, is the first and only Asian woman minister with the Baptist Union of Great Britain, a group of more than 2,000 Baptist churches.
Kaur-Mann’s achievement is particularly noteworthy because as a child born into a traditional Punjabi Sikh family, she learned early on in her life a patriarchal “birth narrative” from her mother: Girls are inferior to boys.
“Being a girl is a second-class theme, and the messaging that always came through was, ‘You can’t do that … you don’t speak in public,’” Kaur-Mann says. “It was part of my mother’s upbringing … and she just passed it on not realizing that it’s not helpful at all to give that script.”
Her decision to convert from Sikhism to Christianity further widened Kaur-Mann’s social and familial rifts. “Frankly, I didn’t realize what I was letting myself in for,” she says. “Not only did I face opposition from my family and my community amounting to ostracism, but I then entered into the world of the Western church. … Having to adapt to church culture, and in my case Baptist church culture, all felt very peculiar.”
Kaur-Mann felt alienated in her new worship environment. “The texture and sound was strange and a far cry from the familiarity of the gurdwara I used to attend,” she says, referring to her Sikh temple.
She was filled with questions: “Why did people sit on pews? Why no meals at the end of the service? Indeed, why no food in the middle of the service? Why did people wear thick coats during the service? Why wear shoes in the service? Why, why, why … .”
Answering her call to ministry was also a fraught process. “There was no one else I could turn to who looked like me or who had a similar background to mine,” she says. “There were no role models to follow, or to draw strength and encouragement from.”
And yet she persevered, reminding herself that she could rely on the support of a few good friends as well as mentors who encouraged and inspired her. Besides, she reasoned, “if God had called me, no one could ‘un-call’ me!”
Her journey from Sikhism to Christianity has been an invaluable experience for Kaur-Mann. “I now appreciate that my cultural heritage, the way I eat my food, the unique perspective I hold and the lens through which I look at the world, are all a gift from God to the body of Christ,” she says.
“In the words of a wise friend, I remind myself, ‘God has called me, because of who I am and not in spite of who I am.’”
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