It may seem a little contrary to focus on the one object we know the least about in a place that houses so many historically significant artefacts – so many, in fact, that St Margaret’s partly functions as a Heritage Centre. However, what is interesting about the ‘Abraham window’ isn’t so much the story behind it, but the story that is unfolding in front of it.
St Margaret’s Community Trust was set up in 2008 to refurbish and redevelop the church after it fell into disrepair in 2005. It re-opened in 2015; still a church, but also a heritage, business and community centre - the Unity Hubb - hosting drop-in mornings, a food bank, heritage days, education programmes, prayer meetings, advice centre for carers and more.
It’s a beautiful day when I visit at St Margaret’s, with the first signs of spring - which seems appropriate to a place that has recently undergone a kind of rebirth. Keith, the Trust’s Finance Officer turned local historian, guides me round its heritage features with his encyclopaedic knowledge. Amongst other significant items, the church contains two stunning, priceless stained glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones, which have drawn people to St Margaret’s from all over the world, Keith tells me. But it’s the window with the figure of Abraham that interests me. It may not be as beautiful as Burne-Jones’ ‘Charity’ and ‘Good Shepherd’ opposite, but seems a more apt symbol of St Margaret’s and the Unity Hubb. Abraham is a common figure to Judaism, Christianity and Islam – significant, in an area of different faith communities such as Ward End.
Building bridges between St Margaret’s and the local, predominantly Pakistani Muslim neighbourhood is a longstanding passion of Rashta Butt, the Centre Manager, who knows how vital local buy-in is: “I think of the activities we run as ‘community payback’, because the local people were the key drivers in securing the funding and infrastructure to make this building alive again. So they have a right, at no cost, to access all the opportunities we provide. I’ll never plough on without the community beside me. When Keith and I go home it’s the local residents who have to be the eyes and ears of this place - they’re going to be the ones that invest in and take care of it.” Rashta’s passion for her local community is almost tangible. I want to snap bits off it and share it round the rest of Birmingham.
She tells me about Shaz, a local mum, who had so little confidence that she barely ever left her house. She started volunteering at the Place of Welcome afternoons hosted at St Margaret’s, has since become involved in an interfaith Women in Conversation group there and has now set up a small catering business that takes orders from the Unity Hubb and other community events. “It’s a privilege to see her flourish. Sometimes all people need is a base and a direction – and that’s what a community hub like this can provide.”
Rashta tells me that ‘Hubb’ is an Arabic word for ‘love’ - hence the double ‘b’. It comes from the same root as the word for ‘seed’, which again seems very appropriate; that which has the potential to grow into something beautiful. The ‘Unity’ element is important too, as Rashta explains: “I’m of a different faith, but my vision for this place is the same as the Trust’s: to be focal point for the community, to create opportunities, to build bridges. I’ve learned lots about the Church, and have shared my background too. We live in a diverse society, so it’s good to learn about other communities and other faiths.”
Rashta and Keith, along with Revd Peter Smith, the vicar at St Margaret’s, hope that the Abraham window will be a key feature of school visits to St Margaret’s - to teach children about the unifying, rather than divisive factors between different faiths. “We have videos that compare the Abraham and Isaac stories as told in the Bible and the Quran; which illustrate some differences between the two faiths, but also a desire to understand and learn about one another,” Revd Peter explains. “The Abraham window is a focal point because it epitomises the connections that Rashta, Keith and all of us at St Margaret’s Community Trust are together trying to build within the local community.”
- The Unity Hubb is hosting a Heritage Fun Day on 31 May, and holds Heritage Open Days on the last Thursday of every month
- St. Margaret's was recently the first church to complete conservation work as part of the Church of England's '100 Church Treasures' programme
- For more on St Margaret’s and the work of the Unity Hubb, see www.stmargaretscommunitytrust.co.uk