In the past week the UK has seen examples of both civil unrest and community response, many people have lost their homes and their livelihoods, some people have lost their lives. We found four people who experienced the riots and/or cleanup, asked for their story and their thoughts on the events of this week.
Phil Stokes: An inner city church planter and social entrepreneur who received a call from God to Brixton and Peckham following the Brixton riots in 1985. (PS)
Hayley Matthews: Chaplain to MediaCityUK at Salford Quays since September 2010. (HM)
Dan Thompson: Writer, artist and photographer who set up Empty Shops Network, ArtistsandMakers and launched the #riotcleanup on Twitter in response to the riots. (DT)
Chris Stone: Filmmaker based in SW London, near Clapham Junction from where he runs SmallSeedFilms. (CS)
What was your experience of the riots and clean up?
CS: I had been working in Bristol earlier in the week, hearing a few snippets of news about the riots in Tottenham and Hackney while I was away. To be honest I gave it very little attention – just a regional disturbance, so I thought – until I set off to return home and a last-minute check of facebook was full of shocked comments from my friends across London. I stayed up most of the night keeping track of events online, tracking the news and prayer requests from friends living more locally to the riots via twitter and facebook. I did this with some concern as the riots seemed to spread further and further south towards us.
HM: My experience of the riot in Salford was that it seemed to begin with a small group of young lads finding an ‘excuse’ to behave aggressively towards the police, yet the community itself not feeling remotely at risk, hence the massive amount of bystanders compared to a dozen stone throwers. Sadly, as things escalated and the word on the street spread, heavier elements of criminality arrived and the situation became quite threatening over a period of four hours or so and the situation did become a lot more violent with intent to loot, as could be seen by the BBC van being upturned and burned out. I never felt at risk personally, as the clear intent was for goods and towards the police – in fact as a member of clergy wearing my collar I was protected, talked to at length by lots of the men there about what was going on and why (in their opinion). Lots of residents wanted to tell me about what had been happening and how they felt, and the next day the huge clean-up, finished by 9am so that everything would be ‘business as usual’, showed just how much the community wanted to be back on track, resisting the temptation to be victimised or retaliate. They simply got on with it.
CS: I was woken early in the morning with an unusual request. Pete Greig (24-7 Prayer) wanted to do an immediate video response from one of the riot sites, so I headed into Clapham with Pete and my fiancee (24-7′s UK prayer co-ordinator). The scene when we arrived was extraordinary. Hundreds of people had turned up with brooms, bin bags and gloves to help clear up. Most had been mobilised via the twitter hashtag #riotcleanup, which I’d also noticed the previous night. Some had come on their own, some in groups. Many were wearing T-shirts bearing hand-written slogans: “we love London”; “Riot Clean Up”; and my favourite: “Power to the Peaceful”. Where rioters had wrought havoc and destruction during the night, the community came together in a great groundswell of love the next morning. As one woman put it: “the only way to combat hate is with love” and that is certainly my impression of what was happening in Clapham the morning after the London riots.
DT: My experience was all through a screen; first watching the news footage, then launching the #riotcleanup campaign on Twitter. I spent from Monday night, right through Tuesday, at the laptop; sorting Tweets, organising people, arranging for supplies and donations to get to the right place at the right time. And talking to lots of media, all around the world – spreading the message that we were cleaning up and getting ready for business. Now, at the end of the week, I’m catching up with the TV footage; it’s amazing to see so many people on the streets helping other people.
PS: Caught up in a real mix of venues and atmospheres: Quite a few prayer meetings; Out on the street with the #riotcleanup crew (found myself alongside a BBC presenter who lives in Peckham); In Emergency Meetings of the council, police and community leaders at the Town Hall; Planning with local leaders for a Southwark Service of Peace; On a telephone conference call with network leaders from across London; Interviewed on a BBC London radio show. Wondering when the large plate glass window of our High Street café would attract a random brick. Encouraged by the unity, genuine prayer and soul searching among leaders that I’ve not seen in quite awhile. Frustrated that I couldn’t get hold of many colleagues due to the summer evacuation of Christians to camps and (it must be said, largely well earned) breaks. Deeply saddened by the deep harm to both perpetrators and victims of the riots.
