Archive for January, 2015

Call The Midwife

He called me a midwife. It was an interesting phrase and one that I have had resonance with, so it was affirming when a friend made that observation themselves.  It was a comment made as I explained a new job that I have just started.

Two weeks ago I started a one year, part-time role as the Launch Leader of St Mark’s in 10418444_392524797582507_8564473434353009348_nMarks Gate, which will complement my continuing work as one of the co-ordinators of Urban Expression. This Anglican church on the outskirts of east London has taken a great risk and bulldozed it’s run-down, high-maintenance building, and entered a partnership with a redevelopment group to build a purpose-built complex which will seek to serve this community. More than 50 flats will be used by the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham to provide much needed accommodation in our capital, 1 home will be used specifically to house those who have been homeless and 3 flats will be available for other church use, perhaps by a team of volunteers or a ‘missional community’ maybe. The ground floor will be given to the church and includes a large central community cafe area, large and smaller meeting rooms (one with a sprung floor and one that might become a fitness room), staging for theatre productions, new pre-school/nursery facilities, sanctuary and garden.

The recently retired, hard-working and long-serving vicar has worked diligently to bring this into being to ensure a long-term, effective, generous Jesus-centred presence in this community which finds itself pushed and pulled between boroughs and therefore in the lowest 10% of deprivation. Because the vicarage is also part of the redevelopment they have been unable to appoint a new vicar as yet, so this exciting baby initiative needs a midwife to try and bring it safely into existence while the process of advertising for a new priest gets underway.

10924715_10153015664656145_7062367970030198955_nSo my midwifery bag is packed with a willingness to listen to the church and the community, a growing understanding (through my project management of The Fishermen’s Chapel) of helping a church take risks and grasp opportunities that come their way, and a belief that communities that have frequently felt marginalised have immense strength and heaps to teach wider society. But this is going to be a big baby, so I am also a little nervous!

I increasingly recognise that I enjoy starting things, imagining new possibilities and building teams… and then get itchy feet and a little bit bored! So this opportunity to walk with this church through this year of transition really excites me. Some may know that I am not usually a fan of church buildings – I have had people walk out and others call me the spawn of Satan for suggesting we might become more effective followers of Jesus if we close our church buildings! – but I have said publicly that IF you are going to invest in a new building, for goodness sake make sure it has a cafe, children’s facilities and a gym! So 10945542_393610480807272_6997419458285906933_nmaking this work is something of a personal challenge for me!

It is only a temporary role, so I will not be moving to the neighbourhood. The church will be advertising for a new vicar very soon and she or he will have the incarnational task and privilege of continuing to contribute to, build and serve community. If you are an Anglican priest looking for a multi-cultural congregation who have shown immense courage by embarking on this adventure of pioneering, and are passionate about urban, outer-city estates, keep your eyes open for the ad 🙂



At the beginning of each new year it has become common place for people, especially the scholarly, to review the books they’ve read. I am not particularly scholarly and don’t read to relax, however I was curious to remind myself what books I’ve tackled this last year and was pleasantly surprised by what I’ve digested. get-attachment.aspx-6

Faitheist is an honest, humble and though-provoking biography of a young man who ‘became a Christian’ but then rejected religion because if it’s ability to painfully exclude and manipulate people, but who has ended up being an advocate of inter-faith dialogue and partnership. Some deep challenges for people of faith and atheists who seek the welfare of society and a great example of someone who refuses to hate.

The Reason I Jump is a delightful biography written by someone with autism. A precious insight into the mind of a remarkably self-aware person living on the autistic spectrum.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Urban Halo and The Sound of Worlds Colliding are each real stories and reflections from people living in or alongside slum communities around the world. The latter two are written or edited by people who have been part of Servants teams, the charity which I have recently become an elder of (see former post). One of them, Craig Greenfield has since developed the inspiring Alongsiders initiative, equipping those who have grown up in slum communities to mentor children growing up alongside them in those neighbourhoods. It was a delight to meet him and hear more whilst in Phnom Penh. The love of these authors for these neighbourhoods-become-home is tangible, but so is their cry for the rest of the world to engage with these marginalised communities that are rapidly housing the majority of the world’s population.

