Sybil Phoenix (née Marshall) spent her first thirty years in her native British Guiana (now Guyana). She was a trained classical singer and seamstress, ran a sportswear and leather goods business and was a youth worker at Clubland, run by the Methodist Church in Georgetown. Despite her accomplishments, when she and her fiancé Joe moved to London in 1956 they knew the same hurtful experiences that any black immigrant encountered. They married at Shepherds Bush Methodist Church and soon moved to Lewisham.
Around 1961 she responded to a social worker’s urging to take up foster care, and over several decades her extended family grew to hundreds. She raised the money to build the first black youth club in Britain; when it was burned down by the National Front in 1977 she announced, ‘My name is Phoenix and with the help of God I will build a new centre from the ashes.’ This she did within four years, and at the same time she opened a supported housing project for 21 single homeless women aged 16-25. In 1973 she was the first black woman to be awarded the MBE, followed by the OBE in 2008. She was the Mayoress of Lewisham in 1998-9.
Her greatest contribution to Methodism was a ‘yellow paper’ which challenged and changed the church’s understanding of and approach to race relations. As a result she co-founded, with Vic Watson, the Methodist (later Methodist and Ecumenical) Race Awareness Workshops (MELRAW). Her unquestioning care for people and her campaign against any kind of discrimination had a profound effect on many people, as did her firm belief that a battle against unjust structures does not have to involve bitterness.