Light in dark places
I bumped into the emerging church only recently, and discovered a world of questions (mostly unanswered) that I have been asking myself for years. Being from Hull, we’re on the edge of nowhere and we miss out on the great goings-on of [post] modern Britain.
But I have my own stories to tell of church on the edge, living in the dark places of the marginalised and disenfranchised.
Nine years ago, I was one of a small group of women huddled together in a living room discussing whether the church could reach women working in prostitution on our streets. Somehow, I agreed to volunteer in the opening of a drop-in centre and outreach work to help the women on the streets.
We all believed that given love and a cup of tea, these women would turn their lives around forever, thanking us and becoming Christians. The perfect fairy story. But it was not to be. One of my most vivid memories was of a woman coming into our drop-in covered in blood. She didn’t want to talk, she just wanted to go into the toilets and clean-up. Not long after, her boyfriend came in shouting for her, and she left with him, shouting and screaming at each other down the street. We sat there helpless. We prayed. And did nothing. A few months later she was murdered. What could we have done?
Love and tea are not enough for those suffering chaotic lifestyles with heroin and crack. It is impossible to describe the depths of despair and degradation these women go to for the next fix. Many of the women have lost their children into care, they are homeless or living in appalling conditions, with criminal records and no qualifications, and no hope of finding alternative work. How can you escape from that lifestyle when you are in debt to dealers (who will kill you), housing agencies (who have blacklisted you so you’re homeless) and family (who never want to see you again). And the final, painful truth is that many of these women were those children who society failed: neglected and abused, physically, sexually, and emotionally. Heroin is a painkiller and many of these women starting taking the drug at 13-14 to forget the abuse and blot out the pain. What chance do they ever have of recovery, when coming off drugs opens the doors of memories too painful to bear?
Suddenly easy answers go out of the window, and church becomes, well what? What does church have to offer in the blackness of people’s lives? Love and a cup of tea?
At first that was all we could offer, but amazingly it did some good. For the first time, these women felt loved and accepted. They discovered in us, a people who cared, who listened and who didn’t judge.
In those first few years of listening and loving, I learnt and I changed. Suddenly the world was not black & white. Old theologies disappeared, and quick answers were disregarded. But frustration grew at our inadequacies, and we knew that things had to change. So the Hull Lighthouse Project became a charity and through fundraising and the goodwill of individuals we employed our first manager (me) and then an outreach worker. We all learnt on the job, and became experts at anything and everything. We didn’t learn the word ‘holistic’ until much later, but that’s what we became. Offering practical help tackling drugs, prison, the courts, housing, social services, child welfare, and much more. And the women started coming to us, and trusting us, and slowly we started to see change.
I could tell a hundred stories of pain and heroism, but eventually we did see women emerging from the despair and piecing their lives back together. Some women regained custody of their children, others found employment and achieved great things. We have now helped over 40 women to leave a lifestyle of drugs and prostitution. But not all have made it. I was out again on the bus (our mobile drop-in centre) this week and I met a girl who I hadn’t seen for many years. She remembered me with a wistful smile. My heart was oddly lifted to see her, to talk to her, to remember the old days. But saddened too, because nine years had left her beautiful face worn and etched with pain.
And what of church in all this? Church has emerged with us. Hull Community Church now runs many projects serving marginalised people (offenders, ex-offenders, excluded young people, older people, children…) But we have lost many of the congregation along the way. They couldn’t see or understand why so many of us were changing.
My views used to be black and white, but not anymore. When you have seen a women abused by every man around her, except her female partner, who has loved her and helped her escape prostitution… when you have talked to a women who has been raped and wants an abortion… when you have tried to persuade a women to smoke heroin (instead of injecting)… when you have loved and loved and loved… Real lives are painful and messy, and the church is discovering that preaching a gospel of perfect lives is beyond most people’s reach. Jesus loved, accepted and didn’t judge. We’re discovering that love causes us to accept people as they are. Issues are no longer the issue. People are. And when we love people, things change.
So what will church become? I don’t know. We’ve lost many people along the way. We continue to love and hope for a new season. We’re trying build a community of acceptance. We never realised how far the glass ceiling stretched until we started to reach out. We have been challenged by our practices (who is included in church? can unchurched people serve in church, and if so, to what level? do people have to obey certain lifestyle rules before they can serve in church?) And we have decided that we want to include everyone. No rules. No glass ceiling.
I decided a while ago to scrap my theology on many issues. Whatever theology I adopted it never seemed to fit the situations that I came across. I suppose that leaves me open to accusations of relativism. But actually I’m quite an idealist at heart. I long for people to live better and happier lives, but in truth we’re all messed up in one way or another. So I concluded that loving people was probably enough. Simplistic, but enough.
I long to see a church full of the marginalised and disenfranchised. People discovering a community of faith, discovering themselves, discovering love. I hope we emerge into that church.
Anne is now employed by Hull Community Church, overseeing the community work and a community building project. She is a volunteer and chair of trustees of the Hull Lighthouse Project and chair of trustees of Beyond the Streets, a national charity supporting projects similar to Lighthouse across the UK. You can contact Anne at: email@example.com