On the street where they live – one couple’s vision for their neighbours

Andy Parnham tells the story of the Happiness Course he ran for a group of neighbours in west London, organised by a Christian couple with a vision for their street.

Andy Parnham

Andy Parnham, who devised the Happiness Course

I recently ran the Happiness Course in a rather affluent part of west London. I haven’t often found myself in such august company (lawyers, doctors, businessmen and the like), so I was quite interested to see how it went.

I’ve known the hosts for years and was thrilled when they decided to run the course as part of an ongoing project to draw the neighbours closer together and see a fulfilment of ‘thy kingdom come’ on their street.  22 of their neighbours turned up for the initial taster evening, and about a dozen or so came along to the course itself and almost all of them completed it.  In fact, they were just as absorbed by the material and reflective in their thoughts as people have been everywhere else. They were mostly couples, which meant an equal number of men and women and encouragingly, the men were as engaged as their partners.

As one of the hosts commented afterwards, ‘People were appreciative and participated fully in the course. It was well attended (average 10, maximum 12) and one felt that people were deriving value from the topics, especially. on relationships and meaning. During the four weeks there was a complete absence of swearing and very little flippancy!’

Perhaps the main point though was that none of them would ever be likely to darken the door of a church building, so the hosts had done a great job in drawing the group together (through street parties and other neighbours’ events). It just shows what can be done – and none of it required more than a willingness to knock on a few neighbours’ doors and invite them into your home!

The hope was to progress through the course topics to discuss questions of ultimate meaning and although this did not exactly happen, it was clear that doors were opened and by individual follow-up, they are hoping to take it deeper.  As one of host says, ‘the course has given us a good foundation for further personal work among the neighbours so that when we begin meeting to plan the next street party in June, we will have a head start with these particular neighbours.’

Comments on the evaluation forms indicated the value that all participants got from attending the course, with among the the most useful things they had learned being time to think; that happiness is a choice and that sharing the course experience with neighbours was particularly important.

When asked what they were going to do differently as a result of the course, many mentioned a desire to focus on things that really matter to personal happiness – specifically concentrating more on relationships and less on material things, as well as recognising the importance of forgiveness.

People also commented that there was so much food for thought, the course could easily have run longer and that the content was wider and deeper than they had initially imagined, which is what we often find.

What seemed to be important to the success of the course was the sense that the street ‘owned’ it, and we feel this was responsible for the good attendance. My hosts commented that, in effect, the course has become part of the identity of the street and acts like a precedent for future initiatives, which is really exciting and just what they were hoping.  Who knows what God will do next!

Find out more about the  Happiness Course

Andy Parnham, March 2016

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Transformation – ‘challenging perspective and being loved and valued’

Anna Ruddick, a Community Engagement Associate at Livability, has been researching how transformation in local communities happens. In this blog piece she reflects on what she has learnt so far.

Anna Ruddick

Transformation is about changing the way we see the world. As we see in Romans 12:1-2 it’s about changing our minds.

We believe that God brings transformation and many of us can testify to his transforming work in our own lives. But I’m a curious person, I want to know more about how God works. So I’ve been researching the idea of transformation, and especially how it happens in local communities. Most of us can think of situations or things in our own lives, and probably the lives of people around us that we would love to see transformed. Things we pray for regularly and hope will be changed.

Through my research I’ve learned that transformation is about changing the way we see the world, changing our minds. But I’ve also learnt that it usually doesn’t happen just by sitting on our own, thinking. It happens in daily actions and relationships with other people.

I’ve learnt that there are two things that need to happen for us to be transformed:

ONE our perspective needs to be challenged. – Hearing something completely new, being taken aback, surprised or even shocked by someone’s behaviour or something you see or hear can make you question the way you think and see the world.

TWO we need to know that we are loved and accepted as we are. – It can be scary to have your thinking challenged. If we feel that we’re totally wrong about everything we feel bad and we usually just hide to protect ourselves, we often don’t change our minds, we just feel worse about ourselves. If we know and experience love and acceptance as we are then it builds our confidence to see that we’re not all bad, we just aren’t thinking straight in this one area. This gives us the courage to try something new, to change our minds, because we know that whatever happens we are accepted and loved as we are.

