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.

Week 6

This week we’ll hear stories of Barb, who befriends families in need of support in Hammersmith & Fulham; Mark, who’s taking church out of the building and into the lives of young people in his community; Sandra, who is spearheading Eco Church activities in Southgate; Karen, whose love of animals motivates her to care for God’s creation Ben, who serves his community by running a vital foodbank; andRachel, whose heart for children led to her becoming a foster carer.

Day 31: Barb’s Story

“I’ve always reached out to the community; I have always felt God leading me to support people”.

Barb is part of St Pauls Church Hammersmith and volunteers with Safe Families as befriender in Hammersmith & Fulham.

She meets weekly with families in need of support, creating a non-judgemental space for them to let of steam and be listened to.

“I think it’s just having that extra friend to check in on them, just to have a space to rant sometimes! It can really be a relief for people”.

She started volunteering with Safe Families a year ago, after praying for God to direct her in how He could use her in her community. Soon after, her aunt sent her a link to Safe Families website. It felt like a perfect fit and God answering her prayer.

“We’ve all been through things, so I just feel if I can reach out to people who are going through stuff, just support them so they know they’re not alone.

She is clear that it’s what God’s called her to and that He is using her life experience and her heart for others.

“I’ve lived in the borough all my life, I’ve had my challenging times, I know what it’s like. So I think the families can relate to me. I don’t offer advice, I’m just here to listen.”

She’s now supporting her 4th family, chatting every week on video call or phone call. She’s looking forward to lockdown being able to meet again for picnics. But she says she gets as much out of it as she gives.

“It works both ways. You receive love back as well. God’s blessing me by being able to be there for the families. I’m fulfilling a need that God wants me to do. I have such a peace in my heart and I love it.”

Hammersmith and Fulham are the first London borough to partner with Safe Families, a Christian charity that offer volunteers to befriend families who need extra support.

Barb hopes that more people can use this service and gain support from them.

If you are interested in volunteering as a befriender with Safe Families, please do get in touch with them here!

Day 32: Mark’s Story

“I sat and asked God: You brought me here: what can You do?”

Mark works as the senior youth worker on an estate in Pimlico in Central London, offering support and friendship to local young people and their wider families. He’s funded by three local churches, spearheaded by St James the Less church, along with St Michaels Chester Square and Westminster Chapel.

“There was a murder that happened on one of the estates, 6 years ago. At the time there wasn’t any youth work going on to reach local young people. So the churches wanted to respond.”

The Pimlico foundation was formed, and employed Mark, who arrived to a blank page and a lot of local need. He started off by listening to the families he met.

“It was weird for me: Pimlico feels like a really rich area, you wouldn’t realise there was so much poverty. The rich live alongside the poor: sometimes it’s divided between a street – rich and then poor. I didn’t realise how diverse the community was.”

After listening and getting to know people, they started with a youth club and affordable holiday club for those who otherwise couldn’t pay for childcare. But Mark was desperate to get out of church buildings.

“My question has always been: how can we not just do good work but bring Jesus to the community in the best way possible?

Then I prayed and felt God remind me of 1 John 5: light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. The light will always break out- so we called ourselves “Outbreak”.

They started standing in a square, handing out hot chocolates and chatting to families and being around. The first week about 20 kids stopped and talked, and asked if they could come back next week.

“So we did. So that’s how ‘Hot Choc Thursdays’ happened. By last year we had 200 people hanging out in the square, so we put out tables and chairs for families that they could hang out. And the churches coming on board with us too.”

From that came trust built with local schools, and the opportunity of doing mentoring and supporting teenagers excluded from education- many of whom they already knew from Hot Choc Thursdays.

Lockdown has been hard: not being able to gather and meet on the estate for a year. They’ve been supporting people by offering to pray for them as many have struggled with family relationships, bereavements, and other struggles. They also fed over 1000 families hot meals as they struggled financially. But for Mark it’s still all about relationships.

“We can ‘do’ church and enjoy church, but the challenge is to get out there and BE church to the community.

People say coming to us isn’t like going to church. It’s going to the local people who help us with our kids and help us with our families.

We have such good relationships with people, and that’s really how God works through us.”

Day 33: Sandra’s Story

“Over and over again we’re reminded in Scripture that we’re the caretakers of creation. So this means we have to think of the bigger picture.”

Sandra was studying to be a licenced lay minister in her church while working during the day as a podiatrist. One Sunday she heard an announcement in church that they had received a bronze award for Eco Church, a scheme run by A Rocha, the Christian conservation charity.

“I realised it was a good thing but that I didn’t have a clue what had been done or who had done it. I felt something nudging me to get more involved.”

Soon after, during her studies, a talk from Dave Bookless, who founded A Rocha on ethics and the environment joined the dots for her.

“This was my wake up call, my eureka moment: I wanted to make sure everyone knew they had their part to play in caring for the environment.”

Sandra, along with her vicar Fr Chrichton at Christ Church Southgate, have since been working towards the next level Eco Church award: Silver. She started by ensuring it was something the whole church owned.

“We were an Eco church but with a largely unengaged congregation. I had to involve everyone: encouraging them to play their part and reminding them why for Christians this should be an absolute priority.”

The church had already made a number of changes, for example regularly including Creation Care in the liturgy and prayers and switching to a green energy provider.

