For me, the year doesn’t change on New Year’s Eve or hinge on the holiday season. It isn’t ushered in by bouquets of freshly sharpened pencils or by school supplies littering the aisles of Sainsbury’s. No, for me, the year changes when the air of Notting Hill grows smoky from booths of jerk chicken, when you can’t cross the street for the crush of bodies, when cans of Red Stripe sell for £5 and cover all of the pavement.
Another Notting Hill Carnival has come and gone, my sixth in a row, and I am not surprised by the leaves that are starting to pile on the kerbs of the city. The year has changed again, and the air shivers with anticipation. At the same time, my body is detoxing from all of the coffee that I consumed in the weeks leading up to Notting Hill Carnival, and I still have several hundred pictures cluttering up my hard drive, waiting for me to find the time to relive the days that shot from the canon of time with machine-gun rapidity.
We host a camp called Bones Camp in the lead up to Carnival, and this year, we had campers from as far away as Egypt come to join us for the ten days of covering London with drumbeats and smiles, hand-written confetti and hard-hitting questions. We went to King’s Cross Station, Trafalgar Square, Notting Hill, and even all of the way to Shoreditch to usher in the biggest party of the year. And we found so much joy to give away to the people that we met. Joy is contagious, and Londoners in the summer are a different breed from normal Londoners. They have time to chat, smiles to spare. They dare to ask the questions that they would normally keep to themselves. And it was such a privilege to get to be there to meet them in their laid-back, summer selves.
Notting Hill Carnival looked differently this year than it has in years past. Not only were there more terrorism and people expected, and not only were we in a new location from previous years, but the community has also been coming together since Grenfell Tower burnt in June, so the feeling of unity was also greater than it has been in years past.
We prepared for Carnival on a smaller scale than usual, investing instead in the times of going across the city to meet people face to face and writing promises by hand to give out to them on Carnival days. On the days of the Carnival, we strapped on stilts, adjusted our drum belts, painted our faces, and went out to join our two million closest friends in celebration. Many of them didn’t know what they were celebrating, and others were trying to numb pain, but luckily, we know who and Whose we are, and we were happy to share the love that we have been shown and given.
It sounds quite pat when put that way: seventy people headed to the streets to spread love. It ignores the nights of little sleep, the fights that break out when seventy people live in a tight space next to each other. It is also a fight to stand up for what you believe in whilst in the midst of a crowd of a million people who want to numb the pain that has built up for a year.
We fight with joy, with rhythms borne on the prayers we have sown. Sometimes we cry. Especially we cry when we see things happening in the crowd that should never happen. I watched a woman be assaulted by several different men. I was inside, looking out of a window, and there were a thousand people between us, so I was powerless to help her. People will always say, “Oh, the reports about the Carnival are exaggerated. The violence isn’t as bad as that.” But actually, it is. That girl may never report what happened to her, but I saw it happen. Any time people believe that all rules are called off, as they believe during Carnival, they will do things that they wouldn’t normally. A lot of people behave badly at Carnival.
But that is why we are there. Christians aren’t meant to hide inside of their church buildings. If we really want to see this city changed with God’s love, then we have to go outside. We are the hands and feet of God’s love. During Carnival, that looked like bringing our reason for joy to the streets. And we did have real joy, even amidst the disgusting things that were happening. Even amidst the empty kind of happiness that was being sold in balloons and gas canisters.
I felt genuine joy when I spoke to people. And it isn’t because I think I’m so much better; I am well acquainted with my own shortcomings. It is my own need for grace that leads me to the streets to speak to strangers who would rather not be bothered on their bank holiday weekend. Because who wants to go to Carnival to forget it all and be smacked in the face with Jesus instead? But somebody bothered me with it, and it turned my life around. And I will do the same, again and again, because each of these people that I encountered is worth it.
Carnival is over for another year, but these faces still haunt my prayers and the moments when my mind wanders whilst on the Overground. I wonder what the morning after was like for them, if their actions linger in their memories. If they remember that they are loved. That they are worth so much.
So until next year. We will keep praying and hitting the streets to share the grace that we’ve been given. We’ll look back on the photographs, forget the names, hold the memories close. We will carry on in love.