Thursday 31st May 2012
On Thursday I spent a wonderful day in Penrhys. This community, perched on the side of a Welsh valley is the base for LlanfairUnitingChurch a seven way LEP providing a whole range of activities and support for local residents.
The recent history of this community was told to us by one of the dozen or so volunteers who work at the church and was a history of the ups and downs of the mining industry. Not so long ago this was a community of 3500 (and previous to that in the whole valley, four times that number) now only about 800 people live there and many of the houses have been demolished. Such changes leave their mark on people and their relationships, their hopes and dreams.
We had our lunch in the cafe – a centre for meeting and conversation, for sharing concerns and laughter. I talked to one lady who had lived in Penrhys for 43 years and who spoke of her experience of the support she received when she first moved in with nothing ‘I slept on the floor in those early days’ she said and of the way in which now it is her turn to support others who are in greater need than she is.
I met the volunteers who work here, one from Korea, two from Madagascar and a CWM missionary who originates from India. They all brought their own experiences and skills to the work. I was taken to the local school by Sharon Rees the Education worker and only paid member of staff in the church who shares her time between the church and the school. This is now the only school in the community and what a bright and vibrant place it is.
After school there was the Homework Club at the church – on this day about a dozen children coming to read, write, do maths but above all to have the undivided attention of adults showing an interest in their progress and behaviour. And then it was time for the disco. Each week there is a session for children with a variety of activities and the disco was organised by a group of teenagers who were being encouraged to take responsibility for some of the activities. 60 children danced (maybe bounced would be a better description) for an hour and a half – they all enjoyed themselves hugely and were heard on the following morning to suggest that it should be run every week! It was so good to see such a large group of children for whom the church is central to their lives as a place of security and fun. Not all of them come on Sunday but there is no doubt that they know first hand the love of God for each one and the adults who work here take every opportunity to ensure that they hear something of the gospel message too.
On the following morning I saw an example of this when the local preschool group called in part way through their sponsored toddle to raise money for Dr Barnardos. They sang to us and we shared prayers and ‘our’ action song – the chorus of One more step along the world I go – before they were given a biscuit and drink each to set them on their way to toddle further..
This is truly a place of witness and love which it was a privilege to be part of for a brief 24 hours.
Friday 1st June 2012
The journey to Pembroke took just over two hours and gave us an opportunity to see a bit more of this part of Wales which I do not know so well. We were entertained to lunch and had a lively afternoon in conversation about the state of the United Reformed Church, the things we need to consider as we move on into the 21st century and the problems of the small churches in this rural situation. We heard also about the joys of new developments, refurbishment of buildings and plans for greater community use. Another drive took us to see three of the small churches we had spoken about and then to an ample ‘chapel tea’ and another opportunity for conversation with members of 9 churches in the area. This was followed by some worship and some discussion about what we each bring to our churches, how God created us in his image, which requires us to be creative just like he is and to hear a little about how these churches are serving their communities in appropriate ways using the skills available to them. These sort of events always offer the opportunity for people to learn something new about each other and to affirm each other in the work they are already doing. I am sure this is what happened here at least for some people.
Saturday 2nd June
On to Swansea, to meet with people from 6 churches which are looking towards possible and necessary ways of working as the provision of stipendiary ministry is set to alter with upcoming retirements and new possibilities. This thinking is being enabled by the presence of Rosie Buxton, a Church Related Community Worker (CRCW) bringing to the table her particular skills and training in community work and the ability to reflect theologically on the various situations in which the churches are set. There are exciting possibilities to be the creative people God calls us to be.
Sunday 3rd June
I was in Trinity Methodist and United Reformed Church to lead worship. This is a church in the centre of a holiday town and is used to receiving visitors but it is also active in many ways in the local community including working with people with learning difficulties and also in the wider world community having an active involvement in Tools for Self Reliance.
Worship had a bit of a Jubilee theme but only in so far as we could remind ourselves that the Queen and other public figures maintained a mystique and distance from us whilst our amazing and awesome God was both distant and closer than the breath we breathe, leading us, loving us and guiding us but calling us to mirror all of that for the people around us. The morning service was followed by a Jubilee lunch – a happy occasion with the food reflecting 1952 – ham, salad and boiled potatoes though some more modern ingredients crept in in the shape of rice and pasta salad! It was all very good and an opportunity to share memories of our lives 60 years ago.
Later in the day I accompanied the minister to another mining community at Gilfach Goch. Here were a small group of Methodist folk – part of the United Area and working hard to maintain their fellowship in the very changed circumstances of recent years. I shared in the leading of worship and then told them something of the role of the Assembly Moderator. But when they began to tell me of their Christian service it was clear that small in number though they are, their giving to charity in terms of money and commitment was certainly not small and here was one of the people who used his skills to do the practical work on tools donated to Tools for Self Reliance. Not for the first time I thought what gems of Christian service there are to be found around the country!