Crossing boundaries

Wednesday, 11 September, 2013

Katie Miller is a Reader with St Michael's CoFE Church, Hellesdon, near Norwich, and heads up a lay leadership team serving the Marlpit council estate. As she prepares to train in pioneer ministry at Ridley Hall, Katie tells how Christians can fall into the trap of stereotyping council estate residents.

The first half of the Marlpit was built in the 1930s with the rest going up in the 1960s and it is squeezed between a main road and the River Wensum. We are with the parish across the river so there is a very real sense of the Marlpit being out on its own.

It is known as a deprived area and St Michael's had been involved in the Marlpit for 40 years before its first 'home' on the estate closed down in 2007. It turned out that not having a permanent church base was a blessing because there is such a sense here that the church is part of the establishment so it was very helpful to be able to say, 'We are church but we have got nowhere to meet.' Relationships grew from that and it was useful to learn that you can very much build from a position of powerlessness.

Our fresh expression of church, which meets in a school, has grown entirely from local people and it includes young and old, different nationalities, those with church backgrounds and others with no previous experience of church at all. At one stage, there were two people (including me) with doctorates in a congregation of 15. It's important never to assume who is going to turn up at any given time!

We tend to describe ourselves as having six ministries in the Marlpit, one of which happens to be a Sunday morning time of worship. The rest involve all sorts of things, including a community choir and a mid-day mini service which takes place after our toddlers' group. Bex Toft, who lives on the estate, now oversees all the children's work and it's wonderful to have such a good local leader.

The major advantage of being in such a great place as this is its diversity. I find incredible honesty here, people tend to be very open and are not frightened of saying, 'I'm having a terrible time; this is what's happening.' That sort of openness creates close relationships very quickly and makes for a quality of fellowship that I have rarely come across elsewhere.

I'm shocked at the ways in which some people imagine life on a council estate. The fact is that Marlpit residents are the same as anyone else; they want to have stable relationships, they want their kids to do well at school and so on. I don't feel what I'm doing is more 'worthy' or 'radical' simply because of where I'm based.

Stereotypes abound and terrible assumptions can be made that everyone on a council estate is unemployed and living on benefits. The truth is that there is a huge mix of people in varying situations, there are working people, people looking for work, people who have retired from work, people who are not well enough to work and many, many others.

Sometimes Christians can be nervous of coming on to the Marlpit. I have known people be rather unsure - to say the least - about bringing their cars onto the estate for a joint church meeting. It's a sad fact that I have also come across churches more willing to go to Africa with a mission team than serve a local council estate.

To me, much comes down to a ministry of reconciliation because one of the major obsessions in our society is class distinction. Church should be capable of breaking moulds and not be put off by the 'externals' of people not wearing the same kinds of things as us or acting in the same sort of way. We, as Christians, should be the last people to judge others on how they look and where they live.

I think people are worried that they will be overwhelmed by need. What I have learned is that if we are spiritually trying to fix people all the time we'll burn ourselves out – whether we serve on a council estate or anywhere else. Our first calling is not to fix people but to love people.

And whatever we do, just remember to listen to God and to the people he places in your path. Listening is one of the greatest gifts that we have to offer in contemporary society, wherever we live.

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