LONDON – For more than 200 years, London has been a repository for some of the globe’s most remarkable cultural treasures.
In an hour’s stroll through the British Museum, a visitor can view Greek statues from the Parthenon; colossal stone-winged lions from an Assyrian palace; the Rosetta Stone, the world’s key to unlocking the language of the pharaohs; and a plethora of other incomparable, priceless treasures.
Yet other treasure has found a home in London outside the secure walls of a world-class museum.
That treasure is on the streets, in the neighborhoods, riding the buses and underground trains, heading to an Olympics venue, working in the restaurants or attending the schools.
It’s the people.
There’s Asuntha*, for instance. Her Sri Lankan husband brought her to London just after they were married. As is common in this sort of arranged marriage, she didn’t know him well, and family difficulties followed. A few years and two daughters later, her husband left her, a bank repossessed her home, and she had to move into government housing.
But Asuntha stayed in London, living in a small flat above a gym, to build a better life for her girls. Her girls attend British schools and speak flawless English. She knows that by staying in London, her girls will have a more promising start to life than they ever would have had back in their home country.
Asuntha is one of an estimated 100,000 Sri Lankan-born U.K. residents, the majority of whom live in London. They bring with them not just their culture but also their religions, which include Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism.
In a 2007 article, New York Magazine likened modern-day London to the New York City of the early 1900s, its great age of immigration. For decades, different ethnic groups have found reasons to immigrate to London.
Turkish Cypriots began to settle in the city’s Camden area in the 1950s. Now in the Haringey area there’s a concentration of about 30,000 to 40,000 Turkish speaking people – and more than 200,000 in all of London.
On day 63, the Olympic flame arrived in Surrey County making its way through 17 cities and villages before moving to London. Joe Cross, 14, carried the flame through Dorking as one of the 8,000 inspirational torchbearers.
Pakistanis, because of historical and colonial links with Britain, have flowed into London in large numbers, especially in the 1960s. Now there are more than a million in the U.K. The largest number of Portuguese outside their native country live in Stockwell, numbering 27,000.
Clothing factory work attracted Vietnamese refugees in Hackney in the early 1980s. Wars and conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and elsewhere have brought more refugees to London in the last decade.
Most recently, workers from the European Union (EU) have flowed into Britain since it opened to member states in 2004. Originally the government predicted 13,000 EU workers would enter Britain annually; but instead, 329,000 arrived in the first 18 months of the policy, many from Poland, Lithuania, Slovakia, Latvia and the Czech Republic.
The result? The city has become a “multilingual capital,” according to the London-based National Centre for Languages.
School children in London speak more than 200 languages and more than 40 percent of all London school children speak a language other than English at home, the center estimates.
In east London, the percentage of elementary school students that speak only English as a second language is as high as 78 percent, figures show.
A spiritual dynamic of this ethnic tapestry is expressed in the diversity of religions finding their footing in London. Mosques are evident in many parts of the city as well as in outlying towns. Hindu and Sikh temples dot the cityscape where once only Christian churches stood.
Instead of being a “melting pot,” first coined for the assimilation of newcomers to the United States into a homogenous whole, London labels itself as “multicultural,” a place in which different cultural identities are maintained, ideally within a unified society.
On the eve of the arrival of the Olympic Torch in Surrey county, Christians gathered from Redhill and Reigate to pray for the United Kingdom during the Games. Prayers were offered for the government, for London and for the church both locally and nationally.
It was this multicultural aspect of London that brought International Mission Board (IMB) missionary Patrick Sims* to the city in 2002.
“London is an amazing place to get to relate to people from all over the world,” said Sims, IMB strategy leader for London. He and his wife Sarah* lead a team of missionaries reaching out to the city. Members on the London team often speak the languages and understand the home cultures of these more recent London residents, both newcomers and second- and third-generation immigrants.
“Today in most major cities around the world, you will find many cultures,” Sims said. “I think it’s just magnified in London, a city whose indigenous are the minority in their own capital. I think maybe the unique element here is the massive amounts of each of the groups that are here.”
Rachel Carter*, an IMB missionary in London, got to know Asuntha, the Sri Lankan mother of two girls, through a preschool group Carter’s son attended. It was there that she noticed two South Asian women, one wearing an Islamic headscarf, standing apart from the English moms.
“I would try to stand next to Asuntha and I would talk about the weather or whatever I could think of,” Carter said.
As their friendship deepened, Asuntha shared her difficult times with Carter.
“She said I was the only one she could talk to,” Carter said. “Building relationships with Muslims and Indians is so much easier here than even with some British women. It is an incredible opportunity for Christians to befriend people (from so many places). It’s so noticeable when you’re just a genuine, humble, kind, caring person.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Elaine Gaston, a Woman’s Missionary Union writer, lived in London with her family in the mid-1990s. To download a copy of the WMU International Mission Study on London in which this article appears, visit www.newsfromeurasia.com/?p=629.)