This article is part of a Public Spirit series on the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life
London is one of the most diverse cities on the planet – a veritable microcosm of the world in a metropolis. And as the UK becomes an ever more diverse society, London continues to lead the way; a fact borne out by a recent study of the 28 English authorities classified as ‘diverse’ which found that 24 were in the capital. Although there are many of the customary tensions one associates with this conglomeration, Londoners tend to get along. Evidence of this mutuality can be seen in the way they largely rejected the ideas of the political right – UKIP in particular – at the European and Local Elections in May 2014.
It used to be said that a signifier for determining the diverse character of a particular area of a town or city was its shops and businesses. This is no longer the determinant it once was in London since the ongoing gentrification of many parts of the city has blurred this indicator. Currently, areas once regarded as hubs of the Black and minority ethnic (BME) communities now experience soaring house prices, and the emergence of a café society in the form swanky wine bars, gastro pubs and upmarket restaurants.
Notwithstanding this supposition, it can be argued that there are still certain pointers within these areas that underpin their diversity. The first ‘indicator is the myriad businesses, particularly grocers and newsagents, advertising Lebara or Lyca telecommunications products. The Lebara Group was founded by three men of Sri Lankan heritage to ‘transform the international calling market, [by] making it easier for migrant communities to stay in touch with friends and family back home’. Like its counterpart Lyca Mobile, which was also established by men of South Asian heritage in 2005, its ‘typical customer is living in a host nation with most of his or her family living back home or in other countries’.  For those hailing from Africa, South Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Caribbean, these pay-as-you-go SIM/ phone cards are the primary (cheapest and easiest) method to maintain links with family and friends abroad. It can be argued that these forms of telecommunication characterise the relationship some newer communities enjoy with London; while they are contented with their lives in the city, they maintain ongoing relationships with the countries of their heritage, and are forging an identity which holds the two in tension.
There is little doubt that many of Lebara’s stalwart customers are to be found in the capital’s poorest communities. Research carried out by the Institute of Race Relations revealed that in London, BME communities are less likely than their white peers to be paid the living wage. Equally, ‘as a result of low income, over half of all people in poverty in London are from BME backgrounds’. This is undoubtedly a reason for the popularity of discount supermarkets such as Lidl, or its German counterpart, Aldi, in many diverse communities. While the clientele of both supermarkets cuts across class and ethnic boundaries, they have an undoubted appeal to those from lower socio-economic brackets who are attracted by their competitive prices. A further reason for their popularity is their preference to stock the continental-style produce that appeals to the culinary tastes of those from Eastern Europe. Since 2004, certain parts of Southwest London, such as Streatham, Mitcham and Tooting, have experienced a large influx of young Poles – attracted by the fact that these areas had settled Polish communities dating back to World War 2, and relatively cheap properties. Akin to other new communities, many of these recently arrived men and women secure entry level, low paid employment in hotels, cafes, restaurants, and supermarkets such as Lidl and Aldi.
“debt and financial borrowing are a major issue among many BME groups…two of the poorest and most diverse boroughs in the city, are the payday loan capitals of London”
Regrettably, with wages among BME communities failing to keep pace with the rising cost of living, especially rents and energy prices, supermarket thrift can only go so far. According to the debt charity, Step Change, one of the economic consequences of this scenario is that Londoners are the most over-indebted people in the UK. Additionally, debt and financial borrowing are a major issue among many BME groups, with a study revealing that they ‘struggled to live on their weekly or monthly income and very often ran out of money before their next benefit or wage payment was due’. Coupled with this, BME communities also failed to access the types of loans offered by banks or buildings societies.
It can be argued that a combination of all the above is one of the reasons why the high streets in poor, diverse communities are littered with loan shops among the Lebara signs and Lidl discount stores. Research carried out by Step Change reveals that Lambeth and Lewisham, two of the poorest and most diverse boroughs in the city, are the payday loan capitals of London, where cash-strapped residents borrow money at eye-watering interest rates. Those in desperate need of cash sometimes chance their arm at one of the many Ladrokes betting offices found on virtually any high street. It has been suggested that these gambling establishments enjoy a disproportionate presence in poorer neighbourhoods; and a BBC news report revealed that a street in Newham, one of London’s most deprived and diverse boroughs, had 18 betting shops. Similarly, Hackney Council is currently carrying out a consultation with residents over the ‘proliferation of betting shops in the borough’. Likewise, in Tooting, which has seen betting shops take over the former premises of high street banks, the local Labour MP, Sadiq Khan, has called on the council to have greater powers to restrict the number of these establishments. From a BME perspective, community and religious leaders have long voiced their concerns over the sway these establishments have on Black men of Caribbean origin. Although no rigorous academic research has ever taken place into the gambling habits of Black adult males, anecdotal evidence suggests that a disproportional number, especially those without work, frequent betting offices. It used to be said within the Caribbean community that Black women spent their Sundays in church worshipping God; while their husbands spent it in the ‘bookies’ adoring Lester Piggott.
“Black Majority Churches …are often located in the poorest, most diverse areas of our towns and cities, and enjoy a level of numerical growth that is the envy of their Anglican or Methodist counterparts”
As a religious and cultural commentator, I have always taken an interest in the nexus between faith and socio-cultural and political matters, especially Christianity and its interaction with marginalised, disaffected communities. One particular area of interest has involved studies into the reluctance of many Black and minority ethnic Christians to engage in the types of activities that effect real social transformation in the communities they seek to serve spiritually. Black Majority Churches (BMCs) in London (and elsewhere) are often located in the poorest, most diverse areas of our towns and cities, and enjoy a level of numerical growth that is the envy of their Anglican or Methodist counterparts. However, research has invariably revealed that many of these congregations eschewed social action for fear of becoming involved in ‘politics’. Such was the ingrained theological dichotomy between spiritual matters and secular ones that prayer was often the only Black Christian response to the range of social ills plaguing their communities.
