‘What would Jesus do?’ is, for many, a useful way to make moral decisions. Simple, direct, and relational it gets to the heart of it. As London burns reflecting on those stories leads us to compassion, weeping, action, accountability, truth and more. As a Christian minister I value the moral traction it offers.
But as a Londoner, and someone with ‘East end provenance’ (that last word belies how much has changed over three generations in my family!!!), there’s at least one other question that has come to mind today.
‘What would Edith do?’ Let me explain. Edith ‘Minnie’ Mercer was my grandmother, a woman I am deeply proud of. She defined much of my first 20 years, from my first memories of her in London flats and family gatherings at Judd Street, Euston, to the day of her funeral mass in 1985 kneeling next to her coffin a few yards round the corner. Love, laughter, bacon fat, wrestling and much more were celebrated richly in a tough life lived within 5 miles for over 80 years.
From her last flat at Gypsy Hill she could crane her neck to the high kitchen window to savour a view of ‘her London’. But her other view was above the fireplace. The cheap reproduction showed a famous, darker, more viceral view of her beloved St Paul’s surrounded by the confusion and fire of the blitz. It looks like all hell has broken loose in the night and the news feeds of recent days put me in mind of it. Two images of the same city, both burning, experienced by two different generations in radically different ways. But for me, there was a connection to grandma that I had not expected.
The contexts are, of course, radically different. Edith was experiencing the blitzcrieg of total war against a clear external enemy, facing death and loss across the civilian population, affecting whole nations and regions for many years. We are facing unprecedented social upheaval centred in (currently) specific areas, by shifting unknown groups, including raw criminality, against a background of social fragmentation, disilusionment and complexity. Many who faced the deprivations and challenge of the war years rightly question our narcissitic, consummerist society which often fails to notice just how relatively good things are. Recalibrate our sense of need against human experience in East Africa, Fukashima, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Norway…
But, lest the wisdom of the old excludes the experience of the young, we might also allow some parallels: a city in flames, fear and confusion on the streets, a sense of overwhelming chaos, a stretching of public resources to the limit…
So what would Edith do? Well she did not have much time for ‘the spirit of the blitz’ triumphalism or cosy east end ‘luv-a-duck’ stereotypes. She certainly would counsel a firm hand against wayward youths, (i seem to remember she had a fierce right hander & a great believer in Big Daddie’s body splash!). But in her quieter moments she would talk of neighbours who took time to know each other, sacrificial sharing of hosptality with those in need regardless of personal resources, help and understanding cutting across social divides and a strong sense of that elusive thing called community.
In the last 24 hrs I have broken the golden rule of sabbaticals and got in touch with work. To be disconnected in such tumultuous times felt more than I could stand. But what I found was something akin to what I think Edith would have done. In the midst of the chaos clarity and charity have been bought together. I catch up on the news that, in partnership with others, my amazing colleagues have made our Welcome Centre a temporary home for a respite centre for police officers and others. It’s tea, cake, wifi, welcome, space, and I am sure a whole lot more. But such sacrifice and simplicity restrains the darkness, just as it did in Edith’s day. It says that chaos will not be the end for comunity, victim or perpetrator and that Londoners of all age and every race are far better than this week’s news.
Well done everyone from across the Stow and beyond. It makes me proud to be part of E17, and hope that these simple acts will lead to constructive engagement with the people and issues. So thanks to those who have worked hard to get the centre going and God speed to all that lies ahead to build a better future. Edith Minnie Mercer would be proud of you!
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