Needing a witness

The mountains of Guatemala

The mountains of Guatemala

Our five days in Guatemala are over, and we have arrived, exhausted and a little dazed in Nicaragua. As I write, I am sitting in a converted cinema, now a church, waiting for leaders to assemble for the gathering of La Red del Camino, the brilliant network who have hosted us for the whole trip. Literally, their name means the network of ‘the way’ or ‘the path’ because the first Christians were known as followers of ‘the way’. They gather leaders across Latin America as friends, journeying with them in understanding faith and mission as a holistic, whole-life adventure (rather than a purely spiritual project) that leads them to engage with the poverty and injustice surrounding them. They are good, crazy, grounded people.

Our final day in Guatemala was spent in the indigenous, mountainous region around Patzun. It was breathtakingly beautiful and surprisingly cold. I was wearing flip-flops, but thankfully had packed a sensible cardigan, purchased for me by my mother.

We left at 5.30am to drive in some kind of hardy landcruiser to have breakfast with a group of indigenous pastors. I was picturing a rustic shelter in the hills (not dissimilar to the communities where we had been in the mestizo region the day before) and a breakfast of beans and rice.  But we pulled it at a lodge with pancakes and waffles in the menu. There are times when I bless the USA.

Breakfast with the pastors

Breakfast with the pastors

This group of tiny (shorter than me), wizened (for the most part) indigenous leaders told their stories quietly and gently.  Their people have been violated, abused, disempowered repeatedly over many years.  And these men lead churches and encourage their people to participate in political and civic life, a milieu from which they have been effectively banished by the authorities. Countless laws and policies are passed that continue to diminish their rights, desecrate their land and way of life, and drive them to violence. Poverty and despair characterise these communities, and they are armed to the teeth. The pastors have been threatened and targeted many times, both by militants in their own communities, and the powers of government.

I can’t remember all the details of the stories but what I remember very clearly is walking away from breakfast feeling like I had been given a long cool drink of water, and fed something nourishing (and I’m not talking about the pancakes).  And it was because of what they had witnessed and shared with us. In the church there is always talk about being witnesses in the world to who Jesus is, amongst people who don’t believe in him. But hearing the stories of these pastors, I felt witnessed to, and I realised how much I needed it. What they have experienced of God’s presence and faithfulness and justice in the midst of such oppression and violence and lack, told me again that this isn’t just my imagination or wishful thinking, but something real and beautiful.  It is the backbone of what these pastors live, to their peril, each day.

We drove across the most extravagantly beautiful terrain, we ate bowls of rice and local vegetables with pastors who used to be competitors but now lived like family, we sat and prayed with a resettled community who could now live without fear of their homes being washed away (again) in landslides, we visited an enormous greenhouse full of tomato plants, 2500m above sea level.

We were wrecked by the end, but also made new.

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Go (coco)nuts!

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Coconut milk for your curry. Shredded coconut for your Bounty or Lemingtons. A fancy-dress bikini. Something to make the sound effect of horses hooves. A cool cocktail glass. And there I run out of uses for coconuts.

Today highlighted the poverty of my imagination as I was introduced to the coconut-themed socio-economics of Mario Morales. And as a permanent reminder to think a bit bigger, I now own a pair of shoes made from discarded coconuts.

Mario is a practical, gentle man. He has worked for many years helping to make communities in Guatemala more resilient to the natural disasters that plague them. He works with churches, helping them to see what they can do improve conditions in their communities.

In the last few decades life has changed massively in Guatemala, and in the communities where Mario works. This is mainly because of the huge sugar cane plantations, and all the associated industry. Indigenous crops have been cleared, pastoral land has been converted, and gallons of dangerous chemical fertilisers are sprayed from helicopters and by locals on foot, causing massive health problems, taking most of the water and polluting what’s left.

Mario’s work over the last few years has led him to encourage communities to plant gardens again and reinstate indigenous crops. The people are farmers and they know how to work the land. What they need is encouragement and a little innovation in the face of the deteriorated conditions and the new scarcity of water.

But a year or two, Mario became fixated by coconuts. Suddenly, all he could see were the piles of discarded coconuts around (his home town), and he began dreaming about what he could do with them.

