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:

Return from Oz

I just switched off for a week.  Well done to me (and the husband).

I’m fresh back from holiday, from 7 days of blustery beach walks and lie-ins, leisurely swims and horse-rides, cream teas and Sunday roasts (well, one of each), croquet, table-tennis and a lovely yoga class with the middle-aged ladies of Woolacombe.   I have read books and gazed out of windows and slumbered and journalled.  I have cooked hearty dinners and supped red wine.  I have noticed birds singing (loudly) in the trees around me and I have stopped to look at views.  I have learnt to reverse back along narrow country lanes to the nearest passing point.

This is where we were, looking out towards Baggy Point

If you want to do the same then head straight for the gorgeous Pickwell Manor in North Devon run by some great friends of mine: two families living in community together, trying to live sustainably and generously and to create a space for you to come and unwind.

I’m a big fan of rest, of building big blocks of it into life, of taking your foot off the accelerator and remembering that there is something more to life than ceaseless forwards momentum.  Amazingly, and wonderfully, I find that it all keeps going without me.

Part of what I wanted to do this last week was wrench my attention from the future and sink it back into the now.  I hate how I’m always about the next thing, always planning, organising, keeping things on track, rather than being fully present – and alive, and grateful – in the right now.  I took with me the book Present Perfect by Greg Boyd to help.  I love the imagery he uses from the Wizard of Oz – how we’re always looking for something which we already have:

You’re dreaming about what’s over the rainbow, in some mythical land of Oz, and this is the very thing that’s keeping you from experiencing the love and joy that’s already round you in Kansas.

He’s not telling me my life is already everything I ever want it to be, but that the things that matter most are already mine, so I can stop chasing them.  Phew.

He writes about giving a talk along those lines to a youth group once, only to be challenged by a frustrated parent afraid that their child will never achieve anything unless they are driven; ambitious; feeling a lack that would need to be satisfied by attainment, success, whatever.  A hole.

I don’t want to be driven by a hole in me. I don’t want to believe that the only thing that will drive my children to contribute to the world is their own sense of incompleteness.

What if I have enough, now?  What if I am free, and loved, and worth something now?  Can I believe that, not just on special holy days, but every day?

As I write I’m staying with friends who have a four year old son – a beautiful, exuberant, chatty little man currently making brownies with his mum.  Playing cars with him yesterday uprooted me right out of my planned afternoon activities and what I was counting on accomplishing.  And it was ok.  It reminded me that real rest, and stopping, is only possible when we can let go of that drivenness, that neediness, and be ok just with who we are and where we are.  Which is hard when we’re frankly so flawed and needy. I think it must be hard to get to that place without God (but maybe you have?).

Of course it’s all easier outside of London and all my normal routines, so I’ll get back to you about how it goes when I’m back.

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.

Churches with Corner in the title

Social justice has become very cool in the last decade, you might have noticed.  One of the consequences is that plenty people have cottoned on to the concept, and felt a little lost when trying to put it into practice.

I was at a big Christian mega-conference about 18 months ago and I came across a guy my age trying to explain the difficulty to Christian leaders from other European countries.  “The thing is, because we have the welfare state in England, it’s hard to know how you can help.”

It’s fair to say I was outraged, dumbfounded. Spitting teeth is the phrase that comes to mind.

The welfare state is wonderful.  But they’ve hardly got things nailed.  And it’s not a comprehensive solution any way.

But anyway, my subject for today is actually not all those people (Christian or otherwise) asking ‘how do we get going?”  (If you’re asking that question then you should watch this fab video from my mate Jon who has a very practical suggestion). Instead I want to tell you about a couple of churches I’ve been inspired by who started out (ahead of the game, you might say) with a passion for serving the local community right at their core, so it’s never been something they’ve had to work out how to add on.

And strangely both these churches have ‘corner’ in the title.

A couple of years ago I went to Cornerstone Church in Swansea and met Julian and Sarah Richards.  They had pioneered a project called ‘The Gap’, having realised that loads of local kids played truant and never managed to transition out of their broken education into work.  It was a brilliant scheme, but my favourite part of the film we made about them was when Sarah talked about when they started the church.

It was 1991 and there were seven young people who felt called to start a church in Swansea.  They had no building, no services, no money.  But they didn’t wait for any of those things; they just started looking for ways to serve the local community.  They volunteered at local schools, they set competitions for the local kids for Mothers’ Day and got local businesses to give them prizes.  They looked for ways to love the local people and build relationships with them, to work for the good of the area.  And it was rough – they had no income, they couldn’t always afford to eat.  But right at the core of who they were and still are as a church community is an orientation towards the local people, and an urgency about expressing God’s love towards them.

I met a brilliant old lady there called Blodwyn who’d found Cornerstone when she’d spotted an advert at the post office offering “IT for the Terrified”.  She joined classes and experienced a welcome and sense of belonging she’d never known before, and became a believer and part of the congregation. “My life has completely changed,” she said. [pause] “For the better!”

Then a couple of weeks ago I heard a similar story.  I was at a church in Runcorn called Hope Corner (love that name) – a tiny converted shop in the run-down end of the town – which runs a programme for kids excluded from mainstream education.  I met some of the kids who attend who love it – because they are listened to and supported and encouraged.  At this new “school” they find stability and space that’s often hard to find elsewhere. Darrell, one of the leaders of the project (he became a Christian in prison and came out determined to help local kids chose a different life), says that their first priority is simply to love the kids.

Hope Corner

I interviewed the main pastor of the church and he told me that the church and the ‘projects’ are indivisible. They only exist because of one another.  They started out wanting to help meet some of the needs in the area, to offer concrete love and support where it was needed, and they have been thoughtful and consistent in how they’ve done it – so much so that they’ve won over a lot of the local community (there’s an enormous waiting list for their kids club), and plenty of funding for their projects too.  “We are what we need to be for Runcorn,” says Mark. And for them that means school and kids work and youth work and a lot of prayer every morning, as much as it means cramming in on a Sunday morning to worship and study the Bible.