The visits to Newham and Tottenham were the most exciting part of the conference by far. London, and all of the UK, struggle with problems of racism and social injustice almost identical to those faced here in the US. The statistics on unemployment and wages are similar. Workers in the UK are fighting for a fair minimum wage. Residents of economically challenged neighborhoods are asking for more and better affordable housing. Everyone is struggling against a very few members of society who control the vast majority of wealth and property. Both Newham and Tottenham were profoundly impacted by rioting two years ago; rioting sparked when police shot an unarmed young black man.
The Selby Center in Tottenham is similar to “one-stop” centers we see in many American cities, including Columbus. These centers include everything economically challenged persons might need to try to make positive change in their lives: a job center, child care, instruction on writing and speaking, training for specific jobs, English as a second language services, computers for public use, even a “library” of business attire. There are also 12-step programs and other psychological services. The neighborhood meeting in Newham focused on housing. Newham has recently attracted the attention of wealthy people looking to rehab charming, older homes close to central London. Many residents of Newham lost their homes as a result.
What struck me most about both these communities’ efforts to take control of their situation was the diversity of the participants and their “no-nonsense” approach. Every race, age, and religion was represented at each and they all worked together comfortably and respectfully – no shouted speeches or arguing, no expressions of bitterness, no one mentioned injustice or victimization. They just got about the business of fixing whatever they could. When they talked about the wealthy investors whose plans would result in homelessness for all of them, it was as if they were talking about the weather. What they did instead was discuss a solid plan and hand out assignments. They planned to buy as many buildings as they could, strategically located so large developments would not be possible. Each person there was given an assignment and clear deadlines.
So much can be learned from this approach. The investors care about the neighbors just about as much as a thunderstorm cares about a picnic and yelling about them, vilifying them – does about as much good as yelling at rain. When we blame and vilify others – even if they deserve it – we only drag ourselves down spiritually. These neighbors did not give in to fear and anger. They did not follow the investors down, they led each other upward. They did not leave the meeting happily exhausted after unloading on each other; they left with a sense of empowered purpose and tasks that will succeed. That’s solidarity!
The TRRR conference explored the impact of religion and religious organizations on problems and solutions to social sin. I was on a panel discussing the ability of religious organizations to work toward solutions in the African Diaspora. I spoke about the Social Gospel days when the Deaconesses lived in urban communities doing Home Mission work. Deaconesses would walk around the neighborhood, being friendly and chatting with people. From time to time they would meet someone who needed some advice or support, maybe even medical care or legal advice. The Deaconesses called their ministry the “friendly visit.” City neighborhoods still have a need for “friendly visits” from people who are in a position to give advice and help people who are underserved by our society. The Deaconess movement fell victim to the Evangelical backlash against the Social Gospel (in 1914 evangelist Billy Sunday called their work “Godless social service” – an oxymoron if I ever heard one!) and also was a victim of its own success. Many women who completed Deaconess training went out into a world where the Deaconesses had shown the value of women in medical and social service professions. Offered the choice between the monastic life of a Deaconess and good-paying job, few women chose the former and by 1930 the houses and training programs were closing down. My talk in London urged churches to consider their responsibility to the neighborhoods around them and urged a revival of the “friendly visit.” It seems like the Wesleyan thing to do!
- Written by Pastor Julie Fairchild, MDiv student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio, certified candidate for ordination as Elder in the UMC’s West Michigan Conference, Grand Rapids District; currently serving as Licenced Local Pastor at Scioto United Methodist Church and Harmony United Methodist Church in Bucyrus Ohio.