Monday, 26 December 2016

This is Joy

In the midst 
Of a world of darkness
Where the news carries anger and pain
This is joy:
The fragile song
Of a spirit that dares to dance
A sliver of silver in a stricken world
A simple sign
That hope lives on
As the earth reaches to heaven.

In the midst 
Of a world of fear
Where the news carries division and hurt
This is joy:
The fragile life
Of a spirit that dares to come
A sliver of silver in a darkening sky
A simple sign
That hope lives on
As heaven touches the earth.


Merry Christmas!

Friday, 16 December 2016

A house of Hope

Perhaps I should leave the dust to settle on this week for a little longer before I write this post, and I am sure there will be further reflection to follow, but after one of the stranger weeks in my life it feels important to write something here... to write something entirely in my own words.

For context, (in case those reading this don't know what I am talking about), the week in a nutshell is that having bought a house to house destitute asylum seekers we, together with the charity we are working with Hope Projects, took the story to the media. We thought the local paper might be interested. In reality, the story went viral and has been published and shared by a wide variety of media outlets (with varying degrees of accurate representation.)

Maybe the story has been told quite enough: but the difference here is that I can explain myself how I want to and tell the story in my own words. No-one is asking me questions which elicit particular answers which may or may not contain the essence of what I want to say; no-one gets to cut which bits they think are newsworthy; and no-one gets to just make stuff up.

For probably 18 months or more, we have been reflecting on and working towards the idea of buying a house to house destitute asylum seekers. This was no "random" act but the fruit of a life of prayer over the last few years which made it seem possible.

The issues around destitution in the asylum system are of course highly complex, but it remains a scandal to me that in the 21st century in one of the richest countries on earth, those who come here seeking safety and freedom find themselves abandoned with nothing. As stewards of our wealth, we decided we could make a difference, undoubtedly to those who live in the property, but also more widely in terms of the message of welcome we are sending and where we are choosing to stand.

We are very excited that, after all the prayer and reflection, after the house hunting and organising, the project is finally coming to fruition and some of the most vulnerable people in Birmingham will be moving in to the house. We are very pleased that they will be safe and warm while they work with Hope to potentially find a way back into a system that has thus far failed them.

I'll be honest, I was, initially, somewhat ambivalent about going to the media with the story. We know of many, many other people who are doing things which are just as good and better to help this and other vulnerable groups. We know people who, in whatever way, are quietly getting on with doing what they can to make the world a better place. We didn't want to stand up and shout look at us, aren't we great. I think our friends know that. I hope some of those who have read the story do too.

If we agreed to talk to the media it was because we recognised that this could be a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on a hidden issue: destitute asylum seekers have no recourse to public funds, they don't, to all intents and purposes, officially even exist. It was a chance to raise awareness of Hope Projects, who struggle on a shoestring budget to provide a lifeline: practically, emotionally, legally to those on the very margins of our society. It was a chance to remind ourselves and others, that, in the midst of the complexity and enormity of these issues we do not have to remain paralysed but can, each in our own small way, do something. It was a chance to communicate an alternative, positive message around the issue of asylum, one of hope and trust and welcome: one which needs to be heard.

And I have no regrets. (well, maybe a few minor ones about mistakes along the way...) I am very grateful for (most of) the coverage we have received and the opportunity to share some of what inspired us to take this step. Even those news outlets who have chosen to invent both the facts and the quotes in their articles have still, generally, presented the story in a positive way, and given the general attitudes to those seeking asylum from certain sections of the press, that feels like no bad thing. I have been completely overwhelmed and deeply humbled by the response to the story, and by the affirmation we have encountered.

But I would be wrong not to admit that we have also experienced comments which have been very hurtful and have had a taste of what it feels like to be misrepresented. At times it has been extremely stressful. At times this week I have felt emotionally drained and physically exhausted. There have been tears.

It has been only a week. It has, perhaps, been valuable in giving me the tiniest of tastes of what it must feel like to be constantly the subject of misrepresentation and hatred. It has also, though, given me an insight into how valuable the positive messages of support are, I have been upheld by the support and love of both friends and strangers and for this I am very grateful. It has served as a reminder that, while it may not feel like much, our simple messages of welcome to those on the margins undoubtedly make a real difference.

If the last week has achieved anything at all, I hope it has been to inspire others to be part of that alternative discourse, the one that say "you are welcome." I hope that we have played our small part in helping that whispered message of hope, acceptance and love, to be ever so slightly louder. 

Friday, 2 December 2016

On Our Doorstep

As you probably know, we live in a church in city centre Birmingham. It is, in many ways, a strange place to live: our nearest neighbours are mostly not other homes, but shops and offices. Those who sleep nearby are usually transient: the luckier ones, in local hotels; the unluckier, in local doorways.

Sadly, we have become accustomed, though I hope not hardened, to the reality of seeing homeless people on the streets of the city centre, and often, quite literally, on our doorstep. Even in the three and a half years we have been here, we don’t need statistical evidence to tell us that homelessness in our city has increased: we have seen it happening before our very eyes.