When these two things come together we can change our minds. To give an example: One woman that I interviewed, I call her Hannah, talked about how when she moved to a council estate to join an outreach team with the local church she expected it to be really difficult, to experience vandalism and anti-social behaviour. She had a negative view of council estates. But when I interviewed her she described how through getting to know people in the community and making friends, being welcomed by the community she changed her mind and now really loves where she lives. She acknowledges that there are some challenges in the community but she knows first-hand that there are lots of really good people, that it’s a great place to live.

In Hannah’s story, her perspective was challenged by the people she met and her experience of living on a council estate which was not as bad as she expected. Alongside that she received a warm welcome from her new neighbours and felt accepted and loved by them and by her other friends and family. This enabled her to change her mind about council estates.

Challenging perspective and knowing that we’re loved happen through our relationships and life experiences so transformation is something which happens to us all together as a community as we share life together, sharing our differences and loving and accepting each other.

Anna Ruddick, March 2016.

Anna’s own experience and recent research have both contributed to her work on the recent reports and resources  (both jointly published with the Church Urban Fund) which explore different methods for community engagement Fullness of Life Together – Reimagining Christian Community Engagement and Building Kingdom Communities.     

 

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We are more than the sum total of all our needs

Ruth Young writes the second in a series of blogs exploring the issues raised in the Fullness of Life Together, re-imagining Christian engagement in our communities report.

Fullness of Life Together reportI’m sure you’ll agree when I say that most of us, in living out our lives as Christians who want to share God’slove with others, get involved and do what we do with integrity and the very best of motivations: to use the phrase from the last blog, we engage with our communities and those most in need within them with the right intention.

For example, we want to alleviate the hardship caused by welfare sanctions and low wages, so we provide food banks. We are concerned about the homeless so we organise soup runs. We want to include people with hearing loss or sight impairment in our worship so we put in hearing loops and produce large print service sheets. These sorts of social action are commendable. From one perspective they clearly are the right services for people in these circumstances, in that they meet a sometimes pressing need. Their impact on the people who benefit from them is significant.

But is it always done in the right way?  I remember, for example, hearing the story of a successful professional man who through family sickness had had to leave his job and  found himself unable to pay his household bills. Eventually he had to turn to charity to help him feed his family. He described his gratitude that he didn’t have to go to a foodbank, with vouchers in hand “feeling like a beggar,” as he put it. Instead the organisation that helped him had a policy of delivering food parcels to the house. They understood the shame felt at not being able to provide for family and respected the privacy and dignity of those whose self esteem was shattered. They saw the hidden need beyond the visible one. Someone simply turned up once a week, on foot, with some carrier bags which were discreetly handed over on the doorstep: the right service with the right intention, delivered in this instance in the right way.

That’s not to say that the way foodbanks mostly operate is wrong – not at all. The problem occurs when we assume that what we are providing, and the way we are providing it, is the right, or a good way, without considering how it looks and feels from the ‘receiving’ person’s perspective. Take another ‘foody’ example: I once worked with a project that provided an evening meal for homeless and vulnerable people in a northern city. It was a great project, with a team who cooked and served a hot meal, a team who greeted the guests as they arrived, a team who sat at the tables and ate with them, a team who gave advice, one that gave out clothing…and so on. It was well attended and much appreciated. I chatted one evening to a couple of the women, and it became clear that they weren’t eating the main course. It turns out they were both vegetarians (one for religious reasons) and every week the meal was meat. When they had mentioned this, they were told that “We don’t do vegetarian.” The implication was that if they really were hungry, they would eat anything. So a project that existed to meet needs fell short, and these women who needed nutrition only got dessert, and also felt sidelined and disrespected.

A final story makes a similar point about the importance of seeing – and relating – to the individual, and not just the need. I heard recently about a foodbank in America, where at Thanksgiving they gave out tinned pumpkin and pastry cases. They noticed that these kept being returned after Thanksgiving, in case someone else could use them. It turned out that no one liked or wanted pumpkin pie! This led to a change of approach, so the foodbank, instead of making up parcels for people, started to allow them to choose for themselves what they wanted. It meant that conversations had to happen to find out what people wanted, so improved relationships between those who ran and those who used the foodbank; and it took some adjustment in the kinds of foods they stocked and supplied, but it led to less waste and happier customers.

