“We LOVE Jackie…and would be great to see you!” was the first line of the email back from Debra Green from Redeeming Our Communities (ROC), I had emailed her with a bit of fear and trepidation, she was running a big project and ministry, she’s not going to want to waste her valueable time on some scruffy ex vicar that’s in need of a shave with a hair-brained scheme to change the nation, is she? Yet, she was willing to see me and talk to me about their vision and values.
Jackie had recommended that I checked out the guys at Reedeeming Our Communities, as their vision had very much been part of the Poole story from when Jackie had chaired the towns Churches Together. First they had established a house of prayer, a small group of committed prayer warriors who pray regularly for and into the Town each week; then they had held the first of three ‘town wide conversations’ the first gathering together the leaders of buisness, voluntary and charity sector, the police, council, schools and Churches talking together about life in Poole and what we can do together to improve the lives of everyone in our community, this conversation over-spilled and a second conversation was held and the area that was highlighted as the biggest area of concern accross the town was the lack of aspiration of the young people, which led to the youth conversation (the first in the UK) gathering young people from different schools, youth groups and organisations to talk about aspirations and what life is like as a young person in Poole -and present this back to the mayor, local councillors, buisness leaders, community activists, charity workers and some of the Church leaders.
I arrived back in Poole at the start of the preparation for the Youth Conversation and was working with the young people putting together this huge peice of work, which was one of the most exciting things I have been involved with and I have been involved in youth work for over 25 years (which also makes me feel very old!).
It was really exciting that here the Church, young people and various agencies, groups and individuals -many of whom might never connect with the local Church- are coming together and building relationships, a spring-board of all sorts of exciting Kingdom possibilities and new people connecting with the local Christians.
Yet, it was here that I discovered something of a problem, one of the youth workers at a local church said to me “we wont be coming as it’s not preaching the gospel or doing the stuff we are committed to” -I bit my lip, I wish I hadn’t but I might have used rude words rather than explaining clearly why I think this view-point is flawed. Too often I believe we have too narrow view of God’s calling, we make it all about ‘saving souls’ -as though God only cares about our spiritual lives- rather than God caring for the whole person. We sell God and the Gospel short when we make it just nodding ascent to an atonement theory rather than realising that it is about following Jesus in his mission to see God’s ‘Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven’ -a deeply political and contraversial phrase when Jesus first uttered it- and it means that Jesus Christ is interested and cares deeply about crime rates, food-poverty, teenage pregnancy and self-harm and so should the Church that bares his name. The prophet Jeremiah urges the people to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city” and James reminds us that “religion -or perhaps more accurately translated ‘Worship’- that God finds pleasing and acceptable is to look after widows and orphans (who were the most volunterable in their society)” knowing that Christ himself says “for what you did to the least of these you did to me”. For the Christian we cannot talk about saving souls whilst ignoring hungry bellies, nor fill hungry bellies and neglect a persons need to know their creator and the Salvation he offers uniquely through Jesus Christ.
It seems so sad that this blinkered view will keep some Churches and their young people from engaging in the role of local decisions within their community and deliberately choose to muffle the Christian voice locally.
I remember reading about Acids and Alkalhi’s and their differences, I read that an acid will burn you because of what is in it and an alkali will burn you because of what is missing from it, which felt like a picture of Churches withdrawing from the discussions of life within the town, burning the communities by its absence. When communities are often at their most marginalised and disenfranchised and the social problems are rising we usually find the Church has largely withdrawn from its local area.
My curacy parish of Bemerton in Salisbury was an Urban Priority Area and the Church on this estate here was small and struggling, my boss Simon Woodley, who could be a bit of a firey prophet at times held a city wide prayer meeting in the Church hall over-looking the estate and got the people to look out of the windows at this overlooks community, and the Christians there got down on their knees and repented for ignoring the needs of those living in poverty in their community.
This story of Poole in a way is a mirco-story of the national work of Redeeming Our Communities, the Church engaging in its communities as a partner in ways that might not at first glance to appear ‘religious’ but I believe are very much on the heart of God.
When I arrived in the head office of ROC I met a guy who was a former policeman, spoke about how the police and other agencies were encourgaed by the previous labour government about partnering with local groups, including faith groups, to help bring down crime and social problems with their communities, and the guys at ROC thought it was crazy that statutory agencies were asking the local Churches (and other groups) for help and yet the Churches were often slow to respond, and often not knowing how they could help with local problems, when communities began to talk to one another opportunities began to present themselves and often the Churches discovered new and exciting ways of engaging with their communities, an example I heard about was some wonderful intergenerational work where a local youth project made cakes for an older persons lunch-club and this enabled new relationships to form and flourish. Or Churches began to run homework and breakfast clubs in local schools meaning that kids were going to school having eaten a proper breakfast and able to study better; projects such as Street Angels or Street Pastors forming which has seen dramatic fall in crime rates (based on their practical help and their commitment to prayer).
As part of the Street Pastor initiative in both Salisbury and Kingswood, Bristol, I was able to join pub-watch and get to know local licencees and police, and on one occasion the owner of the local night club rang me up and asked me if I could help him with support on the street for an under-eighteens evening. Much of the work of ROC is about encouraging partnerships which I believes often helps reveal and remind people of the Church community in their local area.
As I thought back to my time in Kingswood where I was involved with a number of community projects, including a community flat in the most deprived area of our parish, which had been completely ignored for the past 25 years, and again the first event we held on the green of this community I felt as the new Vicar in this area that I had to apologies for the Churches absence in their community “we should have been here in your community, and we are sorry we have not been here in the past, but I hope you will allow us to become your friends as we want to be your local Church in this area” -four years later we planted a Church on the edge of this estate. Yet this would not have been possible without working with this project helping at fun-days, homework clubs, job clubs, money management sessions and learning how to cook on a budget. Also, by working in these communities as a local Vicar I made friends with local people who did not come to Church, and other people from my congregation also made friends with people from this community, and we broke out of a Churchy bubble.
If as a local Vicar you say “I have no friends who are not Christians” I would say that engaging in community work and community projects is a wonderful antidote to this, also when events happen and people encourage us to invite along our friends we also have people who we can invite along to things who are not Christians. When we engage in our communities and with local agencies and people, we have opportunities to make new friends, I remembered the strap-line for the Church that we planted in the previously ignored area of Kingswood which was “where strangers become friends and friends meet with Jesus”.
As I heard more about the work of ROC I realised that this is actually quite a small organisation, the bulk of the work was happenign with various local volunteers accross the country seeking to be relational catalysts for the transformation of their local areas.
In one of the rooms there is a large map, with lots of pins and photos of people who are actively doing great work accross this nation. My big question is “what will it take to change this nation” the answer was there in the pins and photos, ordinary Christians seeking to embody the call of Jeremiah “to seek the peace and prosperity of their city” (paraphased); fighting to help the Church not to look inwards but look out to the place God has called us to serve, to be his ambassadors, and be salt and light, to be good news as well as speaking good news, not just preaching sermons to ourselves and reinforcing the bubble, but committing ourselves to the call of God to see his Kingdom come in (insert the name of your area here) as in heaven.
As I look at the photos of these ordinary people who made a stand prophetically saying: “not on my watch, as a Christian I have a responsibility to the area God has called me to live, work and play within, and I shall do what I can see my area transformed!” Some of these faithful warriors have motivated vast swaths of the local Church, government, business and charity sectors to come together, others may have had smaller gatherings, but all are united in the refusual to allow the church of Jesus Christ to be ignored, nor to accept the lie that social issues are disconnected to the Kingdom and heart of God, and to fight to be a conduit of blessing to the place that God has based them.
I looked at Poole where I live and there was a photo of Jackie who had a few months previously moved to Norwich, and I was reminded of the passage in Ezekial where God said that he was looking for someone to stand in the gap for the sake of the land but found no one (Ezk.22.30) and asked myself the question “who will stand in the gap for Poole now Jackie has gone?”