stories of transformation – st james, rounds green

Here is a really beautiful story of a transformed estate church and transformed lives:

Jill MacDonald, Minister-in-Charge of St James’ Church Rounds Green, on the Lion Farm estate, Dudley

JILL MACDONALD AT THE REFURBISHED ST JAMES CHURCH, LION FARM ESTATE, BIRMINGHAM. PHOTO BY CLARE KENDALL. 29/8/19.

‘People thought that the place was shut for years. The grass wasn’t mowed. The glass in the doors had been broken so many times that they were boarded up. The windows were opaque glass with wire over them. However much we cleaned, it looked grotty. It was vile.

They know it’s open now! I mow the grass every week and that enables me to say “hi” to everybody as they go past.

We have always been a church with absolutely no money. We had £1,000 in the bank. We took out a loan to redecorate and applied for lots of grants. Painting the church has made such a difference. The whole feel of the place lifted people’s spirits. I’ve even put pink chandeliers in the toilets, and you don’t see that often. They’re a real talking point.

It’s a hard patch. There’s a lot of apathy, drug abuse, financial problems. But now we have a friendly face and there are people coming in. The hall is booked every night.

We will never be a massive, humungous church, but we have grown. There used to be a time when I thought, “Why would I invite anyone to come?” But now I don’t mind inviting people.

We used to get lots of graffiti and broken windows on a regular basis, and dog muck on the grass. That’s very rare now. It’s almost like God has put angels round it. People have seen that it’s cared for and looked after, and they have responded.

The church has a future that I could never have imagined. The fellowship here have a confidence in sharing their faith. We take the love of God to those around us in whatever way we can.’

Barbara, member of the congregation

JILL MACDONALD AND BARBARA HUNT AT ST JAMES CHURCH, LION FARM ESTATE, BIRMINGHAM. PHOTO BY CLARE KENDALL. 29/8/19.

‘When I first came to St James’, I was a heavy drinker and gambler and I was getting loans every week for my drinking and gambling, but I couldn’t afford the loans. I had big debts: hundreds and hundreds of pounds from door-to-door loans.

Drink blocked out memories. The more I drank, the more it blocked them out. But I’d been to Sunday School as a child. Later in life, one of my twin daughters died. The vicar who did her funeral was very nice. I realised that this [church] was where I belonged. So, I turned up one Sunday and thought I’d sit at the back, do the service and go. But people opened up their arms to me. It was “wow”.

When I first came, I had long uncombed hair, and everything I wore was black. I never knew how to dress. I never knew about hygiene.

My family are worse than you can dream. This is my family now. This is where I’m happy. I’m not scared any more. I don’t need the booze now. I thought I was nothing, but I’m as important to God as the next person.’

Andy Delmege, Urban Estates Missioner

ST JAMES CHURCH, LION FARM ESTATE, BIRMINGHAM STORY. ANDY DELMEGE. PHOTO CLARE KENDALL. 29/8/19.

‘The estates are one of the more socially and economically challenged part of the country and if we are not present in vital ways in the estates, then we have lost the gospel of Jesus’ heart for people in situations in poverty, which was so much at the heart of his life and message.

It is vital that people on estates such as Lion Farm realise their worth in Christ. Everybody is our sister and brother, especially those who are in more challenging situations. So it is important that the church is there, helping people.’

Read more of this story by clicking here.

Bishop Philip North’s address to Synod

When the early apostles set out of fulfil their task of growing the church, they started with the hungry and the widowed and the slaves. When St Francis set about rebuilding the church in the twelfth century, his first move was to go and live with a colony of people with leprosy. When St Vincent de Paul felt his call to renew a tired and corrupt French church in a deeply hierarchized society, he began with galley slaves and prisoners. I could go on but already the lesson is clear. Anyone who is serious about the proclamation of the Gospel starts with the poor.

If we want to see a nation coming back to Christ, it will begin amongst the poor.

