Saturday, 30 March 2013

Holy Week for an unholy vicar

In a meeting a little while ago I was introduced, by a local Children's Centre colleague with whom I've worked quite closely, as 'a community development worker with a dog collar'. It was intended, and taken, as a compliment - but it inevitably raised for me an unsettling question or two: is it an accurate description? is this what I'm called to, here in Hodge Hill? is it what I'm ordained for?

Early on in Lent, I was randomly selected, as one of 500 C-of-E clergy across England, to fill in a daily questionnaire for a week, as part of a national survey on 'patterns of ministry'. I had to tick boxes that described what I did with each hour in the day (worryingly, the survey began at 4am and finished at 3am, but thankfully I was able to ignore a number of those hours!), and what were the key motivators for doing those things. I was also asked how I was feeling at the beginning and end of each day. Did I begin the day 'vigorous and full of energy'? (As someone who is almost always woken up 'prematurely' by his small children, the answer to that question was always a big fat No. A friend suggested it was a 'control question to weed out the nutters'!) What did I do out of feelings of guilt or shame (very little)? How much of my day felt it was in tension with the need for 'family time'?

Thankfully, I'm not someone that's constantly plagued by feelings of guilt, or driven by the pressure of 'ought' (what Ann Morisy calls a 'hardening of the ought-eries'). Thankfully, almost all of what I do as 'work' is stuff that feels good, worthwhile, and life-giving. I count myself immensely lucky - blessed, even - to be doing the job that I do, in the place where I am, with the people that I'm with.

I am aware, however, that I live and work in the constant tension between competing goods: work in the neighbourhood, more explicitly 'church'-focused work, time with my wonderful wife and kids, time reading and writing for the part-time PhD, time with wider family and friends, time just for 'me'... I am aware that every decision I make, every hour or minute I use, is a decision 'for', but also comes with a cost - what I'm not attending to. I'm aware, just as Janey my wife says of her choices, that there is no such thing as a 'perfect balance' - that to do the things that feel important, there's always the cost of giving less time than we'd ideally like to other, equally important things. Each of us would love to spend the whole week with our children - but we also put great value on the work we do with friends and neighbours locally, in forms of creativity and learning, and so on...

The gift that the daily questionnaires gave me was the realisation that, every day, there are plenty of things that 'left an impact on me' in hugely positive ways. Amid the costs and compromises of each day, there was, almost without exception, gift and grace. And at its best, those gifts 'overflow' from one part of life into the others - not cancelling out the costs, perhaps, but enriching them in ways that, without each of those different bits of life, the other parts would not have been enriched.

This week is perhaps as good an example as any. I'm almost washed out of thoughts and creative connections (having blogged 3 times already this week!) - but here's just a snapshot of the last few days...

Palm Sunday liturgy at church - beginning outside in the snow, heading in for a dramatising of the Passion Story, with our children and young people taking the leading roles.
The amazing community Passion Play in the afternoon - of which much more can be read here. Rafi, our 4 year old, sits with me at the Last Supper, a disciple among friends.

Too icy for one school (240 kids from years 4-6) to visit church, so I visit school instead. A 'snapshot' of the story, through the lens of Maundy Thursday, washing the Head Teacher's feet, and inviting him - and the children - to think of creative ways of doing likewise. At the end of the assembly, Head Teacher was asking School Council to reps to think of ways they could mobilise the school body to help out their neighbours in the few days before the end of term.
An Easter service with 20 or so residents of one of the local nursing homes - from the dementia and 'complex' sections. Remembering Mary Magdalene who, having lost her friend and herself, finds herself given back as she hears her name called in the garden. In the midst of fragmentation of congregation and of individual minds, a moment of unity as the Lord's Prayer is said in lucid unison.

The launch of Birmingham's Social Inclusion White Paper (again, blogged in detail here), where I find myself 'reporting back' from our group, being somewhat vocal on our need to face up to our 'professional addiction', and to discover the gifts of patience, imagination, and humility.
Home communion visits in the afternoon. The first relies on a neighbour to let us in, and ends not long after with the paramedics being called. The regular visits of my Reader colleague and the fact we try to fit in an 'Easter visit' just possibly, today, meaning the difference between life and death. Second visit is to 101-year-old saint of Hodge Hill, delighted to be alive, and overflowing with gratitude to family, friends, neighbours, church, God, and the beauty of the world around her.

Exploring with the Mothers' Union the beginnings of the Easter stories, from Mark's abrupt ending in silence and terror, to John's intimate encounter between Mary and Jesus.
Late arrival at the monthly Big Local Partnership Board meeting - negotiating responsibility for a repeat of last year's very successful Hodge Hill Community Festival. Misunderstandings and tensions at times - about limits, priorities, possibilities.
Later in the evening, a small handful of us gather in church to remember the story of the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus - a prophet anointing him for a task, a journey; a teacher showing him the way of humble love; a friend committing to stick with him to the end. In a quiet, intimate moment, we anoint each other and hold in love the broken of our world.

The grandeur of the annual clergy gathering at the Cathedral to renew our vows together, still feels more than a little dissonant with the story of Maundy Thursday. Later in the day, back in Hodge Hill, we seek to remember and re-enact that story, washing feet and watching and praying in the darkness. To my shame and horror, I discover I missed a willing 'washee'. Hurt and forgiveness meet 'just off stage' in exactly the place where the story invites us to consider them.

