A handful of hope

This post is bringing you a little round-up of the things that have inspired me this past week, the things that reassure me that there is good in the world still. I’m about to head off to Burkina Faso to make a short film about how churches are working with their local communities to bring positive change.  I hope I’ll return with some good stories, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be offline all week. So in the meantime…

This is a short film about the power of writing handwritten letters, and, more than that, the hunger we have for people to be present with us when things are tough, however that is transmitted…(actually see comments below for the link).

You might remember I wrote a post a few months ago about Knocknagoney, on the edge of Belfast.  It’s a loyalist community and had one of the highest crime rates in Northern Ireland, but since the church started bringing the different community groups together things have totally changed (and crime figures have dropped).  This article talks about the film we made and the impact it’s having, and there’s also a link to the film.

This week we said goodbye at work to an amazing colleague who’s been at Tearfund more than a decade.  She recently adopted two sisters who were 4 and 5 and after a year of parental leave has decided not to come back to her demanding job. I keep returning to what a brave and beautiful thing she has done, for all the sleeplessness she is enduring and the past trauma she is helping her girls to work through. My friend Kelley wrote a beautiful reflection recently entitled Tread Softly on my Adoption which feels important.

And finally I came across a brilliant project through a friend who’s involved, called Scene & Heard.  They mentor kids at schools in Somers Town in London and help them to write plays which professionally actors then perform.  Have a look:

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Old school kindness

Last week I went to my tenth Tearfund UK project to do a final day of filming for the epic Ten Keys Project.

We were in Ilford, and we interviewed a man from the council.  I asked him to jot down his job description for me and it took 8 lines of my notebook.  (It wasn’t a large notebook, but still).  I asked him why he’s worked in the Housing Department of Redbridge council for twenty odd years.  And he said, self-deprecatingly, that it was because he was “old school”, meaning that he wanted to work to improve services in his community and make things better.  And stick at it.

We spoke to another guy in the Housing Department, because they were queuing up to praise the project we were filming, known as The Welcome Centre.  He said that there are a bunch of services working with people who are homeless, but what marks out this project is their persistent kindness, no matter how often people fall back into bad choices.  Rough sleepers are a hard group to work with, a fragile and often entrenched community who frequently resist support and certainly have no time for the bureaucracy of council services.

(To access help from the Housing Department you need ID and proof of eviction to get past reception.  It’s hard to get a nice letter from your wife explaining why she threw you out).

The Housing Department couldn’t get these people to come to them, so the department staff went to The Welcome Centre (which was set up by a local church).  They knew that the town’s rough sleepers felt safe and welcome there, so it was the only place they could go and talk to them and find ways to help them.  Having been to both of their buildings I can honestly say that I would choose the Welcome Centre every time as well.

The new Welcome Centre, funded by the government’s ‘Places of Change’ initiative

The project itself was brilliantly inspiring (staffed by some amazing women with fiery compassion and great wisdom) but I keep returning to those two men from the council.  They weren’t especially prepossessing or charismatic, probably just what you might imagine civil servants to look like.  But they were faithful.  They were in it for the long haul. They hadn’t been neutered by the bureaucracy of local government.  They were working away in overheated, decaying, depressing office blocks, amidst ever-increasing cuts, and they were keeping going, eager to find news ways to support people who are hard to help.  And they were championing this brilliant ray of light that is The Welcome Centre, trying to find them funding and to look for news ways to partner with them.

It reminds me David Hare’s play, Skylark, and some impassioned, angry words from the main character, Kyra (with some expletives removed):

You only have to say the words ‘social worker’…’probation officer’… ‘counsellor’… for everyone in this country to sneer.  Do you know what social workers do?  Every day?  They try and clear out society’s drains.  They clear out the rubbish.  They do what no-one else is doing, what no-one else is willing to do.  And for that, oh *****, do we thank them? No, we take our own rotten consciences wipe them all over the social worker’s face, and say, ‘If –‘****! – ‘if I did the job, then of course if I did it…oh no, excuse me, I wouldn’t do it like that…’

I’m not owning up to being that angry on a regular basis, but there’s something ugly about the contempt we show for these kinds of jobs, how quick we are to dismiss, or critique. And there’s something tragic about how society is moving further away from valuing them (kids only want to be glamour models and footballers now, apparently).  I don’t remember ever having the first clue what a social worker did or how you might become one.

So today’s post it talking up the people who work for good in the council.  The people who sit on committees.  The people who work in local government to make things better.  The social workers and support workers.  What honourable work you do.

There’s something to be said for old school kindness.

I love lunch

I write “I love lunch” optimistically, full of faith and hope because if I’m honest lunch is usually the weakest contender in ‘meal of the day’. (It’s normal to review the day’s meals and compile a leaders board, right?)

Too often I’m out of the house, unprepared, grabbing something on the fly, pacing the streets of Teddington in search of anything that isn’t an overpriced panini.

But I am hopeful, because I have just invested some birthday money in an exciting book: River Cottage Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whatsisface.  Part of my journey on living within limits brings me to the question of food.  Is meat-eating basically a terrible environmental catastrophe in the making?  (Pretty much, at current levels anyway). I posted on Facebook, asking for recommendations of books that might convert me to the green side, and received all kinds of responses.  These ranged from “Don’t do it!” to diet book recommendations (once I worked out people weren’t just calling me a ‘skinny bitch’ – it did seem unlikely), to a handful of ethical reflections and then the practical advice of my friend Dave: “Honestly, get the Hugh Fernley-W book. Skip the theory, and get some good recipes!!”.  And so I did.  And I’m cooking up a storm in the kitchen.

Saying that, I was hoping to write this post earlier, only the night I returned, recipe book in hand, to greet my organic veg delivery and get cracking, I was devastated to discover that the veg had been delivered while my husband was asleep, and so they had been rescued by our faithful next door neighbour Frank, except he had now gone out for the evening.  I was grumpy and there was no vegetarian food to photograph.

But here was today’s lunch:

Ribollita. It’s a kind of hearty soup.

It’s called ribollita and it was great, although perhaps not the most appealing meal to have photographed?

Anyway, we’re now officially veggies from Monday-Friday, and so far I haven’t even eaten meat this weekend.

The other reason to blog about lunch is because of this BRILLIANT new film about a project my friend Rachel helps to run, called LUNCH.  “There are children around this country who are only eating if their school provides them with a meal” she says.  1.2million children in the UK are registered for free school meals, but there is no provision for them in school holidays.  That’s where this nifty and amazing project comes in.  Get involved.

Lunch from Matt Bird 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: