John Harris

Journalist & Author

One road, many gods

Soho Road in Birmingham is a place where convent, mosque, Rasta HQ, Jesus Army centre and Buddhist temple sit side by side. John Harris visits the most religiously diverse road in Britain

Hack your way through central Birmingham’s oppressive tangle of flyovers and roundabouts, and you’re there. A two-mile thoroughfare where cultures, religions and institutions collide, seemingly at random. Convents and churches sit alongside mosques, and Buddhist temples created in shabby Victorian houses. A vast Sikh gurdwara faces an equally huge jobcentre. Close by, there is a Rastafarian headquarters, a house owned by the Jesus Army, and the offices of the Asian Rationalist Society.

This is Soho Road, which begins on the fringes of the Lozells neighbourhood and heads into Handsworth: both areas long associated with cheap property, and a refuge for people who have come from abroad. Starbucks, Wetherspoons and Peacocks are nowhere to be seen. Alongside shops selling garish religious paraphernalia for Muslims and Hindus are convenience stores opened to serve arrivals from eastern Europe and beyond. The only faces that are uniformly white belong to the mannequins in the sari shops. If you want an instant picture of the local population, a good place to start is a fast-food place called Big Johns – where the menu covers just about every strain of fast food, and a microcosm of the whole world queues for lunch. There is a plaque bolted to the wall, dedicated to the proprietors’ mother: “May Allah bless her soul and give us the strength to live her dreams and wishes.”

Photographer Liz Hingley spent 18 months visiting Soho Road, capturing the people who live here – people who have their roots in around 170 countries. Those figureheads who claim to speak for them seem to specialise in a strange, sometimes strangulated mixture of ordinary English and that awkward officialspeak in which everything comes back to “the community” and religion has long since been recast as “faith”. Many endorse a vision recently laid out in a pan-religious free newspaper called Faith In Lozells: “Polish mechanics service Pakistani-owned taxis and Vietnamese do t’ai chi in a garden close to the St Francis Centre, an organisation with its roots in Irish Catholicism.” In this view of things, gods of various kinds watch over the hubbub, and all is largely well.

During a day spent wandering around Soho Road, it is easy to be convinced of this. The array of religions and cultures is dizzying, and undeniably thrilling. By way of proof that negotiations are often less a matter of theological controversy than mundane detail, at least three people tell me they spend a lot of time consulting about how to accommodate the parking arrangements of the various churches, mosques and temples. And there are plenty of so-called inter-faith initiatives, often staged on the kind of hallowed ground where there was once room for only one view of the world.

St Mary’s Convent is by far the oldest religious community round these parts, set up in 1841 by nuns from the Sisters Of Mercy order. Now, only five live and work here, and all of them are over 60. “We’re not at all as numerous as in the past, but that doesn’t mean we’re not present,” says Sister Helen Ryan, a 66-year-old native of Tipperary. During the hour I spend in her company, she evangelises not about her own religion, but what she calls “enculturation and inclusiveness”, and programmes and schemes aimed at drawing the locals together. “We can talk to each other by name,” she enthuses. “If I’ve got a problem here, I can phone up Sayeed, who’s a Muslim down the road there. I passionately believe that you don’t go out with a faith banner, initially: you get to know each other.”

The street is a combination of drizzly ordinariness to scenes of quite mind-boggling fascination. One minute, I am walking past a Murco petrol station; the next, I am in an incense-scented room dominated by a huge Buddhist altar, in the company of a 57-year-old Sri Lankan monk called Ven K Gunawansa Thero, who describes his daily routine, starting at 6am and including a single daily meal.

In a much shabbier reception room dominated by a huge picture of baby elephants, I talk to a handful of Buddhists, who explain why their philosophy is well suited to a locality as diverse as this one. “We should aim at fixing all our thought-moments to one of the four divine attributes: compassion, kindness, equanimity and empathy with others,” says Danny Somaratne, a retired neurosurgeon. “The idea is also to rid our thought-moments of unwholesome things, like attachment, greed, lust, anger.” Sometimes, they say, the monks are called on to mediate in disputes between some of Soho Road’s other ethnic and religious groups: no one says so, but my crude interpretation of this boils down to the idea that Buddhists like everybody.