One evening, a few weeks ago, when we were returning late in the evening from I don’t remember where, we came to the front door of the church to find a homeless man curled up in a sleeping bag on the porch.

I would be the first to admit that the homeless community, if such a disparate group can be described as such, is not one with which I have found it easy to engage. I am not proud of the fact that often, I ‘walk by on the other side’ but I can’t deny the reality. There are good reasons: I am busily engaged with other things which are equally valid and valuable ministries; and less good ones: mostly tied up, almost certainly in fear and prejudice, but couched more comfortably in the language of complex challenges which are beyond my capacities.

But this particular encounter has stayed with me. It struck me because of the exchange of words, and in particular because of his opening words to us as we approached: “I’m sorry”

It struck me because it drew attention to our creation of and participation in the kind of world in which a man forced to sleep on a church door step feels he needs to apologise to the one going in to sleep in a warm bed inside. Those words stopped me in my tracks and made me deeply, deeply sad for our society.

He explained he had chosen the spot because our CCTV made him feel safer. He had recently returned to Birmingham, was not familiar with the communities here that might offer a degree of comfort and safety to many of those who are outside our church. He offered to move away. 

I did not invite him in: maybe I should have, but maybe not. At least I was able to assure him he was welcome to sleep on our porch. I was able to say that it should be me that was apologising, for a society and situation in which he had no choice but to sleep outside. I was able to offer a cup of hot coffee and to hear something of his story, albeit for only a few minutes. I imagine it is a story which is both unique and also exactly the same as the many others who spend their nights in our city centre’s doorways.

He told us he had a housing appointment the following morning. I haven’t seen him since. I hope his story, at least, has a happy ending. There are many which don’t. Only last week the local news told us of a homeless man discovered dead on the street. He was in his thirties. The same age, more or less, as me.

When we moved here, one of the roles the church asked of us was to listen to the voices of the city. The homeless who congregate around our building are, perhaps more than any other, one of the groups whose voice we should be straining to hear. I have not found it easy.

Though he will never know it, I am grateful for one tiny opportunity to hear something of one of those voices. 

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Happy Advent






 "The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine." Isaiah 9:2

Monday, 10 October 2016

A language of peace (part 2)

So on a related theme to my previous post, I think I have found the one place in which this language of violence I speak of seems not to be used.

Whereas in almost every sphere of life violent imagery seems to be common place, there is one area where, as far as possible, it seems to be studiously avoided ... when we're talking about actual violence.So wars are described as "conflicts" because it is a bit less scary, the bodies of the innocent dead are described as "collateral damage" because it doesn't sound too ghastly, and aggression is described as "security"; a word which used to mean safe but somehow doesn't any more.

Has any one seen an armed forces recruitment film recently? They are truly terrifying ... because they are not in the least bit terrifying. At no point do they seem to think it necessary to mention that you might get killed or seriously injured by the violent acts of others, nor that your soul will be scarred for the rest of your life by the violence you will perpetrate yourself.

They speak instead of adventure and excitement, of opportunities and education, of comradeship and personal development. And guess what: those are all things I approve of and values I espouse. They are things I think every person; including every young person who has had limited options thus far who are those primarily targeted by these insidious campaigns; should be able to access.

I'm just not sure that the military is the best placed institution to be providing them. No, hold on. I am sure. I am absolutely sure. I think they should be found in independent art projects: in theatre and dance and and creativity; I think they should be found in community activism and the service of one another; I think they should be found in a context of peace and hope.

Just as it is dangerous that we unthinkingly describe our everyday circumstances with the language of violence; it is equally dangerous when we fail to call out violence and aggression for what it really is. So let's call a spade, a spade. And a war, a war.

And then, named as such, let's choose to say no.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

A language of peace

It was a hymn we sung in church, a few weeks ago now, which reminded me I wanted to write a post on this subject ... although it is a theme I have considered writing about previously, but never quite got round to it.

I can't even exactly remember which hymn it was now, but it was one of those "onward Christian soldiers", "fight the good fight" type ones which always make me feel distinctly uncomfortable.

I know others will tell me these are not songs which condone violence, that they are simply using familiar, evocative imagery to explore spiritual themes which defy easy description.

That though, is precisely the problem.

As my involvement with the peace movement has become increasingly active, and as I have engaged with and reflected on what it means to be truly non-violent, I have become increasingly aware how unhelpful the language and imagery we use, often entirely subconsciously, can be.

I have long been uncomfortable with 'warfare' hymns and the constant rhetoric of the 'war on this that and the other' from government ministries and media outlets but the first time I remember being stopped in my tracks by something I said myself was when I described the Quakers as "punching above their weight"... and realised how entirely inapt the image was.

It was a wake up call to try and think more carefully about my choice of words and images, and to become aware of how often we fallback on images of violent conflict to explain or evoke a whole range of situations and experiences. We "fight" or "combat" the things we are against, take "a shot in the dark" when we just don't know or "give it a shot" when we think maybe we do.

