Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Holy Temple Church of Christ, 1A Greenwood Road, Hackney, 03.04.11

When I began my blog it was not my intention to reinforce stereotypes that surround Christianity and immigration but each week I find myself victim to the clichés that inhabits modern religion in a multicultural society. On Sunday I got up at 11.30 (when the majority of church services would have been finished) and travelled as far across the other side of my road to visit The Holy Temple Church of Christ. When a church is called “The Holy Temple of Christ,” you can make the assumption that the congregation are going to have evangelical tendencies and are more likely going to be predominantly African and West Indian. Annoyingly another assumption crossed my mind, the racist cliché that “black people are always late,” and sadly my worst fears were proven true. Standing in an empty hall surrounded by an amazing collection of Christian paraphernalia I was not greeted by the minister until 10 minutes after the scheduled start of the service. Minister Adi was a large and friendly Nigerian with very sweet and tired eyes that were not yet fully awake. Conservatively dressed in sweater and jeans he was yet to wear his white Sunday robes. After explaining my intrusion to Adi he told me the congregation travel “from near and far,” and I should return in an hour when everyone should be in attendance. Intrigued to see the large hall come alive (usually I am one of the last to arrive) I did wait and watch to see the first members enter. Ironic that the first to arrive had travelled as far as Clapham and actual residents of Hackney would join midway through the service. The main reason I did hang around was when I realised that the congregation embarked on a ritualised dressing before entering the main hall (or perhaps Holy Temple as the congregation would call it). The long journey and the ritual attire made me realise that the Sabbath was another weekly mini migration mirroring the larger migration the congregation had made earlier in the church's life; a migration away from London and back to the traditions of the homeland. 
More often congregations dress in their Sunday best at home and travel to church. Unlike regional cities it’s more common to see kids dressed in a suit than a hoodie on Sunday mornings outside churches in the east end but interestingly this congregation had rare fashion duality. One of the first arrivals was Alisha, a very beautiful young woman wearing incredibly high and thin heels that matched her figure; she had a silhouette to rival Jessica Rabbit with the tiniest of tummies but a big butt and bust and incredibly long thick luscious hair. I expected her to be the missing member of Destiny’s Child not one of the many gospel choir singers.  My conservative response was given a sharp shock when I returned to see her dressed head to toe in a white cotton dress that made her look like a giant pillow. The cotton dress was a familiar African style (see photo) but the large and ill-fitting hat was less common (appearing like a doylie to naïve whitey), but I was glad see she still wore her Dolce and Gabbana glasses inside the temple (some vanity the church will allow).  Alisha was an amazing singer and key to keeping the congregation moving during the hymn so maybe she will be the next Beyoncé (she is a church girl after all).  Alisha's male counterpart was Adu who was dressed in a more regular Nike sweater but also wore some more outlandish jeans that featured a picture of Tupac on one leg and his infamous “thug for life” mantra written across the bum. Adu was far less stunning but I did smile when I returned to see this self-proclaimed fashion “thug,” wearing a striking silk satin white robe and kneeling to a humbly lead the Lord ’s Prayer with the softest and sweetest of voices.  I could enormously relate to the congregation's schizophrenic appearance as I often dress in a suit for Church (consciously attempting to fit in with the congregation). In no way do I think mine or any of the congregational members of the Holy Temple are being dishonest, instead I regard the dressing as a key ritual that is key to any pilgrimage (no matter how small).  The individuals that formed the wall of white robes filled the hall and may have amazingly diverse lifestyles but on Sunday they all decide to unite under a singular uniform which sadly made my smart attire seem entirely inappropriate. The ritual robes of the congregation reminded me of a Holy pilgrimage and the importance of the Sunday service not just as an on-going spiritual migration but also the continual physical migration of the church itself.
Talking to Minster Adi after the service I began to realise the many incarnations this church had been through. Originating from Nigeria (though Adi quickly pointed out that the congregation were a collection of South Africans Kenyans and a few from West Indies)  the Holy Temple of Christ came to England in 1987 as a self-proclaimed “African Church” . The Holy Temple’s first base was St Mary’s hall in Stoke Newington (currently the home of a Quaker group and various other Christian sects) but the Holy Temple eventually moved north east to share another building in Seven Sisters eventually moving into their own building in Kings Cross. The Holy Temple bought their current home in 1994 but the self-funded roofing and refurbishment was not complete till 1996.  The building was a disused sorting office of the Royal Mail, an apt choice for a congregation that had travelled so far.  The main hall filled with an enormous assortment of religious placards must have been the main mail room. Now all the mail room walls are filled with same Christian messages that God is Great, Jesus Loves You,  Jesus said “I Am The Way, The Truth and The Life,” and my personal favourite Bible: Biblical Information Brings Life Eternal. Similar to the instantly recognisable slogans that decorated the walls the service was a predictable collection of shared passionate prayers, lots of singing and dancing and a sermon that was about everything but said nothing.  Christianity can be repetitive and does more often breed a sense of conformity and but you have to admire its longevity. I did enjoy the singing and dancing but I was more impressed and intrigued by the Church’s short history.
When a faith that is so strong it travels across from Europe to Africa and then back again its going to change and adapt in ways we cannot understand but yet remain instantly recognisable. The Holy Temple Church of Christ is very similar to other “African Churches” I have visited in the area but what is unique are the details of their journey which is not something I can learn on one visit and so instead I fall back on the clichés. In the short time I spent with the congregation and the brief history lesson I received by the end of the service it was quite easy to for forgive them all for being late, they have after all travelled from “near and far.”

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