Revd Chris Lewis tells how Mount Zion Baptist Chapel has turned a piece of its ground into a training garden as part of a Living Place Project. This project is generating 'spin offs' which are helping Chapel members to begin reconnecting with the community.
Mount Zion is still called 'the Mission'. Founded after World War I as a daughter church of a nearby Welsh language chapel, Mount Zion was designed to have a more missionary emphasis in catering for the growing English-speaking population of this part of east Swansea.
Like many chapels it dwindled but about three years ago we had an opportunity to apply for funding from the Welsh Government to improve the overgrown and rubbish-strewn area behind the chapel to make a training garden. This would be used to encourage people in our relatively deprived area to grow their own vegetables and improve their diets.
Working on the garden caught the imagination of a local secondary school head teacher. Soon, parties of young people began to get involved as part of the 'community service element' in their Welsh Baccalaureate programme. Some came in their own time and have since started attending our fairly informal Sunday afternoon services.
The garden has taken three years to create and now further funding from Health Challenge Wales will enable us to run courses linked with it. Local adults who were previously involved with Mount Zion through Girls and Boys Brigade hold it in some affection and the word is gradually getting around that the apparently quiet little chapel is still alive.
There are not many of us - we make double figures on a good day - but we're beginning to be approached about hosting community events. These include a performance of short plays written by the school pupils, a craft evening, a community archive evening and a 'visioning workshop' by the Transition Swansea organisation. We hope we might also become an outlet for the Trussell Trust food bank.
Slowly but steadily our network is re-growing. Our approach is not about preaching but it is about incarnation, befriending and responding. Incarnational ministry is reflected in our immersion in, and solidarity with, the area and its distinctive culture. Our pattern of ministry draws on the values of service represented in the church. One member, for instance, is a long serving councillor while others have had trade union and other community connections.
Our project definitely has a missional purpose but exactly how it will work out is not clear yet. The base is a small and traditional Welsh chapel congregation which may continue in parallel with a new congregation. To some extent, we are legally constrained by our governing document (the Baptist Union model document) but there are clauses within it which encourage the advancement of education and befriending of young people; it's on the basis of these that we're going ahead with this particular aspect of the work. Our underlying strategy is incarnational and is not necessarily therefore aimed at creating an institution but to be, in some sense, transformational in the lives of those associated with it. Transition Swansea recognises our project as one run on Transition principles - and its members, with or without church connections, visit us.
The result might be a classed as a 'para church'. As someone who spent a considerable part of my ministry in what used to be called 'Industrial Mission', I am reminded of the work of Ted Wickham as Industrial Chaplain in the Diocese of Sheffield many years ago. The then-Bishop of Sheffield, Leslie Hunter, had appointed Ted Wickham to further the Bishop's "vision of a revitalised Church and a Church re-established among the industrial working class."
Ted gathered together working people who were alienated from the institutional church. Their meetings were informal and he used to say that the job of the church was not to fish in the dirty waters of the world in order to transfer people to the clean waters of the church but to work to clean up the dirty waters.
That is what we are doing here In Swansea. According to government indices, we are operating in what is recognised as a deprived area. The training garden aims to address some of the resulting issues and later this year we hope to add the food bank. We are also looking to try and find opportunities for our growing number of teenagers to express themselves in arts and performance as they have a lot of interest, quite a bit of talent and a great deal of goodwill!