Perhaps it is all entirely innocent and I shouldn't be concerned about the words we use without a second thought: but I don't think so. I believe in the power of language and I worry that by our constant exposure to the language of violence we reduce our sensitivity to what these things actually are and actually mean. Desensitised to the reality behind the images, our everyday language becomes one of many factors helping to perpetuate a culture of violence.

The language we use certainly helps shape the way we think; so I can't help wondering what would happen if we shifted our rhetoric to more peaceful images.

I am not pretending I have been entirely consistent in changing my language use since I first started to reflect on this idea After all, my starting premise was that often these language choices are so ingrained that we use them entirely sub-consciously. But I guess I have tried to be a little more conscious, at least some of the time, of the words I choose and the images I describe. It is one of the tiny steps I am trying to take towards the road of peace I want to walk.

Looks like I'll have to turn to other activities for my descriptive language ... so watch out for a language peppered with cricketing metaphors instead!

Saturday, 1 October 2016

Hidden Treasure - Taize Birmingham 2017

Anyone who reads this blog can be in no doubt that I love Taize. It is a place from where I have drawn new life and which has helped shape the person I have become. It is, undoubtedly, what has led me to be where I am, living the life I am currently living.

I have come to love Birmingham too. Somewhat to my initial surprise, I guess, I have gradually discovered a deep affection for this place and the people who make it.

Unsurprisingly, I am VERY excited that next year, the two are going to collide when the Taize Community, together with the churches of Birmingham, hosts a young adult meeting here, in the city I call home.

The Hidden Treasure meeting will offer, I hope, a chance to give a whole new swathe of people a glimpse of a community of prayer which has been hugely important to me. It will offer, too, a chance to explore and celebrate some of this city's many hidden treasures of solidarity, small gestures of hope which aren't making headlines but are making a difference.


I suspect there may be a small amount(!) of work involved in the intervening months between now and the end of April. I am convinced it will definitely be worth it.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

#teamrefugees

Personally I like words (I think you know that right?!) but I also know that images are hugely important. We are bombarded with them and the lenses through which we see the world shape the world we see. Whether its the imagery of advertising, humorous memes on social media or what the news cameras choose to focus in on we are all susceptible to the influence of the image.

So what we portray and how we do so is really important.

I was already thinking about this post before the Refugee team paraded into the Rio opening ceremony under the Olympic flag to thunderous applause but they are a symbol of what I was hoping to say. However well they do in the competition, I am very glad they are there.

I know it continues to be important that we see images of crowds of humanity huddled in shivering temperatures behind barbed wire fences and the bodies of children washed ashore on beaches from sinking boats which should never have been on the sea. I know we need to never tire of seeing the desperation and suffering of those fleeing horrors we cannot begin to imagine; to be reminded, again and again that no-one ever puts themselves, their loved ones, their families, their children in those situations unless they have no other choice.

But we need other images too. We need images like those of the Olympic refugee team, parading with pride and competing with courage. Images such as those those I am lucky enough to have stored in my camera and engraved in my memory after a wonderful summer school week with my students from St Chad's Sanctuary at the end of July. These are crucial too. Crucial as a reminder that this struggling, desperate mass of humanity on the move is made up of people.

People whose lives have been interrupted by unimaginable suffering, for sure, but people with lives that are much more than just that experience. People who talk and cry and laugh, who sing and share and smile. People who struggle and question and doubt, but who also believe, hope and dream. People with energy and creativity and a sense of fun. People with gifts and talents and generosity. People who have lost much, people who still have so much to give.

People like us.

So here are my own #teamrefugees.

These are the smiling, inspirational people I want you to see every time the Daily Mail shows an image intended to invoke your fear and anger; or even when the Guardian wishes to invoke your pity.

Be afraid of the world we are creating, by all means; weep for the human lives it destroys, certainly... but then go out, overcome your fear and your pity, and make new friends.





Friday, 5 August 2016

A splash of colour


"Trees are poems the earth writes upon the sky" 
(Khalil Gibran)

Saturday, 30 July 2016

This Year

For me it is this time of year, much more than December / January which marks the end of the old year and start of the new. This is when I look ahead to new adventures and start a new diary. This is when it makes sense to stop and look back and celebrate the year that was. (But it's too long and probably not very interesting to anyone bar me, so don't feel obliged to read!)

In my world September is synonymous with settling back into rhythms and routines. The return to school brought its usual inherent busy-ness and both the joys and challenges of getting to know a new set of students who have, I can safely say a year on, been amazing to teach. Thrown in to the mix this year were the DSEi arms fair protests which, even as they draw attention to the horrors of war and the arms trade; also provide space to stand together with those trying to do something about it.

Standing out in October was the half-term holiday when we took a proper break and went away to Mytholmroyd. The weather was kind: blue skies for beautiful walks in the daytime but cold enough to justify the open fire in the evenings. Cups of tea, good books and meetings with friends: the perfect antidote to an otherwise busy schedule.

