Author: Andy Walton
Date: 29 August 2014
By Beth Green, in association with The Revd Jonathan Evens
St. John the Evangelist sees around 70-100 attendees across 3 services each Sunday, while the building itself hosts a plethora of activities throughout the week. One challenge, Jonathan reflects, is bridging the gap between the Sunday attendees, and those who attend the many midweek community groups and activities hosted by the church.
‘Presence and Engagement’ here presents its own challenges, as the context of St. John the Evangelist is complicated. Once a majority white area, the borough of Redbridge has seen much change in recent years. Home to a sizeable Sikh population, the Muslim population has outgrown the Hindu population in the last decade, with significant implications for the Church. While other areas such as Newham, Barking and Dagenham have seen the renewal and revitalisation of many churches due to an influx of African and Caribbean migrants, Redbridge has not experienced this element of growth in recent years. Rather, it is seeing a degree of decline in its slightly more ‘monochrome’ Christian context.
The ‘Sophia Hub’ hopes to be one such ‘bridge’ between the congregation at St. John the Evangelist and those outside the church. Taking the Greek term for ‘wisdom’, this one-year-old initiative seeks to tap into the wisdom of faith communities for the wider community, to enable its growth and development. Functioning as a forum for people to collaborate and generate ideas to promote community engagement and development, the ‘Sophia Hub’ promotes and celebrates what Jonathan refers to as ‘side-by-side’ interfaith engagement. This, he says, is integral to community cohesion and harmony, and allows the church to live out the Christian faith by practicing hospitality and compassion in a truly mutual way. Jonathan is reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan, which not only demands that we do good to others, but also speaks of the need for Christians to receive help from others, and to be part of a two-way exchange that makes ‘engagement’ possible.
The presence of the building serves as a witness to other faith groups, raising awareness of what goes on both within and without the church building. Some of those from other faith groups who use the building have joined the local Residents’ Association and Sophia Hub as a result.
A recent development in the church’s efforts to be present and engaged came when a Scriptural Reasoning group was formed. Here small groups of Christians, Jews and Muslims share their scriptures and discuss their beliefs. While controversial to some, Jonathan has seen the positive fruit of this engagement.
Jonathan is convinced that in doing ‘side-by-side’ engagement, long-lasting relationships are formed – a foundation upon which ‘face-to-face’ engagement might happen later. Both ‘side-by-side’ and ‘face-to-face’ engagement demands self-reflection, he says, and a deepening of one’s own faith. While some have argued that this kind of interfaith engagement may not get ‘bums on seats’, Jonathan responds that both ‘side-by-side’ and ‘face-to-face’ engagement must be viewed as part of a more holistic mission to be present and engaged.