I am not able to be at church for 'Stations of the Cross', led ably by one of our Readers, because I am helping out (and looking after our two kids) at the first of two 'community activity mornings' - originally planned to be on the wasteland, but re-located to our 'community hub' after a post-snow pitch inspection suggested we might well lose some children in the mud. At lunch-time, as colleagues and congregation members are reflecting and praying in church, I am standing outside the Hub alongside Sarah, my community worker colleague, Ola, a Nigerian Christian friend and neighbour, and Mohammed, a newly-met Muslim granddad, serving burgers (non-Halal beef, or Halal lamb) to 42 children and a fair number of grown-ups.
In the evening, our weekly 'extended family' meal (10 kids, 9 adults) is filled with laughter, deep thankfulness for the events of the past few days and for the achievements and gifts of the past few years, but also lament too for those we know who are suffering, or are set to suffer with the 'welfare earthquake' in the coming weeks.

Saturday (today)
We have 50 children at The Hub today, and among many other creative activities get our hands caked in mud and clay making 'seed bombs' (many of which we will scatter at our sunset gathering tonight). At the end of that particular activity, I find myself washing my hands alongside a young Muslim girl, who gently but persistently takes the caked clay of my hands with hers. It may not be as sensational - and inspirational - a news story as the Pope's foot-washing yesterday in an Italian prison (also of a young Muslim woman, although somewhat older than my new friend), but it is my Maundy Thursday moment - and perhaps my Easter Sunday too.
I miss the kids bedtime tonight, because it coincides with sunset. 8 of us meet at 6.15pm at the entrance to the wasteland where last Sunday's Passion Play ended up, and we gather, with picnic rugs, folding chairs, and lanterns, in the 'garden of Gethsemane'. We share 'stories of hope' - unfinished, messy - which, in large part, are also stories of lament at the neglect and injustice of the world as it is. There are tears - not just of lament, but of gratitude too. Sally, the brilliant curate, has brought a bottle of oil from the Cathedral 'do' yesterday - a mixture of the oils for baptism, healing, and anointing for confirmations and ordinations - and invites us to pour a little on the ground where we sit. Enacting the kind of 'wasteful generosity', the hope in an abundant, healing God, that the woman of Holy Wednesday proclaimed with her anointing. We throw our seed bombs as far as we can into the wasteland that, one of my friends and colleagues reminds me often, we are calling - in eschatological anticipation - 'Bromford Meadow'.

My amazing friend Rachel Mann writes in her stunning book Dazzling Darkness of the 'broken middle' in which she has found much of her life lived. My life is quite mundane beside hers, but I am aware, especially in weeks like this, that the joys and the gifts I discover from day to day come not out of a place where I have achieved great things or even established a 'good life balance' - but out of the places of tension, cost and compromise where, in the cracks, compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope are nevertheless glimpsed.

What needs to be done tomorrow? A Holy Saturday reflection

It's an odd day, Holy Saturday. An 'in-between' day, but a day which, if we inhabit it fully, is not 'in-between' anything - it is simply 'after'. After the so-called 'Good' Friday where the forces of death and destruction have, as far as anyone can tell, won the day - silenced life and hope, destroyed love and peace. There is, as far as anyone can tell, nothing ahead, nothing to look forward to, nothing to wait for.

So what are we left with? What remains?

When all that is, is what has been, we can be left with nostalgia for the good times - or grief, and guilt, and angry blame, for what has gone awry.

If I had been one of those first disciples of Jesus, I can almost feel the desperate fury at the chief priests, at Pilate the Roman governor, at Judas the betrayer, for what has happened to Jesus. A desperate fury that so many are feeling today, of all days, at what our present government, the chief priests and Roman governors of our time, are doing to people on the lowest incomes, to people in social housing, to people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, to people who are newly-arrived in the country.

But the Passion story we have re-enacted and lived through this week will not let us get away with righteous indignation - not indignation from a point of innocence, at least. We cannot pile all the blame onto 'the powerful' and, mirroring Pilate, wash our own hands of it all. Because we are the crowd. We are the ones who, all too fickle, greeted Jesus on Palm Sunday with joyful 'Hosannas' and yet, days later, shouted 'Crucify'. We are the ones who collude with the system, whether with the votes we cast, the money we spend or save, the 'news' stories we uncritically absorb, the opinions we parrot - or, perhaps most crucially, the silence or inaction or helplessness we allow ourselves to be sidelined into. We are complicit in the crucifixions going on around us - there is no place of innocence on which to stand.

And so the story goes. Nothing remains. Even Jesus' most faithful disciples have betrayed, denied, and scattered to the winds - their promises to stick with him to the end lying in tatters. Guilt is all consuming, shattering, paralysing. We are helpless, hopeless, until in Easter God comes breathing forgiveness.

That is one story of Holy Saturday. And it has much truth to it. But here, tentatively, is another...

The other, rarely told, rarely heard story of Holy Saturday is a story not of helpless guilt, but of responsible presence. Where the traditional telling places us 'somewhere else', anywhere else, but with the crucified one, this other story - a story of a handful of women, no less - is one of doggedly 'being there', staying, in the place of responsibility, of compassion, of - in a strange way - action.

There is a small group of women who, when the male disciples have fled in fear, follow Jesus all the way to the cross, and stay nearby, watching. They are witnesses. They are listeners. They hear his cry of god-forsakenness, they see his last breath.

This same group of women, so this submerged story goes, help take down the dead body and bury it, and get ready to return, a little over 24 hours later, to continue the work of caring for it - anointing it, embalming it, giving it those final touches of respect and love.

If, in the first version of the story, Holy Saturday is not waiting for anything, then in this second version it is most certainly a waiting time. Because these women have left the body in the tomb for the Sabbath - for a day, and no longer. They are pausing, stopping, because that is what the rhythm of the week demands, but they will return as soon as they can to do what needs to be done - 'early in the morning', 'while it is still dark', even.

