London isn’t hard to fall in love with. It has that un-efforted charm that can’t be defined except by the thrum of the Underground, the early morning march of dress shoes on cobblestone, the gentle bustle of buses, taxis, and sprawling garden parks, and the thick, savory comfort of an evening pub. Where castles curl up to skyscrapers, and mosques stand on streets named after saints—it’s a city of diametric beauty.
And it was these very contrary parts of culture and people and architecture that made it so alluring, but also hard. Because it’s also a city of diametric disfigurement—where racism flourishes alongside diversity, and poverty reigns alongside prosperity, and a million worldviews fight to pull you thin. It was here where my family and I were expected to come to, dwell in, and minister.
But, a whole other dimension of cross-cultural ministry muscles itself in when you go as a family. Emily and Juniper, my wife and daughter, had a difficult adjustment. Their time was full of joy and discomfort, and lots of bittersweetness in between. My wife struggled with being alone many of our days there. Juniper took over a week to adjust to a new sleep schedule. Our times together, sometimes few and far between, were often a hairsbreadth from dissension if we weren’t constantly intentional about making it count. It was a hard thing to balance consistently.
Since we’d been to London once before, we half-knew what to expect and what to plan for. Keeping our eyes on our departure date helped keep culture shock at bay. We lived with a Texan woman and a British guy who loved baseball, which made our transition much easier! The people—even passerby on the street—were kind and courteous, offering greetings and apologies. And even though we technically spoke the same language, we didn’t always use the same words for the same things.
I was assigned to minister to two historically poor boroughs through London City Mission—Tower Hamlets and Dagenham. In Tower Hamlets, I worked directly with the church missionary. In Dagenham, I was attached to the local Christian center. Both places had high rates of poverty, poor housing, and strong Muslim population. In some ways, London shattered all our expectations; but in quite another, overflowed them.
I didn’t expect to see the Holy Spirit moving in this group of Muslim teenage boys that I hung out with in the local church on Monday nights. I didn’t expect to find such a hardheadedness toward Scripture by white Brits who confessed Christ. In London, religion seemed almost exclusively ethnic sometimes. British people assumed every Bangladeshi was a Muslim. Every Muslim assumed pale skin meant you were Christian. And so, everything a white person did (Christian or not) said something about Christian character. Sadly, many Brits I met with assumed the same about themselves as well.
There were other surprises, too. I didn’t expect to hear so many different theologies swirling about the air in a near peaceable way. I didn’t expect the body of Christ to bear no resemblance to myself. But I did expect to be challenged. I expected to be embarrassed, and humbled, and powerless. Those were the expectations that were met thoroughly, and where I saw the Holy Spirit most at work—in those downhill places.
Nayim, one of the Bangladeshi guys who rolled cigarettes in the church basement as fluently as his English and would tease the other younger Christian leaders for their commitment to chastity (which he’d be clear about the benefits of neglecting—among some other virtues), was glad to talk to me about what he believed and why. He was one of the guys who came on a regular basis whose parents let them stay out late, as long as they were here. It was a way for them to get out of the house but off the streets. They didn’t have much opportunity elsewhere. We talked easily, without pretense or debate. Even though my hopes were dampened by how he received Jesus—the image of running into a brick wall is apt—I was floored by the kindness that peaked out from behind his put-on machismo, and the curiosity he had about what I believed and why.
I had another brief relationship with Mr. Shoesmith. He was a Brit, born and bred in the borough of Dagenham. With his towering frame and towering voice he would often initiate theological debates with the other leaders. I was warned about him. To him, eating pork is a sin for any serious Christian. One particular conversation tended toward the topic despite my several attempts to row upstream. It was only after what felt like barefisting a brick wall for upwards of forty-five minutes did I realize that it’s possible lose while still being ‘right’ theologically. I can’t say I’d recommend an evangelical methodology that begins from the argument from bacon, but I can say it’s possible to be confidently humble with someone with whom you disagree and still show love to them – even inside the span of an hour long relationship. I can only trust in how the Holy Spirit is now using my time there to work in the hearts of Nayim and Mr. Shoesmith.
My time in London wasn’t characterized by remarkable conversions or romantic experiences or Sinai-esque happenings. It had mostly to do with serving people with tea and food and attention. The smallest part of what I did turned out to be the largest—listening and immersing myself into people’s worlds, walk alongside a bit of their story. It was a place where salvation hinged on breakfast meat, and where image-bearers said “meh” to Jesus in the same breath they yearned for Him. It was a time and a place of diametric blessing.
London tenderized my heart; sometimes with gentleness, sometimes with hammer blows, but every time softer toward people and their needs. London helped me see that grace always moves downhill, and there accumulates. London added a thickness to God’s presence I’d not seen before, provided a lifetime’s worth of reflections and memories with my strengthening family, and helped cement God’s call toward pastoral ministry. If grace always moves to downhill places like these, then Lord, let me follow you there.
This article originally appeared in the Calvin Seminary student publication, the Kerux.
Image: London King’s Cross railway station. Credit: © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0