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Interview: Corin Pilling, deputy director, Livability

19 May 2017

‘Everybody’s skills and gifts have a place’

We’re a disability and community engagement charity, working to promote inclusion and tackle social isolation. We work across the UK, and also overseas.


The Christian dimension is central to my work. One of my colleagues says that the body of Christ is complete only if it contains ex­­perience of those with disability, and that’s the model we want to encourage. As Christians, we have so much to offer in our under­standing of personhood and com­munity which goes way beyond the confines of the Church.


I strongly believe in the value of church as a community where every­­­­body can participate. I’ve been part of the church family of All Saints’, Barnsbury, for 14 years, and this provided an ample apprentice­ship for me. Livability recognises that all churches have a unique chance to build strong communities around them, and, through our work with creating the Happiness Course, exploring well-being in com­munity, and dementia-friendly churches, we’re offering creative ways we can all do this, regardless of size.


If we don’t start with what’s work­ing in our communities, we‘ll always be seeking to fill gaps, and diminish the power that com­­munities have to offer their best.


Livability recognises that it’s not about churches’ providing services to people, but providing better ways of connecting. This is unique: not many charities have a primary desire to build community and see churches as important to this process.


I spent most of my career dealing with people in London with complex issues, especially home­­lessness, and I learned to value their resilience in spite of their difficulties. And then my father’s been living with multi­ple sclerosis since before I was born, and that’s af­­fected me profoundly. After all the time I’ve spent working with homeless people, it seemed like a natural progression to equip churches to do the best they can do — through training, making con­­nections, inspiring them. I’ve had such a good experience of church, by and large.


The primary narrative around dementia often focuses on it as some­­thing devastating. Of course, there is loss and deficit — it’s a key part of the experience — but some people are living well. As Christians, we have a distinctive view of people as image-bearers, even people with dementia.


Our capacity for change is so dependent on the resilience we draw from the relationships around us. We create disability by failing to recognise barriers that prevent us from participating. The journey of dismantling these barriers takes us to a place where we all benefit. Every­body’s skills and gifts have a place.


Perhaps there’s a tendency for churches to fill the gaps, part­icularly in a time when we see growing social need; but perhaps we should look first at what it means to be a community that looks a bit more like the Kingdom of God, and what we aspire to in terms of building a community in which everyone takes part.


Churches will draw people who have particular needs, and some are almost conditioned by society to be dependent. It’s a difficult journey to try to undo that, but it’s important to try.


One church we worked with realised that, with an older, dwindling con­gre­­­gation, they would be in trouble if they didn’t make some changes. So they stopped doing what they had always done, and started to go out and listen to their community. They asked: “What’s important to you? Where do you see our role?” That led to their freeing up their building to run activities, and the church mem­bers became key in facilitating these things. They be­­came the heart of their com­­munity.


It took courage, and a sense that they were there for the community rather than for themselves.


Our four-week Happiness Course is unique. It increases awareness of what makes for a good life and develops community well-being. Churches should offer this as community-builders, as a space for people to explore what’s important to them, whether they’re seeking God or not.


It’s turned out to be incredibly useful to RAF chaplaincies, where young men who rarely have an opportunity to explore questions like this have a chance to consider deep questions. It’s great when we hear of people using this tool in a way that impacts on others’ lives.


For myself, I look for a green space with a clear horizon I can walk to. I love music. And beer. Living in King’s Cross means the world is my oyster for walking, listening, and drinking. I’m happiest when the sun is shining at Greenbelt and I have a dry sleeping bag.


I think, as children, our person­alities got a lot of room to develop in an atmosphere of gentle stability, with freedom to explore and experi­ment. This is not always fruitful: aged three, I drank a bottle of Old Spice, which put me off alcohol for years.


I honestly don’t know what my first experience of God was. It’s like a slowly developing picture that is still emerging. My mother says, “God has always been with you,” and some days I believe her.


Henri Nouwen taught me that it was a good thing to be vulnerable. Dave Andrews, the Australian radical community activist, taught me the importance of always seek­­ing to empower others when taking action. Thomas Merton seems to bring me to the crux of it. Although I’m naturally reflective, Merton’s simplicity and immense depth challenges me because I’m wired to act.


The riff from “Back in Black” by AC/DC is my favourite sound.


A Trump tweet was what made me angry last.


What gives me hope for the future is the “no fuss, no platforms, just getting on with it, substance over style” contingent of the Church, who see that building community involves stretching to meet each other in a place of difference.


I pray most to be open-hearted. It’s easier to close down.


If I were locked in a church with anyone, I’d like it to be with my grandfather, Edward. He exhibited such love and joy. I would love a little extra time with him, now I’m all grown up.


Corin Pilling was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. www.livability.org.uk

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