In this version, we might imagine the Holy Saturday conversation going on around the kitchen table of one of the women. There is, of course, the grief at what has been, the bewilderment, the anger, the lostness and more. But there is also a doggedness, an insistence, that what the Romans and the priests imagine is the last word most emphatically shall not be. 'What needs to be done tomorrow?' is the question they will be chewing over, through tears and hugs no doubt, but with steely determination in their eyes.

Tonight, here in Hodge Hill, a handful of the more foolhardy amongst us will gather, as the sun goes down, in the wasteland on the edge of the Firs & Bromford estate - the rubbish-strewn no-man's-land in the shadow of the M6 in which, just last Sunday, we enacted the scenes of the Passion Story, from the Garden of the Gethsemane to the crucifixion at Golgotha.

When I advertised it, I suggested people brought something to sit on, a flask of tea to keep us warm, a lantern or torch for when it gets dark (there are no street lights in the wasteland), and a story of hope to share.

One of my newer friends and fellow-travellers here replied to the invitation: 'I can do trying to be hopeful - do you think that's as good as actually being hopeful?'. I replied that I thought that was 'a very Holy Saturday place to be,' that 'today is the ultimate day of loose ends, and of feeling whatever you're feeling.' When I invited people to bring 'stories of hope' tonight, I imagined that some might bring 'neatly tied-up stories of hope fulfilled', but that many more are 'likely to be loose-ended, elusive stories of hope glimpsed, deferred, reached for' - even apparently beyond our grasp.

We will finish, tonight, by throwing seed bombs, made earlier today in our community activity morning, into the hard-to-reach, bramble-entangled, rubble-ridden corners of the wasteland that framed our 'Bromford Crucifixion' last Sunday. A ridiculous, defiant gesture. But laced with the smallest seeds of a dogged, determined, barely-imaginable hope.

Easter will come to our helplessness and guilt, with the breath of forgiveness and liberation. But Easter will come too to our resilient, determined staying put and returning. As with that handful of women on that first Holy Saturday, God will come and do something with our stubborn presence, our small 'cracks' in the 'finishedness' of the story - and turn it into an eruption into the world-as-we-thought-we-knew-it.

We will stay with the crucified. We will keep our eyes open to their torture, and our ears open to their cries. We shall not be moved. We will doggedly show our compassion and love by our continued presence.

And together, we will rise.

Thursday, 28 March 2013

On 'Social Inclusion' and professional addicts

"We don't need more joined-up thinking - we need therapy." That was the core of my contribution to the launch of Birmingham's White Paper on Social Inclusion on Tuesday. It got a laugh. Which was nice. I envy the ability of professional comedians and know that I can never be one. But I was actually quite serious.

I've written here quite recently about the big questions we need to ask of the language of 'social inclusion' - even if we may genuinely believe our hearts are in the right places, even if we may be passionately working to tackle financial and social inequalities in our city and our country.

But Birmingham's White Paper has a bigger language problem. At its heart is a call 'to work together and take a different approach'. To explain that 'different approach', it uses the fine language of moving from a 'deficit-based' to an 'asset-based' approach, of 'evidence-based' and 'targeted' work, 'early intervention', 'outward facing services', 'utilising co-production in the design and delivery of services', 'collaboration and partnership working', 'public procurement' and a 'social inclusion champion's network'.

The trouble is, when the group of 40 people I was co-facilitating (about a quarter of those present) got together, to start turning these fine words into concrete actions, it became clear quite quickly that very few of them had much of a sense of what the words actually meant. My co-facilitator and I began with what we thought might be quite a quick exercise to 'translate' the jargon into more meaningful language, and were met with significant numbers of blank and quizzical faces. So... if the 'great and the good' of the statutory and voluntary sectors in Birmingham don't understand the 'different approach', how on earth is it going to filter out to the colleagues they work with every day, let alone what I hesitate to call the 'ordinary citizens' of Birmingham?

The problem emerged with even sharper clarity when we set to tackle the 'case studies'. There's a bit of a story behind the case studies themselves - they were themselves on their fourth draft, having begun as pretty desperate stories of desperately needy (dare I say 'troubled') individuals, depicted in isolation from any conceivable 'assets' (internal or external), networks of support, or resourceful neighbourhoods. As they were though, our groups were able to identify some of the 'assets' that were mentioned explicitly, and imagine (with my slightly subversive encouragement) a few that weren't, but could have been. But when we moved to the question of 'what needs to happen?', the dominant reaction was fascinating, if predictable. 'We need to get a CAF in place.' The Common Assessment Framework: a paradigm of 'joined-up thinking'; a multi-agency meeting of professionals with different areas of concern and expertise, getting together (perhaps with the mother of the child in question), to formulate an action plan. Of course. We would be neglecting our duties if we didn't.

Thank heavens for one lone voice (I was trying to be a good facilitator and keep relatively quiet). 'Don't you think, maybe, for the mum, a room full of professionals deciding what they were going to do for her, might actually be quite the opposite of enabling co-production to happen...?' The shock. The immediate, gut-rooted resistance. The sudden sense of threat and defensiveness. 'What do you mean? This is what we have to do!' The lone voice describes an alternative approach. Identify who the key people are in the person's life: gran, friends, neighbours, maybe. Bring them together. Allow them - including the mum, crucially - to come up with a plan that draws on their own strengths and resourcefulness - but also calls on professionals for specific support where that is needed. Again, defensiveness. 'But you can't do that! You never know what they might come up with!' Yes. Quite.

