Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Tottenham riots brought out the best in my church

The burnt-out shell of the Carpetright building following riots in Tottenham.
Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex Features

The first London church to invite me to preach on my initial visit to the UK back in Eastertide 1989 was St Mary's Lansdowne Road, Tottenham. I was staying in the Vicarage during the international synod of the Society of the Holy Cross ("SSC") as one of six priests respresenting the Australian region of the Society. Now, as they did then, the people of St Mary's witness lovingly and robustly to the Gospel and the Catholic Faith in a truly incarnational way. A friendly, muti-racial Anglo-Catholic parish with all age groups.

The Guardian newspaper is not usually sympathetic to organized religion in general and the Christian churches in particular, so it is significant that yesterday it printed an article by Fr Simon Morris of St Mary's on the impact of the Tottenham riots on the local community. Let's pray for Fr Simon and the people, and for all churches of whatever tradition in similar circumstances as they join with others of goodwill to care for the traumatized and rebuild - and renew - their neighbourhoods.

Thank God for this parish (and others like it)!

Tottenham riots brought out the best in my church

Fr Simon Morris

I was leading a parish pilgrimage to Walsingham in Norfolk when the riots happened in Tottenham on Saturday. We cut short the pilgrimage having heard what had happened and seen photographs on mobile phones. A hint of fear and much concern descended as we drove home but the reports were harrowing: "Father, I'm so worried - Tottenham's on fire," was one voicemail I received.

Photographs can only convey so much. There was havoc on Lansdowne Road when we pulled up in the minibuses on Sunday afternoon and saw the ruin of a building that had survived the blitz still smouldering as a result of the violence. This was Carpetright: an icon of the devastation and opposite Saint Mary's church.

Mass had been offered in the morning but with a much depleted congregation, largely because the faithful had been under the impression that the church was closed. The church, the vicarage and most of the street didn't have electricity until Monday lunchtime but the faithful got into action spontaneously.

Emergency service personnel and those affected by the devastation were offered friendly faces, tea and coffee, food, somewhere to sit, a toilet and somewhere to charge mobile phones (landlines aren't that common).

It was amazingly heartening to return and find all this already in progress - it was the natural response for the congregation. It also meant I could walk round the parish and be with people elsewhere. Most people say hello to the clergy in Tottenham but in the last few days the customary salutation has been exchanged for statements and questions: "So, what do you think about this?", "I'm glad you're around", "Isn't it frightening?" They wanted to speak to someone with authority, but perhaps especially because they'd seen me walking those same streets and living there with them for the past three years - it's what we do in the Church of England.

As BBC Radio 5 Live appeared on the Monday morning, so did a lady returning to the scene of what had once been her home - for Carpetright had some 25 flats above it. She needed her medication and the police were brilliant in obtaining this for her as she sat in the vestry, warmed by her cup of tea and the hugs from the faithful. One of the congregation had promised to make a wedding cake for someone so - lacking electricity - she turned up to use the church hall.

The hall's a hundred yards from the church but boiling water was coming in steady supply (still no electricity in church). People in the flats along Lansdowne Road started coming to fill their flasks. And we began taking it to them, so I ascended the familiar, grotty steps of the colourless stairwells. As an exhausted mother and her two-year-old slept, her 16-year-old son let me in and was slightly bemused as I'd never arrived at their door with a kettle before.

It was funny how the normal occasionally pierced through the unusual. As I stood with ear phones on, leaning against a car and about to speak to 5 Live's Victoria Derbyshire, Adam came with his familiar hand wave, customary request for prayer and offered me a mango. I mouthed: "Yes, of course. Thanks. I'm on the radio. See you later."

What's normal in Tottenham might be different henceforth. I hope - and have often found myself hoping this during my time here - the good people (and there are so many) don't leave Tottenham because otherwise they might be replaced by the indifferent or even the more inclined to be bad. I hope the bigger companies (Aldi, the Post Office, Carpetright) that have been destroyed decide to rebuild and are helped to do so. I hope the high-street shops that have been looted on Tottenham Hale don't leave. Tottenham had the exodus of business after the Broadwater Farm riots; surely it's time for it to become the promised land?


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