June 2001 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools
The Voice is what grabs you, compels your attention as you enter the building. You walk towards it, never away. It belongs to one Vanessa Freeman, session singer and rising star, fronting her funky band in fine form before a few hundred Sunday afternoon chillers and groovers. Welcome to Global Lounge, 'an afternoon of sofas, music, performance, community and edutainment' on the first Sunday of each month at the Vibe Bar in Brick Lane, London. I am late and have missed some things. Zippy the fourth poet of the Apocalypse brandishes a megaphone, but has already ranted. The entry stamp on my hand reads, 'If one family out of every 20 fostered a child there would be no children left in care'.
Brick Lane has been famous twenty years for its vibrant street market, at the heart of the Bangladeshi quarter in London's inner East End. But the East End is now fashionable after an influx of artists and creatives during the 90s in search of affordable accommodation. The Vibe Bar is knowingly shabby and attracts the usual skatewear-and-retro clubby crowd for a sociable Sunday beer. They sit in the warm courtyard and pack the bar to check out the performers.
Global Lounge comes courtesy of 148, a loose collective of Christians working in the arts and media with a passion for social justice. They express belief through lifestyle and creativity in the secular fields they operate in - not reserving Christian expression for church, not producing 'Christian' this and 'Christian' that. Their normal work embodies their values, their output and events are disseminated through secular channels. This is not a simulacrum of contemporary culture produced to keep believers happy and away from trouble. This is the real thing, with Christ-warped values. It's entirely lacking in slick evangelical glossiness, no polishing the culture squeaky clean. For all anybody knows, Global Lounge is an afternoon's funky entertainment in a fashionable bar. And it is. But it's also church, and mission.
Bluprint from Bournemouth are a decade ahead of Delirious, half-singing half-rapping over triphop beats delivered, surreally, by a live drummer on an acoustic drumkit. That which began as sampled breakbeats and came to us on computers is now imitated precisely by a human. I watch with Russ Jones, successful club-runner and DJ whose Latin and world music flavoured club nights always get good press. His expertise in event organisation and publicity, his contacts and reputation are central to 148's activities. As is the 148 ethos, no boundaries are made between club events and church events. Some are all one, some are all the other, but a lot are in between.
I ask if they all went to church in the morning, but no, this is it for the day. "It's not for everyone," says Russ, "so those that don't want to come stay at home and pray for it."
"This is the marketplace", he says. If this is church then it's got open boundaries, half the people present not Christians, enjoying the vibe without the heavy hand of religion waiting to grab them by the collar. No big thing is made of belief, although the message is in the music and the words for those that have ears to hear. "We're getting out of the Christian ghetto," says Russ. Christians in England live under a [sometimes justified] cloud of negative preconceptions, so visibility is an issue, especially since the media prefer to grant visibility to...shall we say *unusual* believers. Finding out that the trendy and talented bods downing pints around you and bringing you quality entertainment are Christians "blows apart the stereotypes....it doesn't take them the whole way there but it's a start."
For those that want to go further 148 are running Alpha courses in premises nearby. Numbers are small as yet, friends of friends, but by all the statistics that's how growth happens. Friends. This is an environment where people get to be friends on pleasurable common ground. Not neutral, much funkier than that. 148 bring a different vibe to the Vibe Bar.