There was a sense, in our group, of just scratching the surface of an alternative possibility that was about as far away from immediate grasp as learning a whole different language. But there was, at the very least, a desire there to do just that - and that gave me just a little hope. Our session finished with one group member voicing a want and need to get together and 'learn more about this "asset-based" thing, and try and work out how we put it into practice' - with nods of agreement from many others.

The other small sign of hope was the contribution from a relatively young man from a theatre group. He'd been listening intently, and spoke relatively late in the conversation. What the boy in the case study needed, he suggested, was something to spark his imagination: to glimpse the possibility that family, and life, didn't have to be like this, could be different, more... He was dead right, of course. But I think he spoke for us - and of us - as a group of 'professionals' too. What we needed was some imagination: to glimpse the possibility that the people we 'do to', or 'work with', are more than our default definitions of them, more than a bundle of issues and needs and problems.

We also needed, as I think was clear as the conversation unfolded, the gift of patience. So often we are governed by a sense of urgency, and urgency pushes us into default responses. Our group work itself was testimony to the time and effort needed for the more creative, the more imaginative, the more 'asset-based', 'co-productive' response to emerge. But our systems and professional processes are not geared to giving that time and effort and patience. And as money gets tighter, as 'efficiency' becomes even more dominant, that time and effort and patience will be in even shorter supply.

Finally, our conversations highlighted the need for humility. It's not, I suspect, a word much used by, or associated with, many of the professions of my colleagues in that room. To be honest, us clergy aren't particularly good at it either - although it should at least be in our vocabulary. But the kind of humility emerging as a need within our conversations was that of letting go of our identities as 'providers', to encounter our 'clients' not as 'clients', but as fellow citizens, as fellow human beings. Realising that the answers, ultimately, come from them rather than us. Acknowledging that we have needs too, and limitations, and anxieties - that too often we dare not admit to anyone, least of all those people we work with.

I think (and I'm probably speaking as a priest first and a community development practitioner second) that to discover those things in our conversation is probably the greatest thing we could have achieved with an hour and a half of group work. It doesn't really resemble the 'action plan' which was the objective we were given as facilitators. But it does, I'd suggest, invite a moment of profound pausing within a process which, however well-intentioned, has the danger of careering like a juggernaut towards its stated end-point, but missing its actual goals completely.

The language of 'asset-based', 'co-production' approaches is good language - even if rather technical. I've lived and breathed it for much of the past year and written about it here and here. We need to recognise, however, that it stands in tension with some of the other aspects of the 'different approach' that Birmingham's White Paper advocates: 'targeting' particularly - which so easily allows us to slip back into defining people by their needs and problems and focusing on the worst, in isolation from their wholeness as human beings, their support networks, and their communities. The trouble is, particularly when money is tight, money controls everything - even how we look at and approach people. We have to ruthlessly prioritise, so we 'target' those who have least money - and we approach them as if they have least of everything.

We also need to recognise that we can get every professional in the city signed up to 'asset-based', 'co-production' language, and it can make not a scrap of difference on the ground. We are addicted to our need to 'provide services' - our very identity depends on it. We have convinced ourselves (because the evidence seems to suggest it) that if we do not 'provide services' then we will be failing the most vulnerable in our society. And that is, of course, true. But what we struggle to even contemplate is the possibility that, weaned off our professional addiction, we might be liberated to approach those we genuinely care about most, not just as 'vulnerable' but as 'gifted' human beings, not just as 'isolated' and 'excluded' but as already embedded in networks of care and support, however fragile and fractious they might often be.

This is anything but neoliberal 'Big Society'. It's not abandoning people and communities to 'sort themselves out' and letting market forces have their way. This 'different approach' needs real investment of real money. But it needs more: it needs investment of imagination, patience and humility by the professionals and the decision-makers who, let's be honest, have the biggest stake in it.

The alternative - clinging on to our professional learnt behaviour and problematising and pathologising those people and communities in the grip of poverty as 'needy' and 'troubled' - is just a stone's throw from the demonising, the scapegoating, the excluding, and the ruthless abandonment of the most vulnerable, in which our current government is so deeply engaged.

As a manifesto, the Birmingham White Paper has much to commend it. My fear is that it is dangerously close to being an Emperor, parading around to general acclaim, but with barely a shred of actual, tangible, clothing. The vital first steps for an addict include not just wanting to change, but admitting you have an addiction. What we need is not more 'joined-up thinking'. We need addiction therapy. And urgently.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

#BromfordJesus - The Gospel According to Us

I wrote here a little while back something of the story behind our Community Passion Play, here on the Firs & Bromford estate. Well, now it's happened. In the Easter snow! On a bitterly cold, snow-covered Sunday afternoon in East Birmingham, a crowd of 50 or so brave, hardy people gathered in the warmth of St Wilfrid's Parish Hall, and after tucking into some chicken, spring rolls and biryani produced by the amazing women of Firs & Bromford Women's Group (among them a Nigerian Christian, and Iraqi, Somali and Gambian Muslims), we ventured outside to greet Jesus and his disciples, arriving with donkey, to the sound of 'The Boys are Back in Town' sung by the incredible Daz Dolczech, 'wandering minstrel' with the most powerful voice, who accompanied us along the way...

Arriving at the Temple, Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers, sending coins scattering everywhere. In a corner, a priest collars Judas Iscariot:
Priest: you’ve been with this group for a year now – what have you found out?

Judas: he’s a good man, but he’s just not going to start a revolution. The others would fight tooth and nail to kick out the Romans, but he’s not having any of it.

Priest (grabs Judas by the ear): but now he’s challenging our authority, and the Temple itself! You know your job – keep your ears open, if you don’t want to lose them!
Jesus sends his disciples on ahead to find somewhere for the Passover meal, and off we go down the street, Daz belting out 'No you won't fool the children of the revolution...'