Meeting people’s needs is a necessary and good thing to do, but it requires sensitivity and flexibility, as well as what the Bible calls ‘loving kindness’.  The outworking of that calls for a deep understanding both of human nature and of God’s intentions for us. We are more than the sum total of all our needs: we have hopes and aspirations, wisdom and skills, opinions, personality and creativity. We have inherent worth. We are body, mind and spirit, made in the image of God and reflecting his glory. We all long to be recognised – and related to – as unique individuals, not just through the lens of our needs. Knowing all this enables us to do the right thing, in the right way, with the right intention. Whatever method we use, engaging our communities and getting involved in social action needs to have this kind of theology underpinning it. God intends the best for us in the whole of our lives, as individuals and in community. It’s called Fullness of Life.

 

Ruth Young, November 2015

 

 

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Re-imagining Christian community engagement in our communities – Fullness of Life Together report follow up

Ruth Young writes the first in a series of articles exploring the issues in the Fullness of Life Together, re-imagining Christian engagement in our communities report.

It’s been great to read the refreshing Fullness of Life Together report, produced jointly by Livability and Church Urban Fund. This paper is motivated by a perception and a concern that recent church-based social action has been unduly influenced by a service delivery model which focuses on meeting needs through professionalised institutions. While this model has its benefits and is appropriate in some contexts, we believe it also has unintended negative consequences for individuals, churches and individuals.

Fullness of Life Together graphicsv3

We hope the reviewing of the default mode of service provision will lead to alternatives being given a good airing and the status quo being questioned. Hopefully this will result in changes in both attitude and practice in the way as churches we engage with our local communities and the people who live there.

At Livability, we understand that change is not easy, and it can be hard to know where to start. We are committed to helping churches with this process, so over the next few months, we will be writing a series of follow-up blog articles to explore the issues further.

We start by stating that although we believe it’s appropriate to critique the service delivery model, we also believe we need to beware of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water. There are many in our local and global society who would be unable even to get into the bath if it weren’t for the support they gain from receiving the right services.

Right is the word to use, because often, as we know, what is offered is unhelpful, inappropriate and inadequate. But when people are given the means they need to live well in an environment of care, encouragement and affirmation, they flourish. Good service provision can lead to freedom and empowerment that otherwise remain elusive.

Take immobility as an example.

As she got older, my gran found it increasingly difficult to get about. She had bad legs and breathing difficulties, and though she was short she was heavy! The time came when she was virtually housebound: if she had to go anywhere, we had to launch a major logistical operation to get her out. She used to sit at her front window watching children play, and people pass by, looking out anyone she might wave to. Apart from visits from family, the rent man, the doctor and the vicar, this was her main connection to the outside world.

I remember my mother suggesting we get a wheelchair so we could take her out. She would be able to come and visit, go to the shops and the park… But Gran would stop the conversation. She would not talk about it, insisting that she was “not going to be ‘an invalid’.” The stigma of the word and its connotations were such that she would not hear of it, preferring to remain confined and ignorant of the impact of her choice on her health – and that of her main carer, my mum.

Wheelchair and other mobility services are indispensable, life enhancing and empowering for those who need them. In this instance need is the word to use, without it being negative or ugly. Acknowledging needs means they can be met, and when that is done with the right intention, in the right way with the right services, aspirations become possibilities, ambitions become achievable and life becomes livable.

Next time we explore some of the reasons that Livability and Church Urban Fund believe that focusing too much on needs only can be far from right and can inhibit real transformation and change rather than leading to it.

Meanwhile, what do you think? Let us know about your experiences.

Ruth Young, October 2015

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Why I’m happy to endorse the Mental Health Access Pack

Mental Health Access pack

The Mental Health Access Pack

Jim McManus, a health professional who has a passion about good Christian mental health, enthuses about the new Mental Health Access Pack, produced by Livability in conjunction with Premier’s Mind & Soul.

If you are a pastor or minister, church welcomer, volunteer or befriender, I challenge you to do yourself a favour: make Livability’s Mental Health Access Pack top of your reading list for 2015 and use it to train your ministry team. You will be glad you did.

