Churchyard visitors

24 January 2014

ST MARY and St John, Cowley, in Oxford, has an unusually large churchyard that has, in recent years, been developed as a wildlife space. Volunteers gather to work there once a week, and while the churchyard provides a refuge for the homeless, it also attracts a number of street-drinkers, drug addicts, and prostitutes.

The churchyard warden, Daniel Emlyn-Jones, feels that the church's "presence ministry" should extend to these churchyard-users, who are often, he says, vulnerable people. So, while he goes about his daily tasks of maintenance, he tries to "positively engage" with them.

"This experience has taught me that, behind the rowdiness, such vulnerable groups are often warm-hearted, friendly, wise, and in desperate need of love; and, for me, their presence on holy ground harkens back to the old ideas of people claiming sanctuary in churchyards."

Not that he is soft on anti-social

behaviour, and the people he will not tolerate are drug-dealers. To give an idea of the variety of his life, he says that, on one shift, "I showed some visiting Russian Orthodox priests around the church, talked to some street drinkers, helped a visiting couple find the grave of a relative, and reported some drug dealers to the police."

When the volunteers gather for their weekly session of improving the churchyard, and then stop for tea, some of these more unorthodox users join them (above), despite some people's doubts that this might encourage "anti-social behaviour". Mr Emlyn-Jones sees it as a proper expression of Christian love.

He has had to deal with the occasional fight, and a couple of times has had to call the police. But he still feels that this Christian presence in the churchyard is an important part of the church's ministry.

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