Multicultural London: ‘capital of the world,’ faith in flux

LONDON?On a crisp October day in London’s Trafalgar Square, the solemn marble monuments of Great Britain’s former empire gaze upon a curious scene:

It’s “Simcha on the Square,” a celebration of 350 years of Jewish life in London. Thousands gather?and not just English Jews and gentiles eager to enjoy some kosher food and traditional music. The crowd includes people of nearly every conceivable appearance and background: turban-wearing Sikhs, Indians, Chinese, Africans, Rastafarians, hipsters, bikers. They dance or tap their toes to the beat of performances by “the Jewish Elvis” and “K-Groove,” a Klezmer-reggae-jazz band.

Multicultural bliss, at least for an afternoon.

Welcome to the new London. Bowler-hat London no longer exists. Nor does the London of Shakespeare, of Charles Dickens or even the 20th-century London of the Beatles. Sure, millions of tourists still visit the great sites of the old city. They still ride the double-decker red buses and flock to watch the queen and the changing of the guard.

But London is no longer really an English city; it is a world city. Set to host the 2012 Summer Olympics, it now proclaims itself the “capital of the world.”


With a population of some 8.5 million people (estimates range as high as 14 million for the greater metro region), London vies with Paris as the largest city in Western Europe. Much of the world’s high-powered finance flows through its gleaming office towers and great investment houses.

Population numbers and dollars, however, don’t tell the true tale of London’s global reach.

As a coverage by The Guardian newspaper confirmed in 2005, London has become “a world in one city.” From Algerians in Finsbury Park to West Africans in Woolwich, the newspaper ranged through the alphabet, finding major and minor ethnic/language communities throughout the city: Bangladeshis, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Jamaicans, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Poles, Russians, Somalis, Sri Lankans, Turks, Vietnamese?to name only a few groups.

London “is uncharted territory,” Guardian reporter Leo Benedictus wrote. “Never have so many different kinds of people tried living together in the same place before. What some people see as the great experiment of multiculturalism will triumph or fail here….

“Altogether, more than 300 languages are spoken by the people of London, and the city has at least 50 non-indigenous communities with populations of 10,000 or more. Virtually every race, nation, culture and religion in the world can claim at least a handful of Londoners.”

Since its earliest beginnings as Londinium, a Roman garrison town built in 43 A.D., this great metropolis of merchants and empire builders has attracted pilgrims, missionaries, immigrants, traders, colonial subjects and invaders. But the human waves that have washed over London in the last generation or two have brought the greatest cultural change since the Normans invaded in 1066.

A few glimpses:

?Emerge from the London Underground train station in Southall and you’ll think you’re in New Delhi. Temples, mosques, south Asian restaurants and markets dominate the area. On some streets there isn’t a white face in sight. Parts of Hackney feel like Ho Chi Minh City; parts of Wembley feel like Mogadishu. Other areas look and sound like Moscow (at least 250,000 Russians live in Britain) or Istanbul (more than 150,000 Turks and Kurds).

?The largest Sikh and Hindu temples outside India are in London. Hundreds of mosques, large and small, serve as many as 1.3 million Muslim Londoners.

?An estimated 600,000 Poles have flooded London over the last several years, the largest of successive waves of Russians, Albanians, Bulgarians and other Eastern Europeans streaming into the city.

Some of London’s ethnic communities are insulated, even isolated. Others freely mix and mingle with white Britons and other immigrants. Their children mingle even more, creating new cultural variations.

“When we first arrived in London, you’d see teens from many different nations walking home from school and hanging out?all calling themselves ‘Brits’?not English, but ‘Brits,'” said missionary Patrick Sims*, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s city strategist and team leader for London. “Now there’s been a move to forming gangs. Drugs and crime are on the rise. We can’t tackle that issue on a large scale, but we can come alongside teenagers and share the hope of Christ.”

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