“Such was the ingrained theological dichotomy between spiritual matters and secular ones that prayer was often the only Black Christian response to the range of social ills plaguing their communities”
A major catalyst for change was the tragic killing of Peckham schoolboy Damilola Taylor in 2000, and the upsurge in Black gang-related violence. These events helped to concentrate minds and led to several (BMCs) denominations developing initiatives on gangs, mental health, unemployment, educational underachievement and Black incarceration. While many of these programmes had a measure of success in their locales, they tended to be time specific, and lacked a comprehensive, joined-up strategy to tackle entrenched problems. Moreover, there was no theological justification for ‘getting one’s hands dirty’ in social action, nor was there a clear methodology for those wishing to engage.
The launch of the National Church Leaders Forum’s ‘Black Church Political Mobilisation: A Manifesto for Action’, in July 2014 is seen as a step-change in Black socio-political engagement. According to its co-Chair, Dr R. David Muir, ‘We hope to… mobilise African and Caribbean churches and the wider [B]lack community for social and political action. By encouraging our churches to actively engage in the socio-cultural, political and economic institutions locally and nationally we hope to strengthen communities, promote active citizenship and the common good.’
“The launch of the National Church Leaders Forum’s ‘Black Church Political Mobilisation: A Manifesto for Action’ [is] a step-change in Black socio-political engagement”
It is hoped that this report and the support mechanisms found within it, will help BMCs to engage in what is necessary work. In the past, some Black Pentecostal churches, which converted former cinemas, libraries, bingo halls and dance halls into places of worship, have been lax in responding to what is happening around them. Equally, their inherent insularity has seen them fail to use the tools they have at their disposal for the betterment of the wider community. For example, organisations like Citizen Advice and the community organising group, Citizens UK, have argued that credit unions are better than payday lenders for those in financial difficulties. Interestingly, BMCs have been pioneers in this sector, and launched the Pentecostal Credit Union (PCU) back in 1979. According to one report, the PCU is the largest of its type in the UK.  However, its services are only available to those who describe themselves as ‘Pentecostal’, which means that vast swathes of needy non-Pentecostals are unable to take advantage of this provision.
Likewise, BMCs have been the prime-movers in the education sector, especially in supplementary education or Saturday Schools. As many have access to premises in which classes can be held, and have those with educational skills within their congregations, they have little problem running classes. Yet, those who consistently take advantage of these programmes attend the churches running the lessons.
BMCs are also prevalent in prison ministries, visiting the worryingly high numbers of incarcerated Black men in British gaols. While there is a clear biblical mandate for carrying out this work, many do this solely to win converts, and there is no rehabilitation or resettlement dimension to their efforts. Those who fall under their influence tend to leave prison with a copy of the Bible and a good knowledge of the Christian scriptures, but little else. Notwithstanding this, the more progressive BMCs are adapting innovative Christian responses which are leading to real community change. For example, some run Christians Against Poverty (CAP) programmes that teach budgeting skills and a simple, cash-based system for those with mounting debts and threatening creditors. Others have liaised with the Trussell Trust to establish foodbanks to ensure that people in crisis do not go hungry.
“Faith-based organisations have a key role in meeting the needs of those regarded as the ‘last and the least’ in their communities […] However, their motivation is not the profit margin but a commitment to see lives and communities changed”
Faith-based organisations have a key role in meeting the needs of those regarded as the ‘last and the least’ in their communities. Much like the aforementioned high street businesses they offer a service. However, their motivation is not the profit margin but a commitment to see lives and communities changed. The challenge for many BMCs is to move beyond the ‘tea and sympathy’ response, to the ones highlighted in the ‘Black Church Manifesto’.
About the author
Richard Reddie is an author and researcher. He has written for a number of Christian and secular publications, including Focus, Christianity, the Weekly Gleaner and The Voice: http://www.theguardian.com/profile/richard-reddie
 See: www.londonspovertyprofile.org.uk/downloads/LondonPovertyProfile.pdf
 See: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/may/23/london-ukip-nightmare-labout-tories-local-elections-farage
 See: www.lebara.com/about-lebara
 See: www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2013/09/02/lycamobile-milind-kangle_n_3720471.html
 See: https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/the-billion-euro-british-phone-network-that-doesn%E2%80%99t-exist-180050473.html
 See: www.irr.org.uk/research/statistics/poverty/
 See: www.londonspovertyprofile.org.uk/downloads/LondonPovertyProfile.pdf
 See: http://news.stv.tv/scotland/288883-the-grocer-magazine-poll-shows-german-supermarket-lidl-is-cheapest/
 See: www.stepchange.org/Infographics/LondonCapitalofpersonaldebt.aspx
 See: www.jrf.org.uk/sites/files/jrf/London-poverty-ethnicity-full.pdf
 See: www.runnymedetrust.org/uploads/publications/pdfs/FinancialInclusion-2008.pdf
 See: www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22934305
 See: http://news.hackney.gov.uk/hackney-calls-for-people-to-have-their-say-on-betting-shops-consultation/
 See: www.sadiqkhan.org.uk/high_street_campaign_launched
 See chapter four in ‘Black Muslims in Britain’ by Richard S. Reddie. Lion Hudson. 2009. ISBN: 9780745953205.
 See: www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/211536/Future_of_High_Street_-_Progress_Since_the_Portas_Review_-revised.pdf
 See: www.trusselltrust.org/start-a-foodbank