Open space

From a sink estate somewhere in the South…

A group of people are stood up to their waists in a tangle of willow branches. Someone mutters to themself as their scarf gets entwined around a bush that is almost all thorns. Another disappears from view suddenly, rising again slowly from the stumble with muddy hands and knees. It looks like chaos. But then a voice “Ok – we need to thin all this out.” People stop and look around blankly – where do we start? “Let’s start here!”

Andy, 25, is a Community Development Worker for a tiny church that is supported by the ‘Shaftsbury Society’. The society works around the country helping employ community workers in areas that they have flagged up as needing support. Andy grew up in the locality from being a teenager, albeit in “a slightly nicer part of town…”

We chatted with Andy and asked, how does someone from the nice side of town end up knee-deep in weeds and mud in the middle of a council estate?

It emerges that Andy’s work involves overseeing many projects, raising the money to employ various people such as youth workers, environmental workers and to run, amongst others, health awareness groups, mums and tots, youth clubs, breakfast clubs and projects for the elderly.

One of the central projects in the community is the ‘Open Space’ project. This is land, in the middle of the estate, that was basically abandoned by the Council. Andy and his team have managed to gain over eighty members by mailshots, door to door canvassing and leaflets, leasing it from the council to make it into a ‘Peoples’ Park’. It gives the community the opportunity to study the environment in a safe area as most do not visit the local heath.

Protecting it against environmental damage, and encouraging children to learn about issues surrounding the environment, are major parts of what they are trying to do. The message he wants to put across, both for Christianity and the environment, is ‘Embody something that will last into the next era’. No short-cuts or flashy gestures but looking towards long-term sustainability. He and his wife carry this further with their allotment where they are hoping to have enough homegrown food to last throughout winter.

So does faith play an important role in his work in the community?

Andy happlily admits to not being evangelical or coercive towards members of the community but is open about his faith and how it influences his decisions. By supporting the community he feels that he is proving the Christian message rather than preaching it.

He used to believe that praying was a ‘waste of time’ and that activism was the way to achieve goals. Since starting this project he admits both himself and his wife do feel a little isolated and jealous of the people driving past their front door to the ‘cooler’ churches. They find that praying helps them to focus on what they are doing and to meditate on the day’s events. By choosing to work on this project they have rejected the ‘shopping around mentality’ that most young graduates (including Christians) have and it has ‘removed their power of choice’ and helped them feel ‘more at peace’ with the decision they have made.

He feels that many people attend church and ‘talk the talk’ but that they don’t always use their religion in a practical manner. He likens it to having a toy car in a box; you can keep it pristine and get it out from time to time to look at but unless you unwrap it and use it then what’s the point? Praying is his way of ‘recharging the batteries’ and means he can start afresh each day. He feels the job provides ‘a perfect setting to become a Christian’ because he has to mediate with all sectors of the community and admits that there was an element of sacrifice in taking the job.

In his blog Andy often makes reference to emerging church issues and clearly feels part of the discussion – so we asked him how that plays out in his current situation…

Andy says he finds that the Emerging Church concept has the resources that enable him to look at old traditions but also to introduce new ideas. He feels what he is doing fits in with the Emerging Church, as although he is not working in a young and trendy place it is very mission focussed. Much of what the community does is very forward thinking but he finds strength from looking at Monastic traditions and St Bedenict who set up projects in difficult areas. He says, ‘Historically we’re in a place where we can draw from anything.’

When asked if he thinks Emerging Church is relevent to the people in the community, or if it is more of a middle class thing, he has an interesting view. Although admitting it is probably true that the better advantaged have more time and energy to make an impact, Andy believes that by setting up these sort of projects, it opens the door to greater understanding by all. He works in an emerging way to enable people to be more aware of how they can empower themselves and how faith can work in a practical setting. He believes more than anything that ‘Power is there to be given away’.

This Anglican Church doesn’t attract the young and trendy; its congregation comprises mostly of disenfranchised parts of the community – the elderly, disabled, immigrants and the mentally ill. Although Andy could put out a message to other churches ‘recruiting’ skilled people to support the projects he runs, he believes it would not enable the community to grow independently. As he says, ‘The weakest need to have a choice’. He believes in ‘Bringing them to the middle’ and empowering them to make their own decisions. Drawing from his interest in politics, he makes sure that he steers away from the dictatorial church norm. He looks to work democratically, looking for an emerging way to organise things. He takes inspiration from Ghandi, trying to do the right thing; he states categorically that he will not ‘bypass people to get results’. He has learnt in the past two and half years to live with things moving slowly and not always working. He believes in having to be a little detached so if you don’t achieve the results you were hoping for, you can move forward to try something else.

So has it given him a new insight into the gospel message?

Andy says he feels he is at peace with the local area and the people in his community. That he is able to mediate and discuss issues irrespective of a person’s background. That he has made his values count and that he is trying his hardest, along with many from the community, to make a little ‘peace on earth’.

Andy was interviewed by Davina Davies