My usual journey from Doncaster to King’s Cross takes me through Stevenage, some of the East coast trains stop there, some don’t but I have certainly never got off the train there. The beginning of my visit to Thames North was a first – I left the train atStevenageto be met by Tony Ruffell, a minister in a Special Category post working in Herts and Beds Workplace Ministry with special responsibility for chaplaincy in the emergency services. What followed was a fascinating day meeting police and fire and rescue personnel as well as other chaplains and a member of the workplace chaplaincy Board.
We visited the Control Room for the Hertfordshire Police in Welwyn Garden City and a Custody Suite in Stevenage Police Station where we heard something about the responsibilities of keeping disturbed prisoners safe. It was good to hear how a recent survey revealed that 81% of this huge force were aware of the chaplaincy service – a real witness to God’s love in an often stressful environment.
We followed that with a visit to Baldock United Reformed Church where members were proud to show us their newly opened refurbished church.
The work had involved opening up the front of the church to make it more visible to passers by and refurbishing and extending the building to make it more useful and accessible to the local community – a good example of a church looking forward rather than backward, outward rather than inward.
Saturday 10th March
We travelled toWatford to join members of Synod at their Spring meeting. It was lovely to be greeted by friends from past contacts and work in the denomination which once more reminded me how we are a small family in the United Reformed Church. We heard about the churches involvement with the Olympics and I spoke about my experiences as Moderator and reflected on the theme of Hidden Treasures. I also went to the Children’s Synod which was running alongside the Synod meeting and the children asked questions to discover more about the role of the Moderator.
In the afternoon we were taken by Ashley Evans – minister atChristChurch, Newham to that borough. This is an area of multiple deprivation and we heard something about the struggles of day-to-day living there. We also heard of the work of the churches as they seek to respond to some of the needs. Ashley also took us to see the new shopping complex and the Olympic site.
The stark contrast between the sparkly shining buildings and the poverty of the run down streets of Newham only minutes apart emphasised some of the difficulties. The hope is that there will be a lasting legacy from the games and one which will each everyone in the area rather than the favoured few.
Sunday 11th March
We travelled west to Hounslow where I led worship at Hounslow United Reformed Church – a relatively small multi-ethnic congregation. In conversation after the service I heard from one lady who had lived in the area for 40 years about how things had changed. 40 years ago it was safe and there was a feeling of community – in the last few months she had experienced a burglary perpetrated by her next door neighbour – it’s hard to feel safe she said. Another conversation with two of the congregation – one from Kenya and one from Angola– covered some of the contrasts in church attendance in Great Britain and those countries. I am sure these are only tiny illustrations of the range of experiences which churches must take account of as they seek to witness to God’s love in their communities.
We were collected from Hounslow and driven to Heston to join the Asian Christian Fellowship. A growing congregation drawing Asian people from a wide area and joined for this service by members of Heston United Reformed Church whose building both congregations share. The service was conducted in both Urdu and English with Urdu hymns being accompanied on harmonium and Indian drums and English hymns on the organ. This is a church attended by families – 3 generations in some cases – and the problem will soon be insufficient space for them to worship together in the current building. The service was followed by tea which consisted of delicious Asian savoury and sweet foods.
The experience of this single day serve to emphasis the variety which makes up the United Reformed Church – all faithful people worshipping and serving God but bringing to that worship and service their own particular experiences, expertise and knowledge. In doing that they are surely responding to the commission ‘to make disciples of all nations’.
Monday 12th March
Two projects to visit today. First we went to the Isle of Dogs – a fascinating a quite isolated community in the east end of London. To get there we travelled on the Docklands Light Railway past the wealth and opulence of CanaryWharf. Walking the few minutes from the station took us from multi-storey glass fronted office blocks and apartment blocks to little streets of houses, mainly social housing and certainly not wealthy. Island House is a United Reformed Church owned building in which there are a host of activities taking place, some renting space in the building, some directly the
responsibility of the staff of Island House, all aimed at helping and supporting the local multi-ethnic community. There is an advice centre and the office for the co-ordinators of Sure-Start for the area. There are ESOL classes and healthy living related classes, there is a play group and a quiet chapel used by all faiths. The centre has been chosen to pilot a new scheme aimed at supporting families beginning when the women are pregnant through birth and beyond. This was truly Christian action in an area of great need.
Then it was back on the Docklands Light Railway to Bromley-by-Bow. The church here is small but the site on which it is set includes buildings housing a health centre and art workshops, a café and business start up advice. In this crowded area of London the rear of the church opens out onto a park, owned by the local authority but developed, used and maintained by the Bromley-by-Bow Centre.
There is a quiet and calm feel to this area by contrast with the busyness of the buildings. Here was another example of Christian action meeting a huge variety of needs of young and old, of able and disabled, of newcomers and established inhabitants of this diverse area.