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

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Beyond Identity politics part 2: a reflection on Luke 9: 51-55

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?”  But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.
This story about Jesus and his disciples is easily missed - often glossed over as a narrative filler between the feeding of the 5000, the transfiguration and the sending out of the 72. There's so much else of significance going on in Luke 9 and 10 there's no wonder that I've hardly (if ever) heard a sermon on these verses. Yet since Luke did include it in his gospel account then you can rest assured it's significant - after all, there must have been so much material he could have included but didn't. This story is more than mere scene setting.

In my Bible (NIV) this section is headed 'Samaritan Opposition'. Interesting choice of words. Why not 'Jewish opposition'? After all, the Samaritans may not have welcomed the pilgrims but the disciples wanted to see the Samaritans destroyed. Hardly a proportionate response.

The key to this passage is the relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans. So what do we know about the rivalry between these people at the time of Jesus? It's pretty complex but here it is in a nutshell:

There were ethnic tensions: the Samaritans were descendants of those from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh who had married outside the boundary of faith - a sin in the eyes of the ethnically 'pure'. There were religious tensions: Samaritans regarded Mount Gerizim rather than Jerusalem as the location of the Temple. Hence, the Samaritan villagers didn't welcome Jesus and his disciples because they were heading to the Temple in Jerusalem on their pilgrimage. There were political tensions: Jews and Samaritans had forever accused the other of colluding with the regular invading forces to their region.

History records that the rivalry had led to atrocities committed by both sides for many years. This was identity politics at its worst - complex historical disagreements played out in the present reality.

So what can we take from this story?

Firstly, you have to wonder why Jesus sent the messengers to a Samaritan village. Surely he knew what the reaction would be. Well, this is not particularly out of character. In John 4, he happily shares a drink with a Samaritan woman and from time to time heads into Gentile territory. Seems like he enjoyed crossing the generally accepted boundaries of the time - subverting the narrative. I often wonder what the world might be like if more people were up for that. It's the start of moving beyond identity politics - hanging out in other people's space, looking to build bridges, finding opportunities to build a relationship.

Next, the Samaritan villagers and James and John behaved exactly true to type. The Samaritans offered no hospitality and the disciples, predictably, got angry. As shocking as their call for 'fire from heaven' might sound to us, it made complete sense to them. It wasn't some random punishment they made up, it was a reflection of their own schooling in their scriptures. James and John were merely echoing the story of Elijah (2 Kings 1:1-17) calling fire from heaven to consume the soldiers sent from Samaria to arrest him. Everybody it appears was simply behaving in the way they had been taught to behave: by their parents, by their community and even by their religious leaders. So what of us? Might there be things that we simply accept as normal because it's been handed down to us? It's almost certain that the stereotypes we hold about certain groups of people cause us to consider acceptable some highly questionable behaviour and attitudes.

And finally, what about Jesus' reaction? It's the best part of the story. No doubt James and John were expecting Jesus to congratulate them on knowing their scriptures so well. But he didn't. He 'turned and rebuked them'. I can almost picture him in my mind's eye, staring them down and putting them in their place. Not for the first time, Jesus demonstrates that he will not merrily go along with the accepted narrative of the way things are. The Jews and Samaritans may well have hated each other for centuries, but Jesus wants no part of it. The Samaritans may have refused to take Jesus in for the night after a long and tiring journey, but he won't have anyone slander them. The Samaritans may have closed themselves off to accepting him, but Jesus doesn't take it personally - he'll be back. The challenge for us here is to resist any prevailing narrative that drives a wedge between us and others. Ethnic, religious and political differences can cause us to stumble - to diminish others, to scapegoat them, even. That path is not the way of Jesus - that path leads only to his rebuke.

Shortly afterwards, Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan. I'm convinced this episode is in his mind when he tells what has become one of the best known tales in history. In this parable the Samaritan demonstrates what it means to be a good neighbour by showing love, respect and care for 'the other'. And Jesus orders his (Jewish) listeners to follow the Samaritan's example. He subverts the accepted narrative. He resists the identity politics. He goes beyond ethnic, religious and political boundaries. It's time for us to do the same.

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Beyond identity politcs part 1: in the face of persecution

A week on and I'm still grasping for an appropriate response to the news of Christians being driven from their homes in Mosul, Northern Iraq. First it was shock at the swiftness and severity of the ISIS action, then I began to feel anger, before a sense of helplessness set in. What can I do about it? I tweeted Open Doors, Release International and Christians Solidarity Worldwide to ask if they knew of a public show of support. Only Open Doors got back - to tell me I could donate to their appeal and pray.

Pray, give money - it's always the same two options in the face of an international crisis. Both feel inadequate. I want to do something more - vent some anger at lack of public outrage, feel part of a movement that's going to actually change something. I believe prayer works but I also believe that we're called to live our prayers.

Meanwhile, the conflict in Gaza rages on. Muslim friends are going through the same emotions - shock, anger and helplessness. I see the same feelings expressed on social media and in conversation. Like me they call on God to intervene, like me they respond to calls for donations and like me they're itching to do more. Many of them head to protests in Central London. I'd be up for something like that about Mosul, but it looks as though most British Christians have forgotten how to do that kind of thing.