This is where he has got to: He has created a machine, based on something he saw on the Internet, which takes discarded coconuts and shreds them until nothing is left except dried coconut, like hay in consistency (as modelled below by Travis) and dirt, which is rich in nutrients and can be used as compost. Then he packs this shredded, dried coconut into frames which he coats with a naturally occurring latex. There’s another machine he has invented which presses layers of this coconut matting together, and then he cuts out shoe soles. Locally produced fabrics are sewed together to the soles to produce beautiful Eco-flip-flops.

Every stage of the process is carried out by local people in the communities where he works. We drove around all corners of Escuintla to witness each stage of the manufacturing. Half of it takes place in Mario’s own home; other parts in other families’ back gardens. It’s not an industrialised process by any stretch of the imagination. We had coconut chips sprayed in our faces, we had the life frightened out of us by the sound of all the machinery, we modelled the new shoes, we wound the coconut ropes and Travis (crazy American film-maker who is sharing the adventure) constructed a coconut toupe.

Mario also has groups who wind the shredded coconut into ropes and then weave them into giant nets, which can be used to minimise soil erosion during earthquakes, landslides and the like.

It’s a bit nuts, but totally brilliant. I love the ingenuity and creativity of being able to take something that is discarded in huge quantities daily by so many people, and working out how to turn it into something beautiful, and doing it with integrity, in a way at empowers and involves others.

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When small things are big things

I’m fresh back from spending most of the last week in beautiful Burkina Faso (not Uganda, as my mother believed).  I say ‘fresh’ which is an unusual state to return from any trip in (especially one which involved 5.30am starts every day, temperatures in the high 30s and not a lot of food), but it’s how I feel.  Grateful, inspired, humbled.

Beautiful Burkina

I was making a film about how churches are doing small, beautiful, counter-cultural things in their communities to improve their lives and those of their neighbours.  (You might remember part one of the same project in Sierra Leone last year).  This time I was out with Prospect Arts‘ Ben Sherlock, a whizz with a camera and a failsafe vitamin supplier.

One day we drove off down a dirt track, and then turned off that onto a footpath (still in the 4×4) and continued on for about an hour across sandy, uneven scrubland, dodging bushes, trees and huge gaping pits.  We arrived in a remote village in the far east of Burkina and were greeted by some of the community who took us out the other end of the village on foot to see their school.

In contrast to the other simple, sandy homes scattered through the village, here was a large, clean, modern-looking structure with three big classrooms housing about 100 children from 4-16.  The youngest ones had never seen a white person (I went and said hello and shook all their hands to dispel their fears…).

Fascinated by white people…

We interviewed the pastor of the community who told me the beautiful story of how the school came about.  It began with a letter he received one day, there in the middle of nowhere.

He set off to the next town, the one we’d driven from, to find someone who could read it to him.

Was there no-one in his village who could read? the inhabitants of the next town asked. (Nobody). Did they not have a school? How many children were there?  Did he know that if he could prove there were 60 children with no access to schooling, the government had to provide a school and a teacher?

And that started the journey of the small, illiterate church community advocating to the government on behalf of their village.  The government sent a teacher and the church members built the teacher a house.  And then, a few years on, the government built a school.  And now how the horizons of those young people have changed.  Different futures have become possible.

That same day we spoke to a church elder in another community with a similar story, and he said something that has stayed with me.  “These things probably seem small to you, but to us they are huge.”

Heading off into unknown territory in faraway countries with a nice camera to make a film makes me anxious to find impressive sounding stories that will captivate people.  Some of this week’s stories were about church communities building themselves a church building, which can seem underwhelming, but the journey behind those projects is a deep and significant one.  It’s the story of people who struggle to meet their most basic needs starting to believe that they have the ability to do something for themselves, and for their wider community.  It’s the start of a longer journey towards a better life.

So I don’t count any of the stories as small.  To believe things can be different when you have never known what ‘different’ looks or feels like is an amazing act of faith and courage, especially when you live so close to the edge of survival.

These are big stories. And just think where they might lead.

Our impromptu crew (minus camera man Ben who was behind the camera)

(The work I was filming was part of Tearfund’s Church Mobilisation work, carried out in partnership with local NGO, ODE.  You can find out more about it here.)

