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Olympic Park area home to incredible diversity

EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press’ London bureau, in tandem with Tim Ellsworth, editor of BP Sports and director of news and media relations at Union University, will be providing coverage of London Olympics. Baptist Press will publish features about Christian athletes in the Olympics, recap results of their competition and cover initiatives to share the Gospel during the Summer Games and within the U.K.’s cultural milieu.

LONDON — Bikes. That’s what Parveen* sells.

Not the racing kind that flew around the track in the new Olympic Velodrome or the ones that competed just across the street from where she works in London’s Stratford community.

What Parveen sells from her street stand is the sturdy, practical kind of bike that would get you to and from work.

But she hasn’t sold many of those lately.

“The Olympics have made things more difficult,” said Parveen, an Indian immigrant who has lived in the UK for 36 years. “I have no needs but business, and I haven’t been able to sell anything really since the new mall was built.”

The Westfield mall, a massive new shopping complex, sits between Parveen’s market and the new Olympic Park. The park contains the Velodrome, Olympic Stadium, other sports venues and the Olympic Village, which houses athletes and staff.

The mall — Europe’s largest urban shopping center — contains a lot of people. Tourists especially flock to indoor viewing decks built for looking at Olympic Park and browse shops full of Olympics souvenirs.

“The people who’ve always lived in London’s East End have watched all of this change in such a short amount of time with an element of amazement,” said Robert Turner, a church planter in the area.

Before the decision was made to build Olympic Park in Stratford, the area was “basically an industrial wasteland of abandoned buildings and warehouses,” he said. The East End, Turner explained, has traditionally been the lowest area of the city — low wages, not much education and a lack of development.

It’s been that way for decades.

The construction that has happened since the Olympic bid in 2008 is staggering, Turner said. “One old guy told me he walks outside his door every morning, and it looks like aliens have landed.”

Parveen’s bike business isn’t seeing much help from all the new development. But Evie* has higher hopes.

“Oh, I hope the Olympics are going to help,” she said, smiling and waving crossed fingers in the air. The jovial grandmother, like Parveen, runs a street stand in Stratford’s City Centre, selling Jamaican food. “It’s kind of busy, but I hope it will get even busier soon.”

Busy is true enough. In Stratford, throngs of people rush in all directions. Few talk to each other. Few slow down at all.

And few show any outward signs of similarity.

“Newham, the borough of London that contains Stratford, has one of the highest ethnic minority populations of all districts in the country and is the second most deprived in England,” Turner said. “Many of these immigrants arrived in London because they were fleeing religious or political persecution in their home country and found relative safety in the U.K.”

Stratford is diverse, but diversity doesn’t play out there like it has in cities in the past. People don’t settle much into enclaves of their own ethnicity. They pick where they live and whom they live with based on cheap rent or a short commute or a roommate. Sometimes they intentionally stay away from their own people group because of stereotypes or problems they say they would like to escape.

Some people live in two-room shacks with up to seven other people. Others live in nice flats.

“There is a very large, young, ethnically mixed population living in Stratford,” Turner said. “Some are highly educated and prosperous, which makes for a unique mix of people almost anywhere you walk in the area.”

And it makes a unique challenge for Turner and others attempting to reach Stratford’s unreached with the Gospel — and, in doing so, reach the world.

“The spiritual natures of the people in the Stratford area and East End in general are so extremely mixed that they are difficult to classify,” Turner said.

Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, Hindu temples and a range of other worship centers are within walking distance of Olympic Park.

“The older generations tend to cling to the religious ways of the mother country, while their children who’ve grown up in Britain are less and less interested with each passing generation,” he said. “Many Muslim immigrants, particularly from Bangladesh and Pakistan, fall in a range from ultra orthodox to culturally ambivalent.”

And the ethnicities that have been there centuries might not have a strong appetite for the Gospel either, he said. “Most traditional white British types have no use for the established church, Jesus or religion in general. They find it irrelevant.”

Turner and his colleagues have their work cut out for them, but they aren’t shrinking back.

Church planters are spending intentional time strategizing and sharing the Gospel in Stratford and the surrounding communities. Seminary students have helped with people group research.

International Mission Board missionaries who have spent decades in other parts of the world have been brought to London to work among the diaspora of their people group in the city. The hope is that those groups will then reach out to unreached people groups in areas like Stratford.

It’s working. But there is still much work to be done, Turner said.

Newham borough has yet to be adopted through the Adopt London project, an effort to pair churches in the United States with boroughs of London.

“The Olympics are a great opportunity for ministry, but we don’t need the Olympics for a reason to do ministry in London — it already holds every one of the nations as residents,” said Matt Fontenot, partnership coordinator for the Adopt London project. “The nations are all here waiting to hear the Gospel 365 days a year, no event needed. We have access to 190 nations and more than 300 language groups. And, as a bonus, the majority of the people speak English.”

To learn more about how you can help engage London with the Gospel, visit adoptlondon.com.

The Summer Olympics in London run July 27 through Aug. 12. For more information about Christian ministry going on during the Games, visit morethangold.org.uk.
*Names changed. Ava Thomas is an International Mission Board writer and editor based in Europe. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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  • Ava Thomas