The following article is by my sister Rachel.
Red brick terraced houses and grey concrete yards. Broken glass cemented into high walls. Back alleys and winding streets. Meandering rivers lined with disused factories. Vibrant football stadiums towering over forlorn churches. Angry boys singing working class anthems. Old men with cold dust entrenched in wrinkles. Drizzling rain and stoic faces. This is my England.
This is the England that called me back.
It called me back from Chicago, the city of D.L. Moody and Barack Obama, of Oprah Winfrey and Walt Disney, and latterly… of Rachel Swales.
Chicago, and more specifically, Moody Theological Seminary, had been my home for a year. Although it had been an immense culture shock, it has also been a time of blessing. The teaching and example of the professors provided me with a renewed vision for the city; a vision I was eager to put into practice back home in Elswick, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The creation of an internship opportunity that combined biblical study with practical ministry allowed me a euphoric return to England. For the last six months I have been working with my church here, focusing on reaching the children of our inner-city community. It did not go as expected, but I think it turned out better that way…
The classrooms at Moody may well be a veritable hotbed of learning, but the streets of Elswick are perhaps even more so. It was upon these very streets that we began, armed with clipboards and fortified with chocolate digestives. Our textbook? Census data and a trusty AA street map. Our teachers? The people of Elswick. Our subject? Community Analysis. The intentional exploration of the community acted as a useful tool to discover the felt needs of children in the area. Just as Paul used his knowledge of the community to preach in Athens, so we hoped that our Community Analysis would help us to share the gospel of Jesus Christ more effectively.
The results of our analysis were perhaps not surprising but were certainly a stark reminder of the issues facing under 18s in inner-city communities. The area suffers from significant relative poverty, with rising unemployment rates promising to do little to change this state. Unemployment, drugs and alcohol abuse were thought to be the main problems faced by the children of Elswick. The idea of the church answering these needs was laughable to most interviewees and ‘faith’ was the lowest perceived need for living a ‘happy life.’ Though we knew Christ to be the only answer to true happiness, the community itself were indifferent. “What can churches dee?!” summarised one lady, “They cannet drag the bairns in, can they!?” She was right, we couldn’t drag children into our church services and weekly clubs…but we could drag ourselves out of the church building and into the community. We could be, as the buzzword goes, incarnational.
Incarnational ministry is one that seeks to follow Christ’s example by living in the community we are seeking to reach, intentionally sharing Christ through both word and deed as we live life with our neighbours. To seek to share Christ with the community of Elswick, it could be argued, we would need to be in the community, actively showing the transforming work of Christ. Although the programmes that we had already set up in the church acted as a great base for structured biblical teaching and an important link to local families, it became clear that the priority in my internship was to be people not programmes.
The people that became my priority were a small group of girls, all living typical lives in the community. They became my guides into life in Elswick and, in turn, I sought to be their guide into life with Christ. Several times a week we met together in Elswick. On a Sunday this took the form of more formal Bible study, expanding on the narrative-based learning the girls received at our other weekly clubs. However, throughout the week we also spent time together informally: visiting parks, walking to the library, painting pictures and so on. The aim was to show the children an authentic Christ, a living Saviour who is relevant in all aspects of life. Take, for example, the camping trip to Whitby…
The camping trip has been going successfully until the last night. High winds and a bargain-basement tent proved to be an uneasy combination. The adults on the trip had little sleep: 3am saw us carrying bricks across dark fields to weigh down the edges of our flimsy home. The girls slept soundly throughout this and, on reflection, it is clear why:
Earlier that day we had walked past a plaque on the pier, which had the words from Psalm 93 engraved upon it, “Mightier than the thunder of the great waters, mightier than the breakers of the sea— the LORD on high is mighty.”
We read the Psalm together that night, above the waves of Whitby and huddled around our little camping lantern. We prayed that our canvas home for the night would stand firm. I was still a little worried so one girl turned to me and said, “Don’t worry Rachel, God’ll look after us.” Then the girls snuggled down into their sleeping bags, and did not stir until the morning. The God that has power over nature and who cares for them was more apparent to them, in real daily life, than He was when I had told them the story of Jesus calming the storm in our weekly club earlier that year. Yes, the children needed that Biblical knowledge as a foundation, but they also needed to see the outworking of this in real life. Unless Christians are by their side in this real life, there is little hope of this academic knowledge coming alive to them. Unless I can share and demonstrate a Christ that is vibrant and relevant and wholly able to love them in a transformational way, then the few hours learning in church each week may simply lie dormant.
Often children’s workers are given the encouragement that, “You just never know when they’ll bring these stories to mind…in years to come they might really understand what this all means.” This is cruel encouragement, and if we rely solely on this hope we perhaps have no hope at all. I simply cannot truly share Christ as a distant figure only seen twice a week teaching stories from the front of church. I must be out there, with the children, in their community, as a sister who loves them and sharing a Saviour that redeems.