Then I challenge you to make this public by signing up to be a FaithAction welcoming community. http://www.faithaction.net/misc-pages/top-tips-for-a-more-welcoming-and-supportive-faith-community/

Why? Look around your congregation and the people in your streets. If that doesn’t tell you why, then what about this: A plethora of research studies show that people with mental health challenges are attracted to faith communities, for a whole host of reasons that Shams (1) et al explored in 1993 and many other since. Lewis et al (2011) (2) suggested that there are issues faith communities need to be aware of and deal with. Duncan Selbie, the Chief Executive of Public Health England, said that ‘Faith-based activity is of huge significance to people and their health and wellbeing and to be celebrated.’

And if that’s not enough, do you believe you are part of the Mission Jesus spoke of in John 10:10 “I have come that all may have life, and have it in its fullness”?  So, sisters and brothers, if we believe theologically we are called to serve humanity, mental health is something we must take seriously. Because it’s part and parcel of the humanity we are called to love and serve.

And taking it seriously means we must play our part in holding and supporting people, and recognize that if we do that properly it can help people cope, working alongside professional qualified NHS and other services, and sometimes ensuring people won’t need to access them.

Let’s be honest, in most churches our response to mental health could be a lot better. There have been lots of initiatives, resources, books and tools. I’ve even helped write some of them and then watched as they gather dust. Mental health – especially at population level – is a real interest of mine both in my day job and in my church life. From a public health perspective, good resilience to life’s challenges and good mental health are a crucial task in reducing the avoidable burden of misery which reduces our quality of life.

In 2014 I was privileged to work with FaithAction and Public Health England along with Heythrop College on a project on Public Health and Faith. You can find the report and resources from the work so far here http://www.faithaction.net/areas-of-work/public-health/.   It’s a start. But there is a gap in the resources available.

This new tool from Livability & Premier’s Mind & Soul, the Mental Health Access Pack, fills the gap which I have seen across many Christian traditions.

And I am delighted to endorse it, and even more delighted that this pack blends sound pastoral care advice with good practical tools, a strong realisation of the role of professionals and a positive theological vision.

I am tempted to, but won’t bang on about how rubbish some of our theology of mental health has been in places. Too often, we start from ‘abnormal psychology’ rather than presenting the opportunity to be resilient against life’s challenges: This is a theology which is neither true to the Bible nor true to the Christian tradition; nor is it consistent with the mounting evidence about the nature of mental health, resilience and ill-health. (If you want to really think about theology and health, read Neil Messer’s book Flourishing).

So these are the biggest reasons why I endorse this pack. I can’t imagine any Christian tradition in which this pack could not be useful. But there are more reasons I am endorsing and encouraging the use of this pack:

  1. It’s needed – I think what I have said above demonstrates this.
  2. It’s sensible – it talks of what churches can do and should not do. It talks about when you need to refer to professionals. It also gives wise advice, for example on psychosis, about when churches should definitely not seek to manage things on their own.
  3. It articulates a role for faith communities which is sensible in public mental health terms and theologically coherent. This is important because faith communities need to understand theologically, not just practically, their response to an issue.
  4. It recognises the organic, genetic and social aspects of mental health, and doesn’t fall into the dodgy and defeatist theology of Powers and Principalities being at work every time someone develops a mental health problem. It avoids the worrying ‘pray away your mental health issues’ attitude found in some churches, while also recognising spiritual practices can be and are very supportive in helping people cope and be resilient.
  5. It can be used to help develop faith communities which are able to welcome and hold people with mental health challenges, while recognising their boundaries of competence and the importance of referring to medical services where appropriate.
  6. It is written to be usable and useful, practical and helpful, and make you think.
  7. It articulates all this within the Christian ministry of hospitality to all and the riches of the Church’s tradition on pastoral care. It advocates churches having a policy on pastoral care! Excellent.
  8. It is a good blending of theology and science aimed at creating authentic Christian practice. It could easily be adapted for specific denominations within the Christian worldview and faith communities of other worldviews

We all need to realise that the best of science and medicine, coupled with the best of pastoral and social support, can and must work together. This pack will help you do that.

This is the pack I would have loved to write. It’s the pack I will be promoting.