November marked the beginning of the next phase of the life of our little community when, having visited for a few weeks in September, Corline returned to live with us, making an open-ended commitment to community life and venturing out on to this journey together.

As is invariably the case, highlights abound in December, this year including the COP21 protests in Paris. If outcomes from the summit were far from satisfactory; the energy and passion on the streets were well worth being part of; not to mention the opportunity to catch up with good friends (and good food and wine!)  And then there were parties: fun and friendship for Sinterklaas early in the month, and a beautiful celebration of what Christmas is all about with those who gathered with us on Christmas day.

There can be few better ways to begin a year than beneath the Valencian sunshine: warm weather and even warmer hospitality, beautiful surroundings and beautiful prayer meant a once again wonderful Taize meeting brought us into 2016, (although I may be getting too old for 36 hour coach journeys) Sleep deprivation and beautiful experiences of prayer were recurring themes in January: the end of the month was marked by the Birmingham Churches Together 24 hours of prayer, a wonderful celebration of the unity of the church in all its diversity.

I am sure something memorable must have happened in February too, but nothing immediately springs to mind. Maybe I had a nice, relaxed laid-back month doing not very much ... 

An early Easter meant Student Cross fell in March this year, and if Holy week coinciding with school term-time meant I was only able to join in for part of the week, I was nonetheless pleased I decided to join in for the bits I could. To walk, talk, reflect, share; to renew old friendships and make new ones; to be community.

April’s Taize weekend provided a space to sing and to be silent, to listen and to share. We are now looking ahead to a much bigger gathering next April/May: which for all the work it may involve over the next year I am very excited about (www.taize.fr/birmingham)! It was also in April, I think, that I first got involved in the "Long Journey Home" project, working with first generation migrants to provide a platform to craft and tell their stories: it has been a privilege to be involved over recent months. 

In May I handed in my notice at school. I wouldn't say it was a highlight, but certainly a significant moment in this year's journey. It was a tough decision and I knew I would be sad to leave a school I love, but it was, is, the right one.  

June was referendum month. Also definitely not a highlight (although I did get to babysit my niece the same day and that was quite fun.) We also headed to Reading ... not because it is a particularly exciting holiday destination, but because, ahead of the parliamentary vote on Trident renewal, it felt like a very important place to be to say no to atomic weapons. An early start, a long and in parts stressful day... shared with some very inspiring people. I am glad I was there.

July has mostly been about celebrating! Our end of year party brought together some of those who have shared in our life in different ways in the last year. Then came the end of term and some fond farewells to colleagues and students (and pink wafers and party rings!). And just last week the St Chad's Sanctuary Summer School, including a fantastic day out in Weston Super Mare was a beautiful way to round off the year there too. 

There may well be some other significant bits I've forgotten about temporarily too - please don't be offended if it involved you! This blog post is quite long enough as it is.

In between all that we've welcomed a good few visitors and somehow managed to squeeze in all our regular commitments: work, volunteering, welcome, silence, discussion, laughter, friendships and prayer. 

The public prayers have now closed for the summer, and if I do still have a lengthy jobs list for the next month, the rhythm becomes somewhat more relaxed plus there are trips to both Taize and Greenbelt to look forward to.

I think I can safely say I have made the most of 2016/17. Bring on the next one!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The first day

There are some wonderful authors with immense talent and an amazing command of the English language: but if the magic of stories is in the possibility to paint pictures which draw others in, and to elicit a rainbow of emotions from your listener, then it turns out you can be a master story-teller long before you have the command of grammatical tense.

I know I am hugely privileged to have heard the stories of so many remarkable people, and to have heard them told with honesty, emotion and good humour.

One of my students recently recounted his journey to and first day in the UK. He told of experiences no-one should ever live through. And yet, it was told, sprinkled with touches of humour and with a smile almost always on his lips: and as I listened, horrified, with tears in my eyes ... I laughed.

I think it was OK to laugh, because I knew we were laughing together. Thank you M. I am honoured to call you my friend.

With hands which danced
Over these,
The studied words
Of a language not his own

These outstretched hands
And winning smile
Which spoke in truths
And offered up
A story and a life

And invited us
To laugh

And as he told
Of hands clasped tight
Around searing rods
Of fingers, bent and burned
From clinging on
To life itself

And as I listened
With hands clenched tight
Against 
The shame of a nation
Daring to deny
His only hope

Somehow we laughed

And as he told
Of ears which closed
Against the haunting roar
Of deafening sounds
No-one 
should ever have to hear

And as I recognised
How possible it was
For ears 
to strain for the familiar
In a language that did not match
The school book scripts 

Again we laughed

And as I half-heard
A tale of pain and fear and loss
Hidden 
In simple-spoken truths
And the self-depreciating humour
Of survival

And as he shared
That defining moment
 The unfettered, still-remembered joy
Of a dawning realisation
Yes, 
I am free

Once more we laughed

And as he stops
And turns to thank
My countrymen and me
I wish he knew
How much he brings

These outstretched hands
And winning smile
Which offer up
This lesson to our humanity
This timely reminder

Of how to
Laugh.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

The next adventure

It is coming up to three years since we moved to Birmingham. At the time it was a leap into the unknown, with question marks over almost every aspect of what our life here would look like. Now it feels like home.