We turn a corner, and in front of us is a table and chairs, laid out for a meal...

Jesus washes his friends' feet, despite their protests:
Jesus: Is it wrong to show kindness to each other? A simple thing, but a humble thing? Enough of the ‘Lords’ and ‘Masters’! I show you love. I want you to show others love.
He shares bread and wine, warns of dark times ahead, and Judas quietly slips away. As we walk on, Peter and Mary are deep in conversation:
Peter: I’ve got a bad feeling about this – all this talk of blood and denials, it’s as if he wants to die – you know him better than anyone, what’s going on, Mary?
Mary (puts hand on his arm): it’s about love, Peter – it is a revolution, but not the kind you were expecting – he’s trusting you, will you trust him?
The soundtrack slips gently from Madness' 'It Must Be Love' into Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart', and we reach 'the wasteland' - a large piece of derelict, rubbish-strewn land in the corner of our estate, abandoned some 20 years ago after the demolition of two tower blocks, built as they were on a flood plain. Here is our Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus and his friends go to pray, and where Judas brings the Roman soldiers. The disciples draw their swords, but Jesus is having none of it:
Jesus: No, put your swords away! Haven’t you learnt by now? This is not my way. If you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
As the soldiers take Jesus away, the disciples run in the opposite direction. The mood is getting more and more tense, as Daz's voice rings out again: 'Don't offer us legal protection / They use the law to commit crime / I dread to think what the future will bring / When we're living in gangster time.'

We may have gone our separate ways, but we all catch up with each other again, further into the wasteland, by a disused substation, taken over as Pontius Pilate's palace. Pilate - bewildered by this so-called 'king', who claims that 'my kingdom is not from this world' and 'I am my father's son... a witness to the truth' - wrestles with what 'truth' could possibly mean...
Pilate: Truth... Truth... What is truth...? The priests want you dead – do you know that? The problem I have, is that apart from the scene in the Temple, you have caused no trouble. However, the priests and the Temple provide good revenue, they keep the people in check and out of trouble. You, on the other hand, have stirred up the people, giving them hope. And that could cause me trouble. And that, you don’t want to do. Believe me...
 In the crowd, one of Jesus' friends is spotted - and three times denies he even knows him...

Pilate's 'idea', to release a prisoner, backfires, of course, when the crowd choose the murderer Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate washes his hands, pointing the finger of responsibility firmly at anyone other than himself. The Roman soldiers take over, and Jesus makes the slow journey towards the end, as Johnny Cash's 'Hurt' echoes around the wasteland...

'I hurt myself today / To see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / The only thing that's real... What have I become / My sweetest friend / Everyone I know goes away / In the end... I wear this crown of thorns / Upon my liar's chair / Full of broken thoughts / I cannot repair...'

And Jesus is crucified. Underneath the towering pillars of the M6, which cuts our estate off from our neighbours, from the big Jaguar factory of Castle Bromwich that once gave employment to so many local people, from the Fort Shopping Park, just a stone's throw from some of our houses but 3 bus rides away by public transport and a good deal further out of reach when you compare the price tags with the money in many of our pockets...

'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' shouts Jesus. And as the echoes of his unanswered cry fade away, 'It... is... done...' he gasps.

And the Roman centurion, played by Phil whose idea the play was and whose re-telling of the story we have followed, kneels in the snow and speaks to us, the crowd:
Roman 2: I have watched this man enter Jerusalem. I have watched him argue with these priests. I have watched him turn the other cheek when he could have escaped. I have watched him betrayed. This man’s kingdom is not from this earth, so I’ve been told. So I leave this up to you. Was this man truly the Son of God? It is for each of you to decide.
And Daz's voice, one final time, wells up with the words of Maya Angelou's defiant poem 'And still I rise' (adapted and set to music by Ben Harper):
'You may write me down in history / With your bitter twisted lies / You may trod me down in the very dirt / And still like the dust I'll rise... 
Now did you want to see me broken / Bowed head and lowered eyes / Shoulders fallen down like tear drops / Weakened by my soulful cries / Does my confidence upset you / Don't you take it awful hard / Cause I walk like I've got a diamond mine / Breakin' up in my front yard...
So you may shoot me with your words / You may cut me with your eyes / And I'll rise, I'll rise, I'll rise / Out of the shacks of history's shame / Up from a past rooted in pain / I'll rise, I'll rise, I'll rise.'
And that was it. About 45 minutes from start to finish. But a story within which all of us involved, cast and crowd, have found a place. A story which has opened itself to being owned, translated, unfolded afresh, by a local man of deep passion and soul who can clown around as Widow Twanky or kneel in the snow and challenge us to make decisions about truth and life. A story which Phil offered back to us Christians who often imagine we have exclusive rights on it - with gracious hospitality and infectious enthusiasm for us to glimpse his vision and join him on his journey. And a story too which allowed itself to be moulded and re-strung by the landscape and histories of our estate, by our streets and squares and forgotten wasteland, by our experience of being forgotten, overlooked and let down ourselves.

And somewhere, somewhere within spitting distance of a cold crucifixion, in an abandoned wasteland underneath the thundering M6, the quiet but resilient, defiant hopes of the story, of the song, of our estate, of our hearts and those of our neighbours near and far - somewhere there those hopes met, embraced, united, and stirred. Whisper it, sing it, shout it, blog it, whatever. The crucified God is in the abandoned places and with the abandoned people. And we will rise.

