I have lived in Streatham, South London for 17 years. Its where all my three children have been raised and go to school. Its where we go to church, where my wife works and where countless friends live. We are proud to say that Streatham is our community.
Yesterday, a young man attacked members of our community on Streatham High Road with a knife. He entered shops we know well and attacked people shopping. He injured 3 people before being shot by Police.
Just as the attack was unfolding I was walking towards the High Road on my way to Streatham Baptist Church to run our weekly youth group which starts at 3.30pm.
Normally we have around 15-20 young people coming along. But as I was walking I started to get messages and calls from parents asking about the incident. Rumours were flying around about what had happened and whether another attacker was being pursued. Understandably, many parents wanted their children to stay in.
In the end, we had 8 young people come. Meeting in that context was a bit surreal but it felt more important than ever. As normal, we played games for the first hour. In the heat of football and a new game which involved throwing lots of soft balls at each other, thoughts about what had happened were temporarily suspended.
After the games, we scrapped the theme that we had planned and instead just sat in a circle and talked. Yesterday, the group was all boys, mostly only a few years younger than the attacker.
Many were shocked at had happened in their area. One of them said ‘When it happens in London Bridge or somewhere central, it feels different. I never thought I would see Streatham on the news like this.’
They just talked and the other leader and I mainly just listened. We did not need any starter questions, video clips or planned material to prompt discussion. We just sat and shared how we were feeling.
It was a precious time. We ended up talking about fear and the impact of the attack. We talked about why the most common command in the Bible is ‘Do not fear’ and ‘Do not be afraid’. And then one of the young people prayed – for us and for the community.
I was so glad to be there: to be part of this group, to be part of this community.
The Streatham attack yesterday is yet another example of lives ruined by someone holding twisted religious beliefs. The fact that he wore a fake bomb belt shows the ‘religious’ nature of what happened. This is someone who wanted to kill and maim as many people as possible before being martyred. We cannot pretend this has nothing to do with religion.
In the sharpest possible contrast are those who because of their faith, go out of their way to help others.
In our community, the different churches work together in a partnership called Love Streatham which shows practical love to the community. This year, 7 churches are working together to host a Night Shelter for local rough sleepers. Across the country there are over 140 of these kind of schemes, where churches and other faith groups open their doors to welcome in homeless people.
And it is not just Christians. In Streatham people who never attend a church service have got involved to volunteer and this has further built community. In Westminster, the Night Shelter I was also part of setting up involves the local synagogue and mosque as well as 13 churches.
And last week, I heard an inspirational Muslim woman, Salma Ravat, speaking at a conference about her establishing the One Roof Night Shelter in Leicester. Her Muslim faith was integral to why she established the shelter and she partners with Christians, Hindus and Jews to show practical care to homeless people.
Force and love
In the face of hate and violence, we often need force. And we are grateful that the Police were able to limit the carnage.
But this kind of force will never be enough. We also need more love. We need a story, a message, a motivation which is stronger than warped religion of terrorist ideology. We need to build bridges and connect, to show love across divides. And we need to do this locally, in concrete ways which build community.
As someone in our youth group shared yesterday ‘fire cannot put out fire’. It reminded me of the words of Martin Luther King:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
I am proud to call this part of South London my community. And this morning I am more motivated than ever to love Streatham.