This morning I led worship at the Mayday Hospital in Croydon. I try to go there at least once each year. There is a great chaplaincy and a load of volunteers who turn up week in week out to bring patients down to the Chapel and take them back again later. This is quiet, undramatic service, but hugely valuable and I feel an insistent need to value and encourage them.
Today was also rather poignant. A couple of days ago a man was stabbed at a bus stop in West Croydon, watched by his three-year old daughter. He was taken to the Mayday Hospital where he died. He had collected his daughter from childcare before going to the Mayday Hospital to visit his wife and the son born only that morning. The tragedy is awful and people in Croydon find it hard to imagine how such a thing could have happened. People outside Croydon might simply add it to a list of unarticulated prejudices about the place.
Before I moved to South London in 2000 I had no idea where Croydon was. All I knew was that David Bowie went to college there and that it sounded a bit naff. When I was appointed to my current post in 2003 and we moved to Croydon, I swallowed deeply as I prepared to get to know yet another place as well as possible. And it has been fantastic.
Croydon is a brilliant place to live. Having thrown up a lot of high-rise concrete buildings in the 1960s, the nettle has now been grasped and there is a very ambitious plan to re-build parts of the town. Seen as ‘London’s third city’, it has a vibrancy and creativity that took me by surprise. Only fifteeen minutes from Central London and sixteen minutes from Gatwick Airport by train, it combines business, retail, leisure and green space in a way that offers the best of all worlds in a fairly small area. The new-ish Chief Executive of Croydon Borough Council, Jon Rouse, has set about the task of tackling education, business and ‘living space’ with energy, vision and determination. It is a place, despite the global financial downturn, that feels confident that a bright future is being formed.
My office is situated between East Croydon station (surrounded by derelict land now awaiting susbstantial redevelopment – probably delayed by a year or two) and Croydon College, led through great transformation with equally brave vision by Mariane Cavalli. This places us in a stream of humanity of all shapes and sizes as it flows around the town centre and the transport hub. The whole world is here and it is brilliant.
What characterises people like Jon Rouse and Mariane Cavalli is the sheer hard work and long hours that they commit to what are extremely demanding tasks. In a complex part of a complex South London, they and others apply themselves – often at personal cost – to working for the people of Croydon in a way that I want to salute. How they do it when the local media seem obsessed with reporting only bad news and diminishing confidence in public authorities, I have no idea.
Croydon churches are also thriving. Yesterday I had a two-hour breakfast meeting in my office to consult further on how we should re-shape our ecumenical cooperation in Croydon. There are over 240 churches (of different flavours and complexions) in the borough, yet there is more cooperation than competition. Mutual support and encouragement are the hallmarks of such work and we want to develop these further in the future.
But, again, the contribution of the churches is often either overlooked or dismissed as a sort of weird private enterprise. Yet our churches do not exist to serve themselves, but the wider community in which they are set. Particularly for Anglicans (who organise geographically so that everybody lives in a parish and has access, if they wish, to their local church community and clergy), we are there to serve not just Christians, not just Anglicans and not just ‘people like us’: rather, we are there to show Christ (the one you read about in the Gospels) to people and bring people to Christ. We serve our neighbour without ulterior motive. Consequently, thousands of hours of voluntary service are given every day to making life better for others.
There are loads of stories to tell, but we are not always good at telling them. We just get on with it. And maybe that’s not entirely a bad thing in a media-dominated world where motives are always suspect.
I love living in Croydon. It isn’t the prettiest town in the world just now, but the plans to transform the environment are exciting and ambitious. The doom-mongers and nay-sayers will always complain about everything anyone does to change the world, but I will be supporting those who – often against the odds and in the face of personalised public opposition – not only see a better future, but apply themselves to making it happen.