[thanks to Rachel Muers for pointing out Maya Angelou as the original source of Ben Harper's song 'I will rise']

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

'Social Inclusion', 'squeezed' and 'broken' middles

Partly for the PhD, and partly because life and research are flowing into each other a lot at the moment, I've been doing a bit of thinking around the language we use to describe 'poverty' and 'inequality'.

I found a fascinating paper which helped to shape the international anti-poverty campaign 'The Rules', which explores the pros and cons of some of our most familiar metaphors for inequality:

  • inequality as horizontal distance ('spread', 'gap', 'divide', etc.) - it's 'tangible', they suggest, helping us make sense of an otherwise abstract concept, but the problem is that 'gaps are about end-states', as a metaphor 'it remains silent about how we arrived at this divided place'
  • inequality as vertical difference ('top' and 'bottom') - the big plus is that it gives us some sense of causality and connection: 'People are on top because others are below them.' But the problem is the flip-side of this: it 'introduces a hierarchy with a sense of superiority and deservedness for those on top', and it allows the pervasive idea of "trickle down" economics 'to make sense'.
  • inequality as imbalance (e.g. the image of the weighing scales - 'when one side goes up, the other goes down') - again, it brings 'interconnection' to the foreground, but it triggers 'zero-sum thinking', encouraging 'those on top' in their determination 'to stop any attempt to alter the status quo.'
What the paper proposes, instead, is to describe inequality as a barrier. If we see 'life as a journey', then 'when things go well, we often say they are moving forward and when they're not we're stuck in a rut.' A barrier, they suggest, is something that denies people access: 'Access means you are no longer bound. This affords individuals the freedom to give their talents to the economy, and the nation, in turn, to benefit from what every individual offers.' It's an image that enables connections to be made between rich and poor, and encourages us to see reducing inequality as a co-operative exercise of 'removing barriers'. The objective for 'The Rules', they suggest, is 'to replace [the zero-sum, winner-takes-all] game with another one that reframes the priorities and outcomes of the system into a team-oriented game where success is measured by the increasing quality of life for all people.'

So far, so good? And familiar, in many ways. The language of 'barrier' sounds remarkably like the language - common in UK policy-speak since Tony Blair - of 'social exclusion'. Surely it's all about working for a more 'inclusive' society - just as, in Birmingham at the moment, we're committing ourselves to become a more 'inclusive' city?

But there is still a problem - a big problem - with this language of 'social exclusion / inclusion'. I came across another paper, from that quirky academic field called 'discourse analysis', which punches a big hole in our desire for 'inclusion'. Analysing policy documents and speeches from the last Labour government, Veronika Koller and Paul Davidson argue that:
  • 'social exclusion / inclusion' paints a picture of society as 'a bounded space with a normative [i.e. 'good'] centre and a problematic periphery,' with the aim of policy and practice being to move people 'towards the centre'
  • those who claim to be addressing 'social exclusion' cast themselves in a positive light, 'addressing our visceral need to be protected / sheltered / on the inside'
  • by using 'social exclusion' as a noun, rather than a verb, we are distracted from the vital question of 'who is responsible for the excluding?' (which may well, in reality, be precisely those 'on the inside') and how the 'excluded' came to be so
  • those who find themselves 'on the outside' (who are often further segregated when described as being 'hard to reach') therefore, apparently, have no one responsible for that state, 'apart from themselves perhaps' - it also deprives them of any sense of positive agency or life 'on the outside' (because positive agency and life are defined precisely by being 'on the inside')
  • rather than addressing the causes of 'exclusion' (i.e. inequality), policies focus instead on short-time ways of 'bringing the excluded in', particularly through getting people into paid work
  • 'social exclusion' as a noun becomes a 'malleable object', an object which can be 'addressed', 'measured', 'reduced', which in turn makes 'voluntary and community groups' enlisted in the 'social inclusion' agenda 'accountable to government, aligned with its models of society and bound to its agenda'
  • by deflecting attention from 'the interconnections within society and how action within one sphere directly impacts upon another', policy-makers are therefore enabled to present themselves as 'problem-solvers', while at the same time 'pursuing policies that may work toward perpetuating inequality'
It's a dense argument to follow, but a powerful one. What we need, when describing poverty and inequality, are language and images which highlight the connections - relational and causal - between rich and poor, which foreground the normally-hidden negative agency (i.e. self-interested perpetuation of inequality) of the rich and positive agency (i.e. lives that are far from the 'subnormal' that the Daily Mail would have us believe) of the poor.

We also need, to go back to 'The Rules', a 'creation story' for poverty. How did it come to be? This might be one way of telling it:

"Poverty arose recently in human history. For tens of thousands of years, it simply did not exist on anything like the scale we live with today. When everyone lived in small tribes and shared the spoils of hunting and gathering, it was normal for everyone to have enough to eat when food was available. These tribes persisted across time by cooperating with one another and being sure everyone was taken care of. When bullies and cheaters tried to assert power and take more than their share, they were kept in place by the collective sanctions of the group. Then everything changed. Agriculture was invented and the tribes could settle in one place, forming great city states as their populations grew. As these city states became larger and more complex, forms of aggressive competition became normalized and then institutionalized. Domineering elites formed from the funneling of wealth from the working masses to islands of privilege. This overriding of social sanctions eventually led to the wholesale capture of many essential rule making structures by elites, and a world in which the prioritization and protection of their own privilege over the welfare of the many became the norm. Thus was poverty born in the shadow of imperial thinking and it has been with us in one form or another ever since." (The Rules)

An alternative way of telling the 'story', and just as powerful, I discovered in the work of Scotland's 'Poverty Truth Commission':

I emerged from these two papers, and Alastair McIntosh's reflection above, with a couple of thoughts.