What questions and challenges do the events of this week raise for the church?
PS: All the big questions are now rattling around in the wider community. We need to speak thoughtfully and with authority right now – to the nation, to local communities, and to the Lord. This is the role of the Church – to bring hope and issue a prophetic challenge; to us as the church as well as the wider community. The urgent action of practical help… followed by the urgent debate and mature discussion with community leaders…alongside the urgent prayer for all who influence the culture of our times.
CS: At times like this people seem incredibly open to receiving love and prayer. People seem to understand that there is more to this than just disaffected youth or failing political systems, and people want to pray. The church has had quite a lot of practice at prayer over the years(!) so we are very well-placed to meet this need.
HM: How do we as a Church reconnect with young people with attitude whose sole aim it to ‘get what they want’ or to ‘be famous’? Have we become culturally disconnected? How do we begin to address the deep psychological issues of young people brought up in desperate circumstances (whatever they might be) and acting out both in behaviour, criminal acts and profoundly damaged self-esteem/worth? Why have we become an ‘elite club’ for those who behave well, live a perfect life and say the right prayers/sing the right songs? On a panel this week, another Christian panel member remarked to me – on finding out I was an Anglican priest – rude words that in summary said, ‘well we’re all proper Christians unlike you’. When did we lose our gentle, persistent, graceful patience?
CS: Another challenge for the church comes from the Turkish community in East London who turned out en masse to protect their homes and their shops from looters. As a community they stood against the disorder that was happening. Elsewhere in London this didn’t happen. People stayed in their homes, watching on the TV as rioters destroyed their streets, hoping that the police would eventually step in and bring order (admittedly, this is exactly what I was doing that very night). I asked a friend of mine why he thought the Turks had been able to do this where other communities hadn’t. He said, “it’s because they have a strong community – they all know each other”. The church is uniquely well-placed to help foster a sense of community. If we set an example of service, if we love the poor and disaffected, if we face outwards and practice hospitality, if we do, in short, the things that Jesus has taught us to do, we can play a significant part in helping build a community where events like those of last week need not be repeated.
HM: It’s easy to love when the going is good, but tough love, and I don’t just mean firm boundaries, tough love means sticking with it through thick and thin, laying down your life for it/them even when there isn’t a fairy-tale ending, not turning our backs and saying that we tried, so that’s our conscience clear. Finally, how do we, stretched as we are, generate the volunteers we need to carry out the social justice programmes we could if everyone wasn’t already working all the hours God sends? Our numbers are limited, we all have to earn a living and yet need presses in on every side, particularly as our economy remains in decline. We might need to learn to collaborate with people of other faiths and with public and statutory bodies. I sometimes wonder if that’s exactly want Jesus wants us to be doing, and we’re having our desire to be insular and singular deeply challenged.
DT: I’m agnostic, but the church has played a part in my life for some years. I’ve been lucky to meet two vicars, first at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Shoreham and then the Rev John Chitham at St Matthew’s in Worthing, who understood that their building wasn’t silent and sacred, but should be a space at the heart of the community. I’ve since read about Andrew Mawson’s work in Bromley By Bow, and he advocates a similar approach. The opportunity is one these three reverends already embrace; churches need to throw out the rule book, and say yes to anyone in the community that wants a space. They should be open as often as possible, welcoming and well presented. They should invest in quality furniture, fixtures and fittings so they feel special and that people using them feel special. It’s what the church has done historically – time to do it again.
Finally, an alternative look at young people in the UK from three, formerly homeless people who were asked what their ‘personal vision’ was by their local YMCA.
Post Curated By WorthTheAsk Image by Flickr user churchofpunk Video by J&E Higham