When I was about 11 or 12, my parents took me on a pilgrimage down the Mile End Road, in East London. I was unusually compliant, thinking this was simply some bizarre coming-of-age ritual, commonplace to every young person in the Salvation Army.
My Dad pointed out the 'Blind Beggar', the pub where William Booth preached outside, as well as other sites along the road. There are two statues of him preaching, and blue plaques which mark some of the noteable spots. Unusually I didn't just switch off (My dad grew up in East London, and we were familiar with his nostaligic utterances, this felt different though). We drove past Booth House, which is a SA rehab centre, and I remember jubilantly stating that I was going to move to London and work there (I also remember, later, the not-so jubilant look on my teacher's faces, when I said I was ditching Oxbridge for this plan!!)
I've been down the road a few times since then, since moving to London, but doing it again yesterday really caught my attention once more. I was glad that the traffic was moving so slowly, as it gave me the change to dream.
One of the things I love about imagination, is that it gives you the potential to see a place differently to the actual, physical way it exists now. I was imagining the Mile End Road back in the 1860s, the crowded, leaning buildings, carts and carriages rolling along, people shouting sat in the pubs... it always looks quite dark in my imagination, like an under-exposed photograph.
I wondered what the atmosphere was like the first night William Booth stepped up to preach, I wonder what the people felt as his words penetrated into their hearts. I'd have loved to be a bystander, observing the disturbance, wondering what had caused all the excitement.
I wonder what William was thinking too. I'm guessing he didn't step up planning to set up a big movement. As we drove along I wondered where the places were that he sat and dreamed, where his scribbled brainstorms of another way of doing church, trickled into reality. We're told that he was so moved by the plight of the people he saw, I wonder what that felt like.
Most of all, I felt stirred. I felt stirred by the roots and the heartbeat of the movement that I am a part of. Obviously our methods must be different today, but I really want the same dedication he had, the same daring and vision to actually make a difference.
Often I think the Salvation Army of today is a bit like a sleeping giant. In some places it does great things, amazing stuff is happening and God is on the move - that's great. I'm definately going to make time to go back to Mile End Road, to sit in a little cafe, and to hear what God has to say now. After all, He hasn't changed in all this time, and if he can use a dishevelled, uncertain, nomadic and peculiar bunch of people like the early day salvos, I'm thinking there still might be some hope for us today.