The first was a renewed concern for Labour's recent favourite phrase, 'the squeezed middle'. Targeted at what they think are their 'swing voters', it no doubt has power. But it is morally dangerous. Whether we imagine it as a 'horizontal' or a 'vertical' metaphor, to be 'squeezed' you have to be put under pressure from both sides. The metaphor therefore legitimises attacks on the poor as somehow responsible for 'the middle' being 'squeezed' - when it is clear the significant agency comes yet again from the rich and powerful elite.

My second thought is that there is another kind of 'middle' that we need to bring into view. It's what Gillian Rose called 'the broken middle' - and while her thought is mostly beyond me, drawing on a really helpful and brief summary of her thinking, I'll attempt an even briefer brief sketch here...
  • We all want to feel innocent, in the right - which means 'others' are in the wrong, guilty
  • Most utopian movements have based themselves on this 'solidarity of the innocent' - against a 'guilty other' - or have sought to escape completely from the messy reality of the world
  • Rose proposes an ethics of engagement in 'the broken middle': the messy, complex, compromising reality of the world
  • This requires us to sacrifice our innocence and our desire to be right, and instead discover ourselves as part of a 'solidarity of the shaken' - part of communities bound together by their shared acknowledgement not of innocence but of compromise and guilt
  • To live in the middle is to experience the impossibility of reconciling different positions, and to be 'torn apart' - but this is where the sacred is
  • The key virtue of the broken middle is 'anxiety' - allowing ourselves to be unsettled, uncertain, insecure - within a community of people who have very different and deeply held ideas
I think I'm suggesting we start renouncing any images of society where we, conveniently, find ourselves 'in the middle' - 'socially included', 'squeezed' or otherwise 'innocent'. With 'The Rules', I reckon there is some value in that metaphor of 'life as a journey' and inequality as the actions of some placing 'barriers' in the way of many others. With Koller and Davidson, we need to foreground the agency of all involved - we are 'all in it together' - but we need to recognise much more clearly and honestly the effects of our actions and inactions on each other. With McIntosh, we need to acknowledge the violence at the heart of it, and that finding a way forward from such violence is going to be anything but quick and painless. And with Gillian Rose, we need to invite all to meet somewhere in 'the broken middle' - where our stories, our lives, our truths, can be told and heard, not from a position of innocence, but of 'shakenness'.

The thing is, many of my neighbours are already living in 'the broken middle'. They know all too well what 'the messy, complex, compromising reality of the world' feels like. I suspect it's the richest in our society that will have the  most trouble getting there - getting over their presumed 'innocence' and the barriers of their own making, to find themselves 'included' in the 'solidarity of the shaken'...

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Our Community Passion Play

Phil Howkins is one of those people who’s very hard to say No to. His enthusiasm (and he’s got bucket-loads of it) is infectious, and you very easily find yourself getting drawn into his latest big idea. Phil was one of our ‘Unsung Heroes’ at the awards ceremony we organised a year ago. When we asked him at the time ‘if you could find 2 or 3 neighbours to join you, what would you start in your neighbourhood?’, Phil talked about his passion to start a Theatre Group on the Firs & Bromford estates. Not black tie trips into Birmingham to see Shakespeare at The Rep, but local people getting together to put on theatrical productions here, on the estate, for local people to enjoy.

With some support from our ‘Unsung Heroes’ fund, as well as some funding from Star People (which helps local entrepreneurs try out, set up and build their own businesses), Phil got a group together to put on a panto, Aladdin, in the Bromford Community Centre, just before Christmas. Our very own Paul Wright from The Hub was a very colourful genie, and Tim Evans (variously known as local Councillor and Iona’s Dad) was the sinister Abanazer. It was a great show, loads of fun, and you could tell how much many of those taking part had grown in confidence in the process.

But before the panto had even happened, Phil had started thinking about the next project. A number of us from church were in a meeting one day when Phil came out with it: ‘I want to put on a Community Passion Play’. Brilliant idea, we all said. ‘Will you join me?’ he asked. Of course we would, we said. And so just before Christmas, Phil was round my house one evening, asking me to tell him the Passion story as I saw it – and went away laden with books from my shelves, different translations and re-tellings of the gospel stories.

He did his homework over Christmas, and in January we set down again, he dictated the script, and I typed it up on my laptop. We got some funding through Near Neighbours, which has helped us pay for a real donkey, some publicity, and a film crew who will capture it on the day and turn it into a DVD to give to local schools. We began to recruit a cast (local residents from the estate, people from church, and many of us who are both). We asked the Firs & Bromford Women’s Group (mostly Muslim women, who were delighted to be asked) if they would provide food for ‘the crowd’ at ‘the Last Supper’. And we walked through the estate to find good scenes for the drama: the Jerusalem Temple (St Wilfrid’s RC Church steps), the Last Supper (a green ‘square’ just at the bottom of Berrandale Road), the Garden of Gethsemane (into the ‘wasteland’ that once had tower blocks, between Newport Road and the M6), Pilate’s Palace (a disused substation), and finally Golgotha, the place of crucifixion (just under the towering pillars of the M6 itself). 

When it all comes together on Palm Sunday afternoon, Sunday 24th March, 3pm, it will probably be a bit chaotic, a bit ‘unfinished’ – but it will be full of passion, and it will be ‘earthed’ in the day-to-day reality of the place in which many of us live. It will, in other words, be ‘the Gospel according to Us’ (as a recent passion play in Port Talbot, starring Martin Sheen, was titled).