It is a long time since we have stayed in one place for anywhere near this long: and doing so has been possible because it has continued to feel like a place of challenge and adventure. While in many ways I feel very settled here, there has constantly been enough newness to ensure life continues to feel like a journey rather than a place where we have arrived.

And so it is time for the next step.

It is something of a leap of faith and by many rational standards probably slightly mad. Just before the half-term holidays at the end of May, I handed in my notice at work. I am leaving a job I love for a leap into the unknown of a job I hope I will love even more.

I will be very sad to leave a school where I have clambered up a very steep learning curve, and have had a tremendous amount of fun along the way. I will miss colleagues who do an amazing job and children who have made me smile every single day. I will, at the of term, almost certainly cry.

I have always described teaching as a vocation. And while, at least for a time, I am walking away from it, I stand by that description. But like conversion and faith, vocation is not a once in a lifetime decision that predestines all of our future path. It is an evolving journey and sometimes, it involves turning down the side roads.

And so it is, that three years after beginning to volunteer there, I am going to go and work at St Chad's Sanctuary.

Nobody who reads this blog can be in any doubt as to how special this place has become to me. The people I have met there have been an incredible inspiration and it has been a really important part of my very positive experience of Birmingham.

I am not naive (or I try not to be). I have no doubt that going to work there will shift the dynamics. There will be challenges I will have to look in the eye which as some one who waltzes in for a few hours on a Friday I can cheerfully avoid.

But having thought long and hard, when I finally made the decision, I knew that right now, this was the place I needed to stand and these were the people I need to stand with. I needed to place myself where I can live, as far as possible, as a witness to the welcome I want my country to offer. I needed to try and take one more step towards living as the me I aspire to be.

Now, that seems even more true than it did then.

Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to present this as some kind of major self-sacrifice. I am very excited to be going to work at one of the most life-giving places I have ever encountered and I know that, while it won't be all plain sailing, it is somewhere that will bring me great joy.

It was not an easy decision. But it is the right one. Bring on the next adventure.

Friday, 24 June 2016

looking to the next conversation

I am sad.

I am sad for those who have experienced the challenges but not known the benefits of intercultural exchange and immigration.
For all who have never had the opportunity to reap the benefits of Europe, or for whatever reason feel they haven't.
For a country which has decided it is better on its own.

I am sad for all who are heading towards a future they didn't choose and don't want.
For all who feel unwelcome in the places they have come to call home.
For all who fear for the jobs, families, and friendships which might become just that bit more complicated.

I am sad for a politics which has been dependent on a polarising rhetoric of fear.
For a dialogue where personal gain triumphs over concern for one another.
For communities and a country divided against themselves.

I am sad for those who are jubilant to a point of not being able to see other people's pain.
For those whose anger risks becoming a destructive force
For those who are no longer sure what to feel.

I am sad for all who are left wondering where next.

But whatever else can be said, there will definitely be a where next.

And if this is all about the country having its say, then it's time for all of us to have our say in where we want that next place to be.

I wonder whether we will be able to do so with maturity, dignity and love for one another. I wonder whether all sides will have the humility to listen to those with whom we fervently disagree. I wonder whether we will be able to recognise the very real fractures that scar our country and head towards a place of real healing. I wonder whether we can still build a future based on hope and love rather than hatred and fear.

This morning I am sad. But this afternoon, I want to be part of that conversation. I am sure I have a lot of listening to do. I know I have plenty to say.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

That would be an ecumenical matter

My engagement with questions of Christian ecumenism has been a hugely significant part of my faith journey for many years, but it is, I recently realised, something I have rarely written about here. Although as this blog post has turned out to be rather longer than intended, perhaps you could say I'm making up for it now!

Engaging with the church in all its beautiful diversity has been something which has been hugely inspiring: I know I am extremely privileged to have experienced such a variety of Christian traditions and am grateful to all those, of many different traditions and backgrounds who have shared in my journey.

Engaging with the church in all of its division is something which has often proved intensely painful: I have wept my way through many a church service and struggled to remain faithfully part of a family which will not sit down and eat together at the same table.

As my journey has continued, describing my Christian identity has become increasingly complex, as has answering the oft asked question "what denomination are you?" or "Are you Catholic / Anglican /Methodist/ insert other denomination*?" (*delete as appropriate)

While on one level I could perhaps describe myself as "just a Christian", I remain hesitant to do so knowing that to do so risks denying the complexity and pain of the very real divisions in the church. Christianity, at least in my understanding of it, is something which is intended to be lived out as part of a community: The church's divisions, then, are also mine and I feel a deep responsibility to accept my identity as part of that family, complete with all its flaws (and there are many) and to acknowledge and share in the pain and guilt of our divided family.

