I've been reading, 'In Darkest England and the way back in', by Gary Bishop, over the last couple of days. Its up there with the Irresistable Revolution as one of those 'messing with your head but vital to read' books.
The book, so far, has been talking a lot about God's heart for the poor, our calling to live incarnational lives, and Booth's initial vision for a way to lift people out of the darkness and oppression caused by poverty.
I was struck, deeply, by Gary's comments about the need to join the poor in the darkest places. He talks of the slum sisters, who were Salvationists who chose to live in the East End Slums. Booth says of them, "Some are ladies born and bred, who have not been afraid to exchange the comfort of a West End drawing room for service amongst the vilest of the vile, and a residence in small and fetid rooms whose walls were infested with vermin."
Tears rolled down my cheeks, as my train sat outside Waterloo station this morning, reading these words. I am so used to the world of 'west end drawing rooms'. I am afforded so many choices, and yet I am increasingly aware that this is not the case for everyone, and this makes me increasingly uncomfortable.
Sometimes, my best friend and I reminisce about the Estate on which we grew up. One website is especially verbose in describing the area:..."the Eastern District", a densely-packed clutch of incredibly rough estates with inviting names like Ecton Brook, Lumbertubs, Goldings, Lings, Blackthorn and Rectory Farm. Local postal workers have been known to change these names to "Scumbertubs" and "Smackthorn", as many an innocent postie has been verbally and / or physically abused by the residents of these districts on his rounds."
We always laugh about our formative years there. We didn't see any posties getting beaten up, but we were aware of a sense of despondancy about the place. We got frustrated that people used to burn out cars on our playgrounds, and wondered why everyone looked so sad all the time. As we grew older, a lot of our friends got into the more dodgy side of estate life, sitting under the bridge doing drugs, or getting pregnant and racking up multiple abortions. I remember vehemently disliking my sociology teacher, when he began our A-Level course by commenting that 'Nothing good can come out of the Eastern District."
When I think about our surroundings, it makes me realise my parents worked hard, to the best of their abilities, to give me a good upbringing, to shield me from some of the madness of our area, to give me the best opportunities. We didn't pick up the accent, we didn't get into 'the wrong crowds', we lived like little middle-class islands...My friend and I both did well at school, we both moved out of the area, and soon out of the town completly. We both vowed never to go back there.
This reminds me of how I am, in my christian life sometimes. I live amidst people who are hurting and struggling and lacking (even in the affluence of south-west London). Even this week a woman stopped me in the street and asked me to help her cross the road. It was just a parking entrance, it was tiny, and the road was deserted. She had no physical disability that I could see. She was simply utterly petrified by the concept of crossing the road.
It reminded me that even in Wandsworth there are people who are in great need. I live amongst them, but so often I am shielded, or I choose to remain seperate from their need. Some times I don't notice it, sometimes I deliberately walk past. I try hard not to pick up the dialect or get involved in the mess.
Gary's book reminded me that this seperation is not what God calls me to. It stirred that bit of me that just wants to grab a toothbrush and my bible, head to the estates topping the indices of deprivation list, and live there, struggling in the same way that the people who have always lived there do...
But even then I'm sickened, because even then I could choose to get out of it, to leave and go back to my nice, comfy life. How is that fair?
One of the things that shook me most today, was that I headed into SP&S (The Salvation Army shop) to pick up my own copy of the book (because I had been reading a borrowed copy and wanted to highlight liberally). I had forgotton that they were holding a 15% off sale thing today. As I walked in, the place was packed. There must have been 60 people in there, all buzzing about the sale, and filling their baskets... I hid the book under my arm. I felt ashamed to be in there, spending money (albeit only £5.94). I felt sad that we were all buying what felt like trinkets of salvationism, when there were places of real darkness out there. People who could never spend £187 on band books and CD's on a whim. People who fed a family of four for a month on less than that.
I don't know what God is up to. I don't know why I feel so stirred up and passionate about this stuff. I still don't know how to put my thoughts into action. It's not even as simple as saying 'I'll wait till I'm an officer and do this stuff then'... my head is likely to be totally wrecked by then!!