Spending the day in Elswick and Benwell yesterday has been really useful. I had opportunity to speak with the leader of a key church-related project in Benwell, who have been in the community since 1987. His insights were really helpful and helped clarify a few things about the work I’m going to be doing. Partnership is important to me, and it was good to have a positive exchange with him. A few things I had already suspected were confirmed:
- the work of the church as a whole is a little ‘you in your small corner and I in mine’, not too much by way of partnership, although the Anglicans have a team ministry across 4 churches, as well as a more separated Anglican presence in the form of a new church plant by a church who are a bit separate from mainstream Anglicanism.
- some of the churches are bases that gather people from across the city, and not particularly made up of local people, and, in fact, some of the activities of those churches are perhaps not geared towards local people
- local people don’t necessarily attend programmes (even things like parent and toddler). We found this in some of the communities we’ve worked in previously…you could organise any great service, but people didn’t come for lots of different reasons. In Aberdeen, we had people working hard at a children’s work with a handful of kids. We cancelled it and then took to the streets for about 6 months, playing games in the streets with them. When we launched a new club, we regularly had upwards of 30 children. Some real ‘pre-programme’ work needs to be done to build up trust and let people test you out before you will be trusted. If I can build relationships in the community and then signpost people to what already exists, it can be a real help.
- the community is divided racially, socially, and ethnically. The whole area is a bit of a ‘dump estate’ for folks from all over, which means there is a lot of mistrust all round. There are large Nigerian, Romany Gypsy, and Eastern European populations, along with a large Muslim community. All this is mixed amongst mainly white British people trapped in circles of poverty due to the loss of industry and employment opportunities. All this doesn’t make for easy/happy community. When I was walking the streets last year, a local Turkish barbers had been grafittied as ISIS sympathisers. Division is live and well.
- the physical environment just isn’t pretty at all. This isn’t just the back alleys, which are a disgrace, but even the main thoroughfares and tracts of grassed areas where housing has been demolished previously. To be fair, the City Council have their work cut out but it may be that some practical work would be to engage local people in the beautifying of their own community. Something to think about.
- there are people doing some hard work in these communities, and it may well be that going with an agenda to encourage, bless and support will boost some morale, alongside some strategic volunteering with staff-stretched projects already in existence. I’m hoping that Community Connections can ‘recruit’ volunteers to engage and support these existing projects.
There are so many other things I could reflect on, and I will in time, but just visiting with a fresh set of eyes this week has highlighted so many key parts of work that can be done to transform some aspects of life alongside the folks who call those communities home.
There exists in these communities what can best be described as ‘broken shalom’. If I were to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’, then my only response and answer would be to actively work to bring healing to the broken shalom. Whilst I hope that personal relationships will mean folks finding personal restoration and salvation in the fullest sense, it is also true that the whole environment needs a lift.
They’ll rebuild the old ruins,
raise a new city out of the wreckage.
They’ll start over on the ruined cities,
take the rubble left behind and make it new. (Isaiah 61:4 MSG)