Launch of Tyne and Wear Citizens; personal reflections.

DOHdVAJX4AAX-EKTwo weeks ago 1000 people of all ages, backgrounds, ethnicity and faiths joined together at the Tyne Theatre in Newcastle for the launch of Tyne and Wear Citizens.

There was a real buzz in the room but along with the majority of people there I wasn’t sure what to expect. I am still processing all that I saw, heard and felt, but for the many people who couldn’t make it and wanted to know more here’s my two penn’orth.

Tyne and Wear Citizens is made up of oganisations from across Newcastle, Sunderland and Durham and includes churches, schools, mosques, charities, and universities – they were all represented at the launch.

Over the last 9 months these organisations had been listening to their communities to discover the issues that concern them. These were then brought to the Delegates Assembly where the priorities were decided, Mental Health, Safer Cities and Poverty. Small groups then worked on these priorities to come up with winnable issues that will improve the lives of people in the North East.

At the launch individuals shared stories of how their lives were impacted by poverty, safety and mental health.

Poverty – The North East has largest number of children receiving free school meals, highest number of employees on zero hour contracts and lowest number of real Living Wage employers. Young people from Kenton school shared their concerns around children on free school meals receiving their entitlement.

Safer Cities – Hate crime is increasing and is affecting people of all ages from all our communities and public transport is where people feel most vulnerable. We heard how Muslim women are avoiding using public transport.  Primary school children from Sunderland performed a little play to demonstrate how safety fears, from cyber bulling to domestic violence, worried them.

Mental Health – The Listening Campaign also heard that people in our region are suffering from profound mental health challenges, particularly young people. The lack of ongoing support and unacceptable waiting times was a particular concern. Jack from a school in North Shields told about how access to mental health services had impacted on his life and the lives of his friends.

The sharing of personal stories was powerful and moving; individuals making themselves vulnerable in front of the large audience but as I listened I was reminded of the words of Barack Obama (who was a community organiser before entering politics):

“One voice can change a room, and if one voice can change a room, then it can change a city, and if it can change a city, it can change a state, and if it change a state, it can change a nation, and if it can change a nation, it can change the world”  Barack Obama

Standing on stage listening to these accounts were the representatives from organisations that  have the power to influence change in each area. They were asked clearly and directly to work with Tyne and Wear Citizens on the relevant issue. This is where the process became really exciting and I understood why the event needed to be so public and why having 1000 people there was so important.

The relevant partners agreed to work with Tyne and Wear Citizens to-

  • ensure children receive the free school meals they are entitled to
  • encourage more employers pay the real Living Wage
  • develop hate crime policy and deliver effective training for staff on public transport
  • address specific local community safety issues
  • provide appropriate mental health services for young people
  • commission a Citizens Inquiry into Mental Health in the NE

I came away like most people there excited, empowered but still with a few questions (which I guess is a natural response after having spent years trying unsuccessfully to effect change).

However after much thought I am putting my energy and faith in this process for many reasons

  1. Community Organising has been tried and tested over decades and across the globe and resulted in change for local communities.
  2. Citizens UK is working across the England and Wales and I have met people from different groups from across the country and heard their accounts of real change.
  3. Working as a community development worker I hear stories of injustice and struggle on a daily basis and like many others I feel sad, angry and powerless. I have marched, signed more postcards and petitions than I can remember and I am not convinced it made much difference. I believe that Community Organising is an effective way to tackle some of these injustices
  4. Building new relationships between faith groups, charities, schools and community groups is important and enriching. We have very few opportunities to get to know people outside of our organisation and Tyne and Wear Citizens gives us all a wonderful space to listen to our neighbours and stand together on issues for the common good.
  5. Finally, and for me most importantly, was the young people who were involved in changing things that concern them and their peers. Giving them the opportunity to learn from a young age that they can change things, whether it is mental health services or the road crossing outside their school, is an invaluable experience which will hopefully continue to empower them. The Listening Campaign within the schools was also an important exercise for students and teachers. My biggest hope for Tyne and Wear Citizens is that more schools will join to empower the next generation.

