“Little Clay Folk”

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Today I sent out the “little clay folk” (the people of God) into Parson Cross around Care Homes, Churches and other community spaces to be a blessing in these times …..

In these strange times, as the nation (and the world) experiences the Covid19 coronavirus pandemic, and we face isolsation, lockdown and restrictions around our day to day lives, it is sometimes been hard to think about how we might “minister” into this situation. Our church buildings have been largely closed, except where they are being used for frontline activities such as foodbanks, our worship has been taken online and into our homes, we continue to offer support to those grieving and mourning to the best of our ability – but it is all hard. The conversations through telephone or on social media  offering pastoral support have been crucial, but they miss out still on so much that is really important in our regular human interactions – the touch of a hand, a silent nod of sympathy, the embrace and hug of friendship, and so much more – all these things are largely absent at this time, and it hurts for so many of us.

In such a time I wanted to think of visible signs of embracing the community I serve in, the communities of Parson Cross, Southey, Foxhill and Longley in North Sheffield; then I remembered some work that I’d connected with some years ago towards the start of my time in the area. Back in 2011 Ric Stott* had produced a series of 40 clay men as part of an exploration of Lent, one of these clay men found its’ way to Parson Cross. We borrowed the idea again with a series of Advent Angels made by adults and children at Mount Tabor that we placed across the estate.

Over Easter I’ve been looking online at a few “Godly Play” resources, and came across the “people of God” figures, for those not familiar they are small wooden figures in various poses, with no recogniseable features and they are used in story telling to be the exactly what it says the “people of God”.  Now, I’m not one who thinks play (Godly or otherwise) should be the pastime only of children, and so I thought that combining these two elements – our “clay men” and the “people of God” might offer one way that I could offer a blessing to the area.

The first group of five (pictured above) were made at home, and each given a tiny placard to hold with a special, but familar, messages; this morning I took time to place them in various community spaces, with prayers and blessings in each space they were left. One was at Mount Tabor, my base in more usual times, I pray for a return to life that this place usually contains, a return of the people who value it as a place of love, hope grace and inclusion. A second was placed in the public space at Chaucer, it’s a space that normally would see people wandering through on their way to Asda, Farmfoods or one of the other local shops, they’d be waiting at the bus stop for a trip into town or down the road to Hillsborough, there’s the library and housing offices, and at the start and end of each school day the space would be filled with students from Chaucer School – but right now it’s empty, apart from the “little clay folk” I left; I pray that one day it will be safe again to enjoy the hustle and bustle of lively public spaces. A third figure was placed at St Pauls, on Wordsworth Avenue which has become the temporary home to the emergency foodbank in Parson Cross run by S6 foodbank and supported by PXI Projects; still around 40 households each week are coming to that place for food, which feels shocking to me that there is still such a reliance even in these most desperate of times. I pray that as we emerge from the pandemic that the country will re-assess why there is such a need in what is still such a rich nation, I fear however we may not and that demand will simply grow even higher. The final two “people of God” we placed outside care homes in the area (Deerlands and North Hill Road) – it is more and more evident that our care homes have been devastated throughout this crisis, their workers often left without inadequate protections and their reseidents left vulnerable to infection and early death. I pray for better protection, I give thanks for the love, care and dedication of the workers in these homes, I pray that families may soon again be able to visit, hold hands and hug those they love.

Love your neighbour, keep one another safe and I pray you keep well.

 

* Ric Stott – Clay Men (2011)

Another three weeks …

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As readers of this blog will know, I normally tend to fill these pages with theological / political polemics rather than personal messages or reflections, but today it feels I just need to share my own short reflection and message as we enter into another three week period of lockdown in UK due to the covid19 pandemic. In those first three weeks we’ve all had to deal with a variety of concerns and challenges – for the very gravest as they have lost loved ones in the cruellest of circumstances often without even a real chance to say goodbye, for others this first three weeks of isolation “lockdown” have raised issues around childcare and “home schooling”, or food insecurity and shopping, or any other manner of issues. For me I’ve struggled most trying to explain to my 25 year old with learning disabilities and austism, that although his regular visits to see us aren’t now allowed – it doesn’t mean we don’t want to see him, and certainly isn’t that we don’t care. We’ve learned to replace physical contact with more use of Skype and Zoom, it’s all been very unfamiliar to so many of us.

