I was sat drinking (a rather fantastic) coffee in the front room of a large vicarage that was alive with Star Wars lego, which was for me a distraction from listening to what Cris who we had come to see had to tell us.
I felt slightly intimidated by meeting Cris as I have read one of his books and our old homegroup used one of his DVDs for our study course and so was at first slightly worried of saying something stupid that made me sound like some fan-boy stalker! Fortunately he was pretty normal and down to earth, my Mother in Law’s highest compliment was “they’re very ordinary” meaning they were easy to relate to and very human, which is how I found Cris.
Mark sat on another seat (and didn’t seem as distracted by Star Wars as I was) and scribbled down notes furiously which left me and Cris largely doing most of the talking.
“So, yeah, cool, um, tell us about what you are, sort of, doing here, yeah?” I asked, thinking I’ll never be a journalist with my crafted nuanced questions. Cris said that they had been here in Bow for about ten years and as a family they felt called and feels called to the area. This reminded me of my wife who when exploring somewhere new says “keep going until someone tells us to stop” -to be where God wants us (even if uncomfortable at times) and to remain there (again even if it is uncomfortable at times) is what we are called to do.
The family live in a large (and I mean really large) vicarage, but they also share it with a number of people who feel called to bless the area, and are living as an intentional community together. Each night (except Friday) they eat and pray together around the kitchen table which has become their family prayer altar. They pay into a shared purse for food and has a commonality of life here, and they are all reading the same scriptures each day. This community house however is only one of several community houses dotted around the local community, again eating and praying together and sharing the same scriptures together.
They are communities which are both intentional and missional, seeking to serve the people of the local area. All Hallows Bow came from Holy Trinity Brompton and could easily be attracting the bright and shiny from across London, but instead is seeking to serve its local community first. Jesus spoke of reaching out to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the early; yet too often we ignore the Jerusalem on our doorstep. Cris said that if it takes you longer than 10 minutes to walk to their Church (or so) then this Church might not be for you, the Church car park is often pretty empty when the building is full, because All Hallows is a local Church serving and blessing local people.
We are seeking to “live deeply” he said, the phrase resonated with me, it is about taking time to build real and authentic relationships, listening carefully to what is happening, and avoiding the temptation of the “quick fix” or “easy win”. Community work, especially in poorer areas, is for the long haul as too often people (sometimes the Church included) have “over promised and under delivered” words like “committed too” and “staying here” are clearly important ways of being.
“Our model for mission is the incarnation” Cris said, the idea of living amongst people just as Jesus lived amongst us, loving, helping, blessing, serving, praying, healing, listening and sharing Jesus with those around them. Christ proclaimed with their lips and lifestyles.
Whereas the Bromley by Bow centre was doing much good work with the government and statutory sector, primarily it seems like All Hallows was much more grass roots and was more about getting to know their neighbours and talking about the issues they face, including things such as knife crime, rather than having lunch with the chief of police and talking to him about antisocial behaviour.
Cris let us have a quick peak out of the window at the garden, and he said that this is one of their greatest resources, getting people together over food and having fun is something they are committed too. From my brief meeting of Cris is he’s clearly a guy who like a laugh and thought I can imagine people wanting to come around to his garden for a BBQ because it would be a great afternoon, not because “I ought to go the Vicar has invited me!” -I wondered about the attractiveness of Christianity and the Christian life style and wondered if perhaps we need to be more like Jesus and have more fun and welcome people to come and hang out with us more, or ask if they’d mind us hanging out with them.
As he spoke clearly people from the local community had become Christians and been transformed by coming to know Christ. I remembered our tag-line at All Souls’ the Church some friends and myself planted back in Kingswood Bristol “where strangers become friends and friends meet with Jesus” and thought that this Church was a great example of that prophetic statement of intent.
We went out for a wander, I often worry about looking like an off duty copper when I walk around other peoples areas, but as I’m now longish hair, scruffy beard (and a bit of a beer-belly) I think that’s less and less likely now! Cris, showed us the outside of the Church which is going to have a coffee bar open all the week, and would help local people learn to be Barista’s which could help them get other employment in the hospitality industry. Also, they would serve quality coffee at cheap prices so that large families and people on lower income can have a great morning out without it being prohibitively expensive.
We wandered to their community centre, many people who use this centre are from a number of different faith communities, including Muslims, there are some lovely photo’s on the wall of Cris and someone who looks like he’s the Iman, having fun and doing socials. “In a community like this you have to get to know one another and become friends, ??? is a really nice guy” he said.
I noticed that there were Bible verses all around the Centre and he clearly noticed me noticing and said something about how the Muslims actually respect us as Christians when they see us taking our faith seriously. Too often we try and hide our faith for fear of offence rather than being open, honest and up front about it which he has found many people of other faiths (and people of no faith) respect as it is being honest and authentic.
As we walked down the road the conversation moved to knife crime, and Cris shared that nearby someone got murdered and sadly it was filmed and posted on social media. It was a heart-breaking story.
We sat on a park bench, to pray for each other, but I was worried we might look like a drug deal, and asked God’s blessing on Cris and the community he leads here in Bow. We parted on the street corner and Mark asked how to get back onto the main-line tube station, which involved us taking a stop on the train to Canary Wharf. Stepping onto the posh glass shopping area when we got off the train with its incredibly expensive produce it seemed hard to believe that literally a couple of minutes earlier we had been such a vastly different, and much poorer, part of London, the contrast between the areas was stark, yet Jesus is good news and longs to be known by people from every walk of life.