Friday afternoon in east London and a steady stream of men makes its way from the mosque in Forest Gate after Friday prayers. As they come by the Ridley Community Church, members of the church and LCM missionary Turgay Yusuf are ready to greet them. The challenge for the church here is to be a witness in a community that no longer has even the residual link of cultural Christianity. Like most of East London, Forest Gate has changed radically in the past 50 years, John – one of the church volunteers – tells me. John, who was born in Malta and emigrated from Tunisia, has lived here most of his adult life. In the 60s this was a typical working-class part of east London. Now one in six people here are white British. British Asians with links to India, Bangladesh and Pakistan make up the majority. The church is working in several ways make the gospel known. It is building its reputation as a trusted and caring presence in the community, giving credibility to proclaiming the gospel publicly and boldly, taking the time and effort to invite people to events.
With Christians in the minority, one of the key ways of making the church more visible is stepping out to meet the community, going to visit people in their homes with invitations to events, says Turgay. At the Ridley community drop-in Amir recalls how he first met Turgay five years ago. He called at Amir’s home to invite him to a church-run curry night. “Why should I take this?” he snapped back. “I’m a Muslim.” Unperturbed, Turgay explained that the event was open for everybody regardless of their religious beliefs, a chance to get to know the community with a presentation about the gospel. Amir immediately dropped the confrontational stance, said he’d been joking, and that he’d be pleased to come. He did, and a friendship was born. True friends look out for each other when they are in difficulty, and when Turgay was taken sick, Amir was among the first people to visit him in hospital. “When visiting, I often say that we are here to serve our community, which is you,” says Turgay. “‘The Bible says to love your neighbour, so we’re here to love you!’ – that often gets a bit of a laugh and helps break the ice.” The church is always looking for points of connection with people. Every month there is something to invite people to, such as curry nights, poetry evenings or Christian– Muslim Discussions.
DEBATE THE ISSUES
Of all the events at the Ridley Centre, Amir loves the Christian–Muslim Discussions programme. At these evenings, an audience is invited to hear a Christian and a Muslim speaker engage in respectful and robust debate on a set topic, and to put questions to the speakers. Amir has helped out by suggesting good quality speakers to present the case for Islam. He’s also put the church into contact with high profile people in the Pakistani community here and in Asia. Perhaps it’s the intellectual stimulation of respectful debate that Amir most appreciates. But Turgay is clear that this is not a spiritual mutual-admiration society. “Until the day I die I will be urging you to follow Jesus,” he tells his friend. “You need forgiveness that you may enter the kingdom of God. If I didn’t share that, I couldn’t say that I love you.”
We see the same forthright and caring approach as volunteers from the church set up a book table outside, ready to greet men as they come from Friday Prayers. On the book table, tracts aimed at communicating the essentials of the faith with Muslims such as, ‘IS JESUS THE SON OF GOD?’ sit alongside copies of the Bible. People on the book table are on firstname terms with many of the passers-by; some slow down to exchange a few words, others stop for a discussion about faith. There’s one younger man who is not getting on well with his family. He talks earnestly with one of the church members, then they step inside the church/community centre for half an hour to continue the conversation undisturbed.
Greeting people at the book table also bears fruit in deeper relationships. Rayan first came into contact with the church through the book table. He loves the poetry evenings and is eager to hear Turgay talk about the wisdom of the Bible. He talked to Turgay about how he had been treated badly by a friend’s father. Rayan is a big guy and well-connected. The family was expecting retaliation from him and, as a result, made some threats. Instead, Rayan listened to Turgay talk about forgiveness. By letting go of the injury rather than pursuing it, he’s lost out financially. But he’s also celebrating the sense of freedom that he’s gained from dropping the grudge. “I thank God for all he has given me,” Rayan says, captivated by the saying of Jesus and the wisdom that is in the gospels. In each of these ways – caring, inviting, proclaiming – the church is building bridges between the hope of the gospel and a community that stands in direct opposition to the claim that Jesus is Lord.