But I cannot, either, in all honesty, describe myself as a member of one denomination, not even as a member of one denomination with an ecumenical outlook towards others. I have done so in the past, but it has become an unhelpful over-simplification of who I now am. And so, lately I have taken to describing myself as "A Christian who holds my denominational identity very lightly" or "Someone whose Christian life draws on a variety of different traditions"

It is rarely the easy answer that others seek but it is the closest I have currently come to finding a label that matches where I feel I am on my journey.

We have a natural desire for boxes, for ourselves and for others. Defined labels which we know and at least think we understand are a source of security and we all need to feel safe. There are times, many of them, when I would prefer to curl up inside a snug box where I, and everyone around me, knows what the rules are. Choosing an identity which doesn't fit into the preconceived boxes isn't always easy and certainly provokes challenges in certain settings. But then again, I guess I do mostly quite like not fitting neatly in the box too.

This identity of drawing on and welcoming the gifts of many traditions is something to which we have also aspired as a community. From the beginning, ecumenism was one of the core values we sought to embody in our life here and we were very happy that the church here embraced that desire. I am certain there are times when it has offered us fantastic opportunities of encounter. I am equally sure it has created additional challenges, or at least different ones, to those we would have met if we had a clear denominational identity.

I suspect, both in terms of engaging with the institutional churches, and with individuals intrigued by who we are and what we are doing, there are times when our desire not to put up barriers by stepping outside the standard definitions has in fact unwittingly created a barrier with those who don't quite know how to respond to what we are trying to be. For many, it is much easier to engage with something if you can safely say yes you are one of us we sit in the same box; or even, no, you are not one of us, you are in a box distinct and different from our own but which we can identify and respect, and we will engage with you on those terms.

But we are trying to ask something different: we want people to engage with us as being simultaneously "one of us" and "one of them", we want people to accept us as part of "us" while also acknowledging our identity as part of something we have defined as "not us" and we know it can be a very big ask ... thank you to all those who have answered.

If whatever the inherent challenges, I have no regrets about placing myself in this place; and if I am proud that as a community we have tried to do so: it is because ultimately I believe that this place, the outside-the-box, on-the-edge place is a place where something of the gospel can be found.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

For the love of Europe

I would imagine it will come as no surprise to any one who knows me that in the referendum on June 23rd I will be voting to stay in Europe.

I have, as many of you will know, personally reaped the benefits of this thing called the EU in many ways: the chance to explore places and meet people made much less complicated than it might have been; some amazing friends that I might otherwise never have had the privilege to meet; a wealth of experiences that have helped shape who I am.

I am infinitely grateful for all of this ...but that isn't really what I want this blogpost to say.

One of the things which has saddened, but I guess not surprised, me about the campaigns, both to remain and to leave, is how much of the message is shaped around perceived personal gain or loss, The message, from both sides is vote with us, because it will be better for you.

I like to hope that, for at least some of us voting on the 23rd June, whether or not we personally will be richer or poorer won't be the only reason for the choices we make. I like to hope that my reasons for opting in to the European project are not entirely selfish.

Financially, I don't know whether I personally will be richer or poorer if we vote to stay or go. Likewise, I don't know whether we as a country will be wealthier or not. As one of the richest countries in the world, with material wealth and a passion for consumer growth well beyond what is sustainable for the future of the planet, I also don't think it really matters.

I am in favour of this European dream primarily for the simple reason that I think we should be in the business of removing borders, not creating new ones. And while this might not be the only or even the ideal way to do so, I certainly don't think retreating on to our little island and drawing up the drawbridge behind us is the way forward. I think that as a world we are infinitely richer in the ways that really count when we choose to reach out to one another rather than shy away in suspicion, fear and hatred.

For me, it is a question of living my humanity more fully which becomes possible when I can live it in relationship with the other, whoever they may be. It is also a question of living the gospel to which I am called, a gospel imbued with a deep sense of love which breaks down barriers and reaches beyond our human understanding and the artificial boundaries we draw between ourselves.

Don't get me wrong, I know that there are a whole heap of problems with the current European model ... Trade deals like TTIP are truly terrifying, the race to the economic bottom by using free movement of labour to drive down wages is a valid and genuine concern and there are justifiable question marks over the democratic deficit with some of the processes involved.

I know I am not voting to stay in a perfect Europe. Nor am I offering my whole-hearted and unconditional support to all it is and does,

But I am voting for a world where we build bridges instead of walls, where we seek what unites rather than what divides.

I'm in.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Of mobile phones

Compared to many, I am not particularly attached to my mobile phone; but even though the one I use is old and battered, I know I would not want to be without it. For those far from home, it may be of even greater value: the only connection with family, friends and a life left behind.

So columbite-tantalite (coltan), even if we have never heard of it, is important to us all. Used in almost every electronic device, including the ubiquitous mobile phone it has known a huge surge in value in the relatively recent past.

