Linda Maslen is one of the lay leaders of a growing community of new disciples of Jesus in Halifax.
The Saturday Gathering story began with a foodbank and a group of Christians acting on Jesus' words to feed the hungry. The Halifax Food and Support Drop-in has been running for five years and it is supported by over 70 local churches – as well as schools, local organisations, businesses and individuals in Calderdale.
The churches and organisations work in partnership to provide a weekly Drop-in point, allowing vulnerable people many with often chaotic lifestyles to collect a free food parcel. These include the homeless, destitute asylum seekers, those suffering from drug or alcohol misuse or individuals experiencing extreme hardship.
The Drop-in takes place on a Saturday morning from 9.30am to midday at the New Ebenezer Centre in Halifax, formerly Ebenezer Methodist Church which closed down as a church a couple of years ago. The Methodists decided to keep the building, make it an ecumenical venue and rent out its rooms to the community.
It's in Halifax town centre and the areas that we draw from are urban priority with the church itself sitting in one of the poorest parishes in the UK.
As time went on with the Drop-in, more and more of more of our guests started to ask for prayer. When they began to see those prayers were being answered, they came into a relationship with God but settling people into existing churches proved difficult for our new family members and the congregations.
I saw this at first hand when someone came along to the church I go to. It is a friendly and family-orientated place but it was still a very alien environment if you have had no previous involvement with church. It made me stop and think about everything we take for granted and how we treat someone who has come in from the 'outside' and who doesn't know what you're 'meant' to know.
We need to be aware that people with varying backgrounds and life challenges may take a step forwards in faith but might then take a couple of steps back. I find it very sad if Christians don't want to walk with these new converts when they're going through a 'downtime'. Sometimes it seems that they're interested in the stories of coming to faith but not the struggles that many people then face.
All of this made me think about church not working properly for newcomers who didn't 'fit in' and I knew we had to do something different in order to prepare the way for them.
We tried a couple of things that didn't work out but, 15 months ago, Saturday Gathering was born. It takes place in the same venue as the Drop-in from 7pm-9pm on Saturday evenings. That's when we all have a meal, share stories from the Bible or use DVDs to prompt discussion, and pray and sing. God has done so much in our time together; we've seen chaotic lives changed, addictions broken and relationships healed. We started with 12 people and now have about 60. Some people move on into more traditional fellowships and we encourage that, but others very much see Saturday Gathering as their church – though that was something we struggled with for some time.
For probably the first nine months of Saturday Gathering's existence, we said, 'We are not a church, we are a gathering' but the thing was developing at such a pace that we had to seriously consider whether we were a missional community, a fresh expression of church or something else entirely!
Our community had already decided because they were referring to Saturday Gathering as church. This was underlined on Saturday (11th January 2014) when the Bishop of Pontefract baptised and confirmed 19 of our new family members, all of whom wanted the service to be in the place that had become their spiritual home. We now describe it as a church that is both dependent – and interdependent – on other churches.
Numbers continue to grow. More families are coming to the Drop-in and to Saturday Gathering as well. We're particularly seeing a lot of single dads who are looking after their children at weekends; all they have to live on is £35 a week in benefits so by the time the children come there is nothing left. We're told that for many of them the highlight of their weekend is coming to Drop-in and Saturday Gathering for food, warmth and for the friendship and love they receive.
In September, we launched a Family Gathering to support the children that come to the Drop-in. That runs at the same time as the Drop-in on a Saturday morning and we get local council money to do that.
There are three of us involved in leadership of Saturday Gathering. We are all lay people, none of us are paid for what we do there but I also work full-time and am in the second year of (part-time) ordination training with the Yorkshire Ministry Course at Mirfield. We are very fortunate to have a lot of volunteers drawn from various congregations and one of the local vicars has provided us with great spiritual support. We work hard at building and maintaining relationships and Saturday Gathering has encouraged many of the local church leaders – with most of them are playing a bit of a part in it.
I will do everything I can to encourage indigenous leadership but that really does take time – unless God provides people out of the blue! Something that has proved to be helpful is the involvement of a few of our guys as 'watchmen' at Saturday Gathering. It's quite a male concentrated community so the 'watchmen' keep an eye out for anyone trying to bring in alcohol or drugs of any kind. They also watch over what's happening and are happy to go and pray with anyone who is on their own. Being a 'watchman' gives them bit of authority that enables them rather than constrains them.
Looking to the future and the council has been talking about giving us a lease on an old Sunday School building next door. It would be brilliant because we'd then have a base for our community 24/7. At the moment everything has to be moved in and then out again but there we would have proper catering facilities and a café.
One of our discussions is whether we should go for a BMO. However, we are in the Diocese of Wakefield and are going through the diocesan merger so I'm not too sure at the moment. We may well end up with Saturday Gathering coming under the wing of another church; that's something to be considered – as long as it retains its independence to grow organically.
I'd also like to see small groups running during the week. If we get what would be called The Gathering Place in the building next door, we could run those small groups in an evening without the additional cost of renting rooms.
Financial support has come from some interesting places. Not long after we started Saturday Gathering, the police got in touch to say they had got some money they would like us to apply for because we were taking their worst culprits off the streets on a Saturday night! Saturday Gathering running costs are £100 a week for food and renting of the room and, up to now, the community fund the police recommended to us have given us about £2,500 – so they have basically funded all of our food.
Saturday Gathering sits under the Christians Together charity in Halifax and we gather funding separately for the different elements of what we do. If donors want to give money for Christmas dinner, for instance, we can show them that it went specifically to that. Some are happy to support the Drop-in but not the openly faith-based Saturday Gathering.
Such a lot has happened in a relatively short time, and we thank God for all He has done and is doing. It is a real privilege to be able to join in with what He is doing. But I'd want to say that what has happened here can’t just be replicated. Saturday Gathering, as it is, is unique to this area but I really pray that we may be able to share some of our learning and ways of doing things with others praying about what might be applicable to their own context.