MUSWELL HILL, LONDON. We drove east from central London (sometimes keeping to the appropriate side of the road) to a place called Dagenham. I overheard someone explain the pronunciation: “It’s DAG-en-HAM, yes, but to sound local you just mash it all together so it sounds like ‘Dagnum.'”
We stayed with the Harts, a family we met on the Petersons’ European adventure almost two years ago. In July of 2013 they picked up Jamie and the kids and me from Heathrow and drove us to their home in Dagenham, charming us with their accents the whole way. Tom grew up on a farm in England and Rachel is from the highlands of Scotland, and now they live in the manse of a little church in a little neighborhood called Osborne Square. In a delightful case of Englishness, their proper address has no house number—it’s just “The Manse, Osborne Square.” Tom, whom I don’t think I’ve ever seen without a smile on his face, cracked up me and my boys right away when he asked, “So what’s the deal with July 4th, anyway? What are you guys celebrating?” I love that I had to explain Independence Day to the first Brit I met. Evidently, it’s a bit of history they’ve chosen to ignore, for understandable reasons.
Jamie and I got there the week Tom and Rach and their daughter Jodie left for—get this—Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They were going to Iowa to visit—get this—my dear friend Jody, also known as the Queen of Iowa. Tom and Rach had heard my song and, moved by Jody’s story, named their daughter after her. They were flying to Iowa to introduce their daughter to her namesake. Clearly, I felt a connection with this young family, and I couldn’t wait to introduce Eric to them. As it turns out, they already knew Eric pretty well, or, as well as you can know someone when you’re a raging fan of their music. When my family and I stayed there last time, Rach couldn’t say enough about the tremendous blessing Eric’s music had been to her.
We were exhausted from the trip, but not too exhausted to enjoy Tom’s homemade shepherd’s pie and some homemade scones for dessert. The next morning they served us a full English breakfast, which consisted of sausage, scrambled eggs, toast, tomatoes, and beans. I’ve heard people complain about the food in England, but in my book a prevalence of fish and chips, Indian and Thai food, meat pies, and hearty breakfasts, is cause for celebration. The only thing I can think to complain about is how much weight I gained in nine short days.
The next morning (day three), taking Tom and Rach’s advice, we drove south from Dagenham to Kent, which was Eric’s first taste of the English countryside. If you’ve been to London but have never gotten out of the city, it’s fair to say you haven’t really seen England. London is a magnificent city, but as soon as you leave the metropolis and exit the motorway (not to be confused with the “interstate”), the roads narrow and you find yourself gasping at old stone walls, English churches with weathered tombstones tilting out of the grass, cottages at odd angles to the road, and alluring public footpaths beckoning to the Took in all of us. We were aiming for Chartwell, the home of Winston Churchill, but got distracted along the way by an antique store and a castle. The entrance fee for Hever Castle proved too steep, so instead we walked across the street to a pub called Shepherd Neame, which boasted a picture of Henry VIII on the shingle. Of all the pubs I’ve visited, this one was perhaps the most authentically pubbish. The ceiling was low. Real candles sputtered on iron candlesticks on every table. The food was delicious—I had cod and chips, Eric had prawns (he is a native Louisianan, after all). I asked the server how old the building was, and he said, “It’s been around since the 1400’s. They say Henry VIII used it as a hunting lodge. Can I get you some ketchup?” Truly, there’s nothing like having lunch in a building that predates Columbus.
After a quick walk around Churchill’s gardens at Chartwell, we drove back to London for the show at St. James’s in Muswell Hill. The crowd was small (though very kind), but the church—a building that was bombed during WWII—was grand. My favorite thing about the night was watching the audience’s reaction to Eric’s music. I saw tears gleaming in their eyes, and their applause was long and disproportionately loud.
Yes, I thought, these were Eric’s people. His humble demeanor turned the boisterous American stereotype on its head, and they loved it. After the concert the pastor walked us across the street for a pint at the local pub, where we talked about gun control and Ferguson and the Monarchy and Jesus and ministry. Every time I play in what some call “post-Christian” Europe I’m reminded how far I am from the Bible Belt. I’m reminded too of how strong and true the Gospel really is, and how alive the church will always be.
The Kingdom is big and beautiful, folks.
As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.