Westway Open Arms – update Oct13

Sam Foster is fresh expression pioneer minister for Scarborough Deanery. She gives an update on the Westway Open Arms community project that may, or may not, develop a fresh expression of church.

I took on this role in 2008 and so many incredible things have happened since then but I think the opening of Westway Open Arms has to be a major highlight. This community hub, a former vicarage on the Eastfield estate, had been derelict but for some time the place has been refitted, redecorated and brought back to life – and so many people are coming through our doors as a result. It's a very big building and it had been empty for five years so that gives you some idea as to how much needed to be done!

It has actually been running since May 2013 but, since then, we finished off building procedures and works and became a charity to give it more chance of long-term sustainability.

We wanted to share the transformation with the community so we had our official opening on Saturday 5th October 2013 when the Bishop of Hull, Richard Frith, cut the ribbon on the centre. A great deal of cake was eaten and there were indoor and outdoor games for the children.

Westway Open Arms - buildingWe decided not to make it on overtly Christian occasion but at Christmas we will have a full thanksgiving and worship service. In this community, people tend to be very sceptical of the church so – at the moment – we are building trust. In saying that, we are also being relatively upfront and forward with people about who we are; we're not deliberately hiding anything. We work very closely with neighbouring Holy Nativity Church, which has a small congregation of mainly elderly people and I’m part of their ministry team now. We also work very closely with community agencies and organisations.

Sometimes, as church in general, we don't think about what we are because we have done it the same way for years. The problem is that we can begin to think the people outside will know it too – but they don't. We really want to put this building, and the church, back on the map and invite those people who don't know anything about Christians or the Christian faith to come in and have a look. Mind you, there has already been huge interest in what we've been doing to the place; people were knocking on the door to take a look as soon as we started the renovation works.

We are open to the public from Monday to Thursday, 9am to 3pm, offering debt advice and budgeting, a foodbank, and pregnancy crisis care because teenage pregnancy is off the Richter scale in this area. We also have a community drop-in for a couple of hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays though people do just drop in at other times as well! I've said in previous updates that Eastfield is one of England's most deprived areas so it's clear that we, as Christians, must have a visible presence here to serve a physical need. It's where God has called us and what he wants us to do.

Westway Open Arms - tablesWe now have community prayers every morning and on a Thursday afternoon. That involves an informal, short act of worship which is very deliberately ecumenical and that can involve all sorts of things, such as Celtic Communion and so on. Interestingly the people in this area are very 'traditional' in a way because they want things that 'look like' church – even if they've never been involved in church at all before. Hopefully, we're going to start another get-together in the New Year on a Sunday, something very informal, very basic. That's an exciting thing for us to consider.

Our Hub Groups, as part of our fresh expressions faith community, have always been missional groups so they have really got involved in this centre since we opened in May, doing things like policy and procedures. This is a voluntary organisation and we have got no paid staff but everyone who wanted to be part of what we do here has been trained and inducted professionally. We see it as the ongoing discipling of people who want to be part of community.

Some days are really tough and with all the good stuff comes attack – but it goes with the territory. That rubbish also brings blessing and, most days, I thank God for letting me be part of that.

It's so important to have support around you. I have a 76-year-old spiritual director who is so godly and prophetic; I know she prays for me daily and isn't afraid to challenge me. In the past, I used to go to people who would say I was wonderful  but I'm not bothered about that type of thing, I want somebody to pray with me and give me that sacred trust and space so that I can say what's really bothering me. Friendship is vital to me and my support mechanism includes really close friends, some in Scarborough and some not in Scarborough, to have a really good laugh with.

Westway Open Arms - food store

Whether you like it or not, people see you differently because you are ordained. I can see how this approach to ministry can easily happen to people and I would never criticise them but I want more in my life than just work, work and work. I do want things like friends and family.

In terms of wider support, the diocese has been absolutely brilliant. When I approached the bishop with the idea for Westway; he immediately he called in an archdeacon, the diocesan secretary, the surveyor and solicitor and they all said, 'it sounds good. Yes, go ahead'. That's three years ago and that's how I knew it was a God thing.

In July, the diocese agreed we could have the building rent free for 12 years and they are also going to be responsible for the internal and external repairs for that period of time. We are responsible for the running costs and we are already secure for about three years because that money has just come in. God's timing is perfect and all the churches I have been working with across the deanery have given their support. We've also had £500 from the local Methodist Church which gave the profits from their café while the Baptist Church in Scarborough prayer-walked the area and have funded some of our pregnancy crisis support work.

Will a fresh expression of church develop here? I don't know at the moment but, when we start to gather people together in the new year; we may see something grow from what's already happening. We do have a hall so we could start something in our own building or we might see things begin to take shape in Holy Nativity Church; the good thing there is that it is an open space without pews so it could be set out in café-style and very interactive.

