"Jesus, you're the ultimate alternative person. A creative alien who made us in your image," said Billie Sylvian, founder of the Asylum fellowship. "Thank you for sharing yourself with us."
I was sitting at a table in an 18th century vestry in central London, surrounded by goths, punks and metalheads. We were discussing life, death and faith, while eating crisps and biscuits. Christian industrial metal music – namely Circle of Dust – played at a low volume in the background as I thumbed through a copy of the New Age Bible.
Asylum is a registered charity and Christian group specifically set up for London's alternative community. Their promo poster, which hangs just off Denmark Street in Soho, reads: "Asylum Fellowship. Sharing Christ’s Love With Goths, Metallers, Punks etc." They host a weekly Sunday Bible study, a monthly club night ("The Crypt") that specialises in Christian rock, metal and industrial music, and monthly "praise parties", where members are invited to share items or music that aids them in their praise – a sort of spiritual show-and-tell.
"I started Asylum because, to me, it felt like something that God really wanted to happen," Billie explained after the Asylum meeting, over a cup of tea in a busy cafe. "I felt like Jesus was asking me to go and reach these people."
Asylum began with a small group of faithful goths flyering outside alternative gigs and venues in London, and grew from there. "The flyers had designs on them, like, 'Jesus Died For Punks & Metallers Too' and, 'Jesus Loves Goths'," Billie explains. "People's responses would either be interest and they’d come back and ask us about it, or complete hostility, where they’d rip up the flyer in our faces. Most people were interested, though."
On the Asylum website, they claim, "We are aware that many in the sub-cultures have been deeply hurt by the insensitive, judgemental and hypocritical actions of some Christians. We are trying our best to undo some of that damage (even though we do make mistakes coz we’re human!) and hopefully with your help we'll succeed." When I ask Billie what they meant by this, she says: "God isn't interested in clothes, he’s interested in people's hearts."
By the late-1990s, Billie and her cohort had gathered a group of like-minded people, and Asylum started holding weekly meet-ups in The Intrepid Fox, a now-shuttered rock bar in Soho.
Some members of the fellowship had belonged to different religious groups before they found Asylum. Craig, a train driver originally from South Africa, opened up to me about his past as a Satanist. "It was a very dark period of my life that I've tried to block out," he explained, as we sat in a Mexican restaurant and waited to order food. "It was a very terrifying and scary part of my life, whereas now my life is the opposite."
Craig went on to explain that he made a blood-pact – signing a contract in his own blood – as a teenager. "It became very horrible, to the point I couldn’t sleep at night because I was so scared." His rescue came in the form of a Christian Death Metal cassette that a friend had tricked him into listening to. "I wanted to kill him – how dare he deceive me like that? – but yet, something happened… I needed to make a decision."
After meeting various Asylum members, it became clear that many have differing beliefs from one another. Some are religious, some aren't, which – as I saw in person – helps to spark plenty of rich discussions.
"At a really dark time in my life, my associate Adam – who I knew through Live Action Role-Playing – introduced me to Asylum," explained Paul in a library in Borehamwood. Paul is ex-army, works for the NHS and has been attending Asylum meetings for years. He now identifies as "agnostic goth". I asked what keeps his interest in the group alive, if it's not to do with praising the lord. "Their thoughts and their openness," he replied.
We talked for two hours and Paul opened up about his struggles with depression, loneliness and the discrimination he faces in the area he lives. As he walked me to the train station, I was shocked to witness locals hurl abuse at him in the street for the way he was dressed: in not even particularly outlandish gothic-tinged clothes. Paul stayed silent and kept walking. I asked how the abuse made him feel. After a pause, he replied, "Sad and uncomfortable."
Others, like Paul, attend the weekly Bible studies despite not identifying as Christian. "I see it more as a social thing," said Julian, an Asylum regular who can usually be seen sporting a bandana and goatee. "I see myself as somebody who has very Christian values without being a Christian." As a child, he was an altar boy, but now – as he approaches 60 – he identifies mostly as Pagan.
Jon Horne is another of the original Asylum members. After arriving in London in 1992 to study theology, he ran a fanzine in his spare time that covered Christian death metal, grindcore and industrial music. When he met Billie, they joined forces. "We'd all been burnt by the mainstream church in one way or another," Jon explained to me over a beer one Saturday afternoon. "It's basically phariseeism, where things get distorted to the point of moralism." He went on to explain that he does still attend church outside of Asylum, although commented that the style of music there "isn't really my thing".
Like the other members, Jon was extremely forthcoming, explaining that that he and his wife lost their three children in 2015. His first born, Daniel, contracted Meningitis B at 15 months old and passed away less than 12 hours after experiencing the first symptom. Later that same year, after his wife became pregnant again, her waters broke at 21 weeks, and shortly after the twins she was bearing were stillborn. I asked him how these tragedies fit in with his faith and worldview.
"Obviously, after that we had a lot say to God… but the Christian faith has a place for this. A place for lament and for wrestling with God. It’s not all about piety and doing the right thing; it allows for an… earthiness," he explained, looking out of the window. "After that, all of these shock metal bands lose their effect, because they're nothing compared to real horror."
Archangel – a dentist who makes fangs for London’s "vampire community", alongside his more regular dental work – has been attending the fellowship since the early-2000s, and personified the welcoming nature of Asylum when he invited me to his flat one winter night for pizza and champagne.
"I was really happy to move away from the Pope, because I felt that he was hijacking Christianity," he said, about his younger years as a Catholic. "I didn’t meet any Christians in the alternative scene until I started going to Asylum. When I got there we had common points of view and we shared our faith, which was really cool."
A song that was played at one of Asylum’s monthly "praise parties".
For veteran members like Jon and Billie, Asylum reaffirms their faith and aids them in their praise, as they get to explore their spirituality with like-minded people. For others, like Paul and Julian, it just seems to provide a safe and friendly space to hang out. One where they can discuss life on a deeper level without the fear of judgment or ridicule. With such uncertainty and chaos in the atheist world, it makes sense that people are drawn to groups like this, searching for answers that can't be found elsewhere. I know this, because it's the same compulsion that led me to knock on Asylum’s door.
"Asylum reaches out to the whole alternative community and says, 'If you believe in God, or Allah, or if you’re a witch, or even if you don’t believe in anything, it doesn’t matter,'" Paul explained. "We’re here to discuss and listen, and that’s what makes Asylum unique."
During my time with the fellowship, I felt like I was part of something quietly revolutionary. A group representing connection and openness that felt both mystical and yet very human. Perhaps I felt this way because I was experiencing religion from the inside as opposed to peering in curiously from afar. The Asylum group reframed religion and spirituality, making it more accessible and inclusive than any church I'd witnessed before.