 

1. Shams, M., & Jackson, P.R. (1993). Religiosity as a predictor of well-being and moderator of the psychological impact of unemployment. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 66, 341-352.
2. Lewis, Christopher Alan, Shevlin, Mark, Francis, Leslie J. and Quigley, Catherine F.. (2011) The association between church attendance and psychological health in Northern Ireland : a national representative survey among adults allowing for sex differences and denominational difference. Journal of Religion and Health, Vol.50 (No.4). pp. 986-995. ISSN 0022-4197.

Jim McManus is Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire, a Chartered Psychologist and has a strong interest in population mental health. He is Co-Chair of the British Psychological Society’s working group on psychology in public health, Vice-Chair of the Health and Social Care Reference Group for the Catholic Church in England and Wales and a Research Fellow in Pastoral Theology at Heythrop College, University of London. He is a member of Faith Action’s advisory council.

January 2015

 

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“Forget the fringe, the answer is in the mainstream: why we need to look past the nonsense and focus on the core issues”

Ruth Young (formerly Smith), Livability’s Community Engagement Advisor in the North East, reflects on true discipleship.

This headline in my local newspaper caught my eye and spectacularly achieved what it was written to do – it compelled me to read the (fortunately very interesting) article. It was about politics, but it set me thinking – well, focusing my thoughts, really, as they had already been triggered a couple of days before by an email from a local vicar.

Like so many church leaders and congregations, he and his church council have set as one of their core priorities working with people on the fringes of their church – the ‘seekers and drifters’ as he put it – as a way of getting people in and keeping them there. This approach is often called ‘Growing Disciples’ and seems to be a standard church growth policy. Lots of time and energy are spent in planning and working on ‘the fringes’ where supposedly potential is at its greatest. So why are our churches so slow to grow?

My theory is that such concentration of energy and resources on the fringe is a distraction and ‘the nonsense’ which we need to look past. As the headline says, the answer is in the mainstream. Growing Disciples is what should be happening, not on the edge or beyond, but within the core of our churches. That’s where the disciples – those who are already following Jesus – are. That’s where the growth needs to be, and we should leave Jesus to build his church, as he said he would. (Matt 16:18)

I am not attracted to the fringe… This is where the chaos grows and gains the capacity to wreak havoc…
Graham Robb, businessman

Of course growth here does not mean numerical growth, though hopefully that will be a side effect of strong discipleship, as it has been down the ages. It means a life long deepening into spiritual maturity, strength and good character that comes out of being strongly rooted in Christ and grounded in love (Eph 3:17) This growth is often hard, challenging, exhausting, dis-spiriting.

It should carry a clear and unmistakable warning label: Not for the faint-hearted.

Disciples are those who in some amazing way have met Jesus and decided that to follow him is worth all the pain and aggravation. Through our encounter with him, and through him the embrace of the Creator and the strength of his Spirit, we grow into understanding that life is born out of death, wholeness emerges from brokenness, miracles do happen and we can be made new. Happiness is fleeting – it’s joy without end and peace beyond understanding that count; and, greater than all, love beyond measure.

…what counts is persuading people to stay Mainstream (loving)in their outlook….. and to connect effectively with people’s aspirations (hopes)
Graham Robb, businessman

Love is The Mainstream: the spring and the ocean and everything in between. Love is where discipleship begins and how it is sustained.

It flows from the heart of God into the whole of his creation which he loved so much he sent Jesus, who in turn sends us. And to do what? To love God with everything we’ve got, to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, to love one another as he has loved us… and it’s only then, as we grow in loving, that we can hope to grow more followers of Jesus.

They may come from the fringe, but they may also come from places beyond where we haven’t looked yet. We may be surprised that they come from way beyond the margins, in places where few others go, if we go and find them as Jesus did, bringing with us a love they find when they aren’t even looking, which gives them a hope and a future they didn’t expect.

 

Ruth Young, January 2015

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Six conversations your church needs to have about disability

There are 11 million disabled people in the UK – that’s 17% of the population.

To put that in context, ethnic minority groups make up 14%. Think of the impact that ethnic minorities have made on our national identity – on our cultural, social and economic life. Another comparison – children aged 11 and under make up about 13% of the population. Think how much our churches invest in babies, toddlers and primary school-aged children.