About 80% of the world’s known reserves of coltan are found in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where its exploitation continues to fuel the war, one of the deadliest conflicts since the Second World War, having to date claimed more than 5 million lives. While most companies will of course avoid buying minerals directly from the warring factions and various rebel groups in DRC, it is amazing how many of the neighbouring countries, with scant known supplies of the mineral, have seen a huge surge in exports.

I can’t remember when the significance of conflict minerals, and particularly coltan was brought to my attention but it is perhaps since meeting refugees from the Congo that it has felt somehow closer to home and more uncomfortable. 

For many refugees from there, and other areas where conflict minerals fuel ongoing wars, there must be a bitter irony in a dependence on devices which contribute to the bitter suffering they have experienced firsthand: it is something of this duality which the following poem tries to express.

Technology's latest miracle
This lightweight
Next-to-nothing-weight

Too great a weight
For heavy hearts
And hurting hands

The bleak, scorched earth
Of burned and blackened land
Left scared and scarred by war

Its precious value
Bought and sold
In oft-spilled blood
And fierce flame

Yet as it burns
Still now it brings
The warm amber glow
Of home

And cradled
In scarred, scared hands
This deathline
A lifeline

As cracked and fractured voices
From a cracked and fractured land

Ring

With hopeful dreams
Of all that was and is and might just be
At home

ps: This Ted talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/bandi_mbubi_demand_a_fair_trade_cell_phone?language=en also speaks powerfully on the subject.

pps: I don't usually use my blog to advertise products, especially ones I have never owned,.. but it was the use of conflict minerals in the mobile phone industry which, at least partly, inspired the Fairphone https://www.fairphone.com/... and while I'm sticking with my ten year old "dumbphone" for now, who knows, maybe one of these may be the future. 

Friday, 13 May 2016

A Palette of Emotions

I haven't written any poetry for a while ... certainly nothing that has even got close to what could be described as finished. 

But today at St Chad's Sanctuary, we took a break from preparing for reading exams and wrote poetry. Once again, I was able to appreciate my students' ability to say so much with so little and to admire their capacity for creativity, as together they produced poetry which included:



















Quite apart from being a whole lot of fun (at least for me, and hopefully for my students too) and being another different way of reinforcing some English vocabulary, it also inspired me to come away and use a similar premise and structure to that I had given them (somewhat extended) to write something of my own:

A Palette of Emotions

Sadness is a monotony of grey
It is the silence of a shadowy, starless night
It is tear-smudged streaks across an unfinished page
It weeps

Happiness is a warm, amber glow
It is the harmony of voices raised in joyful song
It is swirls of colour dripping from a brush
It laughs

Anger is a deep, brooding red
It is scarred and bloodied hands wrenched apart
It is a dark stain spreading across an expanse of white
It kills

Excitement is a sparkling yellow dashed with golden glitter
It is the warm embrace of a long-awaited reunion
It is uncontrolled splashes of brightness
It dances

Fear is a deep blue as unfathomable as the ocean
It is the toes curled against seeping damp and biting wind
It is torn-off corners and jagged edges
It trembles

Hope is a thousand unnamed shades of green
It is the freshness of damp leaves after spring rain
It is a pen poised above a blank canvas
It waits

Humanity is the confused beauty of a well-used paint palette
It is the depth and complexity of all our experiences
It is a new story forever unfolding
It lives


Sunday, 1 May 2016

"Some"

Yesterday Daniel Berrigan: priest, poet, protester and peacemaker died just short of his 95th birthday. He may not have had the media presence of many of those whose deaths facebook has mourned in 2016, but of all those who have been on the social media roll call to heaven so far this year, for me, he is without a doubt the greatest.

I often post poetry here: usually it is my own. Today though, I'm making an exception and posting one of his. One that speaks of how he kept going for so long. one that resonates, as many of his words do, with both inspiration and challenge.

If, in the face of vast American might, he never lost sight of the possibility of an alternative, it was perhaps because he realised that while the commitment to the powers of war, death and destruction was total; too often those who spoke for peace lacked the same energy and dedication. 

All it would take, then, to change the world would be for those who say we believe in peace to approach the task of creating it same with the same commitment and prepared to take the same risks as those who wage war.

He did exactly that, living by what he believed and inspiring others along the way.

His is a voice and a life which continues to challenge. It is a challenge I know I am not yet living up to. I know I want to try.

Some: A Poem by Daniel Berrigan

Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.

Some stood up twice, then sat down.
"It's too much," they cried.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
"I've had it," they cried.

Some stood, and stood, and stood.
They were taken for being fools,
they were taken for being taken in.

Some walked, and walked, and walked - 
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.

"Why do you stand?" they were asked, and
"Why do you walk?"

"Because of the children," they said, and
"Becuase of the heart," and
"Because of the bread,"

"Because the cause is
The heart's beat, and
The children born, and
The risen bread."

RIP Daniel Berrigan (9th May 1921 - 30th April 2016)






Thursday, 21 April 2016

An abstract resurrection

It's been a while since I posted anything at all on here; although there are a few half written posts slowly going out of date on the unpublished part of my blog.

