Nick Ash is a primary school teacher and a curate in Faversham. He tells of seeing the Holy Spirit at work in the SMASH after-school club.
I was ordained priest in July last year and have been working at St Mary of Charity Primary School, Faversham, since 1989. I am now teaching children of the children I first taught!
The development of St Mary's After School Club (SMASH) started in September 2009 when I approached two members of the church I attend, and asked them whether they would be prepared to help me re-launch an after school club I had been running a couple of years previously which I had to close down due to the pressure of my own training for ministry.
It immediately attracted a couple of very enthusiastic mums from the Parents, Teachers and Friends Association (PTFA). Not only did they start coming to SMASH with their children, who were in top infants at the time, but they even started attending the prayer meetings I held in one of the school rooms. These happened at the start of each of the days SMASH was held on.
It was a small beginning, but as they enthused about it to their friends on the playground over the next few months more and more families started attending. By the end of the year we eventually had about six families being represented, so we started asking parents if they would like SMASH twice a month. Because of the positive response to this question we have now increased the event to twice a month from last September.
It was during the first term of 2010 that one of the original mums involved with SMASH approached me and asked if she could have 'a chat'. We met over a period of weeks talking about her spiritual journey, and how she felt that she was wanting to find a new way of living. This led to talk of baptism, and eventually on December 11 we held a special baptism service in the newly acquired school chapel, with a gathering of a combination of church family and new friends from SMASH.
Having been without a chapel in the school since it was incorporated into a Head's office twelve years ago, it is lovely to have it back. It was created by chance after two classrooms had been knocked together leaving a space between it and the next door room, thus opening up a space just big enough to be turned into something useful. The Bishop of Dover, Rt Rev Trevor Wilmott, came along to one of our SMASH meetings on 18th January, and used the time to dedicate the chapel as a place for class assembly and prayer meetings. We are planning to run a Christianity Explored course there later in the year to deepen discipleship among SMASH members.
SMASH uses a very simple formula. We meet at 3.30pm opening with a prayer and the lighting of a candle, when we remind ourselves of the words of Jesus which we say together, 'I am the light of the world. He who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life'. We then have a game followed by a song, after which we play one more game and have one more song. After that we have a short time of Bible teaching, which usually includes some kind of interaction with the children. This then leads into a time when we do some craft, based on the theme of the teaching for the afternoon. An interactive time of prayer follows this, and we end by eating tea together. This has been a key part of the afternoon, as it is where relationships are built and deepened.
Despite the fact that St Mary of Charity Primary is a CofE Voluntary Aided school, most of those who attend it are unchurched members of the community. SMASH is therefore attracting totally unchurched people where church is not part of their normal frame of reference; their only link may have been when their children were baptised as babies. I feel strongly that SMASH must be for families and not just children, which is why I insist that it is not just another after school club, and that children must be accompanied by a parent or carer if they attend.
We are very excited with what God seems to be doing in our midst. It is like having sown a mustard seed, and we are now watching it grow under our noses. Others from the main church have felt called to this ministry, and the leadership group has now grown to six members.
It is wonderful to see how things have continued to develop. A child in my class, who attends SMASH with her mother, has recently asked to be baptised and I am now in the process of setting dates to see her with her parents and talk through what it all means. Also, a couple of the families are, without prompting, coming to the main church on a Sunday morning and getting involved in the new children's ministry that has recently been launched, called FLAME. This is seen by the vicar and ministry team as working in tandem with what we are trying to do in SMASH. In fact one of the mums from school wants to get more and more involved in the church and has already joined a house group. Is this surely not mixed economy in action – a fresh expression of church led by the curate of the local church, who is also a member of staff at the school where it all happens and who has helped to initiate a fresh look at children's work within the life of the church.
Further ideas we want to develop with SMASH are a summer beach outing with young families from the local Sure Start Children's Centre, alongside the SMASH families. A couple of staff from the Children's Centre have been helping to look after children aged 0-3 during SMASH meetings as a joint working initiative. They too are very excited by this idea, as it covers both our visions of trying to reach members of our local community, and serve them in different ways.
I admit that I am in a very fortunate position here, as I am able to develop these initiatives under the title of a new role I have been allowed to take on in my ordained capacity entitled 'Community Link Person'. It is funded through the rent charged to the Sure Start Centre, because it is built on the school site. It is paid to the trustees of the school, which happen to be the vicar and church warden, who have agreed to fund this new project with this money for one day a week. This new position has given me space and time to consider how I can make links between the school and the local community and how to develop more effectively the ministry and work of the Church school that I am a part of.
One of the school's developmental aims has been to increase opportunity to explore spirituality, and provide space for developing that spirituality within individuals. SMASH helps towards meeting this goal; but more than this, its very presence within the life of the school speaks louder than any words can. It exists as an open invitation to anyone who feels they want to explore faith in a non threatening environment, where they will find Christians and members of the local school community enjoying each others company and having fun together.
I am very excited to see the way the Spirit is moving in people's lives. I feel that having the chapel back within the life of the school has put its spiritual heart back where it belongs, and in a very real sense I feel we are seeing the fruit of this action. I am encouraged through the backing of the Head for this work, and I am looking forward to developing this whole role further through conversations with the Assistant Diocesan Director of Education. With her I want to explore the possibilities of linking up with others who are involved in the same kind of ministry, so we can share good practice and good ideas for the future.