Author: Andy Walton
Date: 01 December 2011
At the end of the nineteenth century the Victorians built a huge brick church building as a daughter church to the twelfth century Norman chapel of St Mary in Little Ilford (Manor Park). The new church did well for over fifty years, surviving the war, but declining numbers and the physical deterioration of the building meant continued use of the old St Michael’s was no longer viable. The bold decision was taken to close and demolish this building.
The Froud Centre is built on the site of the old St Michael’s building. The Church together with Aston-Mansfield Charities Trust are the main partners in this multi-purpose community facility where people of all abilities, ages, cultures and faiths come to learn, share experiences, socialise and play.
Part of the building is a fairly conventional Christian worship space with windows and other items from the old building. The main Sunday service happens whilst the centre buzzes with all kinds of other activities; Tamil dance classes, badminton and a thriving supplementary school run by Islamic Circles. A Pentecostal fellowship also uses the centre on a Sunday for worship and Sunday school, and then there is the rest of the week!
East London has always been a place of immigration due to the docks. From the Huguenots in the 17th century (The Lethieullier family memorials feature in St Mary’s church), Polish and Jewish refugees in the nineteen thirties, more recent arrivals from Bangladesh, to the current influx of Eastern Europeans many of whom are itinerant workers on the Olympics site. The rate of change has become much more rapid. As John Connor, senior manager of the centre explains there are no minority or majority cultures. Cultural awareness days include the white working class residents talking about their memories of the blitz.
The area never the less struggles with issue of poverty, deprivation, racism and powerlessness. It has the highest population of under twenty-fives in East London. The youth community does divide along ethnic lines. Some youngsters do manage to succeed academically and become professionals in the city and elsewhere. It is from this group that Islamic Circles was born. They wanted to give something back to the community which nurtured them and address some of the issues that young Muslims, caught between cultures, face. Frustrated by some of their elders and unable to secure space in the mosques they came to rent part of the Froud centre.
At first they found the hospitality offered a little hard to accept, expecting their experiences of rejection to be repeated. Over time friendship, trust and understanding has been built between St Michael’s and Islamic Circles. The Rector, Brian Lewis and other Christian speakers have been invited to speak at their meetings. Groups of Muslims and Christians have studied the bible and the Qur’an together. The relationships which had been built enabled them to come together as a whole community in response to 7/7.
The church carefully sought in Brian a leader able to participate fully in the life of the centre with the complex relationships involved. He says that the Christian virtue of hospitality has enabled very good projects to flourish. This has more than once extended to visitors from churches in Sweden who come to see and learn what it is about this model that will help them address issues within their own rapidly changing communities.