There are more disabled people than there are ethnic minorities, more disabled people than there are children. We need to talk about disability.

But where to start? Here are six conversations that every church should have about disability:

1. Are there disabled people in our church?
We need to understand who is in our church. And it’s no good just counting the wheelchairs! Most disability is hard to see. Mental health issues, Autism spectrum disorders, learning difficulties and long term pain are not obvious. Some may even be trying to mask their fading vision or growing fatigue. We’ve got to take the time to get to know and trust each other, and find out what each others’ needs are.
1b. If they’re not in our church where are local disabled people? I guarantee that there are disabled people in your street, in the same road as your church, throughout your neighbourhood. Where are they? Where are your local care homes, day centres, isolated older people?

2. What do our disabled sisters and brothers think about our church? If you don’t know how to start that conversation, just try asking ‘Is there one thing we could do to make things better for you?’ or ‘What do you wish that everyone understood about you?’ You may be surprised. After  conducting dozens of interviews for churches, I am often saddened by the simplicity of requests – long term problems that can be remedied almost immediately.

3. Is our church building physically accessible? There is no excuse for not having an accessible church building. On a human level it’s illegal and on a spiritual level it’s indefensible. But don’t assume that making your building accessible will cost tens of thousands of pounds – making  a church better for someone with autism probably won’t cost more than ten pounds. And things like better lighting and better signage benefit everybody.
When we’re talking about church buildings, we need to think about all of our venues, not just our Sunday morning meeting room. How often have you been told that the real heart of the church isn’t the Sunday service, but home groups, prayer meetings or pastorates? Well are those venues accessible? Or are we blocking  people’s access to the heart of our churches?

4. Where are our disabled leaders? Where are disabled preachers, youth leaders, administrators, evangelists and missionaries? And if we can’t see any, where are they going to come from? Who are we going to mentor, train and support as they grow into the people God created them to be? God has given everybody gifts to build up the church  – let’s not miss the gifts He’s given to disabled people.

5. Do we have a healthy theology of healing? Do we know what we believe about God’s healing power? Does our church teaching to equip us to grapple with questions of disability and healing? Do we offer guidelines to our prayer teams? In my experience, more disabled people leave church over issues of prayer than any other reason. Prayer that’s not asked for, prayer that makes assumptions and doesn’t listen, prayer that asks God to make disabled people ‘normal’ – it’s almost ‘prayer abuse’. We must understand what we believe about healing.

6. What are our sticking points? Can we take an honest look at our church and ask ourselves what are our non-negotiables? What are we not prepared to change? I don’t mean theologically, I mean culturally. All churches have their sticking points. It may be the historic building, the intellectually rigorous sermon, or the volume of the worship band! Are these a barrier to disabled people? Then maybe we need to re-examine them, and our hearts, in light of God’s radical welcome, the infinite mercy and unquantifiable love he has for us.  

In Luke, Jesus tells some stories about lost things – and I think that the church has lost, and is losing disabled people: ‘Then Jesus told them this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them….”
Then what? If you lose one sheep, do you say:
•    To be honest, there are probably more appropriate flocks for that one anyway
•    I’ve been given responsibility for a lot of sheep, I can’t just go chasing after every one that runs off
•    Searching for one sheep is costly – it’s wiser to use my time and energy on something that benefits the whole flock
•    Even if I do go searching, I may not find it anyway!

No, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them…. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders  and goes home rejoicing.”

Let’s talk about disability.

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A church response to the Scottish Referendum

Here Rev Chris Knights speaks about his experience of how the Church can support the community whilst staying neutral during the lead up to the Independence Referendum in Scotland. These are his thoughts on what the church role should be and how he organised and hosted a hustings for his local community.

Here in Scotland, much of public life is currently dominated by the forthcoming Independence Referendum. On September 18th people North of the Border, including those aged 16 and 17, will be asked to say whether or not they agree that Scotland should be an independent country. And both the Scottish Government and the Westminster Parliament have said that they will be bound by the outcome of that Referendum vote. If a majority of the residents of Scotland vote ‘Yes’ to Independence, Scotland will leave the UK and become a separate nation in Spring 2016. If a majority vote ‘No,’ Scotland will continue to be a member of the broader UK, albeit still with considerable differences in many aspects of life from how things are in England – as has been the case for many years. The Scottish legal and educational systems have been quite different from those in England since well before Devolution and the re-establishing of the Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s, and Devolution has brought further differences – we don’t pay for prescriptions, students from Scotland at Scottish Universities don’t pay tuition fees, and so on. In the case of a ‘No’ the main Westminster political parties have committed themselves to even greater Devolution for Scotland, though precisely in what way is yet to be completely spelt out.

