On one of those rare evenings when both Janey (my wife) and I were at home together, with a bit of time to spare, we were chatting over dinner, reflecting on our respective days. Janey had taken Adia, our 2-year-old, to a well-known franchised music session for toddlers. It had been alright, Janey commented, but over-structured, with little space for the children's own ideas, creativity and spontaneity. At the end of the session, a parent of one of the many lively children in the class went across to the 'teacher' and nervously apologised: "I'm really sorry she ran across the rug". The material in the middle of the circle, apparently, was only for the designated dolls of the franchise, not for children to run across.
We reflected together on the contrast between that, and our own 'Play Cafe' which we've been running locally for the last two years. We've been blessed with a professional musician for a significant amount of that time, and one who is particularly gifted in encouraging, building children's (and adults'!) confidence, and 'taking on' all kinds of spontaneous and crazy suggestions, interruptions and contributions, and enabling them to turn into something unexpectedly, unimaginably wonderful, in which everyone feels included, and to which even the most non-conformist children (and adults!) feel like they have made a significant contribution. There was something about that franchised music session and its hapless (if permanently smiley), slavishly rule-enforcing (and, we guess, slavishly rule-following) 'teacher', that was the polar opposite of our experience at Play Cafe. For children who will otherwise get no experience of making music together, it was 'alright' - but it was far from enabling the potential of children, adults, and even the 'teacher' herself, to flourish. It relied not on drawing out the best gifts and skills of those present (including the 'teacher'), but on one person following a given set of procedures as consistently as possible, and effectively 'passing on' these procedures to her students.
It struck me, as we talked, that this is how most franchises seem to work. Another contrast might be between the rigidly-prescriptive Alpha course (based on a set of videos, and some structured questions for the conversation which follows), and something we've started doing here in Hodge Hill that we call 'Doubting Aloud' - taking an issue, a question, a 'wondering', and/or a 'struggle' (already a contribution from the group, rather than a programme decided in advance), and teasing it out together over a couple of hours, sharing our own experiences, resonances, questions, wonderings and struggles, bringing insights, where they seem appropriate, from Christian tradition and other sources of wisdom - not to find an 'answer', or a consensus, but at the very least to find some language to articulate our 'wrestlings' with a little more clarity. And clarity we have often found, in the most richly diverse sense, often with dissonances and contradictions remaining (or newly discovered), but horizons broadened, commitments deepened, explorations re-energised.
I've written before here and here about food banks, and some of the problems I have with them - and particularly with the Christian churches' enthusiasm to grasp them as an 'opportunity', or 'necessary response' to our present dire political and social climate. I find myself wondering how much the 'franchise' model (and there's a particularly hefty franchise that has almost a monopoly on the 'foodbank business') is part of the problem. I don't doubt the goodness and commitment and compassion of those who have set up, and volunteered in, the many and growing food banks around the country - but I do wonder how much 'the rules' of the franchise create a rigidity that necessarily squeezes out the possibility of those who come to use the food bank coming with something to contribute, with questions and challenges for 'the system', with gifts - however apparently 'awkward' - which might result in unexpected, reciprocal, transformative relationships that 'go somewhere', rather than the grim transactions of unquestioning, desperate dependency which 'the system' currently seems to be perpetuating and multiplying.
The alternative? I've tried to describe it, or at least gesture towards it, repeatedly in this blog - it is perhaps what this blog is all about. I've repeatedly used the improvisational language of 'over-accepting', and have tried to flesh out what that looks like in practice in Hodge Hill. It also goes under the name of 'asset-based community development' (or ABCD), and I've talked about that a lot here too. But I'm increasingly realising that to truly understand what this might be, we need to sharpen our understanding of what it isn't. And it's not a franchise, and can never be. It's not a model to replicate, it's a call to conversion.
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