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You shall know them by their fruits

by
22 December 2016

The Church is listening to the voices of the poor, argues David Tomlinson — at least, in the diocese of Durham

Growing a community: residents of Shildon of all ages have come together to establish two gardens for growing fresh fruit and vegetables

Growing a community: residents of Shildon of all ages have come together to establish two gardens for growing fresh fruit and vegetables

THE Hub, a former shop in the main shopping street in Shildon, Co. Durham, had been open only a few days when Steve walked in. Sleeping rough after a relationship breakdown, he did not know where to turn. The lack of a permanent address, coupled with a chaotic lifestyle, meant that he had received no benefits for weeks, owing to “failing to respond” to a letter he had never received.

At the Hub, he has been helped back into housing and work, and has become a volunteer in the wider church-run community project “Shildon Alive”.

Steve’s story is typical of many of those who fall through the ever-widening gaps in the benefit system. Every week, dozens of people access the support offered by the projects of St John’s, Shildon.

The Bishop of Burnley, the Rt Revd Philip North, wrote in the Church Times of a “disconnected” Church of England that fails the poor of our nation (Comment, 2 December), describing the Church as an organisation that “no longer hears what they [the poor] are saying, let alone amplifies their voices to the nation”. While the second part of his statement may bear some scrutiny, in the diocese of Durham, the first part can be demonstrated as a misreading of parish reality.

We are working in line with diocesan priorities to enable and bless the poor, and my parish, Shildon, has become a standard-bearer in listening to those on the margins and then responding to what we hear. In 2016, the church won the Ecclesiastical Insurance “Churches Helping Communities” award.

 

HILDON is one of the many post-industrial communities that dot the north-east of England, communities that are proud of their past, but with little hope in the future. In 1984, the railway works, the last big employer, was closed down, and 3000 people lost their jobs. It was a devastating blow to a town with a population of 12,000.

In the years that followed, shops closed, house prices fell, and the population tumbled to 10,000. Today, there are no supermarkets, and no banks, and its single remaining shopping street is characterised by closed steel shut­ters, takeaway shops (the highest number per head in Co. Durham), betting shops, and charity shops. Other issues around poor health, mental illness, and lack of op­­portunity have been a blight on people’s lives.

 

IN THE centre of the town stands St John’s. A Victorian structure, it is a reminder of the days of prosperity. I arrived as a curate in 2009. The Vicar, the Revd Rupert Kalus, had already begun to explore ways in which the church might respond more directly to the needs of the parish through a project, “Faith in the Community”.

It was primarily a listening exercise, which taught me the value of really hearing local people. I have never been interested in doing things simply for people. If the church is truly to serve the parish, it has to know who it is serving, and what they prioritise.

We consulted groups, schools, clubs, the council, and many others, asking them what they thought the part played by the church should be, as well as talking to colleagues from other church denominations. Our purpose was to hear God in the cry of their hearts, and to respond — not by offering a quick fix, but by enabling the many competent people in the community to begin to believe that they could make a difference.

 

BY 2011, a piece of land had been lent by the town council to create the first of two community gardens: this had been one of the needs that local people had expressed. It quickly became a well-used resource, bringing to­­gether old and young to work along­­side each other. I found funding to install lavatories, a meeting room, and a large polytunnel, as well as dozens of raised beds.

The garden also served as a place to continue to listen, a place where stories were shared, fears expressed, and self-esteem built. And, as we listened, we learned a number of things that formed a foundation to the development of the project. First, that people were sceptical of outside professionals who arrive with funding, deliver jazzy projects, then leave when the money runs out.

Second, we discovered that most people felt positively towards the church but were intimidated by the thought of coming to worship. Third, we learned that the community was full of strong people who simply needed permission to make a difference.

There were, of course, many other issues: fear of the young among the old, addiction problems, social isolation, high levels of teenage pregnancy, obesity, and so on.

The garden also became a gathering place. At our first family fun-day in 2012, 180 people of all ages turned up to enjoy a free barbecue, and, more importantly, spend time with each other.

 

WHEN Mr Kalus moved on, I remained to serve my curacy before being licensed as Priest-in-Charge. On the back of the work we had begun, I drew together a small team and put in a project proposal to the Big Lottery Fund. They responded with a grant of £198,000.

Our vision was always of local people supporting local people to make a difference. One of those people was Paula Nelson. En­­thusiastic about her home town of Shildon, she applied for the job of development worker that we created. Her job was to set up a shop down the road from the church which would be the geographical centre of the project. The shop, known as The Hub, and managed by a PCC subcommittee, became a place for people to meet and be heard, and to find ways of joining in.

