Cover Story

London without a guidebook

Journalists and tourists tend to hover at Westminster with its famous Big Ben. Yet east and west, out of the spotlight, conservative social activists are reclaiming the changing face of the city with justice, compassion, and hope

Issue: "Minority report," Aug. 11, 2007

LONDON- At 1 p.m. in the west of London, near the exit of the Ladbroke Grove tube station, a Christian candidate for Parliament on the Conservative Party ticket strides past a woman in full Islamist head-to-toe dress. A realtor in what was a depressed neighborhood advertises a two-bedroom flat on sale for 350,000 pounds (about $710,000). No customers are in a shop that advertises Bailey's Irish Cream in both English and Arabic, but a line waits at the counter of U.S. Fried Chicken.

At 2 p.m. in the east of London, the leader of the Christian Peoples Alliance walks past Canning Town businesses: Amazing Grace Afro Caribbean Food, Bargain Meat Centre (featuring Fresh Halal Meat), and His Grace Hairdressing, which offers curly perms, straight perms, braids, plaits, and weaves. No patrons at the Signs and Wonders Hair Salon are in sight, but a line waits at the counter of Dallas Chicken and Ribs.

Westside, eastside, all around this sprawling metropolis of 12-14 million, demographics are changing, prices are rising, and small groups of Christians are engaging the radically secular culture that surrounds them. How they fare will powerfully affect the future of a land once salted by Christianity, now sprinkled by Islam.

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As Shaun Bailey, the 35-year-old grandson of immigrants from Jamaica, walked through westside Ladbroke one afternoon, he regularly called out to young men, "What's happening, bro?" They all responded with a wave, and some crossed Golborne Road to talk with him, darting past sidewalk stalls where sellers hawk clothes, games, shoes, and toilet tissue.

"Street work allows me to meet them in an arena where they feel comfortable," said Bailey, a 6-foot-tall, muscular youth worker. He tried to convince a fat English bloke to enter a training course: "It's not like sitting in college." He spoke with a bearded Moroccan immigrant who wore jeans and a jean jacket, and later explained, "He's a hustler, but he wants to go straight. My job is to challenge them, and if they offer crap, to tell them it's crap."

As Bailey walked past the neighborhood's three-story buildings, which typically sported first-floor shops with flats above, he sometimes singled out individuals sitting at small outdoor cafés. He told a slightly built 17-year-old Moroccan, "I've got a job opening for you. You'll be a proper businessman. Here's my card. All day Wednesday I'll be there. . . . I'm not going to call you, you have to come see me if you're serious."

He later estimated the teen's likelihood of showing up at 50-50. "I know he's been doing some bad stuff, but if he shows up we'll have the conversation. I'll tell him this is his chance to be a big man." If the person responds, Bailey gives him a GPS navigation tool (valued at $600) that will enable him to deliver take-out food. The would-be seller has to rent a cycle and pay insurance.

Bailey gave out another card to a man who kept glancing furtively down the road. "They all know I'm not a copper," he said, and then reported that he's handed out those navigation tools about 60 times and, amazingly, has yet to lose an investment: "I'm taking a risk, but if he absconds he knows he's hurting others. Besides, he knows he's likely to bump into me again."

If the teen succeeds as a deliverer, what comes next? "That's entirely up to him," Bailey responded. "Labour Party politicians say that delivering take-out is not much of a job, but the point is to get him used to the idea of working and earning legitimate money. He's also learning a lot from paying bills, because that means he is a big man who gives money to others. The job will keep him busy, give him self-respect, and start him thinking about how he can earn more money, legit. In three or four months he'll come back to me with a new business idea."

Working with donations and funds from a charitable trust, Bailey has also paid college fees for some among the poor and has equipped others for jobs as locksmiths, bicycle repairers, and hair cutters. When he recently sent 13 people to be trained for repairing railway lines, 11 gained jobs. (The other two failed drug tests.)

Bailey knows deprivations and temptations. When he was growing up, "my dad was almost entirely absent, so my mum kept me going to church until I was 13 or 14, but I escaped from that at my first opportunity." Three years ago Bailey had been a youth worker for a dozen years and was thinking of trying another occupation where he would earn more money, until something happened: "My girlfriend said I should do Alpha," the evangelistic program that has been influential across England.

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