Alongside those personal challenges at home, the “lockdown” has also had a significant effect on my work and ministry. For a month now the day to day activities, from community allotmenting to the social cafe organised through our PXI charity have been suspended. We’ve even had to combine our foodbank with another partner for the duration of the covid19 pandemic in order to try and ensure it can cope with the current circumstances. Those decisions have each been truly painful (especially after 10 years of building them up to what they have become), but especially painful as it has – alongside the social restrictions brought in by Government – greatly reduced the level of contact I have with the people my ministry serves. So tonight I felt the need to share this personal (perhaps you might say pastoral) message.

“Tonight we’ve had the announcement of another three weeks of lockdown ….. many of us out there are finding it hard; some have already lost friends and family members to the virus, others are worried for their own safety or that of others. A number of us are in self isolation because we feel ill, and others are isolated because they are being “shielded” from infection; each of us experiences this time from the perspective of our own context, needs and concerns.

There will, no doubt, be more upsets along the road – more people will become ill, sadly more people (perhaps even more of those we know) will die because of Covid19.

But it will all end one day – and we will once again be able to hold hands, hug one another and do those things we so desparately yearn for at this time.

Even now, we still celebrate, still mourn, still love …. but for now, for a time longer we must show our love from a distance, with no less passion or meaning than at any other time, but not in the way we might choose.

Stay safe, and may God bless us now and evermore.”

Nick

 

Special and Sacred

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Those of you who have been following this blog for any length of time will already know that part of my Pioneer Ministry* work with Methodist Church in Sheffield that some of that ministry takes me to Norwwod Allotments and “The God Plot”**

From this month we now have responsibility for four plots 73,74, 75 and 76 – it’s quite exciting but also quite an undertaking. The plan is that Parson Cross Initiative (Projects) will remain tenant on 75 & 76, and they will transfer 73 & 74 to a new community group called Growing Space that is “specifically designed to be healing and supportive of the well-being and growth of those using the space.” both groups and Share Ministries will  continue to work across all four sites and in partnership with one another.

Although the Sacred Spaces will not be fixed, or designated as such, we are already exploring the rythm and feel of the different spaces. For example, as the first plots people come to Plots 73 & 74 seem to lend themselves to the more “public” spaces such as:

  • Cloister – as a gathering and meeting place
  • Refectory – where hospitality is offered and shared
  • Scriptorium or Library – a space for learning

The presence of the hut on 74 also helps with such spaces (especially at this time of year). The nature of the work we have planned across all four sites make the role of  Infirmary (as a place of healing and well being) integral to all.

Meanwhile Plot 76 is the furtherest plot on the site and can only be accessed through the other plots, it feels a natural space for those places and activities that call for a greater depth and possibly a sense of journeying such as:

  • Cell – as a place of personal, solitarity space
  • Chapel – for community celebration and “confession”

The journey is still a relatively young one and we are deeliberately letting things unfold in their own time, as well as allowing them to be affected by those who use the space, we are in reality building the special and sacred together. Meanwhile the development of “worship” on the sites also continues; in December of coursewe will have Carols on the Allotments, this has in fact been a long standing annual feature of my time involved on the Norwood site and date back to 2010. This coming year however we’re hoping to embrace more celebrations on the various spaces, including:

  • Orchard blessing & wassailing (January)
  • Candlemas (February)
  • Spring Equinox (March)
  • May Day
  • Summer Solstice (June)
  • Lammas (August)
  • Autumn Equinox (September)
  • All Hallows / all souls (October)
  • Carols (December)

 

 

____________________________________________________________________

*Share Ministries

**see The God Plot

 

 

 

“The God Plot”

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Growing spaces have been a characteristic of both Parson Cross Initiative and the pioneer ministry (Share Ministries) that have run through and alongside each other in one form or another since 2010, and it remains a core element of both to this day.