In time, it would also become a centre for addiction support; a housing-support drop-in for the people struggling with the poor-quality rental properties that fill our terraced streets; a credit union; a crisis support for the recently unemployed and those penalised through benefit sanctions and those struggling with sickness — all this besides being a safe place for people to meet, chat, and share their stories.

 

OVER the next year, the growth of the project was exponential as community members enrolled as volunteers, determined to change their town for the better. There are currently 46 people on The Hub rota: 45 of them are volunteers. There are another 60 or so across the wider project.

Many were shocked to discover that their community was in the bottom 500 parishes in the country, in terms of the data, as this did not reflect everyone’s daily experience. But, with the appearance of the foodbank, stories of marginalisation and extreme poverty began to pour in. Demand increasing, the project supplied fresh vegetables from the community garden, along with simple menu cards and the usual array of tinned-food parcels.

We also established a “yarden” at the back of The Hub: a small walled concrete backyard that became a source of fresh food. The project shared newly acquired yarden knowledge, and people began to grow potatoes in carrier bags, and carrots in cardboard boxes, in their own backyards.

 

THANKS to funding from the Tudor Trust, we were then able to employ a second person as an “advocate for the poor”. Kathryn Jennings is now based full-time at The Hub, helping users to challenge benefit sanctions, chase landlords, sort out job applications, and so on. We have learned that low self-esteem can disable people to the point where they will not phone the job centre, and are scared of forms, which can result in them being penalised.

“Some of the stories I hear are heartbreaking,” Miss Jennings said, “but then, seeing the transformation in people as they begin to take back their lives is worth every moment of the struggle.”

Vandalism had always been a problem in the park and town centre; so our next step was to do some “guerrilla gardening” — prettying up an area with flowers and shrubs so that the community could take more pride in their environment. In our first year, more than 400 children and young people joined in, and only three of the 50 garden areas were vandalised. This year, we had 806 children and young people involved, and no areas were vandalised.

Bad things still happen, of course. I remember arriving back from a day out in Blackpool with two minibuses full of our young people, only to discover that some of the recently installed street furniture was on fire. Predictably, the newspapers reported only the bad news.

 

BUT, in the main, the young people of the town have been at the centre of positive change. This includes the church youth group. Their projects have included “mini Santas” which involved the children dressing up as Father Christmas to deliver gifts to isolated elderly people; “Plot to Plate”, a cooking club to teach the best ways of using the produce from the community gardens; and “Time to Chat”, a visiting programme for the elderly.

 

The focus of our youth work has been to challenge the inertia felt by many disempowered young people. One activity, “Operation Aspiration”, asked them to come up with “20 good reasons why Shildon is amazing”. They turned their ideas into posters, and applied for a grant, which funded 900 laminated posters. One Sunday night, they covered the whole town with them (and removed them a week later). The story was covered by the local papers and Radio Tees.

The youth group also travelled to London, after the closure of the town’s last supermarket, to stage a protest outside Parliament, and were shown around the Houses of West­minster by the Labour MP for Bishop Auckland, Helen Goodman.

 

ALL this community engage­ment was supported by a year of prayer within our church congregation. We launched café church — an informal gathering which makes use of videos, songs, stories, and food — in response to what we were hearing about the church being intimidating. We now have 60 to 70 people, mostly families and young people, coming along to the twice-monthly meetings. There is now also “Church in The Hub” once a month. Indeed, our faith is unashamed, because this is the place where transformation happens.

 

SOME may question whether the Church should be doing so much practical work in the community. But I am convinced when I read passages such as Luke 6, when John the Baptist’s disciples question Jesus about whether he is the Christ. Jesus does not seek to give evidence of his messianic vocation through appealing to theology or liturgy. He merely points to the fruits: “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

I would argue that one of the reasons that the Church is seen as irrelevant by many is because it fails to connect the good news with the places where people are. Rather than walking with them, the Church says “You come and be like us, learn our language, sing our songs, walk our way.” Imagine if the wider public thought of the Church as the people who love, who feed the hungry, help people to feel as if they matter, bring life where there is death, and set people free to realise their potential.

It can be the simplest of ideas: in our “1000-can Harvest Challenge” in October, for example, more than 2200 tins of food were donated to the foodbank in just three weeks. This is community transformation unleashed through generosity. And the potential for this kind of work is everywhere. It feels as though I have simply wound something up, stepped back, and watched it go.

Of course, there are many challenges and times of exhaustion; but we are joining in with the work of God in this place, walking with our community, bringing the good news — and how can that not be the work of the Church?

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