Wednesday, 7 January 2015

He's Behind You!

My friends at The Centre for Theology and Community asked me for an Advent reflection. Here it is - you can take a look at it on their website if you prefer!

Back in the hazy days of summer, our small church community decided to take on another activity for the Advent season. A community pantomime! As we lay under the summer sun in Stepney Green Park on our annual picnic it seemed a great idea. Yes, we would be busy – after all, we’d still do our carol services, nativity at Stepney City Farm, the Christmas lunch, fundraising with the brass band and various parties – but it would be worth it. (Oh yes it would!)

Two weeks ago, sitting in a meeting with Christian leaders I announced that our panto was approaching fast. Handing around leaflets for ‘Aladdin Trouble’, I added that all were welcome. It was then that I heard the words – ‘will there be any spiritual content?’ Looking back I suppose there were a thousand different responses I could have given. But in the moment, and slightly embarrassed by the setting, I failed to take it on. So here’s my chance to make a proper response.

If ever there was a theological narrative to unmask the false dichotomy of a world divided into sacred and secular, it’s the Advent story. The historical coming of Jesus as Emmanuel – God with us – dismantles in one fell swoop the idea of a deity in his heavenly home set apart from his earthly creation. From the moment that the Son of Man was conceived in Mary’s womb the human and divine became inseparable.

The Advent narrative of course does not stop there in Judea 2000 years ago. Jesus is returning – coming again in all his glory. He is coming now for those with eyes to see. Look and see what he’s doing – I glimpse him at the night shelter at last finding somewhere to lay his head, I sit with him at our jobs club scouring the internet for work, I feel his presence walking amongst us as we gather to call on the rich to pay their employees a Living Wage, I hear his harmonies as we sing carols in the draughty train station. Jesus is coming, forever coming.

Back to the panto. Widow Twanky struts across the stage and bursts into song – his voice rising to a crescendo. Children and adults huddled together in the chilly community centre throw back their heads in laughter. An overwhelming sense of community and joy fills the room. This group have never gathered together before. They share the same streets and schools and shops and flats but until now they’ve never acted as one. On the front row children experiencing their first ever show start up a chorus of boos and hisses at the villain and squeal in delight as he responds with a withering look. And the cast, thrown together for five weeks only, realise for a moment that they are part of something deeply spiritual. For Jesus is treading the boards with them demonstrating for a moment in Stepney that his kingdom is coming on earth as it is heaven. Oh yes it is!!!

Friday, 19 December 2014

Interview - Middle Path Radio

I had the privilege of being interviewed on Middle Path Radio about Stepney, community, interfaith work and politics. I enjoyed it immensely.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

A morning in Tower Hamlets

Reading the media coverage about Tower Hamlets over the last couple of weeks I wondered this morning whether it was safe to leave the Stepney home I've occupied for the past 11 years. Wandering down to my local shops I was shocked to discover that they were still open and selling stuff. As I handed over the money for a pint of milk to the shopkeeper, a man of Bangladeshi heritage, he smiled at me and asked how I was. To my surprise he was actually talking to me, and in English! Given that we've known each other for many years and this was the usual routine I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but then the papers, you know, seemed to suggest Tower Hamlets is not like that.

On the way home, I passed Stepney City Farm. Families from all backgrounds were heading in - some of them were even talking to each other. A little taken aback by this blatant mixing of people from different ethnic, cultural, social and religious backgrounds I asked them if this was a special event or day organised for social cohesion. Weirdly, they seemed genuinely surprised by my question - 'no just a normal Saturday' one of them said. Odd that.

Could it be true? Could this be a real snapshot of Tower Hamlets life or am I mistaken? I was amazed, too, that the streets seemed swept, the bins had been collected and the grass verges were mown. The church was still standing, too, and it didn't have an Islamic flag flying from the tower. 

I'll be honest I'm confused. I mean I read the papers and Twitter and they say one thing and then I have my own real, everyday experience and it tells me something else. They both can't be right, surely.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Living Wage Week #3: Excuses and Values

When you campaign for a living wage you get used to hearing the same excuses for why a particular organisation or business won't pay it. Top of the list, as you would expect, is 'we can't afford it'. I always find it amazing that employers are so quick to say it, usually before even trying to work out the maths or taking account of the added business benefits that Living Wage employers always speak about (higher productivity, less sick days, less staff turnover). I'm convinced that if employers sat down and worked it out properly, and took advice from at least 1 of the 1000+ employers who've gone through the process they'd discover it's not as expensive as they think, and almost certainly a lot less than the hugely inflated figures they tend to defensively produce on the back of an envelope. Take a look at the diversity on the living wage employers list. Any business contemplating it will find someone like them has already done it!

Many employers like to pass the buck, especially those who enjoy the hassle free arrangement of contracting out their lowest paid workers. Typically they counter with 'it's the contractors who set the wage levels not us.' Any contractor will tell you that is simply untrue - contractors pay the levels set in the contract and organisations/businesses are welcome to set them at a living wage level if they like.

Arsenal football club have come up with a different excuse altogether - that the living wage is political. I must admit I'm a bit confused by this one. It seems rather strange that when it comes to setting players wages it's all about business and on-field success but when it comes to the cleaners' pay it's suddenly a political matter.