Retreat (revisiting something I said I’d never do)

When I was a teen I wanted to be an actress.  When I told people at my church they would respond with enthusiasm – “We do so need good dramas in church,” as if my grand ambition was to play Mary the mother of Jesus at Christmas or be in any of the half-baked comedy sketches that popped up sporadically on Sunday mornings or church weekends away.

And so I ventured out into the big wide world with my dream and needless to say found that the big wide world was less enthusiastic about me.  (We’re still working on it).  But I have successfully avoided church drama all this time.

A couple of years ago the husband asked me to write some monologues based on some stories from the Bible, pretty much the very thing I’ve run away from for so many years.  But I took up the challenge (I have a soft spot for him), and we interweaved them with songs sang around hay bales in the big top at Greenbelt festival one summer, with guitars and cellos and other nice stringed things.

It was good.  I didn’t want to cringe and run away.  And it seemed to touch people.

It seems I don’t hate Christian drama, I’m just really fussy, and I really want it to be good (not that I’m saying here that I do it better than anyone, it’s more that I want it to be better than I’ve experienced it to be, that’s what I aspire to). I want it to mean things that I think are important (and actually I have a head-start here because I do think that people’s encounters with Jesus, with God, matter profoundly); and not be heavy-handed or tell you what to think.  Then I think it can be quite beautiful.

Another thing I was told as a teen was that my vocation was either in the church or in the world (no sitting on the fence).  And I picked the world, which is in some ways laughable given that I have now spent eight years working with a charity who are passionate about the local church. But now as I come to unpick some of the things I learnt so young and which solidified too quickly in my worldview, I am returning to this dualism too.  It suddenly seems such an unnecessary dichotomy if we hope to be the same people every day and not play two (or more) versions ourselves. Of course, expectations and values differ in contrasting arenas, but surely integrity means some consistency, it means always being recognisably me.

And so it means not drawing such clear lines about where and when I will tell stories and for whom.

Which is a long way of introducing a project I put together this year for a network I do some work with.  Someone caught our double act (the husband’s songs, my monologues) and wanted to find a way to make a DVD.  The challenge this collaborator had in mind was contexts where Christians were working in tough places, amongst violence, poverty, oppression, injustice…and they often struggled to connect the huge questions raised by this work with their faith (too often presented in a pretty box).  Imaginative storytelling and music that brings Bible texts to life – resources that create an experience and the space for questions and conversation – could unlock a connection.  We hope.

So here is one of those sessions, about busyness.  There’s a monologue, some discussion questions about the Bible passage in question, and a song that gives you some space to reflect. There are six sessions in total and you can access them all online here.  Or if you’re after a DVD, drop me an email.

Busyness from Integral Mission on Vimeo.

Hope on the final frontier (the wild west of England)

I decided not to come back to London (despite all my protestations in favour city living).  Well, not for a few more days.

In fact, after leaving Devon, I moved further west and was ensconced for 48 hours in luscious Cornwall.

Cornwall, to me, is clotted cream and ice-cream and the Eden Project and the beach.  It’s best known and loved for holidays.  One of my friends and colleagues grew up by the beautiful beaches of Hayle (we actually holidayed at her family home last year which was idyllic) and she would love to live there still.  Only there is hardly any work.  Cornwall is one of the most deprived regions in Europe.  It even qualifies for poverty-related grants from the EU.

I went to hear stories from two great groups of people running projects in the region that are trying to push against the tide of increasing deprivation.  It’s a rough battle right now, with so many cuts.  We started out in Camborne, hosted by the seemingly indomitable vicar of the parish church, Mike Firbank.  He rocked up five years ago and started talking about how the church should be helping the community out.

On location with my photographer…(so glamorous)

Shortly afterwards a congregation member was in town for a meeting and nipped into the local public toilets.  He found a group of men huddled around the hand-driers, trying to keep warm, nowhere else to go.

Shocked and heart-sore, he knocked on the vicar’s door.  They talked.  And on Christmas Eve they opened the church hall for a Christmas dinner for anyone with nowhere to go.  And the doors have never really shut since then.

