Over Lent 2021, 40 ordinary disciples across the Diocese told their stories of how following Jesus has led them to action.
Serving communities; challenging injustice; loving their neighbour.
Here are the final four stories, featured during Holy Week.
This week we’ll hear stories of Melisa & Zac, who are connecting with their community and encouraging spiritual growth in Hackney through garden and beekeeping projects; Alex, who was motivated by his lived experience of an anxiety disorder to set up a vital mental health support group; Davide, who has a powerful ministry to inmates at HMP Pentonville; andShelagh, who befriends and supports vulnerable refugees.
Day 37: Melisa & Zac’s Story
“It’s part of our vision that the gardens are a place to restore.”
Melisa and Zac are both working on projects for Hackney Church’ gardens. The Church use their gardens as a welcoming space for the community to gather and connect with one another.
Melisa is the Garden Project Manager.
“When other people are in the garden there is an element of connectivity that you are able to have, there’s something about spending time together in God’s creation”
The gardens are open throughout the week for all gardeners to help tend to the grounds, and work with the Lighthouse charity to run gardening sessions for their vulnerable guests.
Since 2019, Hackney Church have also started keeping bees in the gardens.
Zac has been working with local beekeepers, who share their expertise with the team to help them manage their 4 beehives.
“We just felt like Bees were this parable for what the people of the church should be doing in the city, going around and brining flourishing to things, making growth happen”
In a year, the Hackney bees have made around 50 kilos of honey. The church hope to eventually make enough to share more widely.
“The Bees go up to 12 miles from their hives, it is such a lovely thought that our bees from St Johns Hackney Church are literally fanning out all over the city.”
For Melisa and Zac, the various garden projects have opened a new opportunity to invite people into the life at the Church. They have met many people who have passed by locally or seen their projects online and wanted to get involved.
“It’s an energizing and life-giving project to be part of.”
Day 38 - Maundy Thursday: Alex’s Story
“I think the more that mental health is spoken about, the better.
Churches are a major starting point for the message that if you are struggling with your mental health, you are NOT a write off.”
Alex has lived with an anxiety disorder and OCD for 25 years.
Having attended several support groups, he knows how vital they are to those struggling with their mental health.
In 2019, Alex approached Father Edd, his vicar at St Andrews Southgate, to ask if he could set up his own group in the church building, to talk about anxiety.
Anyone is welcome and he’s put up posters around the local community to let people know they can come and talk and be listened to.
“Normally support groups are run in hospital settings. Not many groups have a big, beautiful church to meet in.
There’s a great atmosphere. We can pray before and after, and it feels in some way that God is looking over us while we are doing the group. It just feels right.”
Motivated by his lived experience of the disorder, Alex seeks to ensure that the group is well structured and that everyone has the time and space to speak and be heard.
As a support group, they themselves are not able to offer advice, but Alex has arranged for psychologists to attend the group as guest speakers to provide free professional guidance.
He also signposts to organisations like The Samaritans, SHOUT or the Crisis Helpline.
“It feels nice to help people and give them a goal because having something to work towards really helps.
Some people come along and don’t speak, but over time we see them open up.
The support group becomes something to look forward to, to focus on. It’s a lifeline.”
Inspired by his faith, Alex has continued to support people during the pandemic by taking his meetings online and setting up a WhatsApp group. But he’s looking forward to being able to start face-to-face meetings again soon.
“There’s a real feeling of something powerful when you run a small group in a church.”
Alex’s vision for the future is to open a night crisis centre in central London. He feels that is something God has placed on his heart and will help him fulfil over time.
The Diocese of London has partnered with the Mental Health text support service, Shout 85258. If you are struggling to cope, you can text “Neighbour” to 85258 for free confidential support. More information is here.
Day 39 - Good Friday: Davide’s Story
“Before I got to the prison every time I pray: ‘Lord come with me’.
But, when I go there, every time, Jesus is already there.”
Davide has been prison visiting in HMP Pentonville most weeks throughout the pandemic.
“I’m a builder by trade – a carpenter and furniture maker. But I’ve always had this calling for going into prison.”
Davide initially had been helping run the Alpha course in prison with a team from his church, Lighthouse Swiss Cottage, along with Kings Cross Church and the Pentonville Chaplaincy.
