Richard Hill (Magdalen, Oxford) writes about his month in Manor Park
For the last four weeks I’ve been based at St Stephen’s and St Nicholas’ Catholic churches in Manor Park with three other interns, working to improve relations between members of the congregation, particularly helping the young people of the parish to organise themselves into a Youth Group. Manor Park itself is one of the most diverse areas of the country, and the ethnic mix is reflected in the makeup of the congregation: the parish primary school, St Winifred’s, has pupils from 59 countries, 60% of whom speak English as a second language. We have been fortunate to be stationed at a Church which already has a solid foundation of community organising work which we were able to build upon. I was pleased to discover during one of my one-to-ones that the lady whom I was talking to conducted one-to-ones herself with other parishioners on a fairly frequent basis.
Our work was split between two main tasks: doing one-to-ones with parishioners and working with the younger people, helping them to organise a community day for the parish on the 31st July and to set up a Youth Group. The two tasks fed into each other; one of the concerns which arose from our conversations with people was the fear that the youth were insufficiently engaged with the life of the Church. When we talked to younger people, it was clear they wanted to get more involved, and the idea to set up a professionally run Youth Group came entirely from them, not us interns.
We needed to raise money for the Group, so we put on a fundraising community day for the whole parish, involving food, sports, fun activities for younger children, and several performances. Once again, although we co-ordinated their efforts, it was the young people themselves who came up with the ideas for what to do; they also manned the stalls. The community day thus enabled the youth to develop their own leadership skills. It was really great to see how enthusiastic everyone was in taking the initiative and making things happen: all the feedback we have received after the event has been very positive.
Although we were only at St Stephen’s for a month, we took a lot from it. The most exciting parts of the month were those moments when people expressed a desire to get more involved in Church life, and followed up on their word. Without the contacts made at one-to-one meetings, no one would know who to ask to help at particular events, or even if people were willing to help. Community organising is a more effective way of achieving congregational unity than simple top-down leadership, because through one-to-ones and further meetings there is an increased awareness of people’s specific talents and how they can best contribute to the community. After my experience at Manor Park I would definitely be interested in getting involved in another of London Citizens’ projects, for example the Living Wage campaign, to see how community organising functions on a wider scale.