We are now following up on the promises made at the launch with research and actions to keep our issues on the agenda.  When relationships have been built and change has been made, the cycle begins again with another listening campaign.

You may still have questions about Community Organising but please keep an open mind and watch this space!

 

 

 

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From anger to power, the beginning of my community organising journey.

After two days community organising training with Citizens Tyne and Wear I am reflecting on how angry I am and what I have done with that anger in the past. I am angry about the growing use of foodbanks and the dehumanising benefit system. I am angry about the number of families that struggle to put food on the table during school holidays. I am angry that in pursuit of higher and higher grades our schools are no longer a place where pupils and teachers can flourish. And don’t get me started on the NHS.

I realise that I have been angry for a long time and my responses have been largely ineffectual. Ranting on social media, reposting Guardian articles, joining others on marches.  Nothing really changes.

A large and uncomfortable penny has dropped over the last few days in that, if I want to be part of building change for the common good I need POWER! Power of organised people and money. Being a good Christian gal and working in churches where words like humility, love and grace predominate, this doesn’t sit well with me and the ideas of waking up in the morning wanting more power is going to take some getting used to.

However when I look at some of the changes that Citizens UK have been part of such at the Living Wage, Ending Childhood detention http://www.citizensuk.org I hear myself practising the words ‘I want more power’!

Power to bring people together, to hear their stories and organise around issues that really matter to people here in the North East.

I am still angry but can see ways of channelling that anger in ways that will bring about change.

Reflection on opening a Place of Welcome in Sunderland by Rev Alison Hampton

millfield-places-of-welcomeThe PCC at St Mark’s Millfield had been looking for an opportunity to reach out to the community of Millfield. The church is situated on one of Sunderland’s busiest roads. The grounds are substantial and one of the few “green spaces” in the area. We felt that we were well suited to run some sort of project, but what…….?

After attending an initially meeting about Place of Welcome, and after prayer and refection, the PCC decided that this was an ideal project for us to become involved in for the following reasons. Firstly, it is a relatively simple and cheap operation to set up, the main requirements being a willingness of the volunteers to be committed to the project. Secondly, the Church has a nice area for hospitality, grounds, which are pleasant to sit in if the weather is good, and room that can be used should the church become unavailable. Before we started, Val Baron visited to take all the volunteers through the 5 marks of Place of Welcome, the “5 Ps”, and we discussed how the plan would work. The PCC then appointed a co-ordinator, and we arranged publicity. We were fortunate to get a set up grant of £500 from Sunderland City Council as Millfield is an area of need, and the project tackles some of the problem issues in the City, for example loneliness.

Our publicity cost about £130, including 2 banners and 1000 leaflets. Other set up costs have included clearing the garden and purchasing an A frame notice board. The food, tea, coffee and milk is paid for by volunteers.

We launched our Place of Welcome at the end of August, with a short service of dedication. Since then we have been encouraged by the enthusiasm of both volunteers and visitors. A number of lonely members of our regular congregation come, and we have also attracted a small number of people outside our usual contacts. On average, we have had 12-15 people each week. To begin with we served tea and coffee with cake, but it has become apparent that some people come without breakfast, so we now offer toast and jam. Three people are “on duty” each week on a rota basis, but others come along and help out. We are open from 10 am to 12 noon on Thursdays. The hospitality area of the church is arranged in a café style, and is made attractive with cloths, flowers etc. on the table. We use china mugs and plates.

Place of Welcome has been a real blessing to the congregation of St Mark. It has given us renewed focus for mission and has drawn us together as a community.

Our first ‘Place of Welcome’ in Durham Diocese.

Over the last few years clergy and congregations have been grappling with how to best respond to the Diocesan ‘Poverty’ priority. Initially the conversations were around food banks and Credit Unions but as a broader understanding of poverty developed (http://www.cuf.org.uk/web-of-poverty) and we looked at our gifts and assets, alternative responses have begun to develop.