Whilst staying in the slum community in Phnom Penh I chose to re-read the Gospel of Mark from my host’s doorstep. It was healthy to read it from a different perspective, one which looks far more like the original context than my developed world, privileged, powerful perspective. It made me interpret some bits quite differently and I scribbled lots of questions around the text which I will come back to one day. I interspersed this with reading Scarcity, an intellectual investigation into how lack of time, food, security, or anything else, makes us react. A little light on the practical solutions for this activist, but it did suggest there are some similar responses to be aware of in our efforts to counteract poverty.

I visited the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum whilst in Phnom Penh. It is an essential but awful visit to make. Whilst there I heard the story of Chum Mey, a prisoner at the school, turned prison, turned museum. Although tortured, he avoided death because he was an artist and was regularly called upon to paint members of the Khmer Rouge. At the end of the tour I met him at a stall where he sells his book Survivor, the triumph of an ordinary man in the khmer rouge genocide. He has committed himself to tell the story in order to prevent such genocide happening again. In the intro he says remarkably:

“…I do not condemn the people who tortured me. If they were still alive today and if they came to me, would I still be angry with them? No. Because they were not senior leaders and they were doing what they had to do at the time. I consider them victims like me, because they had to follow other people’s orders. How can I say I would have behaved differently? Would I have had the strength to refuse to kill if the penalty was my own death?…Even the ones who tortured me, they also lost parents and family members,”

In a similar vein, using real life global scenarios Andrea Riccardi in Living Together investigates our yearning to live in a peaceful society whilst surrounded by conflict and violence. Exploring issues of globalisation, identity and cohabitation from various standpoints, it charts changes throughout history, attitudes to religious groups and even raises the awkward topic of jihad.

Incarnate: The Body of Christ in an Age of Disengagement is a story- and theologically-rich investigation into contemporary issues which might tempt people to excarnate, or disengage, themselves from the world and communities they find themselves in – to be present but not available. This, Frost argues, is counter to what the incarnate, enfleshed, embodied Jesus models and so he includes examples of how to take root, embrace place, and appreciate who we have been made to be as humans. Rarely have references to films, zombies, porn, cities, clicktivism and menstruation all appeared in the same theological book!  It was contemporary, thoughtful, grounded and affirming.

To be honest, I am only half-way through Half The Sky: How To Change The World. It is a thoroughly disturbing examination of how women and girls are treated around the world, yet inspires the reader with incredible stories of how many have overcome. “It has probably become more dangerous to be a woman than a soldier in an armed conflict”, says a former UN force commander of the extortionate number of women raped in war. And the authors suggest “it appears that more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century”. Reading this is like having a bucket of cold water thrown over your head to awaken you to such routinised genocide, and provokes the religious to deep soul-searching as we share more than a hint of culpability in shaping attitudes which promote inequality.

Wave Hello, Say Goodbye

A few days after I returned from my trip to Phnom Penh I went to see Jools Holland & his Rhythm & Blues Band with Jim – his birthday present from September. It was phenomenal on many levels, and two highlights were Ruby Turner, who caught us all up in seventh heaven with her spirited rendition of Peace in The Valley, and 80’s icon Marc Almond. Having been a complete 80’s Essex teen it was quite surreal dancing and singing along to the anthems of Tainted Love and Say Hello, Wave Goodbye just two rows from the legend instead of around a handbag!

The latter song felt very apt as I had been pondering the greetings I have received in various slum communities. When I visited several slum communities in Kampala in 2012 I was taken aback by the smiley children who all waved as we walked into their neighbourhoods and shouted gleefully ‘Bye bye Mzungu’. This was on the way in, not on the way out! And this was not only in one particular community, but in every one of the few that I visited. What could have happened that caused this to become a normal greeting I thought?

My limited experience told me that a considerable amount of ‘outreach’, ‘service’ or ‘humanitarian aid’ in Kampala was delivered by white people (Mzungus) of various nationalities, belonging to a multitude of NGOs, and was frequently brought in by visitors who invariably lived elsewhere, often in a compound with high security. My presence in the slums, and that of the other white people on the teams I was accompanying, was obviously regarded as temporary, to the degree that the children said ‘Goodbye’ even as we arrived.

In contrast, as I entered the slum community in Phnom Penh with my travelling friend Alex, even for the first time, some children gave a little shy DSCN3020wave and a smile, whilst others simply ignored us or looked a little bemused. Within minutes of arriving at our host’s humble home a few children from the neighbourhood appeared to say hello and mock our feeble attempts to greet them with ‘jim-rip-sewr’! They then accompanied us on a walk around the community as our host showed us our home for the week and, in a mix of broken English, sign-language and points to an English-Khmer dictionary, tried to explain certain dynamics.