But since the pandemic all normal activities had stopped. There were no family visits allowed, no group work and the gym was closed; that included the activities in the chapel.
“People are really suffering because they spend so much time locked down, most of the time just in their cell, it was really challenging.
But it’s been very moving: there hasn’t been too much moaning about it, there’s a great spirit of co-operation.”
Davide has been able to continue to go in and visit via the chapel, spending time one to one with prisoners who want to talk.
“We talk about anything! We have tea and biscuits, it’s a kind of window on normality.
We talk about the virus, their experiences, and we talk about the bible, and Jesus. And we talk about how Jesus has transformed our lives.”
He says that just the act of being listened to, and being in the chapel can be transformative for the men he has got to know.
“As soon as they step into the chapel it’s like peace comes upon them. You don’t realise how important it is for them. A new face, someone who comes there, and comes to talk to you.
Sometimes we underestimate the power of just saying ‘hi’ to someone, ‘how are you? shall I pray for you?
You never hear ‘No’ as an answer.”
Investing time with people who others have forgotten or written off, he says, is never wasted time.
“They come from backgrounds where most of everyone has given up on them.
So to have someone that cares for them, that’s what makes a difference. And someone who they’re accountable to.
That’s what it’s all about: I care about you. I don’t know how much I can do for you, but I care about you.”
Davide feels called by God to do this work and gains a real sense of purpose.
“You read what Jesus said in the bible ‘when I was in prison you came to visit me.’
Why am I doing it? Because he said so!”
His experience has that no-one is beyond hope:
“My own life has been transformed by my faith in Jesus; by his grace more than anything. When these guys meet God, I am seeing lives transformed. I come home and feel like Holy Spirit has filled me with this hope. There is hope for everyone.”
Day 40 - Holy Saturday: Shelagh’s Story
“It’s the strongest message in the Bible I think: you’ve got to look after other people, particularly the stranger.”
Shelagh is part of St Pauls Church in Grove Park, Chiswick.
Church members including Shelagh have been a huge part of the wider multi-faith group ‘Refugees Welcome Hounslow’.
The group was set up in 2016 to help resettle some Syrian refugees in Hounslow under the government’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme.
“Which we did and we have some very settled, very successful Syrians in our midst who have become good friends.”
As the Syrian arrivals put down roots, the group has offered friendship, meals together and support. They were already considering whether to widen their remit.
Then a year ago, all the face to face support had to stop, it speeded up their thinking.
“We thought- ‘what are we supposed to be doing?’
Our question was answered when we started being contacted by people who knew asylum seekers who were being placed in Hounslow hotels”
A huge backlog in the processing of asylum claims by the Home Office has meant that regular asylum accommodation is full.
So during lockdown, London hotels have been used for those awaiting their claim being heard.
“We started building relationships with some people in local hotels.
We were put in touch mainly families and women and small children. Most don’t have anything- no spare clothes, nothing for the children, and the food they got in the hotel was inadequate.”
Working with others including another local church, St Pauls Hounslow West, who run a local food and clothing bank, Shelagh and others at St Pauls Grove Park have been instrumental in providing care and a human face at a time when many are very scared.
“One of our Syrian arrivals, who can speak Sorani, went in with one of us, to support a family who were traumatised: the mum just needed the comfort of speaking her own language to someone.
That family has now been relocated and settled- which is a huge relief.”
Partnership has been utterly vital as they continue to befriend and support those who’ve been placed overnight in an unfamiliar place, not knowing how long they will be there.
“We discovered another woman who was heavily pregnant and in a terrible state.
What I can do is to refer people. There’s an organisation that provides baby equipment, another that provides telephone counselling; I could put her in touch with them.”
But providing food has been a role Shelagh and others have taken on themselves:
“Foodbank parcels don’t really work when you’re in a hotel room, with no cooking space. So I’ve ended up taking things in.
What they ideally need is fresh fruit and veg, yoghurt, hummus and some treats!
They will definitely get Easter Eggs!”
Shelagh’s grateful for the team of friends and supporters at St Pauls Grove Park:
“Our vicar supports and cheers us on! This work is mentioned in the prayers and people are always talking about it.”
Shelagh was brought up and practiced as a Catholic till 20 years ago when she joined the Church of England. She says her faith gives her a framework for this work: