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Interview: Tessa Oram, education worker

20 June 2014

'The marginalised, rejected people in our society are actually God's favourite people'

I trained as an English teacher, founding and running a charity for young people with learning disabilities, and running the children's ministry of a large church.

When Hull was struggling at the bottom of the education league tables, the then Bishop, James Jones, wanted to find a way for the churches to offer real support and encouragement to the local schools. The job "Faith in Education worker" was born. I was the second post-holder, starting in 2005.

The current Bishop of Hull, Richard Frith, is now my line manager, and I have a support group that meets with me every four months to talk over progress and plans.

I wanted to surprise the schools; so I avoided predictable RE lessons and assemblies, and instead tried things that would add to the requirements that schools were trying to meet. I've worked mainly in seven of the state secondary schools within the city of Hull. Over the years, I have been involved in youth parliaments, living history projects, church crawls, creative activities, residentials, film-making, a rickshaw scheme, and much else.

I've also done much work among people who've left school and were homeless, caught up in substance-abuse, and needing purpose and relationship urgently. The beauty of my job is the flexibility I have to adapt the work to situations, taking time to listen.

The overriding need is the basic lack of nurture in a proportion of students. This can result in immature, disruptive, and non-receptive behaviour. So I developed a mentoring project. We call it "Celebrate Life". I ask the head teacher to identify students for whom there is very little celebration of the fact that they are here. It sounds so very extreme, but head teachers always think of a dozen students immediately who would fit the bill.

We ask that the school give us no background information at all. We can get to know the students for who they are, without reputation, or other people's assessments of them - as individuals made in God's image, with an integral value and dignity.

We're not aiming to improve academic or behavioural issues, nor evaluating what happens. We're neither counsellors nor therapists. We're simply there to provide a relationship of trust, acceptance, affirmation, and, indeed, celebration. Very often there is a marked improvement in many areas, as self confidence grows.

There are large swaths of people living with multiple trauma in their lives, and consequently behaviour and priorities change to cope. Students can know serious home poverty, a parent in prison, loss, abuse, addiction within the family, bullying, and sibling terminal illness. The kids that come out of these homes struggle to fit in with current mainstream society - and certainly have little interest in Church. So the Church has to take responsibility in finding creative ways of meeting, relating, understanding, and communicating with them.

I believe that marginalised, rejected people in our society are actually God's favourite people, and that he longs to embrace them. But often the gap between their experience of life and understanding his love is huge. I've wanted to find ways to connect the two.

We work for as long as the school wants us: a volunteer mentor one-to-one with a student for an hour a week. We provide a pack of four different creative activities, games, experiments, quizzes for each mentor to have something to do with the mentee, as conversation flows better when we're working on something together. I've written a curriculum based on Christian themes - dealing with anger, friendship, taking advice, perseverance, forgiveness, gratitude - and the mentors work loosely with that.

We also throw parties each term, held in a local church, where we splash out and spoil the guests as much as we can. We invite current mentees, their families and friends, past mentees, and their circles. The parties have become big joyful events for people who don't use diaries and don't have social engagements.

We've just taken 19 kids away for the weekend to a Christian activity centre. (I think they were a bit shocked: some of them had no sleeping bag, or even a change of clothes.) We just had the best time ever. It was wonderful.

There is some great work going on in schools everywhere, and I wouldn't make any claims that we are better or more effective than anyone else. In Hull, we've hit a seam of favour, both with churches and schools, which means that the work is blossoming and delights us. Our work is very detailed, and we have found that it is in the detail of people's lives, and our relationships with them, that we see the Holy Spirit most at work.

We don't have a website. We're not an organisation. We can go under the wire when we need to, to have an authentic relationship, as we couldn't if we were working for Social Services or Education. I work with a fantastic team of 25 or so Christians. We meet to eat, plan, debrief, and pray together before we go into each mentoring session.

Christian ministry should first and foremost be fun; otherwise it is not sustainable. While we're working among much poverty, deprivation, abuse, and trauma, we seek joy as our priority.

The post isn't funded by the diocese: they support me and employ me, but my job is entirely funded through donations. I have been astounded at how this has worked out. I took the job with 18 months' funding left, and I'm still here nine years later and being paid now for 27 hours a week.

We don't charge the schools for our work; we never charge anything for parties or residentials; and I pay for lunch for all mentors each week and a termly honorarium to acknowledge their time and costs. I've been amazed at God's kindness and generosity. We spend what he gives.

I want to see a blue whale up close. I want to be part of seeing the marginalised and broken find Jesus in their droves. I want to learn to make macaroons. I want to find ways to write the story of what I have experienced here in Hull.

I grew up in Stamford, Lincolnshire, with my mum, dad, and two sisters. I became a Christian at 13, and they all followed suit in the years afterwards. Although my dad left the family when I was in my late twenties, the rest of us have stayed close and communicating. My husband is an ordinand at St John's College, Nottingham - a surprise for both of us - and I have two sons, one at university, one at home.

I get a kick out of finding the cheapest ways of going to exciting places. Last autumn, I took my son to Reykjavik before he went off to university, which we did on a shoestring, and had a fantastic time. I'd love to go back.

Radio 4 accompanies me through my day and evenings, when there's nothing else going on, which is a very reassuring murmur. I love the sound of the cat flap when the cat decides to come home at night, my text bleep as my friends and family send me messages, and my mum's voice at the end of the phone.

I've been influenced by my family, by many Christians whom I have walked with for part of the journey, and especially by the people who ran the youth groups and camps by which I came to faith in my teenage years.

I'm influenced much by books: Leanne Payne, Amy Carmichael, Hannah Whittal Smith, and Ann Voskamp. I love to read of people who have found how to practise the real presence of Jesus in their lives, and what that has meant for them.

I pray to rest in God's presence wherever I am. I pray that I understand grace more: both his grace for me, and mine for other people. I lay out the things that are bothering me before him, and then I try to just listen. My best prayer is listening.

I would love to have a good chat with Mary Berry, if I found myself locked in a church.

Tessa Orams was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
Ms Orams can be reached at essa@theorams.com.

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