Troops from across the world are living 'on the doorstep' of Revd Debbie Forman, Curate and Pioneer Minister for Innsworth, Gloucestershire. How is she working on her own estate and with people serving in NATO's Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC)?
Imjin Barracks in Innsworth welcomed almost 1,000 servicemen and women and their families to swell the ranks at the ARRC base this summer. In all about 520 new families from 15 countries came to Innsworth, some are living on the camp itself and others on the estate just outside.
There are lots of facilities on the base and they also have a padre but people are encouraged to worship outside the camp at churches in the town, there is no provision for church worship on the base itself. This can be quite difficult for people to access in an unknown place so I see part of my role as being that of a welcomer. I speak several languages, including French, German and Italian so I'm hoping that I can make myself understood when the time is right! The influx of people comes from all over the place, including Italy, Poland, Portugal, Turkey and Spain. The whole world appears to be on my doorstep.
This is an estate of mixed housing stock: some Ministry of Defence, some social housing, some owner occupied, with other property comprising ex-military housing that has been sold off. It's quite isolated as an area – on the one side we have the base and on the other we have a flyover over the ring road.
It's not a huge estate, the original houses were prefabs and the ones in the middle of the estate are in the process of being bricked up. People came to work on the then RAF Innsworth camp after World War Two when the houses were new. There is a significant elderly population because those who came at that time are now in their 70s, 80s and even 90s.
Alongside them we do get some younger families but we haven't got as many in the middle age group. I am curate at St John the Evangelist (Churchdown and Innsworth) but there wasn't a church presence actually on the estate which meant that people could feel a bit isolated from the rest of the parish – part of a Local Ecumenical Partnership which supports the Pioneer Minister work.
We have a Council of Reference which contains a representative from each of the churches involved in that LEP. They were running a little service in the Innsworth community hall when I arrived. It now happens twice a month and the clientele has changed – there are now two or three who support us from St John's but I'm glad to say it's now largely people from Innsworth itself. The largest number we have would be 17-20 and sometimes it's fewer than that but the balance has definitely shifted.
The estate definitely needed a bit of tender loving care. To reflect that in The Church at Innsworth services, I work with a group of three others, one lady who lives on the estate and a couple who live on a neighbouring estate. We decide on a theme, such as the Church's year, but we always attempt to put some sort of creative aspect in the middle of it. I'd probably go a little further with it as I've been part of an alternative worship group but we have to maintain what can sometimes be a tricky balance between a challenge and a comfort.
To get the message out I do something very old-fashioned and deliver to every property on the estate, that's over 700 houses. I'm a well known figure because I cycle everywhere and when I first arrived I did quite a bit of cold calling. In the past I would never have done that but it just goes to show how God moves us on. In the first year I delivered a flyer for every service that happened; now I deliver a programme. I also put up notices on the Parish Council noticeboard and write a regular feature in a magazine for Innsworth.
During Holy Week I put up installations on the green spaces in the community. It was quite funny getting permission; I went into the police station and said, 'Can I have some police incident tape? I would like to create a scene of arrest.' They agreed but said they thought it would be vandalised. I was putting it up when a car full of young lads came to a screeching halt alongside me. They asked if there had been a crime, I said no but it was meant to remind people of a man who was wrongly arrested for what he did for us. 'Can we help?' they said. I asked them to make sure it stayed safe. I don't know what they did – or didn't – do but it never got vandalised.
In other public places around and about I had a Pilate judgement seat and, for the Last Supper, I super-glued plates and cups to a groundsheet on the green – it was like a mini art installation really.
This year during Lent, I got people to think of three things – Kindness, Giving, Generosity and we put out a public challenge to 'do something nice for somebody today'. I've also hung Advent boxes on the trees and put things in them to tell the Christmas story.
But what I am actually doing for most of the time is basic pastoral ministry. It's all about being known and being trusted. People will ring me up if they want their child baptised or if they want to get married. I feel well supported; I have a lovely training incumbent who has allowed me to have as much rope as I wanted. I also have accountability to the Diocesan Missioner and that's very valuable. There are four designated Pioneer Ministers in Gloucester and we are going to meet together for mutual support.
What I suppose is lacking at the moment is people emerging from the community to be leaders but it's early days yet. When people want things 'done' – like baptism or a wedding – they actually still tend to look for a tower or spire but for those who are unchurched, a church building and a normal church service is too much. I'm not in the business of forcing people to come into traditional church.
In another development, Age Concern used to run a weekly lunch club in the community hall but said they would have to close it because of cutbacks so I stepped out in faith and said the church would keep it going. I now have a team of helpers so I go there to cook, complete with dog collar and apron! We have up to 20 regulars – where would they have gone if the club had disappeared? It has been good to see where God is already at work in Innsworth and join in with it, who knows what will happen next.