A day out in Hackney!

It feels a bit strange having this theme to this blog but here goes…

One of the joys of living in London is the sheer number of interesting places to visit, some famous, others secret gems hidden away. I recently had a look round Sutton House in Hackney in East London (apologies for the poor photo), built in the then countryside in 1535 by Ralph Sadleir, then Thomas Cromwell’s close aide in the court of Henry VIII. When taken over by the National Trust, they originally didn’t even realise it was a Tudor house but thought it was Georgian!

The house has had a fascinating series of occupants, silk merchants, people involved in the East India Company which was trading goods and human beings around the world during the time. Other merchants and professional people lived there at various times including some French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries known as Huguenots, who fled France when persecuted by the French government. They weren’t allowed to trade in the City of London itself so congregated in other places including East London. As well as being used as an academy for girls, it became a Church Institute, which provided skills-training and pastimes for young men from the parish at the end of the 19th Century.

During the mid-1980’s it was occupied by squatters, being renamed the Blue House and was well looked after by them with concerts, cultural workshops and a café for the local community. If you ever get to visit this wonderful house, you will find rooms that have been set up to represent various phases of its life and history.

I found myself pondering the many lives and stories of those who had lived there. Some of whom showed great resilience in the face of a somewhat ‘hostile environment’ when they came to our country or who’s way of life was different in some way. Others must have suffered suspicions about their motives, intentions, and lifestyle. This house was a place for outsiders with their own life stories through the centuries.

I couldn’t help thinking of my own Christian discipleship and the times I have felt led to be more welcoming and hospitable including years spent fostering teenagers in troubled times for them. I am sure there are times when I could have done so much more for the Kingdom. We need to keep reminding ourselves of the challenge of 1 Samuel 16:7 to not look at the outside but to see people as God sees them on the inside, created, precious and with purpose and potential.

Now, like many others, I feel a bit ashamed about the reputation that those who govern our country at the moment are building, of a rather nasty, small minded and unwelcoming place. This is not, I hope, what we are actually like deep down and I feel we will all live to regret this time. The call to love the foreigner as we love ourselves and to hold lightly what we have is truly biblical (Leviticus 19:33-34). The Jesus I know and follow loved to spend time with the outsider!

What about the spaces that we inhabit, what are the stories of our lives? I love the film ‘The Chain’ which depicts various people moving from one house to another and the stories behind them. What is my legacy in my time and in my place?

Thinking about legacy, I ended my wanderings that day at Abney Park woodland cemetery in Stoke Newington formed in the mid-19th Century and including land from Abney House, the home of renowned non-conformist and hymn writer Isaac Watts. This association quickly made Abney the foremost burial ground for Dissenters – those practising their religion outside the established church. It was founded on these principles, with a non-denominational chapel at its core, and was open to all, regardless of religious conviction. As I walked around this rather wild but pleasant place, I also found the graves of the founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, and his wife Catherine, many other dissenting pastors and people, and also abolitionists who fought tirelessly against the slave trade.

There will always be a cost to Christian discipleship and causes to champion, and things to stand against (or dissent from) and today is no exception. May I, as a follower of Jesus today, be ever more faithful in my work and my witness!

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