Daniel Payne is a young leader on this year’s Buxton Leadership Programme. With applications now open for the 2022/23 cohort, he reflects on his experience…
My time as a Buxton intern, Community Organising with St Mary’s Walthamstow has been spent learning by doing. I have learnt that sometimes change happens very slowly, in very ordinary ways.The St Mary’s church building is in an interesting position. It is on the borderline between The Village, an expensive, recently gentrified residential area, and the housing estates on Attlee Terrace and The Drive.
Our team from St Mary’s quickly realised that we have collective experience in youth work. For example, by coincidence a few of us had worked previously in Pupil Referral Units. So we started with youth work. The team have set up a weekly after school club from scratch, making hot chocolates on the corner, playing football and basketball, speaking to our regulars and our weekly newcomers, both parents or students at one of the nearby schools, gently getting to know people as we speak every week.
From this work it became very clear that the outdoor spaces for young people on the housing estate were dire – often littered with smashed glass and dog poo, poorly kept with no lighting. And the spaces ten minutes’ walk away in the expensive area? Pristinely kept, well floodlit, with expensive equipment. This has been an issue we are doing some listening around. and the more parents and young people we speak to, the more this basic and concrete example of inequality becomes clear.
Many of these conversations are pretty ordinary, but at their heart we want to know what people love about their area, and what they would like to see change. This requires establishing a relationship with those people so that I can have the confidence to prod and to poke them into action over, for example, a terribly kept basketball court. Prodding and poking – a more professional term is agitating – is hard. I am only learning now how that can be done.
The more I learn, and the more I do, the more convinced I am that all churches should learn how to organise for change in their community.
Organising is deeply biblical. As Christians, we rely on prayer to do anything. Even more when we’re organising! It requires close community in the church, and profound and sacrificial love of our neighbours. It gives leadership to those this world would not think to consider. Those who carry the pain and burden of injustice.
The chance to build relationships has been one of my favourite parts of Buxton. I am grateful to God for how open people have been to conversations. This is down to the trust built up by the faithful work of Charnelle and Alan who have been around Attlee Terrace long before me.
I’ve had conversations kicking a ball about. I’ve had conversations during meetings at in the homes of residents frustrated by unapproachable local authorities. I’ve had conversations whilst helping carry a fridge down a flight of stairs. I’ve had conversations in graveyards, balconies and yes, even zoom. From those conversations come relationships, and from relationships come the prod and the poke that spur people to action. These relationships are the reason people will stir themselves to go to meetings about something seemingly mundane after a long day of work.
What does this mean for change? It means it is not about any one individual, least of all me, the community organiser – Thank God! – but those with lived and current experience of injustice in daily life. They are the people who understand the problems because they are living through them. The people who want to see change where they live, not just out of the kindness of their hearts’, but because they live there, and their children live there, and their children’s friends live there. The longer those injustices go on the longer they will affect their lives.
These are the people the Lord uses throughout the Bible to bring the Kingdom of God – those society neglects to notice, those who often don’t think of themselves as able until the moment arises and the Holy Spirit empowers them. The young, the old, those not great at speaking, the tired, the frustrated. I also cannot help but think of the Beatitudes too. The poor in spirit, the meek, the mourning, those who desire righteousness and justice.
The church is commanded to act. Doing justice is not an optional extra, something only those churches over there do, good for them. Jeremiah 29:7 – ‘Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.’ With this in mind then, consider that James 1:22 tells us: ‘But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.’
So, we need to honour the command to seek the welfare of our city, or to put it another way, to love our neighbour as ourselves. Surely we want to find a practical way of doing this as effectively, as lovingly, as relationally, as possible?
Community Organising is that method. It works. It is practical and realistic. It can be adapted to place and context. It doesn’t follow unmoving dogma, but a set of principles grounded in political behaviour and biblical views of justice.
Central to this work is patience, grace, drive, creativity, prayer, and relationships. Ordinary and slow are not exciting words but they best describe the work of change. There are enough stories of work being done in East London alone to be convinced of this. What a chance to be a witness.