Sandra wanted to encourage people think further than the church building. She created a survey for the congregation looking at their current lifestyle habits e.g. around travel, food, energy providers, gardening, recycling etc. The aim was to encourage everyone to lead more eco-friendly lives.

She set up a stall at the back of church where people could share their eco-discoveries, such as shampoo bars, soap nuts, and reusable make up pads.

Amongst other things, their secluded churchyard has also become home to a beehive, bird feeders, and bug hotels.

Blessing of the Beehive in the churchyard.

One Sunday before lockdown they put branches down the aisles at church. Everyone was encouraged to write something they’d done to help the environment on a paper leaf and hang it on the branches. Sandra was encouraged that everyone seemed enthused and had written at least one thing.

Having reached Silver, Sandra is keen with the church team to keep pushing on towards Gold: gaining “Fair Trade” church status next; and engaging other local groups that have environmental priorities. She hopes to form links with the nearby primary school to enable some joint projects and also to draw in the wider community to a mental health space garden project. It is something that she says we all need to engage with.

“Micah 6v 8 says: “act justly love kindness humbly walk with God.” We have a chance to mend all that is broken in the world but it’s become urgent during our lifetime. It’s our duty as Christians to reconsider every aspect of our lives.”

Sandra recommends Planetwise by Dave Bookless for others who want to continue on this journey- “if anyone has an ounce of Christian faith in them- this book cannot fail to convince them!”

For more on Eco Church, click here.

Day 34: Karen’s Story

“I think I was made to look out for animals: to give every single one a chance. There’s no hierarchy for me.”

Karen is part of St Andrews Southgate and has a ministry of caring for animals.

As well as working full time, she had been involved for many years volunteering at the wildlife rescue centre at Trent Park near where she lives.

“I have always loved all animals-I was born with it. Even as a small child I was always out in the garden, making beds for snails, sleeping in the garden to be nearer them.

I think it’s just who Gods made me to be”.

Now she’s not volunteering at the centre, she is instead taking in all kinds of animals that need homes and rehabilitation. At one point she had 7 animals she was caring for, including a rabbit that had been abandoned at the door of Trent Park rescue centre.

She’s currently nurturing two underweight hedgehogs over the winter.

She’s also says St Andrews has embraced this in their common life.

“Father Edd does a pet service every year; people can bring their animals, or photos of animals for a blessing. People bring dogs to church-it’s such a welcoming non-judgemental place.

St Andrews is the place I want to be: animals are as special to me as our human family.”

The Church supporting her God-given gift for animal care has helped her develop spiritually, and she was confirmed a couple of years back after a journey of faith

“I think wider issue is God created this fabulous world for us – and gave us dominion to look after it. It’s our duty to do that in his honour. That includes the animals.”

Karen’s rescue guinea pig and rabbit among many animals she’s cared for.

Day 35: Ben’s Story

“As someone who is coming from Africa and has seen first-hand the experience of people suffering for food, I didn’t expect to see the depth here in the UK being a first world country”.

Ben has been running a foodbank at St Johns Church. Over the year he has helped feed over 300 families in Southall.

The food bank operates on Tuesday and Fridays, working with Ealing community transport to deliver food to families.

“The main aim is to give people food that they can use to make a meal from it. Our focus is giving people fresh fruit and vegetables”.

For Ben, the Bible verse in Isaiah 58 has been a driving force in his faith.

“Feed the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness..” – Isaiah 58:10

Ben has been a member of St Johns for over 15 years and he feels proud that they are serving the community in this way.

“There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the food leave the church car park knowing that it will go to someone’s table to be able to feed them”.

Day 36: Rachel’s Story

“God has such a heart for children who are looked after, who need fostering or adopting.

It helps me remembering we are all adopted into God’s family- that is just who we all are!”

Rachel lives in West London and is part of St Johns Isleworth, where she’s the Children & Youth team leader.

She is also a foster carer to a 15 year old.

“He came to me when he was 9 and I’ve been quite a big part of his life, I guess.

He had a lot of worries and anxiety when he came to me. He still does to some extent but he’s generally really happy most of the time now.”

She felt several prompts from God towards fostering, while considering leaving teaching which she’d been doing for 14 years.

“I’d been digging into my faith a bit more; I’d had a really tricky couple of years before that.

I just had different verses that kept speaking out to me- about looking after orphans. And I remember reading a book with the kids at school, called ‘Dear Ollie’.

And it just came into my head in the shower one day, this is what I should be doing: looking at fostering.”

She applied and was quickly accepted in starting the process.

“I thought they might say no because I was separated at the time, but they said we’d like for you to explore the process and do it”.

After 6 months she was approved for short and long term fostering. Soon afterwards she was matched with her now foster son.

“I thought it would just be a few weeks. I remember thinking: “How am I going to cope with this from being on my own to looking after a child?”

But we’ve gone down that road and we’re very used to each other now!”

The church community around her has been a rock for them both.

“When my foster son first came to me, it was really important having people around.

There are a couple of older women at our church who really look out for him and really dote on him.

Now he’s a teenager he’s questioning but he knows he belongs there and people love him.”

The last year has been particularly tiring for Rachel and her foster son, without usual support networks from friends at church to have evenings out or a break.

But she says praying has been vital:

“My faith has helped me. Praying is a big important thing for me to keep me sustained.

Even in the hard times God is there, he will hear when you call out to him.

And in lockdown, we’ve still had a good time together. You have to laugh at things and we do have a lot of fun!”