In the lonelier corners of east London, the places you’ve probably never been to unless you got lost on a drunken wander home once or like buying mango chutney in bulk, is an industrial ribbon of old 1930s industrial estates. Full of factories, warehouses and cash and carries, they are untouched by the wry eyebrow-twitch of regeneration. No one from the mayor's office or a private developer's firm is trying to beautify these places, every lock-up door looks like it could have dead bodies behind it and the carparks are full of empty Lucozade bottles and Coke cans left to roll around in the wind for weeks on end. But come here on a Sunday, when the forklifts, Fiestas and foremen have fucked off, and you'll find a different industry making hay: the industry of God.
The industrial estates of east London are thick with churches and they all have amazing names: The Gospel of Light Parish, the Praise Harvest Community Church, Amazing Grace International, Christ Apostolic Church Living Word Centre and The Mountain of Fire and Miracles Ministries are all out there if you ever feel lost enough to go looking for them. You'll find them jostling for space between other deeply relevant cornerstones of spirituality, like launderettes, tyre factories and garages where Polish men teach other Polish men how to be plumbers.
With Britain’s manufacturing industry grinding to a halt, these industrial spaces cannot be sustained by production alone. Instead, immigrant communities and the retail sector they support have moved in to fill the void. African churches are a large part of what keeps these brownfield sites thrumming. I went along one Sunday to hang out with the people who go to worship God amid the garages and Indian food wholesalers.
I was invited into the Celestial Church of Christ by Prophet Daniel Oluleke Fagbemi, a tall man in purple satin robes who stands in the foyer in front of a gas heater welcoming his parishioners. "Do you mind having a church opposite a cash and carry warehouse?" I ask a member of the congregation named Zian. “No, not really,” she says, her perfectly-painted eyebrows remaining poker-still. “To be honest, I don’t even really acknowledge the other people here. Although they are quite friendly.”
Whether it's Stamford Hill, London Fields or Stratford, the story is the same; the red bricks, scaffolding poles and packing crates of light industry disguise the entrances to hundreds of gospel churches. Of the 20 named businesses that line Leyton's Argall Way, seven are churches. There may be many more, but – as Dawayne, the manager of the Argall Business Improvement District in Leyton, tells me – most of the churches aren’t even registered.
Many originate in West Africa, and set up UK outposts in the late 1960s and 1970s. The Celestial Church of Christ, for instance, rocked up to the Argall Way industrial estate in 2007, but only after a long journey following its founding by the Rev Samuel Bilewu Joseph Oshoffa in Dahomey (now the Republic of Benin) in 1957 and arrival in London in 1968.
The Celestial Church of Christ, Gospel of Light Parish (on the right) in the Argall Way industrial estate in Leyton.
Members of its congregation – often in families, with women far outnumbering men – wander in and out of their dressing room, taking off their shoes before entering the hall and service proper. Prophet 'Leke, along with the other men I speak to – one of whom I see later leading a rousing chorus from behind his electronic keyboard – are keen to point out that this is an open church. My photographer and I – neither of us practising Christians – are happily invited in to watch the service and to chat to the other parishioners. As long as I keep my head covered and my voice below foghorn level I'm welcome to chat to the women around me, follow the order of service as it's broadcast on huge screens and sway along to the musicians up at the front of the room.
Talking of dancing, the three elderly women at the front, draped in pink shawls and not a day under 70, are shaking along to the music like they've never even heard the phrase "age-specific degenerative rheumatism". As I ask the woman beside me why she travels across north London to worship at this particular church, I realise that I'm swaying on the spot, like an excitable, slightly confused toddler at her first party, and I get my answer: because it's great.
A woman on the floor begins to rock back and forth on her knees, clasping her chest and calling out to the Lord. It’s bewitching, until I'm distracted by the fact that she's kneeling beside the exact navy-coloured conference chairs I stared at every day in the library where I used to work. And that’s the thing about this church: each time I begin to ease into the warmth, the music, the incense and the incomprehensible call and response, I'm brought up short by the realisation that we're in an industrial estate in Leyton. Behind these walls, beyond these two huge portraits of Jesus and the sacred heart, is a car body repair shop.
Instead of the organ you'd find in a provincial church, there is a band singing along to a Yamaha keyboard. Instead of engraved slabs bearing the names of 18th century local luminaries, there are plastic flowers, neon religious paintings and party balloons lining the walls. Instead of the dark and draughty mosaic ceilings, there are reinforced glass skylights. Instead of a yew tree-guarded graveyard full of spring bulbs, the church is surrounded by pitted tarmac, clanking cranes and the odd hydraulic lorry loader.
So why are there so many gospel churches in east London industrial estates? Partly because the spaces are relatively cheap. This week an 87-square metre space in the Cromwell Industrial Estate in Leyton is on the market for £240,000. But also, by being in a non-residential area, all the mundane logistics of worship – the parking, the noise pollution, the access – are taken care of. They may be evangelists, but the congregations of east London’s ex-factories are also pragmatists. “All we care about is getting a space to praise the Lord,” Prophet ‘Leke Fagbemi tells me.
As I walk out of the church, I think again how easy it would be not to notice these churches – these houses of God, sitting conspicuously beside recycling centres and metalworks. But perhaps that's the point.
According to Isaiah, the Lord said, “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me… this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”
And you don’t get much humbler than an east London industrial estate.
Follow Nell on Twitter: @NellFrizzell
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