Cover Story

Normal Christians

Compassionate conservatism, British-style

Issue: "UK: Two faiths collide," July 22, 2000

Alan Craig, director of the Mayflower Family Centre in London's poorest ward, hands one of his fliers to visitors almost apologetically, because the words that start it out sound insulting: "Many people have referred to this area as a dump." The crucial words on the flier come next: "We don't agree. We are pleased to live here and pleased to celebrate life in Canning Town."

We don't agree. Physically, Canning Town in London's east end doesn't look that bad. Located only a few hundred yards from now-closed docks once famous for launching the first ironclad ship in 1860, the area received unrequested slum clearance via heavy German firebombing during World War II. The British government after the war built drab brown brick 2, 3, and 4-story apartment buildings, but they are not kudzued over as in Atlanta, and crime-ridden high-rises are rare.

Almost-omnipresent little satellite dishes attached to the walls show that residents are availing themselves of both bread and circuses. Mr. Craig said that "materially, Canning Town isn't that badly off. Kids are not going hungry; they're asking, 'When will my mum get me a new mobile phone?'" But Canning Town, which is about two-thirds white, has the highest percentage of lone parents in England. Drug abuse is common and crisis pregnancies are on the rise: "The blokes don't get on with the girls, and the girls aren't meeting the blokes except for one night to produce kids."

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Mayflower's history is of consistently bringing people together. Today, its charming English garden is surrounded by a chapel, two hostels, two sports buildings, and other facilities. Each building has a mock-Tudor façade; the whole resembles an Oxbridge college quadrangle. But the quiet of the garden on a summer afternoon may cover over the debate that has raged within nearby walls over the years: In bringing people together, must Christ be the essential glue, or should substitutes be accepted?

Begun as the Malvern College Mission in 1894-Malvern was a posh school-Mayflower took on its name (a tribute to the Pilgrims) in 1958 when it was led by a national cricket star turned minister, David Sheppard. Funds flowed in for a time, but by the 1980s the local government was demanding "multifaith" approaches, and a fast-turnover succession of managers and staffers debated whether to go along. Mr. Craig, who had worked with Canning Town hooligans for a dozen years, took over five years ago. Recently married, he and his wife are expecting their first child early next year, and his message is as unmistakable as the pregnancy: "All our activity is based in Christ."

Mayflower now has a $300,000 budget but no strong institutional support. The Anglican Church pulled out three years ago. The local council, an elected governmental body, has also removed its funding. (The council is 100 percent made up of Labour Party members, and they were not amused when Mayflower said it would not host lesbian assertiveness or Muslim classes.) The Labour government and the European Union Commission fund many projects in the area, but Mr. Craig points to not only irreligion but inefficiency: "For each million quid [pounds] that hit the streets, two million are spent on bureaucracy." So Mayflower receives half its income from renting out its facilities and hostel space, and the other half from contributions.

A quarterly prayer bulletin shows the gamut of activities and needs: "Pray for Neil and the other helpers as they run a football [soccer] club for boys and also the Tuesday club aimed for boys aged 8-12 years.... Pray for Mums and Tots's Group, that we may be able to extend it to two days a week.... Pray for the Film Club that it will grow in numbers.... Pray for the pensioners [elderly] today as they meet for a fish and chip supper.... Pray for the darts club that meets every Tuesday evening, that through fun and fellowship they might know God's presence and love.... Praise God for the Thursday Bible study group."

But perhaps a song written by one former resident, Patrick Butler, best captures disease and antidote. It includes these stanzas: "Fish and chips in front of the T.V./ Feet up, hard day, ain't been busy./ Kids are outside throwing stones,/ Going in boxes pulling out telephones.... / Hammers play on a Wednesday night,/ The lads are up there hoping for a fight./ Little old lady mugged in the subway,/ Someone hears but turns the other way." A follow-up stanza is key: "But there are smiling faces/ And a spirit that won't be broken,/ Jesus cares so why deny Him?"

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