Westway Open Arms - ribbon cutting

There are obviously sensitivities around that because I don't want those at Holy Nativity to feel that we are doing something without considering them. We will listen to God and to those around us, pray and see what happens.

When we were fundraising for Westway, I spent three days in a cage outside the building to symbolise those who feel trapped by their circumstances and how we'd hope to help free them from those problems. I was sponsored for the 'lock-in' and it was humbling to see how many came to visit me there. I slept outside and relied on other people to bring me food, only leaving the cage to use the bathroom. Yes, I did have people watching over me from a distance who were staying in tents and there was a ‘minder’ in case things became dangerous but it was an incredible experience.

People were invited to write their worries, and their hopes and dreams for the future, on a luggage tag and attach it to the cage and I'd pray for them. By the time I'd finished, these luggage tags were all over the cage. I was also quite weak because I recharge my batteries by being on my own but there were people around me all the time. Some came and sat for three or four hours; there was never a break.

One young woman of about 22, who says she just goes 'from one mess to another' in her life, came to meet me every day when I was in the cage. Recently she turned up at Westway Open Arms to give me her number. She said, 'I just need a religion to help me'. I told her, 'You can have a Christian faith, but not a religion'. Later this month, I will start a course for young women like her who say that they're looking for something. I want to make sure they're searching in the right places and looking at the right things.

Westway Open Arms - speechesI don't have a contract so I don't know how long I will be here but I do know that it would be irresponsible for me to think about moving any time soon. Encouragingly, the building now functions perfectly well without me but – as for the charity stuff and getting the trustees together – there is much more to do and I don't feel a sense that I should go yet. However, I don't want anything to become dependent on me; when you get it right in these situations, one person shouldn't be responsible for the whole thing. Basically, I'm here until God says it's time to go.

Things have really moved in Scarborough in the past five years. When I was speaking to people about fresh expressions at that time, many of them didn't have a clue what I was on about. That has clearly changed. Last month, I was delighted to be asked to lead a full day on fresh expressions of church at the Mothers' Union York Diocesan Retreat.

They had made a specific request to know more about what was happening and I was thrilled. Afterwards they said, 'We are going back to our churches to tell them all about fresh expressions'. What an encouragement!

The Mothers' Union have been very supportive in other ways too. They collect food for our foodbank and I always send a prayer diary to every Mothers' Union branch in the town; I would never underestimate the importance of that. All of these connections make Westway Open Arms what it is and I pray we see more fruit from those connections in the future.

Westway Open Arms - cakes

Scarborough Deanery – update Feb13

Sam Foster, fresh expressions pioneer missioner in the Scarborough Deanery, tells how a former vicarage is at the heart of a new ministry.

Since I started this role four years ago I've always felt a need to do something practical to serve the community of Eastfield, a large housing estate that is in the top 10% of the most deprived in the country. For four years, I and the Scarborough fresh expressions team prayed for God to guide us, give us patience (knowing that it wouldn't happen straight away) and to give us His vision rather than a Sam Foster bright idea!

The Diocese of York approached me in 2010 about possibly using an old vicarage known as Westway House on the estate. It was no longer a residential dwelling available to rent out because the NSPCC, which had been based there for a while, had renovated it into a multi-purpose building. Basically if we couldn't use it, it would be knocked down. We couldn't see this happen so, over a period of 18 months, talked regularly with the diocese about mission for that area.

Scarborough Deanery - groupWe also got to know local agencies, the parish council, residents and police to find out what some of the needs were in the community from their point of view – rather than simply looking at statistics. The issues for them were, and are, teenage pregnancy, debt, unemployment, loneliness and other factors associated with living in an area of deprivation.

An exciting element of this new venture is Holy Nativity Church, which is next door to Westway House. Holy Nativity currently has a very small congregation of elderly people but they have been very supportive of us coming to Westway, so much so that they have just changed the church's Resolutions which means I can now take Communion Services there and work with them in very practical ways.

At Westway House we will need to have charitable status but the Christian ethos will remain fundamental to what we do. As we develop the social action type project, we also hope to see the growth of a fresh expression of church within the Holy Nativity building. Although local residents don't go on a Sunday there are a lot of baptisms and the church is seen as the heart of the community so we want to build on this! At the moment the style of worship available would not be readily be accessible to those who struggle with literacy or with little knowledge of liturgy – but thanks to the Fresh Expressions teaching materials and things I've learned over the years, we'll now approach things in a different way and see what God does!

