Jennie Appleby discusses joining the marginalised.
I'm now Rector of St John the Baptist Church in Leicester but, many years ago, I was working in a very different context in a small northern town – an area that was beyond my experience and totally out of my comfort zone. It was to be transformative in many ways.
Recent closure of the main employer in the town had resulted in massive unemployment for both young and old. Ironically, I had been employed by the local churches (one of the only people to move into the area) to work with young people who faced little prospect of ever finding a job in the area.
'Why do you want to work here with us?', asked the youngsters. Here were a group of lovable kids who lacked self-esteem and hope for the future. I had already been working on the council estate for 18 months when I felt a calling to move there. The young people were surprised I wanted to live amongst them as it was the one place in town where no-one lived out of choice.
Some local Christians, amongst whom I worshipped, had grown up on such estates but had moved away to more desirable areas and thought I was actively choosing to become downwardly mobile; a decision which dumbfounded them. However, I was discovering that when God nudges, experience and expectation are irrelevant. It felt more important to deepen my relationships with the people who were becoming a part of my life than to play the respectable Christian game of climbing the social ladder. The harsh reality was that as I worked with the marginalised, I was becoming marginalised myself from much of the church. Yet, I was experiencing a different way of being church.
Life amongst this new community was transformative and there was never a dull moment. Frequent sights of furniture being moved between houses (usually on foot), early morning police raids and unconventional offers of cheap, electrical items were everyday occurrences. I realised I'd been accepted in the community when I was invited by two women to join them for a drink at the local working men's club, and when someone turned up on my doorstep to ask for prayer.
Amidst the colourful lives on the estate and the disbelief of Christians from the other side of town, I discovered a sense of the tangible presence of God. I could imagine Jesus himself walking the streets with me and I experienced signs of God's Kingdom: people sharing their lives and possessions together – not out of a sense of Christian love or duty but because they had so little themselves. I had never witnessed people sharing on this level before – they were teaching me lessons about how to live the Christian life.
I still reflect on those experiences and thank God for calling me to live there. In my naivety I had thought I was introducing God to the people in that place but I realised that through their love and acceptance of me, their simple lifestyles and so much sharing, they were showing me a new way of recognising God. Working on the edge gave me a vision of God's Kingdom and being marginalised brought me to my knees and a deeper relationship with Christ. A few thoughts as a result of that:
- as pioneers, are we open to Jesus taking us to uncomfortable places?
- can we intentionally become downwardly mobile for the sake of the Gospel?
- if we work with the marginalised, does it follow that we personally become marginalised from much of the church? If so, how can we be sustained in this ministry?