As time has gone on I've become increasingly aware of how easily I've been drawn into the identity politics. I find myself wanting to stand up for the Christian cause. I look enviously at how Muslims fearlessly make a noise and wonder why we don't do the same. But surely there's more to it than that - Christians and Muslims out supporting their own 'brothers and sisters'. What about 'the other'? Should it matter if they are a Christian or Muslim or whatever? Are we not called to be peacemakers for all of God's creation? Surely the deaths of the innocent in Gaza isn't just a Muslim issue or the flight of Christians in Mosul a Christian one? This is humanity's issue.

All this simply highlights the need for us to stop playing identity politics with our faiths. Wherever there is oppression, wherever there is injustice, wherever there is persecution, we need to stand together, rise as one and build a movement for peace. And we need to constantly remind one another of this. We need to challenge those around us who only support the cause of 'their own'. We need to stop publishing stories in our media (including our own social media) that only tell of persecution of our 'tribe'. We need to respectfully encourage organisations that focus on persecuted minorities around the world to work together.

We need an alternative narrative - one that looks beyond narrow identity politics and embraces genuine peace-making. Anything less and we risk being part of the problem. So, let's stand with the Christians fleeing Iraq, let's highlight the plight of Rohingya Muslims who are horribly persecuted in Myanmar, let's keep up the cry 'bring back our girls' in Nigeria, let's do everything in our power to bring peace in Gaza, Israel and Syria. In the face of persecution, war or oppression let us never remain silent. And let's keep praying - Lord have mercy.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Probably the Best School in the World

Today my daughter had her last day at her primary school in Stepney. She couldn’t have asked for a better start in life. Creative, caring and committed teachers; diverse, loving and loyal friends – she’s had it all. We often hear how divided Tower Hamlets is supposed to be. Not at Sir William Burrough School.

The Jewish head-teacher, Avril Newman, is one of the most inspirational people you’ll ever meet. She oozes presence and wisdom. Her influence seems to trickle down through the teachers, the classroom assistants and the support staff to the kids. There’s an almost tangible feeling of calm, optimism and family that spills out into the life of the community.

The school intake is very diverse with children from many backgrounds. The majority have a Bangladeshi heritage and there's a very high proportion of Muslims. The prevailing narrative would have us wonder if this type of school might be a ‘hotbed of extremism’. A need to keep a weather-eye for ‘Trojan-horse’ type plots, perhaps? Failing that, at least some deep religious and ethnic division, if not amongst the kids then surely the parents?
In 8 years we’ve seen virtually none of that. During our time we’ve come through two Tower Hamlets mayoral elections, numerous English Defence League demos, the Lee Rigby murder just across the river and the constant background drone reminding us that our values are supposed to be incompatible. The relationships in this school community have held firm.
Thank you Sir William Burrough for a great 8 years! Probably the best school in the world.

London's Most Misreported Borough: Tower Hamlets

Last week London's 'Evening Standard' published an article entitled: 'A culture of smearing, candidates badged racist and MP slurred as having bastard children. Welcome to London's most divided borough: Tower Hamlets.' I was approached by one of their journalists to make a response in less than 200 words. Here it is below. Sadly, it wasn't published (kind of proved my point, really!).

There’s a popular narrative about politics in Tower Hamlets - the place I love, my home. It goes like this: polarised, poisonous, prejudiced, corrupt – ‘the most divided borough in London’. Write it, blog it, tweet it, repeat it. It must be true, then. Not in my world.

It’s time to tell a different story.

Have you heard the one about 450 people queuing for an hour in the rain to get into the Tower Hamlets Citizens mayoral election assembly? Active, diverse, politically conscious citizens from mosques, schools, churches, unions and community organisations presenting a radical and democratically agreed agenda to candidates John Biggs and Lutfur Rahman? I doubt it.

Or the one about the Bengali Muslim woman in a niqab supported by a white male student challenging the candidates to tackle the borough’s housing crisis with a living rent? Probably not.

Or the time the 13 year old school girl received a standing ovation for looking the politicians in the eye and demanding they make our street lights as bright as Kensington and Chelsea’s? It’s unlikely.

Not enough slander? Too united a front? A narrative spoiler? Welcome to the most misreported borough in London: Tower Hamlets.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Interfaith Engagement is a lifestyle

A couple of weeks ago I was invited to contribute to Sarah Ager's 'interfaith Ramadan' blog. Take a gander...

Messing with my head and heart – a week from hell

It’s been a grim week. A week from hell.

First it was Gaza, then MH17, then the Christian flight from Mosul. Waves of human misery crashing down on my head and heart. Of course I only had to hear about it from the comfort of my own London bubble – I wasn’t experiencing it physically. But we’re all connected, right? Somehow we’ve got to process this stuff in a way that reflects light not darkness.
There have been times when I wonder if human beings are really that bad. This week has not been one of those times. It hasn’t just been unspeakable acts committed abroad that have left me shaking my head at our broken world – it’s been the response on social media from those closer to home. There has been finger-pointing, blame and counter blame, excuses and justification for violence, even celebration at the news of some killed in action. All this played out in my Facebook and Twitter feed between banal cricket score updates and rumours of football transfers. It’s been messing with my head and my heart.
In my darkest moments only 3 words seemed adequate.
Lord have mercy.
A prayer. A plea. An admission of guilt. A cry for help.

Of course a prayer is never enough - not unless it's embodied as well as spoken. But it's the start of an alternative narrative.
Lord have mercy on us all.