Scarborough Deanery - Westway HouseThe church in Earlsfield has to step up to the needs of that community so the offer is now there for people to come and get on board and work together. Residents are looking to the church to take the lead in a lot of things and respond to what is needed here; we can't say we just want a nice happy, clappy church in this setting. That would be wrong.

Some people may wonder why we are using a church building when the development of fresh expressions is often about going out and staying out in the community. The fact is that have been listening to this community and we are doing what is right for this community. These buildings are God-given gifts and we must make the most of them. Personally I wouldn’t go looking for a church building at all when thinking of a fresh expression but having the house alongside it makes sense of the whole thing. Having the Scarborough fresh expressions team based at Westway House but having no link with the Church of England building next door wouldn't be right. We should be working together and I think it offers great opportunities ecumenically; we have Baptists coming to help us start a service there and the Methodists are already involved.

My training in fresh expressions has emphasised the importance of long-term sustainability. Practical experience has also seen me live and work in similar areas to Eastfield and, as a result, I know that agencies come and go. Residents get fed up of forming relationships and trust only to feel let down when the money runs out and people from those agencies leave.

Scarborough Deanery - streetSo I decided very early on that this project needed to be a shared resource and in partnership with others if it was to survive in the long term. First of all I approached the Rainbow Centre, a social action project about half an hour away from Eastfield that has been in existence for 15 years. I talked to their Debt Advisor and asked if they would further their work with us at Westway House if we provided a handful of volunteers for them to train. They agreed. I then approached Pregnancy Crisis in Scarborough, which has been running for 10 years, and negotiated with them for us to provide eight new volunteers to supplement their expertise in this area.

Why should we reinvent the wheel when others are doing such brilliant work? 

Through Pregnancy Crisis and Debt Advice we have not only expanded the ministry but also succeeded in sharing the costs and seen our new volunteers become fully trained in the past 18 months.

A similar thing has just happened with the local Food Bank. We are in partnership with the Rainbow Centre and Yorkshire Coast Homes in supplying different parts of the town with food parcels. The Rainbow Centre is the central bank and we share the same database so that each parcel/client is monitored properly and eventually we will share the cost. The only way forward in my opinion is partnering in the gospel and to see this in action in practical and loving ways to serve all people.

Scarborough Deanery - teamI have now got a really great team around me; there are eight of us and each person co-ordinates an aspect of what we're involved in. Whenever it is that I move on eventually, the work won't solely depend on me because different volunteers are now responsible for debt advice, pregnancy crisis work, and so on. I always say that I work towards making myself redundant!

It has made such a difference to have a full-time colleague working with me. At one point we thought that Shena Moray, a Church Army evangelist, would be moving on but when a post opened up to work as part of our team, she applied and got the job.

My bishop and the Deanery have been brilliant in supporting us here and it has been great to see the community begin to respond to our presence too. When we first used the church, we put a labyrinth in there and opened the doors. People were asking us, 'When did the church re-open?' And we said, 'It never closed…' 

Westway House has been empty for three years so we are now at the point where builders and contractors have started sorting everything out but a lot of the re-ordering done by the NSPCC will stand us in good stead. There is even a space in there that we’re going to set aside as a multi-sensory prayer room. An added bonus is that the diocese is giving it to us rent-free as a diocesan project. We are scheduled to open at end of February/beginning of March.

Scarborough Deanery - Holy Nativity ChurchWe have also taken an interest in new monasticism and would like to have a Rhythm of Life within the house; it would be great to see that happening because it does seem to be the 'language' that speaks to many. People will speak of spirituality and Jesus and prayer but when we Christians talk of a 10am service on a Sunday, or something similar, those same people are not interested at all!

Scarborough Deanery

Revd Sam Foster is fresh expressions pioneer missioner for the Scarborough Deanery. Numerous projects are now underway, among them a fresh expression of church in Hub Groups. Sam tells us more:

I am a fresh expressions missioner for the whole Deanery instead of a single parish and that has made a huge difference. Although I work for the Church of England, I work ecumenically – mainly through Churches Together – helping churches to step out in faith in building community and supporting Parochial Church Councils and ministers along the way.

Scarborough Deanery - friendsI now have an Anglican team of about ten people, including Church Army officer Shena Woolridge. Church Army gave us full funding for five years and Shena works full time on spirituality and the arts. The entire Deanery is represented in the make up of the team, we have got 27 Anglican churches here for instance but five of those churches may be in one benefice so one person will represent that group.

The team overlap a lot; and the beauty of it is that everyone has responsibility for a project or particular area of work. The groups of people helping us to run these projects are ecumenical, everything from Anglo-Catholics to Pentecostal Baptists. If we want things to be sustainable we must equip and encourage lay people to do all sorts of things; I am against the model of a vicar as a Jack of all Trades. I have been ordained for seven years and I don't want to have a breakdown because I’m running around trying to do everything.

