When I moved back to East London, having lived in Essex for seven years, one well-meaning friend said I was ‘very brave to be going there’. It was clear that what he meant was that immigration in recent years had made East London no place for an Englishman like me.
Now, I’m proud to be English. But I’m also proud that among my ancestors is a man who, when his life was in danger in his homeland, came to London as a refugee and asylum-seeker. This all happened in 1750 and he was a French Huguenot – a Protestant Christian in then-Catholic France. He came to London, where he found work as a carpenter among the growing French community around Spitalfields, and married a French girl. Interestingly, the family were still speaking French as their first language sixty years later, in 1810, when his granddaughter, Marguerite, married a young local, William Cockett. That French heritage is still reflected of course, in street names such as Fournier Street and Fleur de Lis Street.
Now, East London has seen several waves of incomers since then, each bringing their own flavour and way of life. Some have learned English quickly, while others – like my ancestors – have taken a generation or two to assimilate. Some came because of persecution, while others simply came in search of a better life. Whatever reason we came for, we have one thing in common, which is that whatever we were before, we are all now Londoners, and proud of it.
As a Christian, I am inspired by a vision of Heaven, described in the book of Revelation as a place where there is ‘a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language’. And when I worship in many of our churches in East London, I take great joy in seeing that vision being lived out on Earth. The wonderful diversity of East London has its challenges, certainly, but it also brings great blessings. I’m proud to live in a place which, if we take the Bible seriously, should be seen as nothing less than a foretaste of Heaven itself.
(This article first appeared in the Newham Recorder)