I visited "Simple Gifts" the new Unitarian Centre for Social Action project in Bethnal Green, East London this afternoon. A crowd of predominantly Bangladeshi mothers and their children were leaving as I arrived, drawn from the surrounding housing estate. The cafe provides after school activities every Tuesday in the former Unitarian Domestic Mission in Mansford Street which is now managed by the Chalice Trust.
The cafe, which has been sponsored by the Unitarian Centre and "Knees Up!" from Quaker Social Action, provides a welcoming space and knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers to help improve this inner city area which sits a stones throw from the wealth of the City of London. I lived in the former Unitarian manse next door to the church for five months in 2010 and enjoyed the diversity of the area but the deprivation that led to the establishment of the Unitarian Domestic Mission in the 19th century remains although clearly in not such a desperate scale due to the modern Welfare State. This does not mean that social action is redundant; to leave support to the State would be a mistake. The cafe is the first initiative; others will be developed in response to community needs.
It was also useful to explore with organisers Rev Rob Gregson and Ann Howells the ideas behind the establishment of a Unitarian Centre for Social Action - it is intended to do much more than address the problems of the area but also to provide opportunities for Unitarians, and presumably others, to develop skills and expertise in social action and to spread the learning. The project has gathered interest from Unitarians across London. The "Good Samaritan" painting on the wall surely still sends out the message that Unitarian social action is to help everyone in need.