Revd Tim Clapton, Director of the Near Neighbours programme, blogs about a recent visit from Eric Pickles. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government came to visit some of our projects in south London and, (once Tim had found the right car!) the visit was a huge success…
There are times when we launch upon a course of action only to know immediately it is the wrong thing to do. So it was when Eric Pickles came to visit the parish of St Giles, Camberwell last week.
Revd Nick Gorge was waiting at the church gate along with the Director of Near Neighbours, Liz Carnelley. They were ready to welcome the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government as he arrived and to bring him into the St Giles Centre. I felt sure I had spotted his car – a black Jaguar with tinted windows – the sort used by cabinet ministers. But it had missed the turning so I chased after it while it laboured in the slow traffic. I found myself bending over, jogging by the side of the car – tapping lightly on the blacked out windows, gesticulating that he has missed the turning. Who knows what was going on inside that executive limousine? Perhaps phone calls were being hurriedly made calling backup, safety catches were being eased off revolvers. At that point, my phone rang and I was told Mr Pickles was actually in a Range Rover and would be with us in a few minutes. Oops.
The Secretary of State had come to see some local community projects which had received funding from Near Neighbours. It was remarkable how many of these were actually linked to the local Anglican church. Over ten years ago, Nick and the congregation at St Giles spent time thinking and praying how they might best use their parish facilities. They decided they must support local refugees and asylum seekers. So it was very pleasing to meet members of the Southwark Refugee Forum which has flourished over the years at St Giles. The SRF supports a diverse range of refugee groups in this part of Southwark. There was the Ahwazi organisation who received a Near Neighbours grant to work with a very diverse and divided group of Iranian young people living in UK. Another group received a grant to bring people of different faiths together using Eritrean coffee making (which is my sort of project!) These small organisations provide support services to their members and ensure their voices are heard in civil society.
The Secretary of State was particularly interested in a small project based just down the road from St Giles. A year ago Elaine, a local Christian woman, decided the community should work with children and young people on the estate following the riots. She set up a series of holiday play schemes and began training local people including some teenagers in how to work safely with children. Near Neighbours funded a half-term holiday camp where over 60 children were given healthy food throughout the day as well as play opportunities and trips out of the area. Mr Pickles enjoyed hearing from volunteers including 16-year-old Chris, about how the holiday camps challenged negativity on the estate and how young teenagers on the edge of gangs were trained and utilised. Elaine structures the holiday camp in a similar way to that of an African family, with everyone included, eating together. When a youngster misbehaves (s)he is welcomed back after a clear apology.
When the Secretary of State visits a local parish church there is quite a bit of scurrying around in preparation including clearing up, sticking up photos and laying out food. But actually what he wants to hear is how local churches and Christians are engaged deep within their communities, making things happen and being agents of transformation in some difficult places. That was the story Eric Pickles was told last week. After I’d found the right car!