Westway Open Arms - update Oct13

Monday, 14 October, 2013

Sam Foster is fresh expression pioneer minister for Scarborough Deanery. She gives an update on the Westway Open Arms community project that may, or may not, develop a fresh expression of church.

I took on this role in 2008 and so many incredible things have happened since then but I think the opening of Westway Open Arms has to be a major highlight. This community hub, a former vicarage on the Eastfield estate, had been derelict but for some time the place has been refitted, redecorated and brought back to life - and so many people are coming through our doors as a result. It's a very big building and it had been empty for five years so that gives you some idea as to how much needed to be done!

It has actually been running since May 2013 but, since then, we finished off building procedures and works and became a charity to give it more chance of long-term sustainability.

We wanted to share the transformation with the community so we had our official opening on Saturday 5th October 2013 when the Bishop of Hull, Richard Frith, cut the ribbon on the centre. A great deal of cake was eaten and there were indoor and outdoor games for the children.

Westway Open Arms - buildingWe decided not to make it on overtly Christian occasion but at Christmas we will have a full thanksgiving and worship service. In this community, people tend to be very sceptical of the church so - at the moment - we are building trust. In saying that, we are also being relatively upfront and forward with people about who we are; we're not deliberately hiding anything. We work very closely with neighbouring Holy Nativity Church, which has a small congregation of mainly elderly people and I’m part of their ministry team now. We also work very closely with community agencies and organisations.

Sometimes, as church in general, we don't think about what we are because we have done it the same way for years. The problem is that we can begin to think the people outside will know it too – but they don't. We really want to put this building, and the church, back on the map and invite those people who don't know anything about Christians or the Christian faith to come in and have a look. Mind you, there has already been huge interest in what we've been doing to the place; people were knocking on the door to take a look as soon as we started the renovation works.

We are open to the public from Monday to Thursday, 9am to 3pm, offering debt advice and budgeting, a foodbank, and pregnancy crisis care because teenage pregnancy is off the Richter scale in this area. We also have a community drop-in for a couple of hours on Tuesdays and Thursdays though people do just drop in at other times as well! I've said in previous updates that Eastfield is one of England's most deprived areas so it's clear that we, as Christians, must have a visible presence here to serve a physical need. It's where God has called us and what he wants us to do.

Westway Open Arms - tablesWe now have community prayers every morning and on a Thursday afternoon. That involves an informal, short act of worship which is very deliberately ecumenical and that can involve all sorts of things, such as Celtic Communion and so on. Interestingly the people in this area are very 'traditional' in a way because they want things that 'look like' church – even if they've never been involved in church at all before. Hopefully, we're going to start another get-together in the New Year on a Sunday, something very informal, very basic. That's an exciting thing for us to consider.

Our Hub Groups, as part of our fresh expressions faith community, have always been missional groups so they have really got involved in this centre since we opened in May, doing things like policy and procedures. This is a voluntary organisation and we have got no paid staff but everyone who wanted to be part of what we do here has been trained and inducted professionally. We see it as the ongoing discipling of people who want to be part of community.

Some days are really tough and with all the good stuff comes attack - but it goes with the territory. That rubbish also brings blessing and, most days, I thank God for letting me be part of that.

It's so important to have support around you. I have a 76-year-old spiritual director who is so godly and prophetic; I know she prays for me daily and isn't afraid to challenge me. In the past, I used to go to people who would say I was wonderful  but I'm not bothered about that type of thing, I want somebody to pray with me and give me that sacred trust and space so that I can say what's really bothering me. Friendship is vital to me and my support mechanism includes really close friends, some in Scarborough and some not in Scarborough, to have a really good laugh with.

Westway Open Arms - food store

Whether you like it or not, people see you differently because you are ordained. I can see how this approach to ministry can easily happen to people and I would never criticise them but I want more in my life than just work, work and work. I do want things like friends and family.

In terms of wider support, the diocese has been absolutely brilliant. When I approached the bishop with the idea for Westway; he immediately he called in an archdeacon, the diocesan secretary, the surveyor and solicitor and they all said, 'it sounds good. Yes, go ahead'. That's three years ago and that's how I knew it was a God thing.

In July, the diocese agreed we could have the building rent free for 12 years and they are also going to be responsible for the internal and external repairs for that period of time. We are responsible for the running costs and we are already secure for about three years because that money has just come in. God's timing is perfect and all the churches I have been working with across the deanery have given their support. We've also had £500 from the local Methodist Church which gave the profits from their café while the Baptist Church in Scarborough prayer-walked the area and have funded some of our pregnancy crisis support work.

Will a fresh expression of church develop here? I don't know at the moment but, when we start to gather people together in the new year; we may see something grow from what's already happening. We do have a hall so we could start something in our own building or we might see things begin to take shape in Holy Nativity Church; the good thing there is that it is an open space without pews so it could be set out in café-style and very interactive.

Westway Open Arms - ribbon cutting

There are obviously sensitivities around that because I don't want those at Holy Nativity to feel that we are doing something without considering them. We will listen to God and to those around us, pray and see what happens.

When we were fundraising for Westway, I spent three days in a cage outside the building to symbolise those who feel trapped by their circumstances and how we'd hope to help free them from those problems. I was sponsored for the 'lock-in' and it was humbling to see how many came to visit me there. I slept outside and relied on other people to bring me food, only leaving the cage to use the bathroom. Yes, I did have people watching over me from a distance who were staying in tents and there was a ‘minder’ in case things became dangerous but it was an incredible experience.

People were invited to write their worries, and their hopes and dreams for the future, on a luggage tag and attach it to the cage and I'd pray for them. By the time I'd finished, these luggage tags were all over the cage. I was also quite weak because I recharge my batteries by being on my own but there were people around me all the time. Some came and sat for three or four hours; there was never a break.

One young woman of about 22, who says she just goes 'from one mess to another' in her life, came to meet me every day when I was in the cage. Recently she turned up at Westway Open Arms to give me her number. She said, 'I just need a religion to help me'. I told her, 'You can have a Christian faith, but not a religion'. Later this month, I will start a course for young women like her who say that they're looking for something. I want to make sure they're searching in the right places and looking at the right things.

Westway Open Arms - speechesI don't have a contract so I don't know how long I will be here but I do know that it would be irresponsible for me to think about moving any time soon. Encouragingly, the building now functions perfectly well without me but – as for the charity stuff and getting the trustees together - there is much more to do and I don't feel a sense that I should go yet. However, I don't want anything to become dependent on me; when you get it right in these situations, one person shouldn't be responsible for the whole thing. Basically, I'm here until God says it's time to go.

Things have really moved in Scarborough in the past five years. When I was speaking to people about fresh expressions at that time, many of them didn't have a clue what I was on about. That has clearly changed. Last month, I was delighted to be asked to lead a full day on fresh expressions of church at the Mothers' Union York Diocesan Retreat.

They had made a specific request to know more about what was happening and I was thrilled. Afterwards they said, 'We are going back to our churches to tell them all about fresh expressions'. What an encouragement!

The Mothers' Union have been very supportive in other ways too. They collect food for our foodbank and I always send a prayer diary to every Mothers' Union branch in the town; I would never underestimate the importance of that. All of these connections make Westway Open Arms what it is and I pray we see more fruit from those connections in the future.

Westway Open Arms - cakes

This story is an update to:


I was very encouraged by the whole story, but especially by the 22 year old girl seeking you out. I find a lot of people are interested in developing a faith, but I am not certain what material to use if I start a small group. Do you have any thoughts on this? Will you be writing your own material or using something that already exists?

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