A call to conversion

I grew up in a calm, quiet, prosperous & white piece of the south coast of Britain in the 1980s. I briefly had a friend from Ghana who lived next door. We used to race and run together and I wished I was as fast as Michael Idukwe. He was always the anchor leg in the sports day relay which to me was one of the heights of sporting prowess. I can’t quite remember but he might have been the only black kid in my school. Some years later I had a friend from an Asian background. I can’t remember his name now but I remember he supported the Washington Redskins and I loved the Miami Dolphins and aged of 13 we used to head to the beach and make idiots of ourselves in front of girls. Those exceptions aside, it was a pretty white place.

I remember learning about poverty in black places, Haiti & Ethiopia, spring to mind. I remember regularly giving my pocket money into a black & white cardboard money box to give to Tearfund when it was full. I can’t remember ever learning about why it was only countries with black people that were really poor. I can’t remember anyone ever teaching me that. So I learned about generosity and compassion but I did not learn about injustice. I learned how to respond as an individual to suffering but I did not learn about how to challenge the very systems that held them down. I did not know that they existed.

The police were a respected and largely invisible presence in my life growing up. For the first dozen years of my life, I rarely saw them except on TV and that one time I rode my bike out into the street without looking and got knocked off by a car. I was around 12 the first time I saw an armed policeman and my first sighting of a real-life gun. That was in France so I quickly assumed it must be a very violent place for the police to need to have guns.

So until the age of 13 or so, I grew up in a kindly Christian home largely sheltered from violence, poverty and race. That wasn’t any kind of deliberate choice it was just how it was at that place and at that time.

Our family moved northwards to the West Midlands in the late 80s and I found myself in a working-class housing estate. Not really rough but a whole lot rougher than I was used to. Kids were smoking, drinking and had zero ambition to study. Gangs existed, rival schools had the occasional ‘rumble’, bullying was more prevalent. I endured a fair bit for my ‘posh’ accent and lack of swearing. It was briefly a test of wills. I endured tripping, punching, my schoolbag being taken and thrown up a tree, that sort of thing – all to see if I would swear. They eventually wore me down and I shouted what they wanted to hear at them and then they stopped. The police were seen a fair bit more around the houses where I lived for acts of vandalism, domestic strife and things I did not know about. It was even whiter than the last place and a good deal more racist. It never seemed to be aimed at anyone in particular because they didn’t exist in our world but just generally, broadly in the choice of insults that would be thrown at each other, would be what we would call racist.

By sixteen, I was separating myself from that area as I pursued academic study. I was one of 3 kids out of 120 to study A-levels at the town 6th form college where people were slightly scared and suspicious of anyone who lived where I lived. There I was exposed to peers having sex, getting drunk and brighter kids than me with ideas I’d never encountered before. I was a Christian kid with one foot in the world and one foot in the church. Drunk on Friday, repentant on Sunday.

A-levels led to university and a degree in Theology. I was a terrible student not because I lacked ability but because I lacked character. I had no purpose or drive, no motivation or any understanding of why I should study. It was one of the great missed opportunities in my life. I squandered much of those years in laziness punctuated by last-minute bursts of frenetic effort.

I did, however, have a spiritual awakening. God finally got my attention and I began to take him seriously and with that came a fresh conviction that justice mattered to God. With this wisdom-less passion came a drive to help the homeless. I joined the Christian Union soup-run that went out at nights to find those sleeping-rough and give them something hot to eat and drink. Far too many nights were spent wandering the archways and abandoned buildings of Nottingham, including stupidly several nights before exams. I encountered for the first time addictions, substance abuse and proper deviancy. There were some people whom life had properly twisted and spat out onto its streets. My housemates were surprised by the occasional arrival of a drunk homeless guy in our kitchen having tea.

I hitchhiked places, I sat on the streets with my friends who begged, I spent a good deal of time looking as if I was homeless. I highlighted in green all the verses in the Bible that spoke of God as a God of justice, compassion, a God with a heart for the poor. That way I could see them more easily, memorize them and, no doubt, harp on about them until everyone else was weary. Justice needed to roll like a river and not the pathetic trickle that I saw around me. Through my degree studies, I encountered and was shaped by theologians and leaders like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King and Gustavo Gutierrez. The first and second gave me examples of courage and convicted me that silence really did equal complicity. The third showed me that God was more on the side of the poor than I thought and I, despite growing up in a family with very little disposable income, was not nearly as poor as I thought.

