THE HEART OF CHATSWORTH ROAD
If you want to talk about life, then you can talk to Sister Jean.
WRITER: HAWA POWER
PHOTOGRAPHER: JØRN TOMTER
As I enter the Wayside Community Centre, I am welcomed by the 1970s Slade anthem “Merry Christmas Everyone” belting out at full volume. Within minutes of removing my coat, I am invited to join in with what turns out to be a very energetic workout, despite how easy the ladies are making it look! It is with some relief that I am able to stop when Jean John, or Sister Jean as she is known locally, emerges from her office with a beaming smile and a warmth that infuses the room and is almost tangible.
This tall, handsome, beautifully presented woman thanks me for coming and leads me downstairs to the ‘quiet space’ where we draw up chairs and sit close, recalling the first time we met. I had just moved to East London from South London at a time when I needed to make changes to my life that could no longer be avoided or postponed. It was a very reflective time for me; I knew hardly anyone and very little of the area. As a lover of charity shops, and the wondrous items that people decide for one reason or another can be loved better by someone else, I was soon drawn to the Wayside charity shop. I found great stuff in there, but what I had not expected to discover was the heart of Chatsworth Road.
Wayside is not just a charity shop. It is a charity for the community, a drop-in centre that offers friendship, companionship and the opportunity to socialise, share life experiences and encourage each other in our pursuits. The Centre offers health and fitness activities, exercise classes, Quadrille dance classes, monthly coffee mornings and day trips away. For those experiencing loss, stress, or trauma, there are prayer fellowships open to everyone regardless of faith, and help on a one-to-one support basis with Sister Jean. All of this has resulted from Sister Jean’s tireless work and efforts over many years, since her arrival in England from the Caribbean island of St Vincent where she was born. She graciously accepts my voiced awe at her unwavering contribution to her community, but explains her life and arrival here simply:
“I had no one to talk to and that gave me a passion for people; people are all that concerns me. The health of people, the welfare of people - that’s my food, that’s my life!”
Growing up in St Vincent, Sister Jean acknowledges that she was “a rather sickly child.” Chronic asthma meant that she spent a lot of time away from school, but she was a bright student and was allowed to skip classes and still take her final school exams. She admits to never caring much for parties or socialising in the ways expected of her peers, who would put her down and tell her, “Jean, you are nothing”. Feelings of inferiority followed and, unable to conform to the behaviour and norms of her peers, she felt unloved for who she was, which in turn led to feelings of loneliness and isolation. In the years to follow, Jean would try to take her life three times. “I was age 14 the first time. I thought you had to die to find peace.”
Mercifully unsuccessful, Jean went on to graduate from school at 16 and, keen to study business, enrolled at a business college where she studied typing and bookkeeping. Soon after, a car accident caused serious injury to her feet and rendered her housebound for nearly four years. She recalls, “I only left home to go to hospital for daily injections; I developed an abscess which wasn’t getting any better. I stayed indoors while I watched all my friends get married and so on, but I continued doing my typing. I would type letters for people and I did a lot of reading. I always wanted to do something with my life.”
At the age of 19, Sister Jean and her mother moved to England. It was December 1964 and England was still recovering from the sweeping changes that war had brought about. She lived in Stoke Newington, an area which she recalls as being “better than Hackney”, which had many derelict houses, some with no roofs, and many having sustained bomb damage in the Blitz.
Two years later, at the age of 22, she met and married the man who is still her husband today and they moved to Powerscroft Road in Clapton. As we talk, I get the sense that married life has been a huge life lesson for Jean. Marriage in the 1960s was the central institution that organised people’s lives, and where people made major life transitions and decisions, but understanding and sharing feelings was not always the status quo. Jean had four sons, one of who died a cot death, typically sudden and without witnesses. “He was nine weeks old at the time. We found him; it was really a shock to me, I never heard of cot death before. It was really terrifying. I didn’t cry, somehow I thought he didn’t love me which was why he wanted to leave. It wasn’t until a whole year later, I talked about it; I broke down and I cried and screamed. It was very healing.” In her own words, “I was broken and one day I broke down.” Her second breakdown at the age of 47 was triggered by what was supposed to be a friend’s reassuring comment, that she had “a lovely husband and good life.” Jean reflects, “I thank God for that because I knew I really needed things to change.”
She began to have conflicting conversations with God. “It seemed like the Speaker was talking to me, but I didn’t want to do anything in the church.” Her conversations were urging her to “bring comfort to the people.” She argued, “How? Where? In my room? In my room? Twenty seven years ago Jean invited two people to her house and says, “It wasn’t like a church meeting - people just came and talked about their life”. And Jean talked about her life. Those people told others and the next week, eight more came and each week a few more, until after three months there were over 30 people, and they were talking about many social taboos - mental health, family members in jail, domestic violence and grief. This, in the Sixties and Seventies, when talking about your feelings and personal problems was not as accepted a practice as it is today, and particularly not within the black community.
Sister Jean still marvels at the thought. “I had found comrades, broken comrades and as we talked, people were weeping and comforting one another. We ate together, laughed, prayed, in my home and it became the drop-in and it was healing!” One of the attendees, a local councillor, suggested that Jean start a charity, and Wayside was born. It has touched thousands of lives. Sister Jean chuckles when she tells me, “A man once told me he was moving to Hackney. I asked why? He said: God is in Hackney because Sister Jean is here.”
Seven years on and I am still here. I love Chatsworth Road, and our fantastic community, made rich by members like Sister Jean. She is now 70 and continues to be an inspiration to us all. So get involved, offer your skills and talents; they are always in need! This is only a fraction of our conversation. To read more about this extraordinary, enlightened woman; Sister Jean - Minister, Charity Founder, Award Winner, Poet, Author, you can buy her inspirational book, When God Intervenes. Or better still, visit Sister Jean.
Wayside Charity Shop 11 Chatsworth Road E5 0LH
Wayside drop-in 69 Lower Clapton Road E5 0NL