Around the firepit

A community evangelist and development worker, Peter Homden, has been 'visiting and engaging' with gypsy travellers for more than five years and talks to Emma Garrow.

The settled Gypsy Traveller community makes up one of the largest ethnic groups within the parish of St John’s Heatherlands (and the Church of the Good Shepherd) in Poole.

The church's community evangelist and development worker, Peter Homden, has been 'visiting and engaging' with the gypsy travellers for more than five years and is gradually 'building church in the community'.

'It is a community that is evolving,' says Peter. 'When you take a nomadic group of people that becomes sedentary and settles, it places stresses and strains on the culture.' This estate, and its local church, are both close to Peter's heart, since it was here he grew up and first started attending the Good Shepherd. His vocation took him to mission work in London, training college and then back home, where his role has been funded by the St Aldhelm's Trust (out of the Diocese of Salisbury) for the past three years. This summer he is to be ordained pioneer minister.

'I’m back full circle,' he says. 'The estate has changed but I'm beginning to see the issues I saw in London 25 years ago.'

Peter lives in his own home in the middle of the estate, where the diocese has placed a building that operates as an office-cum-counselling room in his garden. 'There is a regular stream of people at my door asking for help, especially the young people,' he says. As part of his involvement with them he has set up a bike project where they mend bikes together, and 'talk about life issues'.

He describes his work on and for the estate as 'broad'. It has involved talking to the local police on the subject of prejudice, training community workers looking to engage with the Gypsy Traveller community and the general building up of relationships through door to door visiting.

'Lots of the work is done in homes,' he explains. 'We have mini prayer meetings with the families. With about 80 per cent I could knock the door and before leaving they will ask, "Pray for me, pray for this" '. 'Prayer is at the heart of what we do.'

It is also very much a part of the 'gatherings', held quarterly, to which members of the gypsy traveller community are invited. Gatherings meet in the church's spacious grounds around a firepit and involve karaoke, accordion playing and 'copious amounts of tea', with the aim of building a worshipping community. Up to 30 people attend, bringing with them their own unchurched, non-gypsy friends from the estate.

This autumn Peter hopes to build the work further by developing a drop-in centre for coffee and chat, but also for practical support and public services. 'Our remit is for a holistic gospel,' he says. 'For faith that brings change.'