LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Suburbs are often seen as sleepy backwaters, but a new project aims to show how a vibrant mix of faith communities is putting some of London’s less celebrated outskirts at the forefront of social change.
Mosques, synagogues and Sikh temples nestle alongside traditional pubs and shops on the streets of Ealing, a west London suburb that is one of the most culturally diverse areas in Britain, according to local government statistics.
“These are the kinds of places where real social and cultural change is taking place,” David Gilbert, a professor of urban and historical geography at London’s Royal Holloway University, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“People are just living everyday lives and rubbing along together,” said Gilbert, part of the “Making Suburban Faith” project, which aims to highlight how religious groups are creating community spaces in London’s suburbs.
While attention often focuses on London’s grand urban developments, Gilbert says faith communities on the city’s edge are quietly repurposing old community halls or converting homes into churches or Sikh temples.
Betty Pemberton, 76, has lived in Ealing since the 1960s when she migrated from Ireland to work as a nurse, and says the area has changed with each new wave of immigration.
A committed Catholic, she still attends mass every week, but says the numbers have dwindled as the make-up of the community has changed. Just under half of Ealing’s residents said they were Christian in a 2011 census.
“It changed when the Irish came ... then we had the Indians and the West Indians with Wind Rush, it’s changed completely,” said Pemberton.
“It’ll never be any other way, it (London) is almost like a magnet.”
“Making Suburban Faith” aims to celebrate those changes through everything from architecture to food.
Filmmaker Laura Cuch honed in on Ealing as a multicultural microcosm for her documentary about the links between food and spirituality, which can bring diverse faith communities together.
Her film profiles a middle-aged Muslim man, an elderly Catholic woman and a young Jewish student in Ealing.
In it, neighbors learn about each other’s faiths through food - from a fruity Christmas pudding to a spicy Moroccan tagine and a chicken soup, known as Jewish penicillin for its cold-curing properties.
“Food can bridge a gap, it’s always used to bring people together,” said Cuch at a recent screening of the film.
“Ealing has its own identity as a very multicultural area with a very particular migration history that means that there are people from all over the world living together in this suburban area.”
As part of the project, international architect Ada Yvars Bravo worked with local schoolchildren in Ealing to help design mock shared religious spaces.
The project led to a wealth of ideas and designs including 3D modeling, stacked spaces and real-life visits to faith centers.
“What we try to do is to say you don’t need to differentiate, that’s why we love what they’re doing,” said Bravo of Mangera Yvars Architects (MYAA), which has designed mosques in Qatar and Orthodox churches in Georgia.
“It’s incredible because they are teaching people that everyone is the same and we can live all together.”
Reporting by Adela Suliman, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org