As we swarm past the warehouses in Eden Grove, Holloway, these officials smile and nod, ushering us
towards a huge marquee. Close up, the words emblazoned across their T-shirts are clearly visible: Victory Outreach Ministry, Operation London.
A few days before, a flyer had landed on my doormat. 'You've seen Boyz N the Hood, Colors, New Jack City . . . NOW SEE IT LIVE] YOUNG GANGSTAS - ghetto life from LA to London.' The symbol of the cross was partly obscured by a riotous collage of dudes with shades and shotguns, chests adorned with the heavy chain insignia that to the movie-literate spells drug dealer, jostling with tough-looking chicks in baseball jackets with tattoos and big hair.
I picked up the phone. The American accent on the other end
belonged to Victory Outreach's
assistant pastor, Michael Pike. He talked fast. He explained that the church, founded in the United States 30 years ago by a former junkie, had set up its London branch two years' ago. They had printed half a million flyers and 20,000 posters to publicise this week-long, free event. 'We're an international ministry,' he said. 'We have 200 churches all over the world and we've brought over 60 people from America with drug and gang backgrounds just to do this event. We're about action on the streets; we have people who've been on the streets, who've been in prison, who know what it's like. We want to address the issues which we feel are pulling people away from the Christian faith - family breakdown, a lack of morals, prostitution, drug abuse. We want to get down to their level, to restore people's faith in their lives through their relationship with God.'
Doesn't he think hardened drug dealers might find this approach hard to take? 'We have an evangelical programme,' he replies. 'We go out and build relationships with people on the streets. We're about bringing a message of hope.'
Outside the marquee, people mill around, examining stalls piled high with books and videos with cultish or emblematic titles: Give Me Back My Dignity; The Cross and the Switchblade. Young couples and single mothers with small children; groups of black teenagers in leather and trainers; lots of women, young and middle-aged. Not a mobile phone in sight.
Inside, the Victory Outreach workers, about 200 of them, mostly Americans, all sporting badges with their Christian names and title, security or counsellor beneath it, hand us each a programme and an envelope and herd us in tight little groups to seats.
Zia, an Asian in his early twenties, has travelled from Pinner with a cousin, Imran. 'I was given one of these in the West End,' he explains, waving his flyer. 'I've seen all those films, and they really glamourise
violence. Some of my younger cousins are really impressed. They think it's cool to be a dealer with a flash car and a gun and all that.
This play seems like it'll be really real, though. I mean they've all got drug backgrounds . . . '
On stage, the band strikes up. Michael Pike strums his guitar. 'We're really excited,' he enthuses. 'This is going to be a powerful time; the tent is filling up. Stand on your feet, everyone]' He closes his eyes and begins singing: 'Cel-e-brate, Je-sus, cel-e-brate.' All around, hands are waving and the tent fills with the sounds of people chanting in unison. Far from being new to it all, most seem to know the words. A row of clean-cut young women on my left close their eyes and sway in rapture, mouthing - 'He has risen, come on and cel-e-brate the ressurrection of the Lord.'
By now the tent is packed with about 1,500 people. 'Right, now
I want you to turn around and
shake hands with someone. Go on, introduce yourselves.' A few rows behind me, two young black men, the only members of the audience who bear even a passing resemblance to Ice T or Larry Fishburne, grin sceptically, but most obey the call
A middle-aged American with a marine-style crewcut and stain-free teeth takes the mike. 'We believe in having a good time,' he says. 'And because we're Christians, we believe in having an even better time.' He waves on 'our homeboy rapper,' who snaps into a 'homeboy sermon' called 'Life in the Neighbourhood - a true story', strutting about the stage, hurling tapes into eager hands. 'Oh, please,' mutters Zia, examining his flyer more closely. 'I didn't know this was going to be religious. Are this lot a church or something?'
He has a point. So far the gap between the curious materialist and the born-again evangelist is too wide to make leap of faith required to enter into the spirit of the evening. Subtle it isn't. Half an hour into the event and still the speakers are preaching to the converted.
Already, the man on stage is
exhorting us to write our names and addresses on our envelopes. 'We'd like to take an offering tonight . . . maybe you don't have anything to give, but if you do give, do it respectfully . . . We also have several books for sale; the powerful,
exciting story of our founder which has reached millions of people. Last night our boxes were empty . . . ' Whistles from the crowd as he announces: 'Right I need your attention right now. You're going to see a realistic portrayal of gangster life in the US.' At last.
Sixteen young boyz 'n girlz from the hood stand in a line. Baggy trousers, high-top trainers and bandanas. The crowd whoops as they begin singing and flip about the stage like extras from Flashdance. Each
has a 'street' name: Lucky (gang leader), Bubble-up (crack addict), Frankie (new kid on the block), Green Eyes (his girlfriend), Joker, Shadey Lady, Lori . . .
From the outset, it's clear this is not going to be intellectually challenging. Opening scene: Frankie in prison for murder, being visited by sister Lori, who has turned from peddling her bod to peddling God. Frankie, however, isn't having any of it. His mother doesn't love him and he can't forgive his father.
Flashback to a home life from of a social worker's text book. Abusive father, alcoholic mother. Lots of slapping, and enough dime-store wisdom to keep the crowd rooting. In case we don't get the point, Arrested Development's 'I Am Everyday People' plays in the background. Frankie and Lori join a gang. Audience whoops and whistles as Frankie pulls out a gun and fires blanks. Cue Stevie Wonder's 'Living for the City'.
Shooting up scenes and more shooting scenes. Lucky, the gang leader, confesses his mother was an addict. The crowd applauds Bubble-up's histrionics each time she wheels on to the stage, begging for a fix. Then Lori, alone on stage, to the sound of 'Hey There, Lonely Girl' weeps and wails at the shame of turning her first trick.
Enter, stage left, Victory Outreach in the shape of a family friend and former addict. 'Are you ready to receive the true father? This father will never leave you.' A quick prayer and it's back to prison again, for more wailing in the drawn-out conversion of Frankie, with Whitney Huston and 'I'll Always Love You' supplying the operatics. They call this realism?
Zia and Imran splutter as Nicky Cruz, a former 'warlord' straight outta Brooklyn, tells us: 'I can feel so much love in this place, so much forgiveness. It took me back . . . I'm gonna challenge you. This is gonna be very hard . . . Yes, there is an answer, yes you can love, yes you can be happy.'
The crowd surges forward as the cast drifts down from the stage and touches hands and shoulders. A handful of people are crying. Then it begins to make sense. This is the quick fix. A few songs, a morality play, some well-rehearsed cliches, the sense of being part of something. It's the simplicity they crave. In this world of make-believe, the route between cause and effect runs straight and smooth.
Outside, Louie, 31, a VO counsellor, is showing people towards the 'church', where those who want to can go for 'after care'. There are plenty of takers. Without prompting, and barely pausing for breath, he launches into a lengthy, convoluted sermon about how he was in prison for 52 months and how Jesus showed him the way. When it comes to specifics, he is less garrulous. Interrupting, I ask how the ministry deals with drug withdrawal. 'We pray for them,' he says, a zealous gleam in his eyes. 'Then they come to us for Bible study. It's amazing how mysterious the work of the Lord is.'
Some, however are less amazed. Zia and Imran have long gone and outside, a 17-year-old girl in red leather and bopping to her Walkman is with a clutch of friends. What did she make of it? 'I quite enjoyed it,' she says. 'But they trick people, you know. On the flyer they say it's like the films; they don't tell you what it's really about.'
Perhaps, I wonder, they don't know themselves.
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