Scottish Independence 1The current SNP government at Holyrood was elected on a clear promise to hold a Referendum on Independence, and the time for that Referendum to take place is almost upon us. All the mainstream Christian Churches in Scotland have deliberately remained avowedly neutral on the Independence issue, and rightly so. It is impossible to discern which is the more ‘Christian,’ which will best further the Kingdom of God, or which will do the most for the poorest and most marginalised in our communities between Scotland becoming and Independent Nation and remaining a part of the UK.

However, while remaining neutral, and containing within their memberships both people strongly in favour of independence and those strongly against it, the Churches have been extremely concerned to help ensure that the people of Scotland (and not just Scottish church people) are as fully informed as possible about what the issues are around the question of Independence, and what the likely consequences will be, both of Independence and of remaining in the wider UK, and have been concerned to offer opportunities where people can hear what the issues are and can seek clarification by asking genuine questions and by getting genuine answers.

The Churches have also been concerned to offer safe contexts where these things can be done with dignity, with courtesy and with respect for others, even when people strongly disagree with each other.

So, it has been the case that, over the past few months, Churches in quite a lot of places in Scotland have hosted and have staged Independence Referendum Hustings events, open to all in their local communities, where speakers from both sides of the debate have been able to present their case and to answer questions.

It hasn’t been an entirely straightforward or risk-free process to stage such Hustings events! Firstly, it’s been important to give equal weight and prominence to each side. That has included getting speakers from each side who can obviously be seen to be ‘on a par’ with each other. Here in Musselburgh, I was in the good position of having an MSP from the SNP (so in favour of a Yes vote) and an MP from Labour (and in favour of a No vote) who were willing to come and be in the same place at the same time as each other. But I did make bit of a faux pas with the publicity poster! I included the logos of both the ‘Yes’ and the ‘Better Together’ campaigns, which sounds most equitable, except that the ‘Better Together’ campaign’s logo is blue wording on a blue background – and it couldn’t easily be recognised and so some people thought that the Church was promoting the Yes campaign! I changed it as soon as it was pointed out to me, but ….

Then there was the issue of publicity being given out at the event by each ‘side’ – one speaker asked if he could bring leaflets to give out, and it was only once I had got the agreement of the other one to also bring leaflets and both to agree that everyone attending would be given a copy of both leaflets by Church people that I allowed it to happen.

I also had to face a few Church people who were determined that the Church should stay out of politics and so shouldn’t be holding such events at all! If it was an event that specifically supported one particular side or party I would have agreed, but not for an even-handed Hustings event. However, this is part of the challenge for we who are committed to Christian community engagement – some of our brothers and sisters in Christ view us as somehow compromising the Faith by our work in, with and for ‘the world.’

And there was a risk of disruption. At one Hustings event in an adjoining town, some of those attending had started booing one of the speakers, another had been threatened with disruption by a group of local militant Orangemen! I had to alert the local police, and also to make clear in my opening remarks that it was important for all of us to treat others, especially those with whom we disagreed, with respect and courtesy and to conduct ourselves with dignity. I was helped by the fact that my two speakers get on well with each other, which I was able to acknowledge in my introduction – at which point they shook hands with each other! That set the tone for the whole evening – and there was no disruption, either from sections of the audience or from outsiders, thank God!

It was a good evening and many people, Church folk and non, have expressed their appreciation for it. It showed the Church(es) in a good light, as interested in and concerned about the key issues of the day, and offered a neutral and safe context for the arguments for both sides to be presented and for genuine questions to be asked, and answered. But it was tiring – for the speakers and for me. I was exhausted by the time I got home! But it was most definitely worth it, for the Church, for the local community and for the relationship between the two.

