What the Old Testament book of Nehemiah can teach us about modern day Croydon

By - Tuesday 2nd May, 2017

Uncovering lessons for present-day Croydon in BCE Jerusalem

The Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Photo by David King, used under Creative Commons licence.

Let me take you through the sands of time to the year of 430BC.

Nehemiah is a cup-bearer in Persian King Artaxerxes’ court who learns from his brother that the Jewish exiles that were taken captive by the Babylonians seventy years earlier have started to return and make a life again in Jerusalem. However, the wall around the city remains destroyed leaving it vulnerable to attack and serving as a civic shame to the returnees. Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and commences a mass rebuilding program that sees the wall rebuilt in a mere fifty-two days – and if you want to know what happens next, you can hear me preach about it here.

But what can this antiquated version of Grand Designs from 2,400 years ago teach the modern Croydonian today? As it turns out, quite a lot:

Do you cry over Croydon?

When Nehemiah first learns from his brother about the state of Jerusalem’s walls he is grieved to the point of weeping (Neh. 1:4). When you hear or read about something bad happening in Croydon are you indifferent, pessimistic or moved to do something about it?

As I explain here, Croydonians need to take ownership of their neighbourhood. We need to understand that Croydon isn’t just a place where you just happen to lay your head at night – it’s a place that you can influence. It’s up to you to make things better and the first step is actually caring about what happens here and to your neighbours.

Find your “great work” for Croydon

Naturally, leading on from being grieved about a problem is becoming dedicated to fixing it. Too many Croydonians stop at the first step: getting (rightfully) angry and (rightfully) upset and then doing absolutely nothing. Except maybe tweeting about it. This is even more the case when it becomes clear at just how difficult trying to fix a solution can be: many who show initial enthusiasm quickly disappear or run out of steam. Nehemiah refers to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall as his “great work” and is so singularly dedicated to it that he refuses to come down to deal with secondary concerns (Neh 6:3).

The wonderful thing about the Croydon Citizen is that it is a home to Croydonians who have found their ‘great work’. Whether it is Charles Barber who is dedicated to making Whitehorse Park beautiful or Andrew Dickinson who is slowly turning Old Town into a renewable green haven or Kevin Morrison who has made Croydon a street arts capital or Fatima Koroma who provides meals to Croydon’s poorest. Take inspiration and encouragement from their example – and find your great work for Croydon, too.

Collaboration beats competition

When Nehemiah sets about building the wall he sees that everybody is invited to get involved. Nehemiah 3 contains an exhaustive list of all who helped to rebuild the wall, each person working on the section right in front of their house. Through this great feat of collaboration the city wall is rebuilt in fifty-two days.

Some of the most heartening sights in modern day Croydon have been when people have put aside petty jealousies and political tribalism to come together, collaborate and unite in improving Croydon, whether through jointly condemning the EVF or banding together to go litter-picking. Rather than seeing civic work in Croydon as a zero-sum game amongst a limited voter base, consider that the best work in Croydon is usually done through non-partisan, engaged, proud citizens.

There will be always be miserablists and naysayers

Throughout the book of Nehemiah, our titular hero encounters all kinds of trials from people who try to discourage him as he goes about his great work. First they mock him, then they lie about him, finally they plot to try and kill him (Neh. 6).

In truth, nobody in modern day Croydon is going to be assassinated just because they have antagonistic ideas about how to regenerate Surrey Street Market. But, I’ve written before how Croydonians are rude, corrupt, incompetent and heartless, prone to being trolls and self-loathing miserablists; it should come as no surprise then that as you go about trying to change Croydon for the better there will be locals who publicly slander you and wilfully warp your intentions, or just tell you that there is no point.

A glorified God means a thriving Croydon

Perhaps the most alien sound to the secular humanist Croydonian’s ear is the idea that “the chief end of Man” is not himself but God. Nehemiah didn’t rebuild Jerusalem’s walls to please himself or scratch an ethno-nationalistic itch. Ultimately, Jerusalem was to be once again a place where God could be worshipped by his people (in the Old Testament this was just the Jews, although – thankfully – Jesus appears on the scene giving everyone the opportunity to become ‘children of God’).

It’s why areas where there are religious revivals and outpourings experience huge changes socially, economically and culturally. For example, The First Great Awakening in England resulted in Sunday school and educational reform, changes to labour and child welfare laws, significant prison reforms, and the abolition of slavery. During the Welsh Revival, the culture was said to be so transformed that new mules had to be secured to work in the coal mines: the old mules would not respond to miners who no longer cursed and abused the animals. Economically, the links between revival and wealth creation are well known, as are the physiological impacts. Revivals in England, America, and other places have historically shaped those nations for the better, because the output is a community which worships God, not itself. Croydon would be no different.

Nehemiah was a man who lived over two millennia ago but, incredibly, his life still has manifold learnings for the modern Croydonian today.

If you’re looking to join a welcoming, challenging and contemporary church in Croydon, come along to Grace Vineyard Church every Sunday 10:30AM at Thomas More School, Purley.

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose

Jonny Rose is a committed Christian who has lived in the Croydon area for nearly twenty years. He is an active participant in his local community, serving at Grace Vineyard Church and organising Purley Breakfast Club, and was ranked "Croydon's 37th most powerful person" by the Croydon Advertiser (much to his amusement). He owns a lead generation company. He is the Head of Content at marketing technology company Idio, the founder of the Croydon Tech City movement, a LinkedIn coach, and creator of Croydon's first fashion label, Croydon Vs The World. Working on Instagram training and a Linkedin lead generation service. Views are his own, but it would be best for all concerned if you shared them. Please send your fanmail to: jonnyrose1 (at) gmail (dot) com

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  • Alessia

    “Rather than seeing civic work in Croydon as a zero-sum game amongst a limited voter base, consider that the best work in Croydon is usually done through non-partisan, engaged, proud citizens.” Amen to that. And to this: “Revivals in England, America, and other places have historically shaped those nations for the better, because the output is a community which worships God, not itself. Croydon would be no different.”