Janey, Rafi and I have been here in Hodge Hill for four years now. Our kids’ birthdays are always a good reminder of this particular ‘anniversary’ – Rafi had just turned two when we moved in.
When I took up the Bishop’s offer of the post here, Janey and I were pretty clear that we didn’t want to live in the Rectory, but somewhere on the Firs and Bromford estate – and we found a house, to rent, which isn’t, let’s say, quite up to the ‘spec’ of your average Vicarage. I know that at the time, that was a bit puzzling for quite a lot of people here, but it was really important for us, and I hope it makes a bit more sense now.
It wasn’t just that the Rectory was next to the derelict site where the old ‘PJ’ church had stood. It was up at the top of the Common (whether we’re at the ‘top’ or the ‘bottom’, in our geographies, have more of an emotional impact on us than we often realise, I think), at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, with just a few other (equally large) houses nearby.
And we also had a sense, from friends who already lived on the Firs and Bromford, that the estate was somewhere that was used to being either ‘overlooked’ (in both senses, ‘forgotten about’, and ‘looked down on’, quite literally, from the top of the concrete pillars of the M6), or ‘done to’, by a steady stream of ‘outsiders’, whether well-meaning or more indifferent, many of whom had come for a while, promised much, and then gone away leaving local people feeling let down and abandoned once again.
I’ve reluctantly had to admit to myself, over the years, that I am a middle-class professional. An RAF child, born and bred in the ‘Home Counties’, with a Cambridge degree and another couple since then, seven years ‘professional training’, and a steady salary paid by a 400-year-old institution. Admittedly, over the last 16 years or so particularly I’ve become more and more sensitised to issues of inequality and injustice, poverty and deprivation, and the sheer struggles to ‘make ends meet’ and ‘keep head above water’ faced daily by many of my fellow human beings – a strong sense of ‘being for’ my neighbours (as Anglican priest and theologian Sam Wells puts it). And as a person who is naturally an ‘activist’, who feels good when he’s doing things – and with certificates and titles that supposedly prove ‘knowledge’ and ‘expertise’ – it’s all too easy, and all too tempting, to imagine that my most important role in life is to use that knowledge and expertise and activism to serve – or ‘work for’, as Sam Wells puts it – those who need what I can bring.
The trouble is, as Sam Wells points out sharply, “working for makes the expert feel good and important and useful, but it does not necessarily leave the recipient feeling that great. The working for model sets in stone a relationship in which one person is a benefactor and the other is a person in need. It is humiliating if many or most of your relationships are ones in which you need someone to do things for you. The working for model perpetuates relationships of inequality. Worse still, it is possible to be the recipient of a person’s help and still find the benefactor remains a stranger to you.” In fact, that’s precisely what all the structures and boundaries around ‘professionalism’ are designed to ensure.
There are alternatives, though, Sam suggests. One is about ‘working with’ – “never doing something for people that they could properly do for themselves” – but also “offering what you have and are” to support others in the action they decide to take. It paints a picture, if you like, of “a roundtable where each person present has a different but equally valuable portfolio of experience, skills, interests, networks and commitments.” A lot of what we as a church have found ourselves getting involved with in the last few years has resembled this ‘working with’ model: involvement in the Big Local ‘regeneration’ investment on the estate; the Community Passion Play, where many of us responded to the invitation from Phil to join him in turning his inspired vision into a reality; and ‘Open Door’, from week to week seeking to work alongside people to help them find jobs, use their skills and knowledge, develop their interests and passions in their neighbourhood and beyond.
But we can push this further, says Sam. We need to learn to go beyond ‘working with’ to ‘being with’. “Just imagine working for and working with have done their stuff and achieved all they set out to do. What then, when there is no world to fix? We get to ‘hang out.’ In other words, we [get to] enjoy one another. ... The being with approach says, ‘Let’s not leave those discoveries till after all the solving and fixing is done and we’re feeling bored. Let’s make those discoveries now.’”
It was our desire to ‘be with’ our neighbours that drew Janey and me to want to find a house on the Firs & Bromford estate, and to immerse ourselves, as much as possible, in the life of our neighbourhood. It has its challenges, of course: ‘being with’ takes time, lots of time; it doesn’t tend to produce lots of obvious, measurable ‘outcomes’ (the kind that the Diocesan Office or the grant funders like to see); it can sometimes be quite uncomfortable, and often messy and complicated; and there’s the constant temptation to slip back into ‘working for’ mode, because it’s so much easier and quicker, and more straightforward, and ‘gets results’. But it’s only through the patience of ‘being with’ that the most precious gifts come: like learning from our neighbours; being able to relax and enjoy each other’s company; making friends; finding people you can have a good cry with.
In the next few months, six or seven people will come together to set up home in our two Community Houses – the old Rectory is one, and the church house in Ayala Croft on the Firs and Bromford is the other. Some of those people are very local, some are from other parts of Birmingham, and some are from further afield – and all of them are up for ‘relocating’ to Hodge Hill. When we got them together for the first time a few weeks ago, we asked them to ‘dream dreams’ of what could be possible, in and around their Houses, with the passions and gifts they bring with them. Their dreams were exciting ones to see begin to unfold. But crucially, they said to each other during their conversation, they were coming first to ‘listen’ and to ‘be’ – and only then, perhaps, to ‘do’. Our Community Houses will be lived in by some wonderful, passionate, gifted people – but they are coming, responding to their sense of God’s call, first and foremost to learn: not from supposed ‘experts’ like me, but from their neighbours-to-be. They are coming not to ‘work for’ or ‘do to’ – but to ‘work with’ and, most importantly, simply to learn to ‘be with’, and enjoy the discoveries that emerge. And that, we trust, will be a gift for all of us to share in.
[Quotes come from Sam Wells & Marcia Owen, Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence, IVP 2011]