August: sunshine, holidays – and cleaning up after the riots (Arun Arora)

Cleanup in BirminghamArun Arora reflects on sunshine, holidays and cleaning up after the riots.

In my previous churches, summer has been a time for rest: annual family holidays, lighter service rotas and genial informality all under the shade of a summer sun.

This summer has been rather different.

At the end of July we worked hard as a church to run Wolverhampton's very first Street Festival in the city centre: a four day long event with busking, live music (mixing secular and sacred), drama, free face painting, fire juggling and even group street dancing (imagine a flash mob doing the Macarena on a city centre high street and you get the idea). The sun shone all week, and the response was incredible. As a church we felt that we had gone a little way to living out our mission statement of: worship fully, love all, serve the city. Summed up, we felt we were 'putting a smile on the face of the city the way Jesus would have'.

We had barely had time to reflect on the festival when, in a meeting, my phone began to buzz with text messages about the riots in Birmingham. I returned home and watched on television the violence unfold in the city of my birth.

There were about 100-150 people who had all turned out with brooms, bin liners, gloves, but most of all with a desire to stand in solidarity with a city that they called home and loved – it was a stand against the darkness

Soon after, the first messages began to appear on my Twitter stream about #riotcleanup, with a suggested meeting place the next morning in Birmingham. Five of us travelled into the city the next day to help with the clean up, only to discover that most of it had been done. However, our journey had been far from wasted. Standing and talking with the others who had turned up, we spoke of our shared love of the city and of our desire to stand up for something more, something different than what we had witnessed the night before. Call it incarnational theology if you want, but simply being there was a statement.

On our return from Birmingham, we became aware of some of the text messages being sent out to organise riots in Wolverhampton that night. Those of us qualified as Street Pastors took the decision to go out and patrol the city centre – to pray God's peace over Wolverhampton. It was clear within 20 minutes of our arrival that something ugly was going to happen – just like the strong thickening smell in the air prior to a downpour –  so the timbre of the city centre was thick with anticipation of  something evil to come. The riot was brewing. The police had told shops to close at 2pm and by half four they advised us to leave. We did so. An hour later the riots began.

The next morning we gathered again in the city centre for the clean up. This time there were about 100-150 people who had all turned out with brooms, bin liners, gloves – but most of all with a desire to stand in solidarity with a city that they called home and loved. It was a stand against the darkness. Most of those gathered were young, and the sight of so many young people gathered to join together for the city as opposed  to what had happened the previous night was a timely reminder of the motto  of Wolverhampton: 'out of darkness cometh light'.

At the end of the clean up, as an act of comedy in the midst of tragedy, we decided to reprise that part of the Street Festival where we invited members of the public to join in a group street dance. So it was that barely eight hours after the last rioters had left the streets, we invited people to dance the Macarena in Queen’s Square to the sound of laughter and applause.

At our weekly gathering on the first Sunday after the riots we reflected on one of our foundational texts as a church: Jeremiah 29 – God's instruction to the exiles not to listen to those who counselled remaining apart from the city, but rather to seek its welfare. Not to be assimilated by the city, but to seek to engage fully with it. To remember God’s promise to prosper us in the place to which he has brought us and to be a light in a place of darkness.