Why? Because in the midst of our day-to-day labour of love, care and friendship, of knocking on doors, of opening up our regular 'places of welcome', of sharing food and having fun and doing stuff together, of making new friends and deepening existing friendships... in the midst of all of that, we paused a couple of times this week - firstly to reflect together on where we've got to and how it's going, and secondly to celebrate some of the breathtakingly wonderful talent among us.
I want to just record here a little of what's happened. And also draw in a few other voices, reflecting on the same thing from different angles.
On Wednesday, 21 friends and neighbours spent a couple of hours together, with a couple of visitors (who are also dear friends and travelling companions): Cormac Russell and Jane Perry. The 21 of us were there because we've all properly swept up in the movement of community-building here. Our two visitors were there for good reasons too: Cormac to offer a few simple questions to invite us into reflection and conversation, and Jane to listen carefully to what we said, and to write some of it down to help us not forget!
We began with naming what we loved about living and spending time in our neighbourhood. People mentioned the passion, enthusiasm and commitment they saw around them; seeing people grow and flourish through getting involved with each other; walking down the street and always bumping into people to talk to; knowing you can come to any of our community places and find a warm, non-judgmental, 'overwhelming' welcome, a place to belong; and a 'community spirit' where everyone pulls together to make stuff happen.
But what is it that has made this happen? In some neighbourhoods, disasters like floods can 'precipitate' people coming together, at least for a time. What is the 'positive flood' that has 'precipitated' the growth of community in our neighbourhood? And how will we get more stories of involvement and belonging here? We talked about the importance of visibility - getting really close to people's doorsteps and walking routes - so that passers-by can see what's happening, and be drawn in out of curiosity. We named the importance of invitation, of telling our stories of life-changing experiences of community and inviting others to come and experience it too. We talked about the infectiousness of community - "caring is catching", someone said - and the way what people see, they might try to copy: "maybe I could do that", or "I want a bit of that!". And we reflected on how that desire, once caught, makes us want to go deeper: we experience welcome, we discover we can contribute, and we want more of it... One of the golden threads through it all was that we were never trying to 'sell' something, never trying to 'fix' people, but simply wanting to say, always: "you're welcome - we can't do without you". And we finished our time together by saying that to each other, in gratitude - with the specifics of the particular gifts that we've seen, that we've received, in and from each of those present.
As someone who's shared this journey with my neighbours for the last 8 years (some of my friends and neighbours have been at it longer!), it moved me to tears to be reminded how far we've come together, as a neighbourhood. And to hear individual stories of their journeys into greater confidence in themselves, connection to their neighbours, and belonging to this thing we call 'community'.
"ABCD is about the creation of authentic community life, where everyone is welcomed; gifts are discovered & fragility is accepted. It recognizes life’s challenges & with audacity seeks connection.
It’s that authenticity that rang true for me, again today, in the community of Firs & Bromford, where local residents spoke of a renewal of community life. They shared stories about how they are re-hatching and re-weaving community spirit: conversation by conversation, street party by street party, and through indoor and outdoor places of welcome. It’s an uncommon story which is not about fixing, funding or fighting. But rather, is about care, compassion and connection. I am both honoured and moved every time I visit this community, it gives me hope that an alternative future is just two door knocks away. It starts on our street, not Wall Street. Go Firs & Bromford!" (Cormac)
And then on Friday night (in between Wednesday and Friday one of our wonderful Muslim neighbours, a co-leader of 'Flavours of Hodge Hill', put on a fabulous Iftar for her friends and neighbours - but that's a story for another day), we had our very first 'First & Bromford's Got Talent'. It's an event we've been talking about for a few years here, but now was its time. Looking back, we could trace the journey from the beginnings of the Bromford Theatre Group (which continues to flourish and surprise!), through a fragile, fun but short-lived community choir, into some ad hoc jamming sessions in the corner of a weekly cookery group, which germinated a monthly 'open mic night' at St Wilfrid's Community Centre, which in turn became a weekly 'family disco'... and finally this glorious evening celebrating the gifts of Firs & Bromford in music, dance and poetry.
