Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.
As well as the privilege of visiting different churches Sunday by Sunday, I am often invited to visit various community projects. Last week it was great fun to visit the Community Garden in Ross. Its an amazing project on a three-acre plot in the middle of the town. A combination of a generous landlord and well-regarded local charity, Haygrove Community Gardens, has led to a project that allows a community garden, a food share and for various people to grow their own produce who would otherwise be unable to. It has a small number of paid staff and a lot of volunteers who make it all happen.
I reflected with them in my talk on the characteristics of real community that were so much in evidence. Community is an oft used word today covering a multitude of sins. In the world of social media its used to refer to a shared interest group, that may or may not have any meaningful connection. These sorts of communities can be intrinsically fragile, forming and reforming as people fall out with each other. Its much easier to fall out if your only communication is digital. To truly connect we need to be present to each other, reading the multiple signals, verbal and non-verbal, that comprise real communication. Words on their own, or worse still words with a few smiley face icons don’t quite cut it.
What was it about that little community in Ross that distinguished the sort of soul enriching, life affirming community from the synthetic social media kind?
The first thing was that it was a safe space. We have quite rightly been chastened by our failures in this regard in the Church in recent years and are attempting to do much better. If people don’t feel safe, they will never open up to others and be able to give and receive.
The second was listening. There is the cliché that we have two ears and one mouth and should use them in proportion, but it has a lot of truth in it. Many people who come to the project are not used to being listened to in the rest of their lives. They are used to being managed, told what to do. and generally disempowered. The project is a place where they can tell their stories. The telling of those stories allows a better sense of perspective and a little more order to be found in what can be chaotic lives.
Thirdly a non-judgemental acceptance. In my experience, most people in the thrall of addiction or who have fallen into a life of petty crime don’t need reminding of their brokenness and need. Condemnation is not usually a fruitful way of nurturing change. Paul made this clear for followers of Jesus, when he said, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” The heart of the Gospel is that, ‘while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Those who have been in the receipt of such extravagant, costly forgiveness should be the main dispensers of it to others.
Fourth was a sense of shared purpose, rather than just a group of people gathered together who liked gardening. There is a bigger picture here that can unite disparate activities into a cohesive whole.
Fifth was a mutuality of provision. Its not a place where there are clear service users who consume things provided by staff and volunteers who have the largesse to distribute. There is a striking cross fertilisation, where giving and receiving takes place across the piste. The strict hierarchy that characterised Victorian and feudal philanthropy sets up a relationship of dependence. Volunteers told me how they had been enriched by their interactions with clients and vice versa.
I was left with the question whether people might experience the same thing when visiting our church communities? To what extent does our worship and common life foster the sort of safe, listening, non-judgemental, purposeful mutuality that was evident in Ross Community Garden? Would refugees and asylum seekers find that? (still plenty of time to contribute to our appeal by the way). I would argue that a vision around institutional survival is a pretty feeble thing to unite us. A vision to foster the sort of communities that show what the kingdom of God looks like might be better for getting us out of bed in the morning don’t you think? Discuss at your next PCC! `