Rev Dr Sam Wells spoke at our clergy conference in July about the importance of simply ‘being with’ one another in communities where social isolation is one of the greatest challenges.  We have great community spaces often in areas with none and for the majority of congregations in the North East popping the kettle on and baking a cake is in the DNA.Given all of this, opening our churches and being a Place of Welcome seems so natural.

Places of Welcome was an project supported by CUF colleagues in Birmingham (http://www.cuf.org.uk/places-of-welcome) and is a network of small community organisations, including faith communities, who offer an unconditional welcome to local people for at least a few hours a week.

Although they are all slightly different from one another, each is open to everyone and offers:

  • Friendship and hospitality;
  • Regular opening at the same time each week;
  • Free refreshments;
  • Local knowledge about the neighbourhood

We are really excited that our first Place of Welcome will open this week in Millfield Sunderland (http://www.placesofwelcome.org/durhamdiocese/).

We hope slowly a network will develop across our diocese to offer a unconditional welcome.

 

 

Reflections from summer 2015, by Rev Julie Wing

As we move into the summer holidays approx. 30 churches across Durham Diocese are working with their communities to provide fun, food and friendship for children and families.  Last year for many this time was a blessing to their communities and congregations. Rev Julie Wing reflected upon their experience in Usworth, Washington.

Five days of cooking on a BBQ, preparing activities, hiring and buying resources and encouraging other agencies to get involved seemed like a daunting task, but we did it, we meaning people from St Michael and all Angels, members of Holy Trinity, and a friend from another church entirely, did it. We didn’t know from one day to the next who if anyone would come, but come they did in their hundreds, young families, single people, people who had never been in the church before, those who didn’t even know we were here.

We had so many God moments in those five days. To see so many people coming along and joining in with the activities each day giving a hand when we were under pressure by the sheer volume of bodies was a wonderful experience, a community coming together in fellowship and fun. Granted some in the team had their misgivings about opening the church up in this way ,and some came to ensure ‘they’ didn’t ruin the church. From a place of deep mistrust due to previous negative experiences the church had built an invisible wall around itself, but within a few days of our Community Week the walls came tumbling down, those who were not in favour of the week began to learn how to make loom band bracelets from the children who attended, we all spent time just chatting with young and old we shared stories and played and created masterpieces together, yes we had some children who came looking for trouble but after a few words they left the event with the promise they could come back if they wanted to join in and they did come back transformed and without the aggression they had previously displayed.

What it gave to the church cannot be measured, it helped make the church a visible presence in the community and the church congregation unlocked the doors and they discovered and understood this thing we call Mission and outreach and it has changed their hearts and their outlook on the community we serve in Sulgrave. What it did for the community was to provide a week of fun a time to pause in the daily chores and worries, they discovered a church that was welcoming a church that cares, people from the community stop the volunteers in the street and at the shops to say hello, the whole week was a powerful expression of God’s love in action we are still buzzing from the transformation it made on our little and troubled estate, yes the violence, the abuse from drugs and alcohol, loan sharks, homelessness and poverty continue to be a part of our community but we planted a seed of hope in an estate where many feel caught in a cycle of poverty and despair and that seed we pray will continue to grow with every event we host.

Julie Wing on behalf of the Team

Reflections on watching a burning church building

 On Tuesday morning I found myself standing shocked and in tears, with many others watching the church hall in our neighbouring parish in flames.

The incident made me reflect upon the importance of the local church in our diocese during a week when our diocese was named as a low point for Church of England Christians. http://www.christiantoday.com/article/durham.is.revealed.as.church.of.england.low.point.for.christians/80406.htm

 

The importance of ‘being with’.

As soon as we heard the news at 7am my husband and I, like many others, made our way over to the church. We knew we wouldn’t be able to fix anything, (the amazing firemen were doing all the fixing possible) but it was important to simply be with colleagues, the congregation and community.