They called themselves DISC, which stands for Drop In and Share Centre, and it’s a simple idea.  They run a drop in centre when anyone is welcome – those often excluded elsewhere by nature of their addictions and behaviour, or those who are just a little lonely. When people arrive they’re offered a cup of tea and a chat, and some help if they want it.  They don’t prescribe specific kinds of problems they will solve, or promise to know what the answer is.  But they will try, and they will search out people who have more expertise and experience than they might.

It’s a safe, stable place.  A shelter, a rock, a hiding place.  Somewhere you can trust.  The staff’s stories are of long, difficult journeys taken with people, of disappointments and heart-breaking relapses and of beautiful steps towards change and hope.

One of the things they run is a foodbank.  They provide emergency food as a stop-gap for families who find themselves suddenly in the lurch.  Their benefits don’t come through, or change, and there is no income for a few weeks.  It’s inscrutable how one of the richest countries in the world can still leave its own people starving.  And just recently working families have starting turning up at the foodbank because they just can’t afford to feed their kids.  It doesn’t bode well for the year ahead, and Mike reckons the worst is yet to come.

DISC are suffering from all the cuts.  They’re having to scale back, even as the needs are getting more critical.  I want to turn it around, I want the church across this country to step in and step up and join in, even as I know that so many of them are on their own journeys deeper into all of this already.  I want to shake the bureaucrats making the cuts and make them see what it’s doing to people.

I ask Lorna, the Centre Manager, how they keep going, and keep hoping that things will improve.  She shakes her head.  We see train crashes, she says, we see them all the time.  We see people in crisis.  But we’re there at the other side of it too.  The crash isn’t the end of the story; we’re there to see every tiny step forward that they take afterwards.  And that’s where hope becomes something real.

And to put it in their own words, here’s a short video they made of Mike introducing their work:

A proper Sunday

Yesterday something extraordinary happened.  I had a real Sunday – a proper day off, a laid-back day with our community, where there was time to chat and pray and remember what’s important. I’m really not great at protecting Sundays (or, in fact, any other day) from work and rehearsals and emails, even though I believe there’s something so important about regular rhythms of rest and play.  But yesterday was something special, and somehow in the midst of it we also managed to connect with another, often invisible, community.  And for that I’m grateful.

This is the four of us who got the couch.

Our little fledgling community has been meeting since the start of the year – sometimes 3 of us, sometimes closer to 15.  We live kind of close to each other in South London, and we’re bound together by our faith (and belonging to The Well Community Church) and by our desire to be a force for good in our local neighbourhoods. Usually in tiny ways.

(You might remember we replanted a community herb garden a few months ago)

Yesterday we sat and talked about what we’d been up to in the last little while.  Our Zimbabwean friends Savie and David held a party recently for a couple of lads in their block who’d passed some big exams.  The boys aren’t used to celebrating things like that, but they got about 15 lads round (in the last year or two Savie and David and their two sons have unexpectedly become the gathering point for most of the young lads in their housing block – in and around playing football together), and had a party.  The boys are aged from about 8-15.  Savie also got them to do that version of consequences, where you write down something you like about each person in the room, anonymously, and they all got to take away a list of ten great things about themselves.  It was a completely new experience for them, and they went away beaming.

We were hosted yesterday by Martyn & Naomi and their two beautiful daughters, who both had a series of very important roles to play during the morning.  These included leading a game of name-catch, distributing clipboards, rewarding good ideas with stickers, offering us all cakes and writing notes on the blackboard. With ages ranging from 5 to around 55, it was just beautiful to see everyone find a place to belong.

We had communion: iced bun and fizzy pop, and thanked Jesus for enabling a community where everyone was welcome, and where we could find a home.

But we also talked about how you build community that isn’t just cosy and insular and homogenous.  And we’re still pondering.  But something else we were part of gave me hope.

The husband joined us a little late, after an early morning visit to Feltham Young Offenders Institute, where he and our mate Patrick were speaking at the chapel.  They’ve just started something they’re calling The Invisible Tour.

Andy has recently released an album, and Patrick a book, and they’re doing the usual speaking/singing circuits.  But they were inspired a few months ago to think about the people who will never go to one of those events.  Another friend of Andy’s was on a bus in Peckham, listening to his album, looking at the tired faces around her and wishing there was a way they could hear the songs.  She told Andy her idea and he began to dream.