There were two books above all, that shaped me at that time. The first was Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger 1 and Jim Wallis’ The Call to Conversion. Sider’s book was good in its analysis but weak in its solutions but it convinced me that more could be done and most of us were not taking the problem seriously enough. Wallis though really got under my skin. For a while, I avidly read all his books (until I realised they were all essentially the same book and he didn’t appear to have anything new to add). Yet in The Call to Conversion (written in 1981) there are some passages which still ring true today.

I remember a friend named Butch…We were the same age, but I was white and he was black…I met his mother. Like my mother, she cared about her son’s safety, and she feared that his militance would get him in trouble. I’ll never forget what she said about the police. My mother always told us to look for a policeman if we ever got lost. Butch’s mother told her children to hide from the police if they were lost. Everyone in Butch’s family told me personal stories of police racism and abuse.

The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis, p.53

I thought of that passage the other day when I came across this video. 1981 to 2020.

That’s forty years and the story has not changed. For a while I thought, as I think many Europeans and Brits do, that this problem was an American problem. It is. But just because it may be worse there does not mean it does not exist here. It does.

But Wallis’ story is ringing true again in other ways.

I remember the riots that erupted in Detroit during the summer of 1967. Working there for the summer, I felt the terror of a city at war, saw the devastation, and listened to the anger and despair of black friends and co-workers. A spirit of rebellion characterized the young blacks in the Detroit ghetto who were my peers. The response of the police was unrestrained brutality that knew no bounds…Massive outbreaks of urban violence seem to be required for America to rediscover its poor in the nation’s inner cities.

The Call to Conversion by Jim Wallis p40.

2020. 1981. 1967. That’s 53 years and the story is on repeat.

He angry at 46. I’m angry at 31. You angry at 16. You all come up with a better way

I was being educated, increasingly aware not only of individuals who were poor and oppressed but of systems that kept them poor and oppressed. I had to rethink my understanding of my own nation’s history. I had grown up proud of Great Britain, its Empire and particularly its heroic stand in World War 2. I was not taught about colonialism, racism and oppression. We rightly praised William Wilberforce but we did not repent or take responsibility for (at least not in my education) Cecil Rhodes.

Time in Burundi, Congo, Kosovo, Ukraine taught me many things, church planting and community building back in the housing estate I longed to leave as a teenager taught me many things. I launched a network with my friends, called Breathe, to challenge Christians about the dangers of consumerism (which is how this blog started). I briefly edited a magazine called Release and then Enough dedicated to issues of social justice. It couldn’t earn enough revenue to survive. The big campaign success of my life was probably Jubilee 2000. That was a nice moment. Though the debts are back twenty years later.

But now I find myself a parent of two kids, in a comfortable house, with enough to enjoy life but I do wonder whether my comfort and the challenges of day to day church life have dimmed my passion to fight injustice. Partly because in some ways as we can see, so little has changed. Partly because I lack a connection to where the action is. The fire is over there and there’s seems little I can do here. I’m not sure exactly how protesting in Sweden against police brutality in America is likely to do anything but signal my virtue. There’s no vote I can make that will make a difference but I can write to those whose votes can.

Then George Floyd was murdered.

I don’t know how to do anything remotely useful about that which isn’t anything but empty gestures.

But then I think about my church and my children. We have some Americans in our church, we have people who think most of the mainstream media has a left-wing bias and want to hide the truth, we have Congolese refugees, Indian doctors & bankers, South African engineers, Swedish professionals, British teachers and a whole host beyond and between. It’s a beautiful community of people I love and respect. Perhaps we have an opportunity to demonstrate and genuinely be a place where little black boys and little white girls will be judged by the content of their character and not the colour of their skin. We have a long way to go I’m sure but we have three core convictions which if we practice will help us.

If we listen well. If we learn well. If we love well. If we can do that, then perhaps that is something I can do, some small contribution to leading a change, to pointing towards hope. It’s not a lot but in many ways right now, it’s all I’ve got.

  1. If you click on the link & end up making a purchase I’ll get a small commission as part of the Amazon Affiliates’ scheme. I’ll spend it on more books[]

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