Tuesday, 28 March 2017

An urgent slowness

I was invited to present at a conference on 'A Future for Post-Industrial Communities?', organised by Hope Not Hate and the Leeds Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change. It was a very thought-provoking and energising couple of days, with some very passionate and insightful presentations and conversations. Oddly, though, it seemed I was the only speaker from an explicitly 'faith community' perspective, and one of very few who both worked in and lived in the place they were talking about. This is what I said (with the slides I used with it):

This is where I live and work: the Firs & Bromford, a 1950s & 60s outer estate, in east Birmingham, tower blocks and maisonettes, semis & terraces, and a rapidly-changing population, with growing Somali, Nigerian and eastern European communities, among others.

We’re facing urgent challenges (globally, nationally, locally):
Deepening austerity, poverty & inequality;
Deepening divisions, simmering racism that sometimes explodes;
and in the background to it all, a global environmental crisis, which will force more and more people to move en masse, and yet will also force us all to live more locally.

In neighbourhoods like mine, we don’t just receive an unjust sharing of resources... we've also witnessed over the years the crumbling of neighbourly relationships, and losses in our individual and collective sense of identity... often a result of internalising the negative messages of outsiders (politicians and media especially).

We call this ‘the wasteland’: one corner of the Bromford estate, on which the City Council built tower blocks in the ‘60s, which rapidly started sinking into the mud (who knew – it was a flood plain!)... they pulled them down in the ‘90s, and the wasteland has been abandoned ever since – even though many local people walk through it every day, on their way to school, or the shops...

And it was in the wasteland, one wintry April afternoon, under the concrete pillars of the M6 motorway, that we crucified Jesus... in the first Bromford Community Passion Play. ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’ cried the dying man – and the echoes seemed to resonate with some of the deepest stories of our neighbourhood...

...and out of the silence that followed, these defiant words of Maya Angelou sang out:

So, if there’s one question that guides our work locally more than any other, it’s this:
Passion can mean suffering, of course – where’s the pain? where does it hurt?
But it also means, what fires you up? what are the things that make you get up in the morning? what are your deepest loves? what brings you to life?

Phil & Flo are passionate about their neighbourhood, our neighbourhood. Flo’s lived on the Bromford for over 30 years, and if she issues orders, you jump to it. Phil’s joined Flo here more recently. He works in one of the few remaining local factories. But his real passion is theatre: putting on a performance, making people laugh.

The Bromford Theatre Group was Phil’s baby. He started it from scratch. From Christmas pantos to Halloween ghost walks, from Mad Hatter’s Tea Parties to the Community Passion Play, the theatre group gets people involved, draws out their passions and gifts, gets them doing stuff they’d never dream of... builds community, and energises people for action.

But what of the local church? That’s what you’d expect a vicar to be talking about, I’d guess. You might also expect me to talk about church initiatives in the community, church-run projects filling the gaps in service-provision where the state has retreated, caring for the vulnerable, feeding the hungry and welcoming the stranger, just like Jesus did...
The trouble is, it’s actually quite easy to do that stuff. And it's really, really tempting. Being the central agent in the story, doing things ‘for’ others, standing up to the evil oppressors, following in the footsteps of the social justice superhero Jesus...
The trouble is, so often that makes us Christians part of the problem. Part of the power inequality problem, the white problem, the male problem, the middle-class, do-gooder activist problem... Perhaps identifying with Jesus, identifying with the divine, is about the last thing people like me should be doing... So what’s the alternative?

Well, how about finding inspiration in The Full Monty instead? Not identifying with the brave blokes who got their kit off, though. Identifying instead with the women-folk in the film who teased them, wolf-whistled them, raised an eyebrow to nudge them towards being the men they didn’t imagine they could be...
In Hodge Hill, with only slightly less sexual tension, we’ve searched out our local ‘unsung heroes’, those ordinary people who make a big difference in our neighbourhoods, in quiet, often hidden ways. Often people who lead from the middle, not from the front. People with passion, gifts and skills that they’re willing to share more widely with their neighbours.
At our weekly Open Door drop-in, the DWP think we hand out food parcels and help people do their job searches. And we do. But it’s much more important to us that we share food together, unearth people’s passions together, dream and plot and grow new stuff together, and where we can, build solidarity to challenge the systems together...

But people don’t often come to us without us first going to them. So our Street Connectors are out every week, knocking on doors, asking people what they’re passionate about... not asking them what they want us to do for them, but what we can do together to be the change we want to see...

And most recently, we’ve started trying to bring together people for Community Conversations, across differences of age, ethnic background, class and politics, to share openly and honestly what we love and where we struggle with our neighbourhood, our city, our country, and what we can do together to make all 3 better.

Geographer Paul Chatterton has written an article titled ‘“Give up activism”...’. He reflects on how environmental activists blockading an oil refinery unintentionally cast the petrol tanker drivers as their ‘others’, on the ‘opposing side’. Instead, he argues for giving up the moral high ground of ‘activism’, to ‘learn to walk with [our] others on uncommon ground’.
We (we the church, we the paid 'activists') are learning something similar in Hodge Hill. That the only meaningful way we’re going to address the urgent challenges is by letting go of our need to always ‘take the initiative’ and instead to seek to ‘hear to speech’ the gifts and challenges of our neighbours. And that kind of change can only ever happen slowly. But it’s a kind of slowness that has never been more urgent.

It may be only us in Hodge Hill who need to hear this from our neighbours, but maybe you do too, from the people you’re passionate about:

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