Scarborough Deanery - CaféWe also have a mix of lay and ordained as well as some people who have recently come to faith. Whatever their Christian story so far I look for people who don't speak church 'language' all the time – it's very easy to slip in to that but it ends up meaning nothing to the people you're trying to reach. It's interesting that people who don't know anything about church tend to respond to friendship and support but the de-churched people we meet along the way look for some form of accountability so they know if we are 'safe' or not.

To work across the Deanery means that I can go anywhere and open things up, not only to our own CofE churches but also ecumenically. Part of that work is getting as many churches as possible to support and fund the initiative. Twelve churches of different denominations have done just that though this comes with its own challenges; namely that we have to make sure that everybody is singing from the same hymn sheet by using the same national material from Fresh Expressions. It sounds a bit heavy but in order for this to work it has to be that way.

Our team also meet regularly to share in the vision. That really helps when facing criticism from the various denominations – whether it is not preaching the Gospel enough or preaching it too much!

Scarborough Deanery - beachHealing on the beach for example is a bit controversial among the churches but most people on the streets – faced with things like regular Mind Body Spirit Fairs – are saying, 'It's about time Christians were doing something like this'. The media around here call me 'the vicar without a church' and I'm fine with that. I don't face too much opposition as such – mainly because I'm ordained and the vicars see me as being in the same boat and also that I came into this job because I truly felt that God was telling me to do it; to be a church without walls.

The Hub Groups are part of our fresh expressions faith community, discovering together what it means to be disciples of Christ in the 21st Century. There are three groups now with the first one coming out of an Alpha course we did in a Travelodge. It was New Year and they let us advertise on the railings outside because they were promoting New Year's breaks and we were looking at Resolutions in one way or another. We had a real mix of people there and by the time we got to the end of the course they wanted something more.

Another of the Hub Groups is made up of people not really involved in their own churches but who still want to be disciples and deepen their faith journey. They are our potential leaders.

Scarborough Deanery - Indian

There's also a 20s/30s group and that's more flexible. That started with a young married couple who said they had no friends. I asked them to stay on for six months, start something, and see if they could build it up. It is now a very social group meeting twice a month in all sorts of places. The others meet weekly in people's homes. We also bring the three Hub Groups together for different occasions.

Our next step is to think about something on a monthly basis; we currently do creative prayer days around the town and it would be good to expand on that possibly. One thing is for sure, we are not at all interested in just starting another church. We share people and share resources but that would possibly change if we were in one distinct building.

This is a real mix of an area; it's a seaside town with a middle class suburbia that attracts visitors all year round but two locations in Scarborough are also nationally recognised areas of deprivation. We also cover many rural villages too and this rural focus makes up quite a lot of the Deanery.

Scarborough Deanery - lanternPart of our role is to try to encourage churches to shape a team and take over building community when they feel equipped to do so. At Christmas last year, St Mary's, Cloughton, staged a live nativity on Town Farm in the village. It was the first time the church had ever been involved in anything like that. It has since moved the local post office inside the church to ensure that the community doesn't lose that vital service. They also have a fresh expression café church called Café Refresh which meets in the village hall.

St Thomas', Gristhorpe – part of the Filey group of parishes – is an iron clad shack that came in a flat pack from Harrods 150 yrs ago. In April 2009 the fresh expressions team set up a Community Cinema in the church.

St. Mark's Newby, Wreyfield Drive Methodist, St. Luke's and St. Joseph's RC Churches and some members of the Barrowcliff Residents Association are in the process of looking at how we can best serve and be part of the community of Barrowcliff. We are also following the stages of the fresh expressions mission audit 'Listening to the Community' which involves asking local residents, youth workers, councillors, to tell us what they are already doing. What they share is forming our prayers.

Scarborough Deanery - nightSacred Space on the beach is very popular with people lighting a candle to give thanks or commemorate something or remember someone. In the pilot project last year 150 candles were lit on South Bay, Scarborough. We are not there to Bible bash or collect money. As a result people stopped and said, 'We don't go to church but can we join in?'

The Deanery actually pay for my post, the Diocese provide the house and pay my expenses. Initially it was for 5 years – now they have said they want to continue with it. At the moment we don't give anything to the parish share.

As a team we meet together monthly and pray together and we dream dreams but I'm also very much a member of the Clergy Chapter and Churches Together. I like to see us as one church.

Needing a Bishop's Mission Order (BMO) to go places and do things clearly works in other places but in this area it would be such a poor witness, this attitude of blessing from God is to work all together for the needs of the people.

The only way we can get through to people is by God's good grace and through relationships. Two years ago I had a blank canvas, now God is filling in that bigger picture.

Scarborough Deanery - red