The truth is, whether employers will admit it or not, it's not the market, nor the contractors, nor politics that are the issue - it is the employer themselves. They choose not to pay it. And often they choose not to pay it because of generally accepted, self-imposed values about employment and money. These values determine that certain jobs should only be paid a certain amount and that the minimum wage level is somehow the benchmark. In other words the least they can get away with or just above it.

But what if businesses operated on a new set of values? Why shouldn't an employer, for example, choose to have a smaller deferential between the highest and lowest paid employees? The top earners take a small hit to lift up the bottom earners. Now that's a company I'd want to work for. Or an organisation that explains to all employees that in order to lift the wages of the bottom earners they will forgo certain perks or tighten their belts in certain areas. Is it ridiculously naive of me to think that workers for organisations across the UK might be up for this in order to stand in solidarity with their colleagues? Certainly there are accredited Living Wage Employers who make big sacrifices in order to ensure that all their staff are not on a poverty wage. Those are the employers who impress me the most.

I like that the Living Wage is a choice, not an imposition. It unmasks the values beneath the branding and initiates a counter cultural movement to the status quo. Congratulations to those who've seen the light - may there be many more with the guts to give it a go.

Here's a great film about a small business paying the Living Wage.

Living Wage from Connected Pictures on Vimeo.

Monday, 3 November 2014

Living Wage Week #2: An historical dimension

Walk around the streets in my neighbourhood and the ghosts of Living Wage campaigns past lurk on every corner.

Getting on the Tube at Mile End I remember that on 12th June 1381 workers from Essex and Kent camped in fields nearby before meeting King Richard II over the river in Blackheath in a bid to end serfdom.

Walking through Stepney, Whitechapel and Bethnal Green I'm reminded of the brave match-women who in 1888 led the strike against the appalling conditions and pay in the Bryant and May match-factory - a building still standing in Bow today. Many of the match workers and their families lived in the streets around me. Not only did the strike result in pay rises and improved conditions but it paved a way for the Great Dock Strike a year later. That strike led to improved pay for over 100,000 dock workers. As a Salvation Army officer in the East End I can't help thinking about my forbears who during the strike provided 195,000 meals for the Docker's families - an intervention that was crucial to victory. A Salvation Army band is said to have marched side by side with Cardinal Manning and union leaders at the head of the dockers' march.

And so it seems apt that the current Living Wage campaign, begun in 2001, has the same East End roots. It also involves the same coalition of union, faith and workers. The Guardian reported yesterday that 60,000 workers have so far benefitted from this campaign.

Today at City Hall, the new Living Wage rates will be announced. No doubt we'll hear some employers, like the match factory and dock owners before them, claim its too much to pay. But for me, I'll cheer for every penny that goes into the pocket of the cleaner, the security guard, the care worker and the kitchen assistant.

Here's a short film about The Salvation Army's response to the plight of the match-workers in 1888:

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Living Wage Week #1: a spiritual dimension

Today marks the first day of Living Wage week 2014. I've been involved in the campaign since my church - The Salvation Army in Stepney - became a member of Citizens UK in 2007.  Over the next few days I will be sharing why I love this campaign and why I believe it's a powerful way of living out an alternative narrative.

Usually people begin with the moral or economic arguments for a Living Wage. As a Christian and Salvation Army officer I believe there's a deeply spiritual dimension that precedes that.

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously said:

"'Holy solitaries' is a phrase no more consistent with the Gospel than holy adulterers. The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness, but social holiness.”

The concept of 'social holiness' is a powerful one. It helps us to make the connection between the holiness of God and the world in which we live. The holy is an attribute not only of God, nor simply the work of God in an individual as they draw close to God, but also a living dimension in the relationships between people. Social holiness draws together the fundamental aspects of heaven and earth, echoing Jesus' prayer: 'may your kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.'

In the 7 years I've been involved in the Living Wage Campaign I've come to recognise the tell-tale signs of social holiness at work: a worker testifying to the life-changing nature a small pay-rise has given them; a child sharing how they have much more time with their mum now she only needs to do 1 job; a cleaner talking about the dignity that comes with feeling valued in the workplace; a father speaking of his pride in being able to provide for his family's needs. Every time I hear these stories I feel I'm standing on holy ground - for a moment I'm in a 'thin place', where the space between heaven and earth is narrowed.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Together as one

Today I sat on a bench in Victoria Park, Tower Hamlets, watching my kids on a swing. Next to me was another father - an orthodox Jew - sitting with a baby on his lap. His older children raced over and climbed onto the swing to join mine. Then a Muslim family arrived - two of the women were wearing niqabs. The younger children grabbed the empty spaces on the swing. And then it happened. The children began to move together - back and forth, back and forth to get the swing moving. It took effort - each child playing their part, working in harmony. Fairly quickly their efforts began to pay off and the speed increased. One by one smiles began to emerge on the children's faces, laughter bubbling up from within. It was a moment of beauty and of light. I just had to get it on camera.

'God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.' 1 Corinthians 1:27