Currently the charity* operates three separate growing spaces:

  • A community “quiet garden” in partnership with Cross at Yew Lane**
  • A community orchard and growing space at Mount Tabor Methodist Church
  • And a community allotment (Plot76) at Norwood Allotments

Each space is different, and each has its own character, even though a number of those involved are common to at least more than one space. Of the three, it is Plot76 that is the major focus for Share Ministries, a fact that has earned it the unsolicited nickname amongst other allotmenteers as “The God Plot”. So what you might ask marks out this plot to earn it such a title?

I guess one easy answer is that I’m there – people know who and what I am, that is a Pioneer Minister in the Methodist Church. Sure they don’t always understand the “pioneer” bit, and I get quite often the “wrong” denominational title; “Father”, “Pastor”, “Vicar” and the like, but essentially, and intentionally people recognise what I am. However, I think (and I suppose hope) there’s a bit more to it than that.

From the charitys perspective Plot76 is all about social inclusion, this offers one big advantage to me in how I operate in the space in that it isn’t at any level simply about growing food. The plot is a place of community, of belonging – a space where people can come as just “be”, obviously we do grow things, we dig, we plant and sow and come the time we harvest and enjoy the fruits of the season, but primarily it’s about involvement. From the perspective of my ministry on the site, I aim to help create a sense of a Special and Sacred space.

The shelter that has been built is known as (and has a sign to prove it) Sanctuary; a place of refuge. It offers both personal space, but also a “chapel” space particularly when we hold our seasonal gatherings; when we mix music and poetry and reflection, with food and drink (non alcoholic of course being a good Methodist***). It is without doubt (because people have told me) also used during the week at times I’m not there as a place for quiet chats, personal time outs and contemplation.To use quasi monastic terms, the space provides a number of sacred spaces at different times:

  • Cell – as a place of personal, solitarity space
  • Chapel – for community celebration and “confession”
  • Cloister – as a gathering and meeting place
  • Refectory – where hospitality is offered and shared
  • Infirmary – as a place of healing and well being

My regular slot there is on a Thursday morning, when my role becomes that of host – I light the storm kettle and ensure a steady flow of tea and coffee, as well as being a listening ear, and ocassional gardener. Over the years the space has been used for conversations covering a wide range including; addictions and mental health issues, dealing with the loss of  loved ones, the difficulties with coping with deteriorating health, family breakdown, and the nature of Jesus.

Why and how do these conversations happen here? Well I suppose one reason is that I allow them to, encourage them to happen. Allow them to by offering space that is not judgemental and that allows a genuine flow between the secular and sacred, the spectacular and mundane and does not mark the difference, a space that doesn’t seek to provide answers, but allows chance to challenge and encounter. Encouraging them to by being responsive to the relationship that are there, acknowledging the difficulties (where they are present, and they are as in most places) and by sharing myself, my time, my life, my own vulnerabilities – I am not there as expert (gardening or otherwise), I’m not there to be “in control”****,  I’m there simply as companion, as friend, as partner in a shared journey.

 

Is it Church? Not in its entireity, although for some of us there it performs much of the role of church, what it is  is just what it is …. and I’m only too happy to know that to others and to me it’s simply “The God Plot”.

 


* The “charity” being Parson Cross Initiative (Projects) it was given charitable status in 2017 with the registered charity number 1172288
** The Cross at Yew Lane is also home to Creswick Greave Methodist Church
*** The alcohol ban also serves an important purpose as some of those attending activities on the plot have had issues with alcohol and addiction in the past
**** The issue of how we choose to hold power and authority and how we choose to exercise it is an important issue, and especially important I think in pioneer ecclesiology

 

 

This Class Gives

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Apparently people were “queuing round the block” to donate food for a Sheffield food bank in return for a limited edition Peter McKee can ….. Now good people across this country give to food banks including the one I’m involved in at Parson Cross Initiative each and every week with no expectation of reward; I’m glad this stunt is bringing more food, I’m hoping it will prompt debate, I’m worried people will still not question why some are still needing support from food banks in UK 2018.