That is the contention of this motion. The Estates Evangelism Task Group is not trying to start a competition. We are not saying that urban estates matter more than the suburbs or the countryside. We are not denigrating any areas of ministry because, of course, we need the church in every place and for every person. We are not a social policy or campaigning group. Our interest is evangelism. And as such we want to remind the church of a truth which is firmly rooted in the scriptures and the tradition. If we want to see a nation coming back to Christ, it will begin amongst the poor. And where today do we find the places of greatest deprivation? Our urban estates.

Those estates were built with great optimism and the first generation of residents were overjoyed at what was being provided. In many ways they are still joyful places to live and to minister. My years working on estates, especially in the north-east, were the happiest of my ministry.

For many estates residents, life is hard and getting harder.

But today, for many estates residents, life is hard and getting harder. What must seem like the modern day four horsemen of the apocalypse – universal credit, low-paid work, food poverty and austerity – plague many lives. Too often services, voluntary organisations and traditional forms of association have been closed down or privatised and along with them have gone the places that form local leaders. Just like austerity, the UK’s departure from the European Union is likely to have a disproportionate impact on urban estates, especially in the short-term. And the church’s response? Bit by bit, almost unseen we have been pulling away, closing churches, withdrawing clergy. We invest far less in ministry on the estates than in any other context. The harvest is rich, but the labourers have been redeployed.

Here’s the vision. It’s a very simple one. To have a loving, serving, worshipping Christian community on every significant social housing estate in the nation.

So here’s the vision. It’s a very simple one. To have a loving, serving, worshipping Christian community on every significant social housing estate in the nation. To plant back in the estates we have abandoned, to better support our presence in the places where we’re struggling. If we can do that, the impact on church and nation will be transformative. As Christians we will be seen to be doing what we are called to do which is to share good news with the poor. We will release unlikely leaders and evangelists who will speak the Gospel in a language that people can understand. We will develop evangelistic resources and approaches that will work anywhere. We will for once be working with the grain of cultural transference, because history shows that if you start with the poor, eventually the rich catch on.

The evidence is that joyful, relationship-based evangelism rooted in belonging can grow incredibly precious Christian communities.

And don’t think this is an impossible pipe dream. In recent years I have been blown away by some of the work taking place on our estates. The evidence is that joyful, relationship-based evangelism rooted in belonging can grow incredibly precious Christian communities. Some Dioceses are committing significant time and effort to this and the Strategic Development Fund has put resource behind imagination.

So the question we need to answer today is a simple one. Are you prepared to buy into the vision that lies behind this motion – a church on the side of the poor, a Christian community on every estate? And please I urge you, don’t vote yes if you mean no. Because there are challenging implications.

Voting yes will impact every single parish because many parishes contain forgotten estates, others will want to twin with an estates parish and most will feel financial implications. It will affect every Deanery because all too often the conclusion of Deanery Plans has been that the post or parish that can disappear is the one that serves the outer estate. It will affect every Diocese because the motion asks Dioceses to build estates into their strategic plans and vision. It will present personal challenges to clergy because we need our best priests to be spending at least part of their ministry in areas of deprivation. It will affect this Synod, a place where estates voices are rarely heard with the consequence that our policy decisions can adversely impact the poor. It will affect those who select and train clergy and lay ministers because those from non-professional or unlikely backgrounds have for too long been systematically excluded from leadership in the Church. It will present awkward challenges to those sitting on historic assets because it will require a spirit of generosity within and between dioceses. If you’re not up for these implications, just vote no.

The paper in front of you lays out as clearly as possible how the Estates Evangelism Task Group is seeking to go about its work. But what brings change is not policy decisions and papers but transformed hearts. The details of strategy matter less than the big picture.

The renewal of Christian life in our nation is not just possible, it is inevitable. That renewal will begin (as it always does) with the poor, with the marginalised, with the forgotten and the oppressed and the broken

Because I am utterly convinced of two things. First, that the renewal of Christian life in our nation is not just possible, it is inevitable. I don’t know how, I don’t know when. But I know it is inevitable because Jesus is Lord, and since he is Lord a distracted nation will one day discover anew his beauty and his truth. And second, that renewal will begin (as it always does) with the poor, with the marginalised, with the forgotten and the oppressed and the broken. That is where the Holy Spirit will one day move, and move with power. The only question left is this. Will the Church of England be there to join in?

+Philip Burnley