From other perspectives, though, life is more problematic. Five years ago, there were infamous riots, sparked by rumours – never substantiated – of the alleged gang rape of a teenage Afro-Caribbean girl by South Asian men, to which people still make anxious reference. As if to prove that certain groups here are not quite as in touch with the outside world as some suggest, my prior research includes a handful of occasions on which I put in calls to mosques and gurdwaras, and find nobody who confidently speaks English (a particularly comic highlight: the two minutes I spend trying to persuade one man that rather than wanting to come and dig the garden, I am phoning from the Guardian). And you do not have to try too hard to find locals who depart, albeit cagily, from the standard picture of harmony and mutual acceptance.

At the Soho Road offices of the Sikh Community and Youth Service, I share half an hour with its chairman, 50-year-old Dal Singh Dhesy, who oversees a Citizens Advice Bureau-esque set-up open to people of all faiths, and none. Like so many people here, he uses the word “community” a lot, particularly when he’s musing on how effectively he thinks Soho Road’s social model works.

“It works well with some communities, and some communities are not so good,” he claims. “In schools, there’s a lot of intimidation by the Islamic groups. Before, we used to have a lot of intimidation from Afro-Caribbeans, particularly towards the Sikh community. Racism hits Sikhs first, and everybody else later. We don’t only get racism from the white rightwing or the council estates; we get it from Afro-Caribbeans, and from the Islamists.”

Further down Soho Road, Rev Bryan Scott meets me at the Cannon Street Memorial Baptist Church. His congregation, he tells me, is 99% black, though the history of the church dates back to 1737, and a site in the centre of the city. As proved by portraits of the dozens of men who preceded him, he is the first non-white minister, called to serve here after 20 years as a weapons technician in the RAF.

“Every time I see a mosque or a temple going up,” he says at one point, “I think, ‘That should be a church.’” He unabashedly pines for Britain’s Christian past, and thinks “we’ve gone too far the other way: we’ve tried to accommodate everybody, and we’re pleasing nobody.” When he admiringly mentions David Cameron’s recent speech on the subject, I ask whether he is one of those people who thinks that multiculturalism – whatever that is – might have reached the end of the road.

“Well, it will do eventually, won’t it? One way or the other. One will take over, whether it be the Muslims… [pause] well, something will come to the top. And if Christianity continues to decline, as it’s doing, eventually, whether it’s the Sikhs or the Muslims… once they become dominant, will it be multiculturalism any more?”

But what of the idea celebrated by the likes of Sister Helen, of all the faiths simply rubbing along?

“That’s a nice happy ending, but it won’t finish like that. It can’t.”

Ten or so minutes off Soho Road is Lozells Central Mosque, completed in 2005, and my last port of call. Across the street is a huge branch of the New Testament Church of God, a Pentecostal denomination whose UK HQ is in Northampton. Inside, across two spartan and spotless floors that regularly hold around 2,000 people, classes of youths are being led through the Qur’an. I have an appointment with 30-year-old Asif Khan, the mosque’s secretary, who spends his working day in the welfare department of Birmingham city council.

The mosque, he explains, follows the Sufi path: “the more peaceful, more orthodox aspect of Islam”. When we talk about the textbook dangers of distant, foreign-born imams leaving young Muslims to drift to extremes, he tells me that though the imam was born in Pakistan, his two deputies and 13 other teachers are all British-born. And the local religious mixture? “It works well,” he says. “It’s good.” He makes the obligatory mention of negotiations about parking, and an arrangement with St Mary’s convent whereby newly arrived priests are dispatched to the mosque to improve their understanding of Islam.

We’re eventually joined by the mosque’s chairman: 73-year-old Mohammed Yaseen, who came to Britain when he was 17 to work in a nuts and bolts factory. I mention multiculturalism, and his reply falls somewhere between bathos, and a recognition that small things say a lot: he says he has watched, amazed, as the food his white workmates thought strange has sped to the heart of the British way of life, while Pakistani families queue nightly in chip shops. When I ask him about what I heard at the Sikh Community and Youth Service, he bats away suggestions of tension with the happy impatience of a man who has heard it all. His English is slightly broken, but effortless. “This is not Pakistan, this is not India, this is not Kashmir, this is not Bangladesh,” he insists, waving a hand towards the street outside. “This is England, where all the people live friendly. We are more peaceful, innit?”

• Photographs from Under Gods, by Liz Hingley, published by Dewi Lewis next month at £30. To order a copy for £24, with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop.

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