Sunday April 28th was a truly Pentecost experience in April. What else could one expect at Christ Church, Newham where the membership comprises of people from Zambia, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, South Africa, Cameroon, Ghana, Colombia, Brazil, Wales, England (including the independent Republic of Yorkshire!), India, Pakistan, Romania, Jamaica, Netherlands, Nigeria, Guyana, Malawi, Barbados, Grenada, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Congo-Brazaville. It was a packed out Church, a preacher’s dream, with lively responses throughout the service and the children and young people actively participating in worship.
As is usual, I started out early given my dependence on public transport. Among the other reasons for an early start is my interest in stopping (on the way) at local cafes for tea and conversation, in giving myself enough time to observe the surrounding landscape, walk through busy “markets” to catch a flavour of local haggling and conversations, and to ponder architecture, types of shops and amusing self-descriptor of businesses. In most of these surroundings, the visible texts and images are a feast for the eyes.
So on the way to Christ Church, Newham, the open Market just by Upton Park Tube station offers a lively space for a variety of voices. Further on, I was struck by the irony of two temples side by side, with their competing claim for the allegiance of their supporters: West Ham United and a Catholic Church aptly named “Our Lady of Compassion. Further down the street, I passed a Mosque, so blended in with the other buildings that one could easily miss it! But not so for a Christian Church (WGMi) on the other side of the road, which advertises itself as “a place where miracles happen, because of Jesus Christ.” I have been reliable informed that Newham is one of the areas with a very high concentration of Churches with names that will make heaven roll with laughter!
Having arrived early, I was pleasantly surprised find an open Church and to be welcomed by Ashley Evans (minister), Marie Trubic (crcw) and Kaze Bachelard (minister in training). I was also given a colourful “welcome” card with the right amount of information and clear indication of what to expect during worship. Throughout the worship, the leaders took care to ensure that all felt welcomed, especially explaining every part of the service for “visitors”. The youthful worship leader for the day (Dan) led the service, with the minister, the assistant pastor (Reuben) and the readers (Elaine and Matthew) also participating. Besides the intentional participation of various people in worship, there is a strong music ministry at Newham, with significant input from the youths. I also learnt that Newham has a very high percentage of unemployed young people with two or three university degrees in their possession!
Needless, to say the singing was lively, animated and very upbeat. I was especially delighted with the contributions of the multi-ethnic choir from the local Primary School (Southern Road) whose performance of “Give me oil in my lamp”, “wade in the water” (African-American Spiritual) and Musical Memories” was sheer joy to the ear and soul. Christ Church does very good work with this local school, a contact which goes way back when the school was built on church land. There was also a well-done rap song from Joy Mbugua and her friend from a congregation of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa which meets in one of the URC churches.
My sermon (or talk) as it was described developed the theme of “Living the Love of Jesus” (John 13:31-35), a script I had to totally and spontaneously rework, given that all the children and young people remained in the service and given the interactive and responsive nature of the gathering It was a truly wonderful experience – bringing back memories of the Caribbean Churches. For the curious, my “talk”, which was largely “performative”, can be found on the webpage of Christ Church. For those, not accustomed to a moderator of the URC preaching this way, welcome to the brave new world of our intercultural life together! The message, whatever our style and theology, remains ever relevant and necessary: “the effects of the resurrection must shape our lives and faith. ‘Jesus Christ is risen’, must have consequences. It changes everything, including the way we are supposed to relate to each other. Are our faith practices, the programmes we roll out, and the structures we put in place motivated by or even reflect the command to ‘love one another’? How? And if not, what needs to change? ‘Love one another as I love you’ is an invitation to draw near, rest deeply in and make real God’s love in Christ which is always enough for us.”
Christ Church (Newham) describes itself as a growing church. And it is! The impression I am left with is a community with a collective understanding that church/worship is something they do all week long and Sunday gathers up (as an offering) what they have been doing all week. And most significantly, their premise is that God has been good to them and they feel blessed, in spite of some of harsh realities they are faced with, and want to share this good news! Here is a a different narrative from the self-fulfilling one some of us are accustomed to tell ourselves!