Magazine article The Christian Century

Easter Life in East London

Magazine article The Christian Century

Easter Life in East London

Article excerpt

MOST OF THE elderly faces standing behind the children are white. Though they're not filled with the same delight and wonder as the little black and brown faces nearer to the baptismal pool, they smile as they gaze intently at the sacrament unfolding before them. Like several other people I am standing on tiptoe in stocking feet on my chair (perhaps the strangest position I've ever assumed in a sanctuary), straining for a view of the first man to be dunked. I realize that "dunked" is not the theologically correct term for baptism by immersion. But the gleeful children encircling the pool and the slightly chaotic, good-natured jostling of the adult parishioners create an atmosphere in which the term "dunked" seems appropriate. The baptisms of a white British laborer, a beautiful Zairian woman and a courageous Indian man are the highlight of this Easter Sunday service at St. Andrew's Church.

Before the baptisms, the congregation of 200 sang a traditional arrangement of "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today" with organ accompaniment, listened to the electrifying and unpredictable music of the colorfully dressed Ethiopian choir, and enjoyed a lilting Brazilian melody sung by two women accompanied by guitar. It was a kaleidoscope of sight and sound. In front of me sat a large-boned Kenyan woman in a flowing purple, yellow and white African dress; ahead of her sat a Filipino couple, two single Indian teens and a white British family. The proclamation by pastor Patrick Sookhdeo that the church of Jesus Christ is a multicultural community sounds convincing at St. Andrew's, where some 23 different ethnic groups unite to worship one Lord.

Few parishioners are well-off. The church is located in the thick of Newham, Britain's second-poorest borough. Most walk to church and live within a few miles of the building. Many face danger regularly. A neofascist drinking club is located directly across the street from the church, and two or three incidents of racially motivated violence and terrorism occurred in the neighborhood during each day of my visit. Less than a mile south of the church, in a community called Canning Town, the neo-Nazi British National Party enjoys considerable popularity among working class and unemployed white East Londoners.

Fully 42 percent of Newham is nonwhite; on a short walk from St. Andrew's I met Afghans, Pakistanis, Nigerians, Bangladeshis, Jamaicans, Somalis and Sri Lankans; I passed Hindu temples and Muslim mosques. Meanwhile Britian's double-decker red buses weave through the streets past pubs called "Duke of Edinborough" and "Gloucesters." The mixture of colors, cultures and religions has produced a lamentable chronicle of pain in Newham: West Indian children are battered by brick-wielding angry whites. African families find their front windows smeared with dog excrement. Bangladeshis are burned out of their homes by arson attacks, and Asian teens are beaten in broad daylight by gangs of BNP sympathizers.

In the midst of this neighborhood, the communion liturgy at St. Andrew's claims that "though we are many, we are one, sharing One Bread, One Body." To maintain harmony, church leaders plan services that reflect the congregation's diversity. The white music director tells me she always selects at least one song she "really dislikes," figuring that some group will like it. Midweek Bible study groups are deliberately kept heterogeneous--members are shuffled around every so often to prevent the cells from becoming dominated by one ethnic group. …

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