“Many people are surprised that this event was organised by the church,” said Osoba Otaigbe, pastor of Tooting Junction Baptist Church, which organised the Figges Marsh festival in the Tooting neighbourhood of East London on Saturday. With a Latin band playing pulsing music, a Zumba dance class in full swing, and seemingly endless free barbecue, the scene at Figge’s Marsh on Saturday afternoon certainly did not appear to be your usual church event, and Otaigbe, a tall, jovial African man fully decked out in traditional Mexican regalia, didn’t appear to be your usual church pastor.
For the neighbourhood of Tooting, however, perhaps the community needs something that is a little out of the ordinary. “This is a remarkably multicultural area. Our goal is to get the different people and different cultures to connect with one another,” said Otaigbe. The area is especially diverse, with Brits, Asians, Jamaicans, Africans, and many other cultures, yet according to Otaigbe, the different people groups mostly keep to themselves. He hopes to build bridges among the different cultures in the neighbourhood. “This festival is ultimately about connecting with the community. It’s about sharing the love of Christ through showing generosity and hospitality – our concern is to create an atmosphere where they can and want to connect.”
For Pastor Otaigbe, the London Olympics were a perfect opportunity to create that kind of atmosphere – just the sort of thing that More Than Gold has been encouraging Christian communities across the land to grasp. “The community started out pretty pessimistic about the Olympics, but as the church, we didn’t want to miss any opportunity to reach out into the local neighbourhood.” Otaigbe has already seen the fruit of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “The community is certainly connecting like never before.”
The Figges Marsh festival is not the first community event Otaigbe and his church have organised to encourage cross-cultural relations during the Olympics. The church kicked off the week leading up to the opening ceremony with a street party on Sunday, and from Monday to Thursday the church held a sports clinic. To help with all his initiatives, Otaigbe has hosted several short-term mission teams over the years. For the Figges Marsh festival, the YWAM/Forever Olympic outreach provided a group from Holland to work with the church during the sports clinic, and a team from the USA. Otaigbe speaks of short-term mission teams positively. “There is often a lack of confidence within the church in the UK to do evangelism and reach out in their neighbourhoods and surrounding area. When teams come in from the outside, it gives churches a boost and encourages them to go beyond the church walls.”
Going beyond his parish walls and integrating church with community is exactly Otaigbe’s long-term vision for the Tooting community. “I envision a community that connects both socially and spiritually, because, when you get down to it, that’s what the Kingdom of God is about,” he says. “In this area, there still exists so much social disconnection. I have a vision for peace in this community, because peace creates an atmosphere where people can lovingly share their faith.”
Otaigbe’s vision is ultimately rooted in a deep love and care for his neighbourhood. “In this community, people have to belong before than can believe. They have to first know you care before they will listen to what you have to say. We’re here to show them we care.”
As hundreds of Tooting residents dance, laugh, and enjoy the festive atmosphere, it’s easy to see that Otaigbe and his church’s efforts have created a space for God’s reconciling and unifying love to be known across many cultures.