If we as a church had decided to do ‘a Community Passion Play’, we would no doubt have thrown ourselves into it, and might well have been able to persuade some of our neighbours to come along and watch. The fact that we have been invited, by one of our neighbours and friends, to become part of his ‘big idea’, to journey with him as he explores and unfolds and re-tells the story, is a gift beyond measure. With ‘Unsung Heroes’ – when we were seeking out people of compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope – we were deliberately trying to ‘look for what God was doing in our neighbourhood, and joining in with it’. With the Firs & Bromford Community Passion Play, we are being invited to step into our most treasured story, afresh, and to discover it living and breathing at the heart of our local community, as strangers and neighbours become friends, and God’s footsteps are followed down our street.

Making sense of 'mission', Hodge Hill style

On a recent training day for a colleague I'm currently supervising, we were presented with the following model for the 'journey of discipleship'...

And it set me thinking. Actually, first it set me seething, and then I started thinking. Now, I could spend paragraphs detailing every detail of what's wrong with it, but that would be pretty unedifying stuff. Much more interesting, I think, is to begin to articulate constructive alternatives. But to do so, a little bit of critique is probably a prior necessity...

Firstly, there's the implied - actually, fairly explicit - hierarchy. The goal of discipleship, apparently, is to become part of an 'army' of 'leaders'. Now, my reading of the gospels can sometimes be a bit eccentric, but I'm really not sure where the descriptions of Jesus' calls to his disciples might suggest such a thing. Peter on the beach, post-crucifixion-resurrection, might be invited to 'feed my sheep' - but he's still called to 'follow me', and there ain't much evidence of him joining an 'army'.

Secondly, there's what it assumes about church. That somehow it's a body of concentric circles, the 'leaders' being in the middle. In real life, of course, church is a collection of overlapping groups and contexts, and where we might find ourselves 'leading' in one context, we would do well to realise in a different context that we come as 'visitor'.

Which leads me on to a more critical flaw. The suggestion that when you're 'outside' it's all about 'receiving', and when you're 'inside' you make a shift to 'giving'. What assumptions is this making?

For a start, pretty obviously it's working with a 'deficit' model of faith: people 'outside' the faith community (the 'dry bones', no less!) are 'lacking' something, which they then 'receive', and are then equipped to 'give' to others. Biblical scholars might point us to the 'handing over' of which Paul talks (with reference to the beginnings of the practice of sharing bread and wine in remembrance of Jesus) - but it should also be noted in that context that the same word for 'handing over' is used of Judas' betrayal of Jesus. We would do well to remember that what we imagine we are 'passing on' in faithfulness, we may well also be 'betraying' in the process. The implication also that those of us 'inside' somehow stop 'receiving' seems to suggest that, in actual fact, 'discipleship', the art of following Jesus, really stops once you're 'in'.

What it says about human beings, then, I find more than a little scary. Prayer, conversation, social action, even parties, are merely the 'preparatory' stuff for Christian faith. Once you've 'got it', it's all about the hard work of 'training', 'giving', 'specialising' and 'leading'. 'The glory of God,' to misquote Irenaeus, is not 'humanity fully alive,' but 'individuals trained up to lead.'

So much for the critique (and don't even get me started on 'slipping God in' covertly somewhere between the first benign 'social event' and the full-on 'enquirers' course'...). What about the reconstruction for our context here in Hodge Hill?

Well, I'm not sure whether to begin at the 'beginning' or the 'end'. And that's perhaps the first constructive point. I don't think discipleship is a neat, linear journey. As a journey into a mystery - the Mystery - there's a hell of a lot of 'one step forwards, two steps back', of circling around, and of going off on tangents that turn out to be heading straight into the open arms of God.

Which means, secondly, that those we might class as apparently 'outside' the furthest fringes of 'church' (and even the boundaries between 'inside' and 'outside' are so much more fuzzy than we're sometimes led to believe) might well often be closer to God than we are ourselves. So let's ditch the deficit model. It stinks. Especially in neighbourhoods like ours here in Hodge Hill, where people are all-too-used to being told, and treated as if, they are 'lacking', 'needy', 'deprived' and 'dependent'. Let's start working on the 'asset' - or 'giftedness' - model of human beings - that each woman, man or child we encounter has within them passions, gifts and skills, knowledge and wisdom, faith, that are integral to them bearing God's image and impress, and which they breathe with the breath of the Spirit.

So thirdly, our idea of mission here is to discover the places of common ground that turn out to be holy ground. Looking, as we do here, for evidence of compassion, generosity, trust, friendship and hope, as signs of God's kingdom springing up around us, we find ourselves as much guests as hosts, as much invited as inviters. The holy ground is by no means within our control, our familiarity, or even our understanding - we discover it as seekers, visitors, disciples - and in it, on it, we discover our neighbours and their giftedness.

Of course, we may have a role, sometimes, in co-creating spaces where the gifts and skills and faith of others are drawn out and enabled to flourish - what I've labelled 'over-accepting' in other blog posts here - but funnily enough, those co-created spaces are also the places where our own gifts and skills and faith are drawn out and enabled to flourish. And those spaces, where trust has been built sufficiently, might be spaces where we can share our 'whys?' and the stories of our roots and our longings - but we have found here that we have got to know our own stories better, more fully, through working, being, waiting, talking, listening alongside others very different to us.

Oh, and in case it's not obvious, prayer and conversation, parties and social action (let's rephrase that as 'action in solidarity', or 'making change happen together') happen in those first encounters, but also just happen to be hallmarks of what we sometimes call 'the kingdom of God'. They're what being a disciple, being human, being fully alive, are all about.

Want an example? I'll post a blog in just a moment on the amazing, evolving, Firs & Bromford Community Passion Play. As examples go, it's about as good as it gets.