Hosted again in the wonderful St Wilf's, the
talent and creativity (children and adults alike) on show was impressive by any standards. What left me an emotional wreck by the end of the night, though, was much more than the stunning talent. Knowing
even a little of the journeys and battles that many of the contestants (both adults and children) had been on to get onto that stage on that Friday night, I was in awe and wonder at their courage and determination, their raw vulnerability and yet the sheer dignity and pride of standing up there, showing us something of their spirit, their soul, their God-given essence. Some of those who got up and performed had fought more than just nerves to do what they did. And in the end, the 'competition' wasn't really a competition at all: each and every one of them was cheered on - willed on, hoped and prayed on - by each and every one of us in the audience, and we were heart-burstingly proud of all of them - we'd have made them all joint winners if we could have done. Our role, collectively, was encourager, cheerleader, celebrant of the wonderful gifts of our neighbours - the wonderful gifts that are our neighbours. We've come a long, long way together.
"Wow what an amazing and emotional night celebrating all the talent in our community. Songs, dance, poetry by children and adults. … We came to live in this community hoping we could make a difference but whatever we’ve managed to contribute is absolutely nothing compared to what this community has done for me. Learning to receive the gifts of my neighbours has been one of the revelations of my life. When I’m here I genuinely believe another world is possible." (Tim)
"It was a brilliant night. And everyone was amazing. When we go to things like this it's like one big family - everyone is happy, talking, playing, just how it should be I love it, well done to everyone xx" (Louise)
"I don't think I've felt so many emotions in one evening since I had my children, I've laughed, I've cried, I've felt happy, sad, overwhelmed, blessed, in awe..........." (Julie)
A little bit of theology
Just about holding back the tears, at the end of our reflection session on Wednesday I observed that so much of what I'd heard, seen, witnessed in our conversations, and in what those conversations described, was what some of us dreamed for church to be. Not that I remotely wanted to impose the term 'church' on something magical in its own right - more that there was so much that 'church' can learn from, be enriched and challenged by, what we're discovering in our neighbourhood here.
"Been pondering this (on and off): I feel like what I witnessed yesterday was an encapsulation of 15 years of committed, patient, fragile yet passionate, intentional (re)building of community by [among others] a small group of people drawn together by their (in this case) Christian faith and underpinned by painstaking (and painful) dedication to a journey of exploring theology-practice. Does that ‘count’ as ‘church’ or not? Do I care? Does it matter?" (Jane)
"Amazing we are talking about something so beautiful. I’m less worried about whether it’s ‘church', as an experience and infiltration of the kingdom of God into the world, a thin place - and ‘church’ is wherever there is a prophetic reflection of that in the world as embodied in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus." (Tim)
It's something I'm pondering a lot at the moment: what are the deep connections between 'community' as we're witnessing it here, and 'church' in any recognisable sense? It's certainly not the case that the former is a direct product of the latter - nor that the latter is emerging in any straightforward way from the former. Some fascinating things are emerging that look a bit like 'church' - weekly prayers after our Real Junk Food Kitchen lunch-time shift being just one of them. But the ground on which our Wednesday reflections happened, and Friday's talent show, was inescapably holy ground in its own right.
I like Tim's words 'prophetic reflection' as a description of something that might be distinctive about 'church' in all of this. Cormac and Jane, in our reflective gathering, played a vital - if understated - role in helping us to see, to offer, and to remember. And I've been playing with another word - the ancient Christian practice of 'contemplation': attending deeply to what is - a sustained, even disciplined attention.
For much of the last few years, in my practice and relationships here, and in my reflection in more disciplined theological modes, I've found profound resonances with the stories of encounters in Mark's gospel between Jesus and women. In each of those encounters, Jesus gets interrupted and disrupted, challenged and changed, by the initiatives, words and gifts of women - on the very edges of Jesus' world (Mark 7), on the road from one place to another (Mark 5), and even breaking in to a supposedly private gathering (Mark 14). These themes have spoken, for me, to the interruption and disruption, challenge and change, that the church has, when we've been most radically receptive, received from our neighbours here.
But I'm beginning to find myself drawn now to a different way of living out the Jesus story - alongside Mark's version, not replacing it. In the gospel of John, I'm discovering a counterpart to action and interruption: a sustained abiding, an attentive contemplation, that invites us to see something more deeply, to witness 'holy ground', to see God's glory in human flesh (John 1). This kind of seeing is not obvious, or easy, or quick. You and I can look at the same thing, the same event, the same person, the same encounter, and see it in very different ways. But I have a hunch that the invitation in John's gospel, for our community here, is to 'come and see': not to 'come to church', but to look at what is happening in our neighbourhood - in the often fragile, often torn, human flesh - and to look with eyes that are able to see God's glory. To be moved to tears, to be rendered speechless, to have our breath taken away by the 'wow' moment.
And then what...??
[Our fantastic Street Connector Mentor, Paul Wright, has written up his own reflections on the past week, here.]