Sam Foster, fresh expressions pioneer missioner in the Scarborough Deanery, tells how a former vicarage is at the heart of a new ministry.
Since I started this role four years ago I've always felt a need to do something practical to serve the community of Eastfield, a large housing estate that is in the top 10% of the most deprived in the country. For four years, I and the Scarborough fresh expressions team prayed for God to guide us, give us patience (knowing that it wouldn't happen straight away) and to give us His vision rather than a Sam Foster bright idea!
The Diocese of York approached me in 2010 about possibly using an old vicarage known as Westway House on the estate. It was no longer a residential dwelling available to rent out because the NSPCC, which had been based there for a while, had renovated it into a multi-purpose building. Basically if we couldn't use it, it would be knocked down. We couldn't see this happen so, over a period of 18 months, talked regularly with the diocese about mission for that area.
We also got to know local agencies, the parish council, residents and police to find out what some of the needs were in the community from their point of view - rather than simply looking at statistics. The issues for them were, and are, teenage pregnancy, debt, unemployment, loneliness and other factors associated with living in an area of deprivation.
An exciting element of this new venture is Holy Nativity Church, which is next door to Westway House. Holy Nativity currently has a very small congregation of elderly people but they have been very supportive of us coming to Westway, so much so that they have just changed the church's Resolutions which means I can now take Communion Services there and work with them in very practical ways.
At Westway House we will need to have charitable status but the Christian ethos will remain fundamental to what we do. As we develop the social action type project, we also hope to see the growth of a fresh expression of church within the Holy Nativity building. Although local residents don't go on a Sunday there are a lot of baptisms and the church is seen as the heart of the community so we want to build on this! At the moment the style of worship available would not be readily be accessible to those who struggle with literacy or with little knowledge of liturgy - but thanks to the Fresh Expressions teaching materials and things I've learned over the years, we'll now approach things in a different way and see what God does!
The church in Earlsfield has to step up to the needs of that community so the offer is now there for people to come and get on board and work together. Residents are looking to the church to take the lead in a lot of things and respond to what is needed here; we can't say we just want a nice happy, clappy church in this setting. That would be wrong.
Some people may wonder why we are using a church building when the development of fresh expressions is often about going out and staying out in the community. The fact is that have been listening to this community and we are doing what is right for this community. These buildings are God-given gifts and we must make the most of them. Personally I wouldn’t go looking for a church building at all when thinking of a fresh expression but having the house alongside it makes sense of the whole thing. Having the Scarborough fresh expressions team based at Westway House but having no link with the Church of England building next door wouldn't be right. We should be working together and I think it offers great opportunities ecumenically; we have Baptists coming to help us start a service there and the Methodists are already involved.
My training in fresh expressions has emphasised the importance of long-term sustainability. Practical experience has also seen me live and work in similar areas to Eastfield and, as a result, I know that agencies come and go. Residents get fed up of forming relationships and trust only to feel let down when the money runs out and people from those agencies leave.
So I decided very early on that this project needed to be a shared resource and in partnership with others if it was to survive in the long term. First of all I approached the Rainbow Centre, a social action project about half an hour away from Eastfield that has been in existence for 15 years. I talked to their Debt Advisor and asked if they would further their work with us at Westway House if we provided a handful of volunteers for them to train. They agreed. I then approached Pregnancy Crisis in Scarborough, which has been running for 10 years, and negotiated with them for us to provide eight new volunteers to supplement their expertise in this area.
Why should we reinvent the wheel when others are doing such brilliant work?
Through Pregnancy Crisis and Debt Advice we have not only expanded the ministry but also succeeded in sharing the costs and seen our new volunteers become fully trained in the past 18 months.
A similar thing has just happened with the local Food Bank. We are in partnership with the Rainbow Centre and Yorkshire Coast Homes in supplying different parts of the town with food parcels. The Rainbow Centre is the central bank and we share the same database so that each parcel/client is monitored properly and eventually we will share the cost. The only way forward in my opinion is partnering in the gospel and to see this in action in practical and loving ways to serve all people.
I have now got a really great team around me; there are eight of us and each person co-ordinates an aspect of what we're involved in. Whenever it is that I move on eventually, the work won't solely depend on me because different volunteers are now responsible for debt advice, pregnancy crisis work, and so on. I always say that I work towards making myself redundant!
It has made such a difference to have a full-time colleague working with me. At one point we thought that Shena Moray, a Church Army evangelist, would be moving on but when a post opened up to work as part of our team, she applied and got the job.
My bishop and the Deanery have been brilliant in supporting us here and it has been great to see the community begin to respond to our presence too. When we first used the church, we put a labyrinth in there and opened the doors. People were asking us, 'When did the church re-open?' And we said, 'It never closed…'
Westway House has been empty for three years so we are now at the point where builders and contractors have started sorting everything out but a lot of the re-ordering done by the NSPCC will stand us in good stead. There is even a space in there that we’re going to set aside as a multi-sensory prayer room. An added bonus is that the diocese is giving it to us rent-free as a diocesan project. We are scheduled to open at end of February/beginning of March.
We have also taken an interest in new monasticism and would like to have a Rhythm of Life within the house; it would be great to see that happening because it does seem to be the 'language' that speaks to many. People will speak of spirituality and Jesus and prayer but when we Christians talk of a 10am service on a Sunday, or something similar, those same people are not interested at all!