St John, Hendon - The joy of diversity

Author: Andy Walton

Date: 02 October 2014

By Beth Green, in association with Fr. John Hawkins...

St John, Hendon, has an average Sunday attendance of around 50 people, representing around 12 different ethnic communities. Their heart is to work alongside their neighbours – sharing their concerns in the ‘ups and downs’ of real life. Fr. John Hawkins told me of some of their more deliberate efforts at interfaith, cross cultural engagement in this diverse context.

With 15,000 people in the parish, statistics suggest that the area is nearly 50% Christian, with the rest consisting mostly of large Muslim and Hindu communities. A multicultural centre, housed next door to St. John’s Church, is reflective of this diversity. The building hosts three organisations of different faiths/cultures under the same roof: the Barnet African Caribbean Association, the Barnet Somali Community Group and the Barnet Asian Old Peoples Association. There is a sense in the area, Fr. John reflects, of ‘settledness’ within difference. This context is a source of great joy. In diversity, there is more commonality than difference to be found.

To be ‘Present and Engaged’ means having the confidence to be counted among a community; to be present in the building, in the schools, and alongside neighbours. In this particular area, this often means drawing alongside a Muslim community who have at times been subject to negative press, increasingly in the last decade. Community engagement post-9/11, has emphasised social cohesion and trying to promote faith as one of the ways in which people can be brought together across difference, rather than a problem. ‘Engagement’ means not doing it alone, but working in partnership with people of all faiths. More generally, it means equipping the church community to manage an ever changing demographic in the area. Once a largely Hindu area, the parish is becoming increasingly Muslim.

As a Christian, Fr. John says it's easy to lose faith as everything changes around you. He is encouraging his church to not retreat, become aggressive, defensive, or make more noise. He sees new faces as a source of rejoicing, rather than despair. He emphasises commonality, rather than difference, and sees the ‘isms’ of life – sexism, racism etc. – to be things that hinder ‘life in abundance’, as promised in John 10:11. He explains that God enriches our life; we don’t have to live it defensively or fearfully in the face of difference.

To show in practice how different people can enrich each other’s lives, the church engages in numerous art-based, intergenerational projects. One example is of a project in which Year 5 children, along with elderly members of the church were encouraged to bring a piece of fabric that told a story about their life. A square of wedding dress, traditional fabric, and icons of faith were sewn together to make a quilt.

One challenge is that of longevity; how do one-off projects become sustainable and long-lasting? Another is exclusivity. People attracted to activities such as these are often of a similar mindset; perhaps more liberal, and open to inter faith engagement. How do we engage with those less willing, and deal with the more difficult elements of difference? The bigger question is, "how will we live together in this country?" Anger comes from ignorance, and Fr. John firmly believes that this anger melts away when we have meaningful relationships with our neighbours.

Indeed, while it is often counter-cultural to come together, to do so is to allow life to flourish and to live in abundance. Fr. John hopes to see this more fully in his parish. He hopes to see a community that has strong bonds of friendship, affection and love; love that challenges all those ‘isms’ of difference that diminish life.