The Ruth Project, part of the North West Durham Methodist Circuit, has been building community on an estate in South Stanley. Grace Cauldwell became its first project worker in September 2006. She explains how patience is a virtue when it comes to relationship building:
South Stanley is an ex-mining village in County Durham. It has seen some difficult times and I was employed in 2006 to come and live on an estate here. It is a very deprived area with a high rate of unemployment but there is such a very strong sense of community.
I settled in straight away and spent the first 12-18months just getting to know the area, joining in with what was already happening and becoming known in the community centres. My dog Jasper, a black and white labrador pointer cross, was absolutely key at the start of it all because I'd go out for a walk with him and many people would stop to say hello.
As a qualified youth and community worker we did loads of things when I first arrived, most of which were failures! People were asking us to do social things for their families so we started a family evening called Saturday Night Takeaway. After eight months the highest attendance for that was four families. After a while it became clear that when people said they wanted things to do with their kids, what they actually meant was, 'we want things for you to do with the kids so we don't have to'.
After a while, more relationship building, and various other failed 'events' we started something called Friday Fun Factory. At first we got 10 kids, then it was seven, then two, then six. At one point near Christmas we had just one child. When the New Year started, we republicised it – through all the local schools, shops and school assemblies and the children started to come. We visit all the families every week with a fun sheet to tell them what the children were doing as part of the Fun Factory (and with the hope of a prize on it's return!)– and that has been a really good way to get to know people.
We changed venue to another community centre. It was only about 150 yards over the road but that was a major shift in South Stanley because it was like crossing a boundary and some people weren't sure about the kids making that extra journey. We invited the parents to come with them, saying that we'd get the kettle on and give them tea and biscuits.
Since January 2010 we have had six to 12 parents and their friends coming along and they have been getting really involved in what has been going on. It has become a sort of family church with none of the hang-ups they see as being part of traditional church. We worship (without hymns or singing mostly!), have a silly Bible story with a life application, and enjoy a great time together with arty crafty stuff and a lot of games. In the last two or three months the children have started asking to pray. Praying is something we really believe in, but getting them to say prayers out loud in a circle seems very religious- however this has come directly from the children – they do it comfortably and it's something they asked to do! Spirituality in a lot of families has just started to blossom, with people meeting Jesus in very real ways.
Three kids petrified their mum by saying they wanted to be christened to be part of God's family. I offered a service in the community centre and a local minister was happy to come and do it but the mums said no, that the church up the road was 'where you went to be done' and they wanted it done 'properly'. So instead we all went up the hill to the chapel. It was about as informal as church services get, only half an hour, but the families were still a million miles out of their comfort zone. I don't think they will be going to a church building again in a hurry.
My post was originally for five years with promises of continuation funding for 10 but funding is sadly no longer available and I leave this summer. It's incredibly difficult; what's here at the moment is not self-sustaining and it's going to be at the very least another five years before it is. I am hoping we can try and keep something going because a lot of what I do is simply about being here, having a physical presence.
The big plus is that I am not a vicar or a minister, I am just a part of the community and I have never been labelled anything other than Grace. I live in a council house and I get to whinge with everyone else. The most 'religious' description of me in my time here has been, 'This is Grace, she works for the church'.
It's the people I will miss; people like Joe, his wife and daughter. Joe is clearly a man of God but doesn't quite know how to put that into words because he would say a Christian is boring, wears a suit and is rude to people. Raising indigenous leadership is difficult but Joe now volunteers for everything we do. He started coming to us to make our refreshments; he now looks after our registration and acts as 'security man'. Getting him to have the confidence to do that was difficult enough without asking him to take on leadership. You can't expect to raise up a confident and humble leader in a short period of time.
People don't feel empowered to do it. They have always been told, often since they were at school, that they are not clever enough or good enough. The most outspoken people are not usually the best for shepherding a flock, people like Joe are not going to share the Gospel like our local preachers and understand the depth of transition theology but they can share their faith, in a way that makes sense to those around them – but they must be given time to grow and be discipled.
Many people I've come across here do not read often, sometimes they can only read with great difficulty so it's about making discipleship that's right for them. So many resources are too text based, and often speak into a middle class situation, and so providing suitable and relevant teaching and discipleship is not an easy task.
As a minister's daughter I know how to pack my stuff up and move on, I know you just have to let go, but for the people here I am fearful that they will be forgotten. Those of us in the Church need to remember it takes a long time before anything begins to look like a Christian community.
At my last get-together with the kids they didn't know I was leaving. The theme happened to be The Last Supper; we baked bread and then ate it and drank squash together. We talked about Jesus saying goodbye to his friends and the kids were really touched. They were really quiet and had obviously met with God again – something that usually happens when I least expect it.
There were 12 kids there aged 5-11, plus parents and volunteers. I shall miss them but I know that God is bigger than all the ins and outs of church life here, and he will look after them.