Sometimes when friends ask me about my church, I’ll tell them this.
If you come out of our church door and turn right, in 150 metres, you’ll be on Rye Lane. Fruit boxes and discarded veg, lit-up butchers shops with chickens hanging from the ceilings, nail bars, phone accessories winking and sheaves of hair. The fishmongers shovel their ice into the drains, creating year-round – and rather smelly – snow drifts. There are pound shops, betting shops and payday lenders, offering quick cash loans with crippling interest rates.
You’ll also, incidentally, be on the street with the best soundtrack in London.
If you come out of the door and turn left, in 150 metres, you’ll be on Bellenden Road. The estate agents have taken to calling the streets around it ‘Bellenden Village’. Here you’ll find an award-winning organic butcher, a French chocolatier, a vintage clothes store and a 5-star rated restaurant.
The church I work at, All Saints Peckham, is slap-bang in the middle. Often I wonder if our position is also part of our call.
A couple of weeks ago, Vicky Walker wrote for threads about Peckham, gentrification and the Church. Gentrification is a funny word. It turns a human phenomenon into something that sounds like a force of nature. “House-prices? Oh, I know: gentrification.” “Have you seen that new Campari bar in the disused factory? Gentrification.”
But the truth, and I think Vicky nailed it, is that gentrification is actually just people making decisions. People being people, those decisions are sometimes driven by community-minded, creative, hospitable instincts, but also by less happy motives – fear, opportunism, FOMO, or habit. “It’s the economy,” – another faceless force. But we’re the economy whenever we take our wallets out of our pockets or choose not to. “Those politicians.” But we’re the politicians, when we choose to vote or not, when we choose to write to our MPs or councillors, or stand for office ourselves – or not.
Those of us who follow the God who was born in Jesus, slap-bang in the middle of a complicated world, are called to bring salt and light – preserving and flavouring, clear sight and openness – to these decisions.
Like every church, we are seeking to join in with what God is doing, which in practice means a fair amount of trial and error. We don’t, and we won’t, always get it ‘right’. At our services, we’re looking to God, and in the process, we’re connecting to one another – an eclectic bunch. Some of us have lived in Peckham so long that they remember playing in bomb sites from the war when they were kids. Others moved in decades ago in a period when the colour of their skin made a difference to the welcome they received. Many remember that Peckham was once a destination shopping area with an upscale department store, while others moved in five minutes ago and have only ever known the multi-storey carpark as the hipster summertime bar Franks.
We are a founding member of Peckham Citizens, which, through a process of gathering, organising and mobilising among the many communities that make up Peckham, is bringing real positive change in the area, based on the priorities our listening campaign, 1000 Voices, identified. This includes working with local primary schools to clean and make safe a park they said they were too scared to play in. It includes securing a promise from Southwark Council to build Community Land Trusts homes in the area, providing genuinely and permanently affordable homes in a place where house prices are soaring.
We are glad to run a Christians Against Poverty (CAP) centre, freeing friends from burdens of debt and isolation. We are delighted that our church hall hosts a free meal every Saturday, where volunteers from Foodcycle cook up food that supermarkets would otherwise throw away, and serve it to anyone who’s up for some good company with their Saturday dinner.
The absolute baseline of what we believe is that God is head-over-heels in love with the people of Peckham: in the betting shops and the bars, the hipster coffee shops and the payday lenders. God has loved Peckham longer and harder than any of us. Historical eddies, call them gentrification or whatever you like, can’t dislocate us from that.
I’m reminded of the first church in Europe, a church that began its life with a slave girl and a jailer blinking at one another in the home of a well-off fabric trader called Lydia, and wondering how to go about loving God, loving one another, and loving their town, a little place called Philippi. Something they found in that struggle – the joy of it – seemed to catch on. It spread.
So here are a few thoughts about engaging in your community, from the experiences we’ve had at All Saints Peckham:
- Make friends outside your own generation.
Invite someone who has lived in your area for longer than you for dinner. Ask someone younger than you what matters to them. Be a volunteer mentor at a local school. (Try Action Tutoring.) Ask someone from an older generation to be your partner in prayer.
- Invest time in your local community.
In an era of ‘clicktivism’, become a campaigner who takes the time to listen and has the patience to work hard for positive changes in your community. It starts, unglamorously, with showing up at a meeting about an issue that matters in your local community. Who knows where it will lead?
- If you’re an entrepreneur, brilliant!
Bring your God-given creativity to bear on your community. Take a look around – who is working in your community, and who needs work? Who is catered for, and who is left out? Be responsive to the reality of your community. This may just be a personal bugbear, but I despair at the number of coffee vendors in Peckham. Within 50 steps of Peckham Rye station there are now six places I can buy a coffee. But I struggle to think of places I can buy a paper. I’m calling time on new coffee businesses describing themselves as entrepreneurial. Take inspiration from people like my friend Bridget who started a business with the specific aim of employing people who needed work – and which also happens to sell great pizza. Or just open a newsstand near the station in Peckham.
- Prayer-walk around your area at different times of the day.
You’ll see different groups – shoppers, commuters, retired people, families, people heading to the bars. God loves them all like crazy. Pray for them all like crazy.