Living Here – Working Here – Aug13

Chris Lewis, minister of Mount Zion Baptist Chapel, Bonymaen, tells how their garden project has been renamed Living Here – Working Here.

Living Here – Working Here is in continuity with the tradition and ethos of Mount Zion, which was established in 1924 and known locally as The Mission. Its history was one of community engagement through the familiar activities of Sunday School, meetings, Girl Guides and Brigades.

Bonymaen is an old settlement on the eastern edge of Swansea. The maen (pronounced like ‘mine’) – the standing stone – is on the green in front of the Bonymaen Inn. Bonymaen, where both English and Welsh are spoken, has developed as an urban village with a lot of social housing. Overall, it is a deprived area and is the location of Welsh Government-funded Communities First team.

To the west of the village, across a busy link road, lies the enterprise zone in which there are bank offices, the main Royal Mail sorting office, car dealerships, wholesalers, retailers and numerous other businesses. Many people commute into this part of the ward. The renaming of the project expresses an ambition to make contact with people who work in our area as well.

Living Well - diggingLiving Here – Working Here is about:

  • showing the Gospel simply through being with people. We want to share Christianity as a way of living an abundant life (John 10.10), which is fundamentally based on relationship (Leviticus 19.18; Matthew 22.39 and parallels; John 13.31 ff.) from which stems a concern for mutuality and justice in the present and a responsibility to those who will come after us.
  • working cooperatively with those whose objectives and desires for good are similar to ours (Mark 9.38ff; Luke 9.49f) and that the Kingdom of God is greater than our localised conception of it (John 10.16).
  • being 'ordinary'. A paradox of the Gospel is that there is strength in weakness (1 Corinthians 1.27). It doesn't matter that we're small, rather like the exiles in Babylon (Jeremiah 29) we look for salvation just where we are.

Over the last four years, we have been making a 'learning garden' to regain the skills of growing fruit and vegetables for home consumption to save money, reduce food miles and support health. This is gaining us a growing community of interest, simply because we are open regularly. Our garden has also been useful as a volunteering opportunity for Welsh Baccalaureate students from our community secondary school, Cefn Hengoed, and we've benefitted from their hard work.

Living Well - eatingOur public profile is increasing and we are being taken seriously as an agent for change; a councillor and a council official have asked us to think about how we could expand our work and I have been invited to join a campaign for fair credit in the Swansea Bay region and to speak at a rally on Christian ideas about the exploitation of poor people by lenders who charge high rates of interest.

People contribute to what we are doing by working, sharing ideas, making gifts and conversing. Some of them are people who have been alienated by institutional expressions of religion; finding them marginal or irrelevant to their lives.

In our original story on the Fresh Expressions website we said,

our project definitely has a missional purpose but exactly how it will work out is not clear yet. The base is a small and traditional Welsh chapel congregation which may continue in parallel with a new congregation.

A lot has happened since then and we are gathering people, not to our Sunday services so much but to the garden project because we are seen as 'putting good stuff in' to Bonymaen and we're being taken seriously as a people who speak for justice in the city.

Living Well - daisiesThe focus is on listening to, serving and engaging the community and whatever emerges must emerge from that. I hope that we will become a renewed congregation, one that accepts people whose culture (as it were) is different to that of traditional Welsh chapel. Mount Zion accepted us and I became the minister; I hope that acceptance will go on – a transformation – but I think salvation has to be understood as starting here and now.

People respond when they witness transformation; a neighbour with no church connection said to me recently about the chapel, 'you're turning it round'. That was an immensely affirming statement.

It's all about gaining confidence to be who we are and applying our Christian values to make an impact.

Living Place Project

Revd Chris Lewis tells how Mount Zion Baptist Chapel has turned a piece of its ground into a training garden as part of a Living Place Project. This project is generating 'spin offs' which are helping Chapel members to begin reconnecting with the community.

Mount Zion is still called 'the Mission'. Founded after World War I as a daughter church of a nearby Welsh language chapel, Mount Zion was designed to have a more missionary emphasis in catering for the growing English-speaking population of this part of east Swansea.

Living Place - diggingLike many chapels it dwindled but about three years ago we had an opportunity to apply for funding from the Welsh Government to improve the overgrown and rubbish-strewn area behind the chapel to make a training garden. This would be used to encourage people in our relatively deprived area to grow their own vegetables and improve their diets.

Working on the garden caught the imagination of a local secondary school head teacher. Soon, parties of young people began to get involved as part of the 'community service element' in their Welsh Baccalaureate programme. Some came in their own time and have since started attending our fairly informal Sunday afternoon services.

The garden has taken three years to create and now further funding from Health Challenge Wales will enable us to run courses linked with it. Local adults who were previously involved with Mount Zion through Girls and Boys Brigade hold it in some affection and the word is gradually getting around that the apparently quiet little chapel is still alive.

Living Place - toolsThere are not many of us – we make double figures on a good day – but we're beginning to be approached about hosting community events. These include a performance of short plays written by the school pupils, a craft evening, a community archive evening and a 'visioning workshop' by the Transition Swansea organisation. We hope we might also become an outlet for the Trussell Trust food bank.

Slowly but steadily our network is re-growing. Our approach is not about preaching but it is about incarnation, befriending and responding. Incarnational ministry is reflected in our immersion in, and solidarity with, the area and its distinctive culture. Our pattern of ministry draws on the values of service represented in the church. One member, for instance, is a long serving councillor while others have had trade union and other community connections.

Our project definitely has a missional purpose but exactly how it will work out is not clear yet. The base is a small and traditional Welsh chapel congregation which may continue in parallel with a new congregation. To some extent, we are legally constrained by our governing document (the Baptist Union model document) but there are clauses within it which encourage the advancement of education and befriending of young people; it's on the basis of these that we're going ahead with this particular aspect of the work. Our underlying strategy is incarnational and is not necessarily therefore aimed at creating an institution but to be, in some sense, transformational in the lives of those associated with it. Transition Swansea recognises our project as one run on Transition principles – and its members, with or without church connections, visit us.

Living Place - stepsThe result might be a classed as a 'para church'. As someone who spent a considerable part of my ministry in what used to be called 'Industrial Mission', I am reminded of the work of Ted Wickham as Industrial Chaplain in the Diocese of Sheffield many years ago. The then-Bishop of Sheffield, Leslie Hunter, had appointed Ted Wickham to further the Bishop's "vision of a revitalised Church and a Church re-established among the industrial working class."

Ted gathered together working people who were alienated from the institutional church. Their meetings were informal and he used to say that the job of the church was not to fish in the dirty waters of the world in order to transfer people to the clean waters of the church but to work to clean up the dirty waters.

That is what we are doing here In Swansea. According to government indices, we are operating in what is recognised as a deprived area. The training garden aims to address some of the resulting issues and later this year we hope to add the food bank. We are also looking to try and find opportunities for our growing number of teenagers to express themselves in arts and performance as they have a lot of interest, quite a bit of talent and a great deal of goodwill!