Sunday, 31 July 2011

Christian Life Family Church, Somerford and Shacklewell Community Hall, Shacklewell Road, 24.07.11

Last week I was disappointed by the spiritually reflective but restrained ritual of the Anglican Church. Despite the well intentioned sermon on religious tolerance I felt the transformative nature of Christianity was absent from the service, but the Anglican church has no need to transform or challenge the establishment. When a religious institution has the majesty of St Pauls and some of the most beautiful church buildings in the world, the wealth of one of the  richest countries and a great history of inspiring highly celebrated works of literature and art you can understand why the church might grow conservative in its evangelism. No need to rock the establishment when you are the establishment. Other churches have less and therefore must believe in more and that’s why I chose to visit the Christian Life Family Church based in Somerford and Shacklewell Community Hall just in the centre of the Somerford estate on Shacklewell road.
Located in the back roads of Hackney away from the richer surrounding areas of Dalston and Stoke Newington, the community centre might only be a short distance from Kingsland Road/Stoke Newington High Street but the convoluted pathways form an isolated maze of alleyways and cul-de-sacs so the people from the estate don’t fully mix with the  gentry. London’s windy roads create a subliminal sense of segregation and safety yet appearing integrated. It’s a trick that modern cities are unable to replicate.  So despite its very short distance from the richer and historical churches of Stoke Newington the poor surroundings of Somerford and Shacklewell Community Hall felt far further. To even call the small modest construction a hall was to embellish its humble architecture, so to call the hall a church was to aspire to see God in one of the most depressingly uniform of  buildings. No cloisters, no arches, no stained glass, no pillars, no steeple, no tower, just a concrete rectangluar box with windows that could not fully open. Inside no sanctuary, no nave, no altar, no font, no pulpit, no pews, no organ, no crucifixes, no bible quotes, no bibles. Just four rows of chairs, a few tambourines, one pair of congas and a Perspex transparent lectern decorated with dust stains, a small crack and the faded red text declaring the box sized room a “Tower of Refuge.” I found the room beautifully bleak and was comforted by the congregation’s aspirations for spiritual transcendence because for all its unimaginative design this building was being used to celebrate life in the form of Christian worship. The church in the congregation’s eyes was far bigger and all-encompassing than the dimly lit depressing room we stood in.
The reason behind the congregation’s acceptance of such a squalid building was necessity and experience. Pastor Patrick Yeboah who led the service informed me that the entire congregation was from Ghana with the exception of one Nigerian and that the congregation had started in Dalston Methodist Church (which I visited in February) but had moved to the community centre in 2003. A modest ministry had a skeleton attendance. At the start of the service the room contained only the pastor, me and one lady but as the celebrations began the worship magically raised the attendance to 12 people by the services’ final blessing.  The Christian Life Family Church are a part of the larger organisation, Rhema Christ religious network, which are based in South London but appear to have pop up ministries across London with ties to West Africa. Rhema Chist seemed to be a very niche organisation with its congregation members reading from The Holy Bible Illustrated for People of Colour and singing religious harmonies like tribal folk songs without hymn books and very little musical accompaniment. In short the congregation did not go to church they brought church to the community centre in their strong belief in the transformative spirit of God.
From the opening prayer Pastor Patrick Yeboah and a single lady with a large voice started the service and managed to create an amazing atmosphere to transport you from the most mundane surroundings. Leading caller response prayers intercut with singing and spoken aloud testimonies to god the entire room was filled with a large vocal range of West African accents. The squeaky pitches of excitement offset by low baritone calmness had a raw quality only musically supported by the rattling of tambourines. Anyone looking into the room would have been scared off by the cacophony of noise but to be inside the room and feel the atmosphere being generated was electrifying. Never before did I want to talk to god than in that single moment and never before had I realised how impossible it would be for me. The ability to create such emotion through stating ones monologue to God was inspiring because I am unable to do so myself. Luckily my own tokenistic out loud testimonies to God were drowned out by the raucous hiss of the tambourines. The tambourines created a sound level for the congregation to rise above and achieve a sense of liminality by calling out their open testimonies to God over a din of noise. I could feel my body elevate and feel free by the noise generated by the congregation achieving a pure sense of euphoria but no illusion to God or perhaps I did not recognise the euphoria as God.
 Ultimately the Christian Life Church ritualistically create an electric atmosphere of spirituality through a very informal manner that separates them from the more formal routine of the Eucharist in the Anglican and the Catholic Church. Maybe Anglican and Catholic services once had such raw energy and have now grown old and tired? My feeling is that the energy generated by Christian Life Church is built on the desire to transcend due to their less privileged situation.  Yet is blind belief all you need to be a Christian? Pastor Patrick Yeboah’s erratic sermon could have been improved by imitating the more bible centric and structured sermons of the Anglican and Catholic priests. The service spanned  four hours and we did not have one bible reading and not even a few quotes, instead we had a heavy use of a nonsensical metaphor that sounded like it was quoted from a business self-improvement class. Patrick Yeboah declared to the congregation to “Run your Own Race.”
Obviously you can’t “Run your Own Race,” if he had told the congregation to “live your own life” that would have made sense but the statement “Run Your Own Race,” is nonsensical and paradoxical. A race must include a minimum of two people by stating you only have to beat yourself you create a masochistic personality  who never gets the relief of winning or losing but are constantly preoccupied by a race that knows no end (until they die and meet God). To illustrate his point, Yeboah related his business idiom to inaccurate descriptions of ancient history (wrongly declaring Richard the “lionheart” beating the Romans because he ran his own race) and worrying opinions of global development (America broke free from the British Empire and is now most the developed country in the world because they ran their race). The most upsetting statements were not misinformation but the claim that you should not sympathise with others just “Run Your Own Race.” All of a sudden last week’s Anglican Church’s sermon on tolerance provided a good Christian tonic to the well-meaning but paranoid sermon of Pastor Yeboah’s plea for individualism.
The question is raised “Can the energy of Christ Life Church be married to the more reflective sermons of the Anglican and Catholic Church?” I don’t think they can because I think the energy of Christ Life Church but also the negative misinformation comes from its transformative nature. The Christ Life Church is still growing and has very few institutions therefore it lives more in the minds of its congregation. In the minds of the congregation it can transform and it can raise the spirits in any building but it can also change the bible’s morality to more personal fantasies. Christ Life Church is created by its ritual it does not have grand designs and large pillars to hide behind instead the ritual makes the building. The ritual is in the transformative practice of the congregation but the church felt like it was not fully formed as if it’s running a race against itself with no clear end in sight.

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