When I retired in 2012 and joined a small and struggling Methodist church on New Parks Estate, it was really a ‘Sunday only’ church apart from Brownies, Rainbows and a drama group. It seemed like an alien space ship on the estate with hardly any interaction with the community.
A group of us started to pray and ask God to show us where we could fit in to the community life. We started going to anything and everything that was taking place and I joined the community panel.
The first good thing was meeting an arts group which was working on the estate and we were able to liaise with them to paint a mural on the boarded-up windows of our very ugly church.
Then one day the local housing office had a Macmillan coffee morning with tables on the pavement. I had a conversation with the manager and asked her where she thought the church might fit in to the picture. She told me a story: They had an elderly man who they had helped with his housing needs. He had no relatives and seemingly no-one. Every week he came to the office with a loaf of bread he had baked and one of the staff would have a coffee with him. However, she said, if the powers that be knew they were spending time having coffee with clients it would not go down very well. Maybe the church could provide the friendship that lonely people needed?
To cut a fairly long story short, the council community engagement officers came alongside us and the library offered a room initially free of charge, and in 2015 we started New Parks New Friends, with advertising funded by the council, ‘encouraging community spirit by enabling local people to meet together in friendship’.
The majority of the very small church congregation (sometimes we hardly reach double figures on Sundays) is involved every Tuesday morning and there are volunteers from the Catholic church and no church.
Now more than 40 people come – support workers from social services, mental health etc often bring a new person and local police and community support officers pop in. The group is mainly elderly (oldest gentleman 101 coming up 102, and a lady 99) but also younger people come, some with learning disabilities and mental health needs. It is a mixed bag of black and white, too. The location and the neutrality of the Library is really helpful. We just ask for a donation towards room rental and refreshments and we are self-sustaining.
We do all sorts of things and go on trips. We have Christian leaflets around and people know that most of the volunteers are Christians however this is not pushed in any way. We believe that God guided us to make a space for friendships to grow and so this is what we do.
It all came through prayer and the small prayer group continues to meet every Friday, praying for the whole community. There is so much going on locally with a thriving community hub (a social enterprise) which engages with many families and young people. There is a food pantry which is currently located at our Methodist Church and a Men’s Shed is in the offing in the church grounds. We interact with the Salvation Army and will be doing Christmas Day dinner this year there. The local Anglican church is currently without a vicar, but one of their key ladies comes to New Parks New Friends and is a good link.
We all absolutely love Tuesday mornings and the friendships we have made and thank God for his guidance and strength. It is an adventure of faith for all of us.