The next challenge for the Churches comes immediately after 18th September. For whatever the outcome of the Referendum, there will be many who will be disappointed and many who will be jubilant, and a way must be found to enable all to work together for the future of Scotland, whether that is as an independent nation or as a continuing part of the UK. And while it might be too strong to speak of the need for ‘Reconciliation,’ for Scotland is not South Africa and not Northern Ireland, with their historic and tragic and violent divisions, there will be a need to help people to relate to each other and work with each other and to bridge the divides that have grown up in this country in the past few years. And already some Scottish politicians are saying that they will be looking to the Churches to help with that.  So our job is not done when the Referendum day comes. It will be only just beginning.

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Grateful Heart

Some thoughts from Community Engagements Ruth Young (formerly Smith), the northern Community Engagement Adviser. 

Over the last 3 months I have been downsizing, from my lovely 3 bedroom family house with large-but-manageable garden that I have lovingly tended, into my new husband’s tiny one bedroom end terrace with a backyard. All my furniture has gone, apart from an armchair and a lamp, and some of my pictures; as has crockery, cutlery, pans, utensils, fridge, washing machine, bedding, towels, garden tools, more than half my books… everything, really. At least that’s how it feels. I have shed many tears, sobbed and sighed, and stamped my feet more than a few times. I have had to be reminded more than once that this is a new beginning, a new life and a new home that we are building together, and that there are more gains than losses here: love, intimacy, companionship, fun and laughter, shared responsibility for finance and household management… Let’s not forget   coming home from work to a meal already made; less housework and no ironing – my early-retired husband does all that!

And I still have my family, my friends, my work, my health – all so much more precious than ‘things’ – though I confess my newly acquired mini I-pad, given to me by my children as a wedding gift, is fast becoming indispensable! Things do have their place, of course. They just have this tendency to take more than their fair share of the bed sometimes.

In my sadder moments, I have consciously tried to bring to mind others who have given up their homes. I have found myself pondering in a deeper way on the plight of those whose homes are torn away from them, their communities destroyed, by terrorism, war and disaster. Whilst I have been gradually working through my possessions and choosing what to give up and where to give it, we have witnessed from afar Syria, Iraq, Gaza, Ukraine; now ebola in West Africa; and the early hints of famine in South Sudan. We might see the pictures but we can never imagine the reality; and we are never likely to experience it ourselves, thank God.

At home, of course, we are not immune entirely from the fallout of these disasters. A small minority of refugees make it here, seeking asylum. And what do we do? Treat them like criminals: place them in refugees centres run by private prison services, only slightly less inhumane than the camps they have escaped from; refuse them benefits – and the opportunity to work and pay taxes; deny them good healthcare, education and recreation; withdraw any access to legal representation; hide them from public view. And their trauma continues whilst we debate the shortcomings of our immigration system.

We live in one of the richest nations of the world, yet all around us, amongst our fellow citizens, there is fast-increasing dependency on foodbanks and pay day loans, rising child poverty and malnutrition, fuel poverty, destitution and homelessness… and a government and society which largely point the finger of blame and turn a blind eye to the most vulnerable victims of unjust and uncaring systems and structures.

Despite my recent ‘losses’ I have so much: a home, however small; health and strength; a good job with great colleagues; wonderful friends and a loving stable family. I see my children regularly on that new I-pad! I can visit them whenever I like by driving my nice car down well maintained motorways. I’m learning how to garden in pots and containers – we’ve had a crop of broad beans and some strawberries and blueberries; and the runner bean plants are full of red-flower-potential. I’m sharing my life with a wise, wonderful and loving husband. What more could I ask?

That God will daily give me a humble and grateful heart for all his blessings to me.

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Can you be a friend in 1,000?

Dementia is a rising challenge. By 2021, over a million British people will have dementia; people in your neighbourhood, your church, maybe in your family. Dementia is a condition which impairs people’s ability to think, remember and make choices, often leaving them confused, anxious and vulnerable.

This year’s Greenbelt will see a record-breaking response. Livability is aiming to train 1,000 people to become Dementia Friends. This government-backed scheme to teaches the basics about dementia – what it is, what can be done, and how to be a friend to those who have it.

Will you give us an hour? We’ll give you important information that you can take back home to your family, your street, your church.

We’ll be running the workshop every day at 7:30pm in The Table. Can you be a friend in 1,000?

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