The following morning, after a night acclimatising to the heat, the sounds, and the smells, we went to the church in the middle of the community (more about that another time). It wasn’t until late afternoon that we left the community for a Sunday evening with the team, returning in the dark to our home. The next day, Monday, we left the community in the morning to meet with some of the team, and as we walked out towards the shops on the main road which mask the slum behind, we departed as people who had slept in their neighbourhood, trusting for our food and our rest, able to say good morning, as best we could, as we headed out. As we walked along the path out of the neighbourhood a group of white people walked toward us, arriving for a day’s work in the slum community. We wondered what they might be doing – helping the church maybe?

What struck us most was that at the end of the afternoon, as we walked back into the community, the children greeted us once again, this time more overtly. We began to recognise some of them and maybe we began to look more familiar too. As we returned, along with others finishing their day’s work, the team that had arrived in the morning made their way out of the community. I cannot, and would not want to judge the team that served for the day and I am sure that many contributions from day visitors are imperative for some of the world’s most marginalised localities. What I can discern however is that I found it very uncomfortable to have the wave of a hello and the vocabulary of a goodbye presented together in Kampala. I was far more comfortable being able to say hello as an, albeit temporary, resident of this Phnom Penh community.

In Kampala I was told that it would be impossible as someone from a ‘developed country ‘ to live in a slum community. It would be too dangerous. Yet it seemed perfectly possible in Phnom Penh and I ponder the differences. I respect those who have chosen to live in such communities for the long-term and for whom these communities have genuinely become home. Their presence, and the respect they have gained from living humbly within their neighourhood, no doubt paved the way for us, as their friends and visitors, to be welcomed so warmly.

I use the phrase ‘incarnational mission’ frequently. To me it means the practice of taking your location and place seriously, of recognising home as more than a dormitory or purely personal space, of seeking the welfare of the neighbourhood wherever you are, but also rising to the challenge of relocating and becoming incarnational in places frequently overlooked. I believe in it. I experience it. I continue to learn more about it. I wonder whether incarnational mission is a privileged conversation of those who can choose where they live and wonder what it means for those with no choice and for the third of our global population who are in constant movement. And I wonder what it does to my theology and my practice if it is deemed ‘impossible’ to be incarnational in some locations on this beautiful earth? What do we potentially miss if ‘wave hello and say goodbye’ is all we can aspire to? And what can we who are barely comprehending the challenges of living in an urban world, learn from those who have grown up in slum neighbourhoods, who are effectively serving and mobilising their communities?

Elder than before

Well hello. It’s been a long time since I posted anything hasn’t it! Well, it’s a new year and a new start and I feel I have a few new things to reflect on, so I thought I would try and start blogging again, more for my own benefit than anyone elses! I am not presuming that I have anything particularly profound to share, but I do feel that by writing my reflections I assist my own thought-processes, and in the midst of that there may be one or two things that help you ponder your own situations also … so let’s rock and roll!

Over the last 18 months or so I have been on a process of discernment concerning an invitation to become an elder of a group called Servants, (an elder is a kind of voluntary advisor). I have known of their commitment to live in slum communities in Asia for some time, and enjoyed a rich season when their former UK coordinator, Helen Sidebotham, helped key contributors of several UK national organisations focussed on serving and learning from urban priority areas, meet together to build friendship and share ideas.  Servants’ values have always resonated with Urban Expression‘s and so when the invitation to consider becoming one of their international elders came I knew it was something I should give serious thought to.

IMG_5805The discernment process required a visit to one of their international teams, and a foot operation delayed this longer than I hoped, but eventually in October I went to visit one of their teams in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Living with a friend of the team in their slum community was a privilege and a deep opportunity for learning and I feel that there are several things worth reflecting on.

I have subsequently said yes to becoming an elder, and so 2015 sees me learning more about the people involved in this humble organisation and finding ways to support the volunteers who are choosing to live in some of our most densely populated areas of the world.  Over half the world already lives in cities, (see an interactive map here) and in the next two decades this will rocket to three-quarters of the entire population, with slum communities exploding in size and estimates of a third of the world being in constant movement.  So the Servants’ teams are ahead of the curve in many ways and there is much to learn from them. I look forward to this opportunity and will try and share some initial reflections over the coming weeks.