As a nation we must quickly come to understand the “cost” of allowing the current state of affairs to continue:

  • The “demonisation” of those not working – or indeed those “under employed” to use the latest government jargon
  • The distrust of those claiming disability or sickness benefits, this is true across the board, but is often even more so in relation to “unseen disabilities” and mental health issues
  • The ignorance and assumptions of those who “have” about those who don’t. Allied to this many of us seem to forget that our economic grasp of life is relatively fragile. Only this week we were giving a food parcel to a man who less than 12 months ago had been doing fine employed full time as a driver.

All these attitudes, underpinned of course government policies deliberately designed to create another “hostile environment” around benefits and social security payments, have a cost on all of us. Not simply a financial and economic cost but a moral, and indeed a spiritual one.

We are called to respond – as Christians we are called to respond with love and grace, with an eye on justice and the values of the Kingdom of God so often spoken about by Jesus. As humans we are also called, the cost of excessive inequality, and a lack of compassion leads us towards a kind of barbarism that devalues the humanity of each one of us.

 

Grace, Love, Hope, Advocacy & Action

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About a month ago  I (along with Charlotte a volunteer with PXI Projects) attended a conference at Bishopthorpe Palace, the home of the Archbishop of York, for advocates working with the Acts435 charity, it was there that we were both struck by some words from Rev Alison White – Bishop of Hull. She spoke of “Grace, hope, love and advocacy in action” words which we at PXI Projects have rapidly adopted as a phrase which underpins everything we attempt to do in our work.

To help us keep focused on these words we asked Laura (one of our artistically gifted volunteers and supporters) to do us a painting that we could hang on the wall to inspire us and remind us ….. the picture above shows the painting (almost complete).

Who uses food banks?

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Today has seen coverage in various media reports of yet another study on food banks and food bank use – there’s little new here, and little that those involved haven’t been saying to Government since at least 2012 – but somehow it falls upon closed ears.

This “new” major study from researchers at Oxford University and King’s College London has tried to get beyond the stereotypes, looking at those using the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks.

“In the most basic terms, these are people with many overlapping forms of “destitution”.

They have been missing meals, often for days at a time, going without heating and electricity. One in five had slept rough in recent months.

They are at the lowest end of the low-income spectrum, with an average income below £320 per month, described as living in “extreme financial vulnerability”.

These are usually people of working age, middle-aged rather than young or old, mostly living in rented accommodation.

About five out of six are without a job and depending on benefits”. 

(Source BBC News)
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, famously stumbled early in the election campaign when she seemed to wave off food bank use by describing the reasons people use them as “complex”. Likewise another Tory MP Dominic Raab brought comments when he said that many people use food banks as a response to “cash flow” issues. These responses are deliberately obtuse, or else a callous twisting of the reality of many peoples lives. The precarious nature of many of the poorest incomes do indeed mean that food banks become a lifeline when making harsh financial choices; “Should I put money in the gas meter or buy food?” – “Should I feed my children – or buy the new school shoes I’ve been told to buy to avoid the social worker being called?” Yes these are real comments, yes I’ve heard them directly with my own ears, and if Dominic Raab wants to call that a “cash flow problem”, or Theresa May thinks its all “complex” then I think they need to examine their consciences a little more.
Over the past few weeks our shelves at Pxi-Parson Cross Initiative Projects have been getting more and more depleted, and have required more and more topping up. We’ve spent nearly another £100 this week alone on food in addition to that donated directly.
We are nearing a crisis point – what happens then I genuinely do not know.