When Rachel Schofield realised there were real spiritual and social needs on two estates in Bristol, she decided to do something about it. This is her story.
Hartcliffe and Withywood Lighthouse began with the inspiring vision of community transformation and Christian outreach based in local houses. The aim was to reach out to local people on the large adjoining needy estates of Hartcliffe and Withywood on the southwest edge of Bristol.
Working on a regeneration project in Withywood from 2000, I quickly gained a heart to reach people in the area with the Christian message, and felt frustrated that local churches were not in a position to reach adults in their twenties to fifties. Only around 2% of local people attended the local churches yet many local people expressed a belief in God, but didn't know who Jesus is.
Whilst working on a church based community clean-up project I met local resident Heather Williams and Revd Jenny Low, the new curate of St Andrews Church. They both shared my vision for the area. Jenny opened up her house and the three of us (leaders of the Lighthouse) with other Christians from the local catholic and evangelical churches met for a year to pray and develop the vision, before inviting local people to come along.
At the launch of the Lighthouse in 2002, we invited local people we knew to join us for a full Christmas meal, particularly people who were the hubs of the local community who knew many people. We wanted them to help the project become known. Since then around 10-25 people have met every Friday evening for a meal, and time afterwards where a guest would share their testimony about an issue which affects local people such as abuse, addiction, relationships, debt and so on. This had an impact on those who attend particularly many unchurched, male, single parents in their 20s and 30s. Overall we estimate that the project has supported over 70 people since it began.
Initially we funded this ourselves, but after 5 years as things grew we were able to secure funding for food costs, training, materials and venue hire from a charitable trust and Bristol Church. As the sense of community has grown in these groups, we have taken people off to visit churches and festivals such as 'New Wine' to broaden their Christian experience.
Our annual prayer walk was so exciting that in 2004 we decided to start monthly prayer meetings. These were initially for the leaders to pray for the area but those attending Lighthouse wanted to be part of it. The meeting was changed to a format which was more inclusive for local unchurched people and held in a community venue at the local "Teenage Parents Project". The services are participatory with contemporary worship songs, creative interactive reflective elements, small group work and prayer, using modern technology and film.
After a few years, many of the group began to seek more Christian spiritual input, specifically wanting to explore the bible and prayer. We tried to encourage them to attend the local or other churches in the city but the gap between them and the churches remained wide. Over two years five members of our fresh expression of church were baptised in a paddling pool in the front garden of the house, right in the face of the community who watched on.
An established Christian couple bought a house in the area and offered themselves as leaders in 2009. This enabled us to start a discipleship group for those wanting to explore the Christian faith in more depth. This is held in a members house and a core of eight people meet each week to study the bible, pray have fun and eat pudding.
The Lighthouse now does worship, mission and community and has been working with the Church Urban Fund in a study on mission outside church and to reflect on the development of the group.
It remains a challenge for this fresh expression to become sustainable when the leaders are all volunteers. We are trying to make the project less dependent on a few of us and would like local people to develop into leaders, but that still remains a major challenge.
I was born in Hartcliffe but my family moved to Knowle West, a neighbouring estate in South Bristol. My parents split up when I was young, my mother left us and I was bullied a lot because of my disability.
One day the local police came to my secondary school to choose a pupil to give them the opportunity to go to America. I couldn’t believe it when I was chosen. On the journey out, I was late to Heathrow and missed the flight. They put me on another flight but later that day I discovered that the flight I should have been on was the Pan Am flight which crashed and all passengers were killed. That was my first experience of flying and it was then quite scary but I had a fabulous time in America. Looking back I knew God is really looking after me.
A few years later I met my ex-partner and started a family. She went off with another man and took the children who I am now trying to get access to through court. I met a community worker at the Fathers Project I was attending who was from the Lighthouse and I decided to go along to try and cheer myself up. People were so kind and welcoming although I was expecting weird looks. The testimonies made me think "why don’t I give it a go" and God was helping me get over the loss of my mum and cope better with not being able to see my children. In July 08 I got baptized at the Lighthouse and now I go every week.