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GSP 8: Protest and worship in London

The England research stop brought me back to unusually familiar ground, but never before had my visit coincided with that of a U.S. president. The result: a close-up view of protests.

I first reached London on a Tuesday, via trains and eventually the Chunnel, thanks to my Eurail pass. Because I was turning 40 the next day, though, I caught a bus with Bristol to celebrate with the friends at whose home I got the idea for this trip.

 A traditional Victoria sponge cake, homemade for my 40th birthday.

A traditional Victoria sponge cake, homemade for my 40th birthday.

Duly aged, I returned to London Thursday. By late afternoon, I still hadn't heard much from nearly a dozen emails to local churches, so finally booked an Airbnb south of London. Discouragement had me well in hand as I rose to leave my last train of the day, but then a British Indian man offered to help with me suitcase.

As we exited the train platform, his mother following us, he asked where I was headed with all my bags (thanks to a good friend, my 50 kilos/100 pounds had acquired a pair of running shoes). I had planned to take a bus there, but the man insisted that they would drive me and then even offered his phone to call my Airbnb host with a heads-up. When I'd finally settled in with her -- another Christian host, to boot! -- she told me Londoners never show such kindness to overburdened strangers. 

Another American got a cooler welcome. The next day I returned to the city for a radio interview and errands near Oxford Circus -- heart of the protests.

 Crowds and a police van near part of the protest route.

Crowds and a police van near part of the protest route.

After I'd picked up a meter of Liberty fabric and checked that my Adidas shoes really had wool in them, I decided to walk to my final stop: a meeting on the south side of the Thames. 

 A man in a dunce cap walks past Trafalgar Square.

A man in a dunce cap walks past Trafalgar Square.

I chose my route via Google maps, but unknowingly followed a route blocked off for protesters. By that point, the height of the march had passed, but I saw dozens of people with signs, more of which I wished I'd photographed. Let's just say British wit was on full display, while offering occasional reassurances that they didn't dislike America or Americans, just our president. I even saw women dressed to evoke The Handmaid's Tale.

So far this trip, I've heard more criticism than praise of local leaders, and people often report far deeper political problems than we have in the United States. But few other international leaders have prompted so many questions or unsolicited negative opinions as I've heard this trip. Food for humility and thought.

Once over the Thames, the signs thinned and I paused to enjoy one of my happiest afternoons this trip.

I even managed to end the day with a bite from my unofficial London Mexican restaurant, Wahaca.

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Saturday I wandered the shops with my AIrBnb host and prepared to move to the home of some friends of a friend, who’d offered housing.

Because of this transition, I went to not one but two services Sunday: first a traditional Church of England service much like my own Anglican-leaning service at home, then the wake-you-up concert-like experience that entails worship Hillsong. I later learned that this theatrical worship format attracts many tourists and youth to the church, a branch of the worship phenomenon started in Australia. (Many American churches sing songs penned by the Hillsong team. The week of my visit to London, the church was preparing for a massive, multi-day conference at London’s O2 arena.)

The rest of the week went more quietly. Rather than doing interviews, I spent much of my remaining stay working on west Africa visas and trip logistics. In the end, I only managed one interview for research in London (well off my goal of four to five a week), but I also gave one to Adventist Radio and made several new friends.

 After the St. Paul’s service.

After the St. Paul’s service.

Despite the challenging “work” week, one of my last nights there, I managed to squeeze in evening vespers at St. Paul’s Cathedral, on a tip from one of my pastors.

Many attendees probably came more for the free admission than the worship, but that service made me wish I could end more weekdays in such fashion. Though I met many lovely people through Hillsong, but I’ve come to hold a deep appreciation for the structure and rhythms of Anglican (and some Presbyterian) services, which take you through reflection, confession, worship and blessing for your return to ordinary life.

More exuberant rock-and-roll worship styles are great if you’re feeling good with God, but I’ve had too many hard times in my spiritual life to tie praise to upbeat emotions. As I wrote in my essay for Disquiet Time, when I’m feeling angry, sad or ashamed, I find it easier to meet God in services that don’t require a specific, happy emotional state.

People don’t always enjoy such freedom to worship or protest — something I would soon see firsthand — but Londoners are fortunate to enjoy a wealth of options for both.

Country snapshot

  • Local transit: $7.16 for a single ride to my AirBnb; $32.86 for an ultimately unnecessary Heathrow Express train to the airport. After it turned out the airline hadn’t issued my ticket, I had to spend one more night in London.

  • Beer: $.?? in the grocery store

  • Water: Drinkable from the tap

  • Recycling: Not only did they have the standard options, I even saw a special bin (at the airport?) for recycling used coffee cups. Swoon.

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