Inayat’s story: bringing community to an abandoned church
Our campaign leader Inayat Omarji MBE dedicated 10 years and 5000 hours spearheading the renovation of his local church. Today, All Souls Bolton has gone from an abandoned and vandalised space – to a beautiful hub for community life.
I’m Inayat Omarji and I live in Bolton. And here we are at All Souls Bolton.
This project started when I was working for the local authority, tackling antisocial behaviour in the local community. I’m a qualified youth worker and I was a senior officer managing a juvenile response team. It was a massive government agenda about how you tackle anti-social behaviour by working with young people. I had a team who used to go out in the evenings, I used to get a report from the police to say, ‘Here’s your hotspots with young people congregating, go and see them and do something with them.’ So I used to send teams out. And one of the hotspots highlighted was the back of the church, where lots of graffiti was happening, lots of fires were happening. And it was sad to see because I was born and bred in this community; I live in the community. I knew everybody in the community, everybody knew me. And it was like, right, okay, I need to sort this out.
It was shut for many, many years. I used to walk past it every day, but I thought nothing of it. One day I looked up and said, ‘Who owns this building?’ And it turned out it was the Churches Conservation Trust. I invited the Trust’s chief executive to come to Bolton, and we walked into the church together, and I said, ‘Wow, what a beautiful building. Why are we not using it?’ It’s a place we could do something with, rather than leaving it redundant and not being used, where it may get burnt down; it may get vandalised.
they started telling us, We want to tackle this, to tackle that, the kids were saying, ‘Let’s have a swimming pool in here!’
That started the journey of me pitching to the trustees in the church saying, What a beautiful building, can we do something with it? Can I have your blessing? Or can Crispin the chief exec have your blessing to support this? Can you invest a little bit of money to kickstart some feasibility studies, etc? They bought the idea. And the journey started with a feasibility study, brainstorms of what can we do with the building, open days…
We had one open day where we had birds of prey flying: an eagle and an owl. I brought this company in to get the attraction of the local community to walk in. A couple of people walked in saying, Oh! There’s some birds flying in the church, and word-of-mouth spread. And after that it was full of people coming in. When they came in. It was like, Wow, we’ve never been in here. Because the community was predominately Muslim.
We had a board up that said, ‘What would you like to see happening in here?’ And they started telling us, We want to tackle this, to tackle that, the kids were saying, ‘Let’s have a swimming pool in here!’ So we took those ideas. And we started to collate all the ideas from the local community, the different partners, the different organisations and the wider community as well. And then we came up with the strategy of what could potentially happen with this building.
At first it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s never gonna happen. It’s too big of an ambition’. Because what they were seeing was local community centres, play groups, children’s centres, everything shutting down.
Before the church renovation and regeneration of this church I was doing all sorts of other things. I used to be driving minibuses on a weekend, driving the kids from the local community to the Lads and Girls Club for activities and taking kids off the street, doing funeral services… So I had a bit of a reputation of doing things for the local community. When it came to the church renovation what I did was bring other people in from the local community to act as the voice of going out there and saying, ‘We’re looking at doing something’. At first it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s never gonna happen. It’s too big of an ambition’. Because what they were seeing is on the other side was local community centres, play groups, children’s centres, everything shutting down – everything was shutting down.
I was still working for the local authority, and I can remember going to see my boss and saying to him, I’m working on this project and I want the council’s buy-in, and he’s saying to me, Inayat listen: cracking idea, great idea. But you’re not going to get any support from the local authority because we’re just shutting the Waterplace down, (which is a swimming pool in the town centre). How can we support you when we’re shutting that down, and then you want to do this building as a project ? But he gave me his blessing and said, Listen, I’ll open the [council’s] Community Development store. And I engaged with them to get ideas about how to support community development work. And from there on, I just carried on doing it on my voluntary time.
Interviewer: I heard you dedicated 5000 unpaid hours to this project
[Laughs] Probably more, probably more now. I don’t know who calculated that. I think when the press release went out it said 5000 hours were taken, but I’ve not been counting. But yeah, it was day and night, thinking about partnerships, connections, reviewing drawings of the buildings. But I couldn’t have done this on my own. There’s no way. I could be passionate as long as I want, but if you’ve not got the right team, and the backing and the support…
I’m not coming in to preach anything. I’m preaching about the architecture, I’m preaching about common use; the activities in here.
The barriers and the backlash we did get was from other people from outside the community. In the local media, when they promoted the statements as: ‘Local Muslim regenerates a church’. That instigates the racism, the racists coming out, and saying ‘He’s going to convert it into a mosque’, when actually, there’s three, four mosques around the immediate vicinity. It doesn’t need to be converted into a mosque.
I’m not coming in to preach anything. I’m preaching about the architecture, I’m preaching about common use; the activities in here. I’m not preaching: You’ve got to convert into a different religion.
Now the building’s opened up to the elderly, to come and do chair-based exercises. And I genuinely honestly say, if we didn’t have this building, where would they go? We’ve got a little community centre around the back, owned by the local authority, it’s shut down. They can’t afford to keep it running; can’t even afford to keep it maintained. Similarly, whether it’s children coming in doing martial arts or other activities after school, whether it’s school visits and different programmes, or where it’s mother and toddlers group – we’ve just opened the doors and said, ‘Here you go’.
Community power is about local people from grassroots who day-in-day-out strive for the benefit of the community. It’s giving them more power, more support, more connections, rather than the constant barriers, the constant knocking the doors down to say ‘We want this’. [It’s allowing them] to continue to make a difference in the community.
if you were supported you with a little bit more, and we didn’t have the red tape, or you didn’t have to jump through hurdles, you could do even more; you can even do better.
What I’m saying is that if our statutory partners: the local authority, local councillors, the NHS Trusts, the other statutory organisations and the wider political spheres support the grassroots to say – actually, you’re doing this in your own time, you know what ticks in your community, you’ve got the finger on the pulse of your community – if we give you a little bit more, or if you were supported you with a little bit more, and we didn’t have the red tape, or you didn’t have to jump through hurdles, you could do even more; you can even do better. And actually it would save the resources of the local authority and their budgets. And All Souls Bolton is a classic example of this.
The direction of that travel for the Community Power Act is that when that comes into place – and it’s not if it’s when – is that it will give the community, the people on the grassroots [the power] to say actually, this has been mandated from the top and there’s no wiggling about to say no, we’re not going to support you. This is about a clear direction of: it’s come from the top, it’s in law that you have to – within reason – support the grassroots. And hopefully there’s going to be clear measures, clear direction, clear support to the local authority as well, to say, actually, this Act gives you the support, for you to then give the support back down to grassroots. It’s not just about, just give everything to the local community. No – the local authority needs that support as well. And in turn, the ripple effect, the ultimate ripple effect will be at the grassroots level to say – you will be listened to.
This agenda about giving rights and community power, and the Act, cuts across everything [politicians] are talking about, whether it’s about environment, whether it’s about community facilities, whether it’s about NHS and engaging communities, about GP access, about education, everything they are dealing with, everything cuts across at grassroots level. There’s a lot of resource at the grassroots level that could do wonders if that support was given.