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The world on our doorstep

December 2007 | by Matt Vaughan

The world on our doorstep

Walking from Liverpool Street Station towards Brick Lane is an odd experience. The prosperity around the station proclaims London as the leading financial capital. Massive amounts of wealth change hands every day in modern office buildings, while sharply-suited businessmen and women dash to and fro chatting into mobiles.

Yet only a few streets away is Brick Lane, the perennial home of displaced minorities – Huguenot refugees, Jewish immigrants and, more recently, Bangladeshis. Veiled Muslim women walk past curry houses. Men in kurta robes chat on street corners. Even street names are translated into Bengali.

A few hundred metres are all that separates Brick Lane from the wealth of the City, yet it could be hundreds of miles. Corporate elegance and stark ethnic segregation – two faces of modern Britain.

Christ Church

Standing between these communities is the tall white tower of Christ Church Spitalfields, one of Urban Vision’s partner churches. This beautiful old church backs directly onto Brick Lane. It is the main Christian building in a majority Muslim area and its mission statement is to ‘grow the church and bless the community’.

How do we demonstrate God’s love and grace while not losing sight of crucial differences such as those between Christianity and Islam? Some church leaders react to Islam with fear rather than love.

Fuelled by generalisations about suicide bombers and veiled Muslim women, their message has more of ultra right-wing politics than the love of God in Christ. But thankfully not all are like that. Others respond with practical love instead of strident rhetoric.

The worshippers at Christ Church Spitalfields, assisted and trained by Urban Vision’s Steve Bell, have carried out sensitive outreach for several years and it has been heartening to behold.

Holiday clubs are a good example. This year’s club was themed on pirates. Children were invited to make name badges, paint a banner for their particular team, and take part in games. One game consisted of each team member rushing forward and popping a balloon containing a word. When all the balloons had been popped they had to rearrange the words to form Philippians 1:3 – ‘I thank my God every time I remember you’.

Delight

The sight of 40 mostly Muslim children squealing with delight – rushing about popping balloons and puzzling over a Bible verse – was exciting. Barriers of culture, language and fear were beginning to fall.

After games were over, the children sat listening to a Bible story from Christ Church vicar Andy Rider. Watching Muslim children listen attentively to the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was truly encouraging, especially since several parents stood at the back and listened too.
But even though the week was a great success, there were difficulties.

The marquee for the holiday club had scorch marks where someone had tried to burn it down, the night before. While the church team were praying before club, a burning cigarette lighter was thrown onto the roof, followed soon after by a beer bottle. Yet it is surely better to get involved in gospel work and be harassed, than not get involved at all.

The stark reality is that such outreaches touch only a tiny proportion of Muslims in Tower Hamlets. The gap between Liverpool Street and Brick Lane is still culturally huge. But it is also true that every long journey has to start somewhere.

Perhaps some spiritual seeds scattered during the week will lodge in fertile ground! Perhaps God’s love is beginning to cross divides in Spitalfields!
 
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