The importance of ‘being with’ is the central message to Rev Dr Sam Wells book The Nazareth Manifesto in which he explores the significance of the 30 years Jesus spent in Nazareth. In a society that wants to fix things we have lost sight of the importance of being with people. ‘God fundamental purpose is to be with us – not primarily to rescue us or even empower us, but simply to be with us, to share our existence, to enjoy our hopes and fears, our delights and griefs, our triumphs and disasters’ believes Sam.

The importance of ‘being with’ is the central message when I am talking to congregations and clergy in the diocese. For many of us the social engagement agenda can feel overwhelming to small congregations living in some of the most deprived parishes in the country. Setting up projects such as debt advice centres, or food banks is not a possibility. However when we start to talk about all the activities that are already happening such as coffee mornings, lunch clubs, mother and toddler groups and how they can be shaped to ensure there is more time to be with each other there is an excitement and engagement. I have often joked that the ‘tea hatch’ in each church hall should be boarded up to encourage us all to sit down together!

Value our buildings.

It goes without saying that when you are standing watching a church hall burn down there is a feeling of how precious it is. What surprised me was that the majority of the people sharing the stories were not regular church goers. They were talking about youth clubs, christening parties, the nursery that was held there. Some of these were run by the church others supported by the church. The building had been a place where relationships had been made, developed and cherished.

We often regard our buildings with sinking feelings, the leaking roof, breaking heating systems and endless faculties. Listening to the conversations that morning reinforced that we should be celebrating them more. At a time when there are fewer and fewer community building and loneliness is one of the biggest problems facing our society our church buildings have an added importance in our community.

The question is how can we open our buildings more? In the diocese we are hoping to build a Network of churches and organisations, who offer an unconditional welcome and simple friendship to local people for at least a few hours a week. http://www.placesofwelcome.org/

Recognising the gifts in our communities.

As we were leaving, feeling sad and smelling of smoke we popped into the garage. ‘What can we do to help?’ was the first thing said to us from the garage owner. People wanted to use whatever gifts they had to support. A Crowdfunding page was set up that day community giving page was set up which said ‘Our local church hall/ nursery has been destroyed by a terrible fire this morning and it is safe to say that the whole community is devastated, it has been a focal point in the community for so many years and so many of our children and grandchildren have enjoy spending their early years there. Also many groups from the local St. Paul’s Church, brownies clubs, fares etc’

The solutions to many problems are in the community and by working with, instead of doing too, we empower and bring communities together. This asset based approach to community development (ABCD) has been part of conversations in the church in our diocese for a while. When it happens without planning, mapping or processes it is exciting and we should celebrate this.

We held many small holiday clubs in our churches last year, initially in response to the concerns raised that the summer holidays were a difficult time for many families on low income. They developed into so much more and this year those who had been participants are planning, sharing ideas and using their gifts to shape their communities.

So in response to the report that claimed of Durham Diocese being a low point in the Church of England I would argue, yes it is difficult in many of our parishes, for clergy, congregations and the community and yes we may have fewer people in our services BUT we are still very much valued by our communities for different reasons that we may never understand and we are working hard at being with our communities in whatever way we can. It’s an amazing, challenging and exciting place to be called to. 

 

Five Helps for the New Year

Thank you Bishop Mark and Jon for reminding us of this at the beginning of a New Year

Grace + Truth

Michael RamseyI was really struck by reading these ‘Five Helps for the New Year’ shared on Facebook recently by Mark Bryant, the Bishop of Jarrow.

They were written by Michael Ramsey, (right) who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-74, for his clergy. They are full of deep spiritual insight and good sense. I want to hold onto them as I enter into 2016 and return to work:

1. Thank God. Often and always. Thank him carefully and wonderingly for your continuing privileges and for every experience of his goodness. Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.

2. Take care about confession of your sins. As time passes the habit of being critical about people and things grows more than each of us realize. …[He then gently commends the practice of sacramental confession].

3. Be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly but they can help…

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