For now though, here's a few pictures, the fruits of my dabbling in the idea of abstract art and trying to represent the resurrection. I'm not even sure whether I like all of them, so you are certainly not obliged to! But they're made so I decided I might as well share ...





Tuesday, 29 March 2016

This is Easter

Regular readers of this blog will know this is not the first time I have walked Northern Leg of Student Cross, a walking pilgrimage during Holy Week, ending up in Walsingham on Good Friday and celebrating Easter together with other groups who have walked from different places.

This year I experienced it in a slightly strange way, having to come back and teach for three days in the middle, but it was still a wonderful way to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, and I am grateful to the people who offer food for thought (or just food), who make it a beautiful community experience and, quite frankly, just a lot of fun!

On Easter Sunday morning, during the "Holy Trot" when together we walk around the village of Walsingham carrying our crosses for the last time, this time decorated for Easter, I felt hugely privileged to be invited to give one of the "Stations", moments of reflection shared together. I thought I'd also share what I said here:

Student Cross allows us to live the story of the passion and the resurrection together for one week. But as people of the Gospel, this is a pilgrimage we are called to live not just here but throughout our lives.
For the last two and a half years, I have taught English at St Chad's Sanctuary, a place of welcome for refugees and asylum seekers in Birmingham. It is a place I have come to love very dearly. It is a place I have come to love very dearly. It is a place where I know I have learned far more than I have taught. Yet speaking about my experiences there hasn't always proved easy ... which doesn't mean I am not going to try.
My experiences have been overwhelmingly positive - building beautiful relationships which have been life-affirming as well as life changing ...
But these are among the most vulnerable of our society: people who have fled horrific situations in their home countries, undergone unimaginable journeys to get here, and continue to face suspicion and exclusion on arrival. How do I share the joy they bring me without glorying in their suffering? How do I explain that a place which can bring me to tears is a place of joy and life? 
How do we sing of the resurrection without denying the reality of the crucifixion? 
My students come from all over the world. Most come with very little and have left much behind: but they all bring an intractable belief that something better is possible. And through all their struggles, they continue to smile. 
Ultimately, perhaps, my love for this place is very simple. It is a place of humanity and of hope. It is a place where human dignity is restored by simple gestures. It is a place where I encounter students who, in spite of all they have lived and all they are living, remain people of hope. Perhaps because they know real suffering, they also know the meaning of true hope: a hope which is tangible, even if it is hard to explain. 
A resurrection hope, even in places of crucifixion.
I feel hugely privileged that they are able to share even a part of that hope with me. 
The stories I have heard, the people I have met have been a source of sadness, and frustration and even anger. They have been, even more, a source of joy and of life.
They have changed who I am.
So this for me is the passion. And this for me is Easter. The encounter which, through its tears, holds tight to a smile. The encounter which enables me, which enables us, to be more fully alive.
This simple place
Of meeting with the other
To find I also meet
The myself I thought I knew
To know who you are
Is to discover who I am
As both offering and open
We meet here
Face to face

Where language sometimes falters
But simple words speak trust
And found in broken English
Is the wholeness of a soul
From which is born
The fragile friendship
Of our shared humanity

And so I leave
This simple place of meeting
The same, but changed
More fully

Me

Monday, 15 February 2016

What's your Birmingham?


Twice on Friday I accompanied a group of students from St Chad's Sanctuary to Birmingham Museum where we visited the local history galleries. The trip was inspired by some questions about Birmingham's history which I couldn't answer, and I decided rather than resorting to Wikipedia and creating a comprehension sheet we'd head out to the museum instead ... it was the right decision.

Being a primary school teacher by training, no school trip I organise was ever going to happen without a quiz to fill in on the way round! But I don't think they were just humouring me when the students engaged with it and explored the history of this city they now tentatively call home. All in all it was an amazing day: plenty of opportunities for English practice and new vocabulary, a chance to discuss and explore together, a chance to share experiences and learn from one another.

From its earliest days as a country market gradually attracting crafts people and farmers from surrounding areas, through its growth into a manufacturing hub in the industrial revolution, to the world wars and onwards to modernity, the history of Birmingham is one of migration. It is a story of which me in my own way, and my students in theirs are all a part.

At the far end of the gallery, on the wall, is this: 
"What's your Birmingham? Tell us what the city means to you." 

For me, Birmingham is these people, (and a million or so others). Birmingham is stepping outside my door into a diversity of colour and culture and the riches of humanity. Birmingham is it's history of migration, with all of its beauty and all of its struggles. It is the welcome it has offered to me to be a part of that history, that present and that future.

And for my Students? Well for them, Birmingham is:

"Birmingham is nice for me, there is new life and I have freedom and security"

"Birmingham is beautiful and has many buildings. It is different races"

"I love Birmingham city for the beautiful and wonderful nature and all the wonderful people"

"Birmingham is very big and very beautiful and it's a place of church"

"Birmingham is beautiful because everyone is living and working here"  

"Birmingham is a city of lots of different people"