[ACNS, by Gavin Drake] A London church at the heart of one of Britain’s most diverse multicultural communities has this afternoon been visited by the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles made the lunchtime visit to St John’s Church, Southall, in the London Borough of Ealing, to meet members of the town’s faiths forum and to see a little of the community work of the church.
Some 95 per cent of the community of Southall are from minority ethnic backgrounds. Sikhs make up 35 per cent of the population; 30 per cent are Muslim and the remainder are a mixture of Hindus, Christians, Buddhists and people of no faith.
But despite the diversity it is, the Revd Mark Poulson, associate vicar of St Johns, says, a community that is thriving, harmonious and resilient. Speaking to ACNS, he said that the community of Southall was “faith literate” and that members of the various faith communities “know each other and live cheek by jowl.”
It wasn’t always so. In the 1970s, Southall was caught up in race riots that afflicted a number of multiracial areas of the Britain. But the work of the various faith leaders and members of the different faith communities over the years since then had brought about a transformation in community relations.
“Back in 2011 the country was torn apart by urban disturbances and riots,” Mark Poulson, who is also the secretary for inter-religious affairs for the Archbishop of Canterbury, said. “Ealing Borough, of which we are a part, was affected very seriously and there was loss of life in this borough.
“Everywhere around Southall was affected but Southall itself saw people of faith coming out onto the streets and protecting one another’s places of worship. That is systematic of the depth of relationship that there is here.
“We are not going to pretend that we are the finished article or that we are there yet. We still have tensions and difficulties but we also have a forum for people who are committed in relationship.”
The Southall Faiths Forum was created in 2012 and is planning an event later this year which will, in effect, be an open day for the community. This will involve the various faith communities, local business and others throwing open their doors “for people all round London and the country to come and visit” and for community initiatives such as Southall Transition and A’Rocha to “show their wares” and for local restaurants to offer free food on the streets.”
The community cohesion in Southall is possible because of “relationships where we don’t take things for granted and where people are not scared to speak to one another,” Mark Poulson said.
The Church runs English language classes with a core group of between 50 and 70 women from Somali, Afghan, Tamil, Pakistani and Punjabi backgrounds attending each week.
The Prince of Wales chats with women from the Craft and Conversation programme, which creates a warm environment where women can grow in confidence in their use of English while children play in the church creche.
Photo: © Gavin Drake
The Prince of Wales was welcomed to the Church by a group of Dhol drummers from the local Featherstone High School and walked into the building through a guard of honour of flag-waving children from Dairy Meadow Primary School.
After being greeted by the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Dr Richard Chartres, the Vicar of St John’s, the Revd Dr Anna Poulson and her husband, the Associate Vicar, the Revd Mark Poulson, the Prince of Wales met members of the Faiths Forum where, Mark Poulson later told ACNS, “we talked openly about our differences but also about the way that we are able to be reconciled and the way that we are able to work together for the common good.”
He said that the Prince of Wales heard about “a community that is resilient, which is flourishing and a community that wants to build for its young people. Our schools reflect that [diversity] but are excellent and are places where we encourage people to talk openly about faith.”
The Prince then met with various of community activities, including the Onside Football Project, which takes a small football “cage” into local housing estates, parks and schools; the A’Rocha Christian environmental charity founded by a former St John’s Curate, the Revd Dave Bookless; a Craft and Conversation project, funded by the Near Neighbours project; and the Southall Transition, which was founded at St John’s in 2013 to give local people from all backgrounds the change to “take a proactive lead in engaging with the community in projects that deliver a more environmentally-friendly, healthy and sustainable Southall.” The Southall Transition has already transformed a piece of derelict land into the Southall Orchard project where local people are growing food and produce.
The Prince of Wales chat with young people from the Onside Project, which takes a small football cage to local neighbourhoods and provides an opportunity for young people to talk about Faith, Food and Football.
Photo: © Gavin Drake
Before he left, the Prince of Wales was treated to a rendition of “What a wonderful life” by the combined choirs of Dairy Meadow Primary School and Featherstone High School.
The Revd Mark Poulson told Prince Charles that the song had become “something of a theme for Southall Transition: that this is a beautiful place, its communities are vibrant and alive.”
He explained that the song was “written by a Jewish man, George Weiss, who wrote it especially for Louis Armstrong in 1967 – a time of heightened anxiety and racial tension in America.”
And he told the Prince: “At that time Louis Armstrong was seen as a person who brought people together across the racial divide. And we want to say that about you, too. That you have used your office to bring people together of different backgrounds and we hope that this will be a tribute to you as well as to the community.”
The Prince of Wales and the Bishop of London listen as children from local primary schools sing "What a wonderful life" - the theme of Southall Transition.
Photo: © Gavin Drake
The visit concluded with a prayer, led by the Bishop of London, Richard Chartres, in which he said: “We thank you for this wonderful and vibrant community. We thank you for the way in which young and old, many different life histories come to know one another not just as neighbours but as friends. We pray especially for those growing up in this community – that they may all grow up as those who love what is good and true and beautiful.
“We thank you, Father, for the way in which the Prince of Wales has been committed to the work of harmony and good relations between the faiths. And we ask you, Father, lift up the light of your countenance upon this community and bless it. Give it peace and give it joy.”