So much of what Andy & Patrick both write about is hope, the hope of broken things being made whole again, and why should that only be heard by people who go to book launches and folk gigs?   Patrick, who runs youth charity XLP, told Andy the story of a meeting he’d been at where 3 different statutory bodies told him that they had great programmes but couldn’t connect with the young people who really needed their help. They described them as “invisible”. They said that only XLP and the church could connect with the invisible people – they are in the gaps between where services reach. So Andy & Patrick have both set out now to do a tour to invisible people and places: Mental health centres. Young Offenders Institutions. Rehabs, prisons, homeless shelters, hospitals.

Feltham is the largest young offenders institute in Western Europe, housing over 600 15-21 year olds.  Someone in our little community knew a boy there – and it was a sad story of injustice. The chapel, where Andy & Patrick sang and spoke, is one of the few places where the boys come together – most of the time they’re in their own cells because it’s too risky to let them all mix (more than 30 different gangs are represented…).  It couldn’t have been a bigger contrast with our Sunday morning – an institution designed to prevent community – and yet in the midst of it was this holy space to come together and hear stories of hope.

It’s a drop in the ocean, I know. But a good one.

I know that I’m lucky to have this beautiful, growing expression of community to be part of, especially in a big city like London.  But I don’t want to settle for something that’s just nice for me.  We have to keep asking how it becomes sometimes beautiful and possible for people who are often invisible to us.  Especially the ones on our doorsteps.

Taking it personally

This week I have come to Thun in Switzerland, which looks just like the illustration on the front of a Milka bar.  Here in the foothills of the Alps I have been submerged, you might say rebaptised, into the strange world of professional Christian poverty-fighters.

We’re an odd bunch: an eclectic mix of 320ish people, of more than 50 nationalities, gathered daily around tables with our regulation conference bag and some strong Swiss coffee.  The Micah Network.

At the beginning of these events I often look around and wonder “how has this become my world?” (After 8 years, I figure I need to own up to it, to some degree).

But then in amongst the strange lingo, the hodge-podge of language and culture, and the complicated schedule (which really has to run on time or the Swiss get anxious), there are moments of transcendence.

One morning we heard from a Russian former-communist who shared his experience of becoming a Christian and being sent to prison camp in Siberia.  One night his teeth were punched out individually while a Muslim was made to read him the verse in the Bible commanding him to turn the other cheek.  He told us that the ability to love and to forgive does not come naturally, but is a miraculous gift of God.

Compassion, in this man’s mouth, was not pity or soft-heartedness.  It was a costly and painful transplant that stopped the fist of the guard: “Stop LOVING me”.

Another women shared how many years ago her husband had left to look for work in anther country, never to return, and she had so little to offer her children she was on the verge of having to feed them grass.  Her pastor told her that her suffering was brought on by her own sin.

Amazingly she was able to start a small business with other women in her community, and was supported and trained by an international organisation, and years later was able to love and support her pastor’s family when they lost all they had.  She had held nothing against him.

That is compassion that costs us our perceived rights to grudges and retribution, at our hands or anyone else’s.

At its best moments, this conference has not been about my professional work.  It has been a gathering that has spoken of hearts and asked something deeper and more significant that my conscientious efforts from 9-5.

Even today, as I chatted to a wonderful, anarchic Aussie friend, I was struck by the reality that this depth of compassion is never something that can be transmitted fully by an organisation or programme.  It is necessarily personal.

I love the line in the film ‘You’ve Got Mail’ when Meg Ryan’s character criticises the company who put her out of business for saying “it’s not personal, it’s business.” “What’s so wrong with being personal?” she asks. “Whatever else something is, it ought to begin by being personal”.

And maybe it should stay personal too, somehow.

You can probably tell that it’s personal stories that have struck me most deeply this week. They humble me.  And I realise how much they have changed me in the last eight years. This strange group of people have, in that time, re-shaped and anchored the way I see the world. Not just this particular group of conference delegates, but the wider family of which they’re a part.  And my challenge is not to let these people, these truths and experiences, settle slowly like sand on a seabed into a generalised attitude or posture in the world.   It has to become more personal, not less.