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Reform Magazine | December 15, 2017

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Community-minded: How to transform a community

micklemSometimes we find we have reached the same point as someone else, but from a different starting point and with very different motives. When that happens, we can journey along in fruitful partnership for a while, though always aware that a parting of the ways may soon come.

There is a vast difference between social regeneration – driven and funded by politics and focusing on the physical environment – and the church’s concept of rebirth into newness of life through personal transformation. From my perspective, much of the regeneration I have seen over the past 15 years has fallen short of its aims, because it fails to develop the relationships which build community, assuming that people will be happier in better surroundings, and will therefore interact better, which will lead to more cohesive and contented communities. What often happens is that either the same people continue to experience the same social problems in a slightly better environment, or the original inhabitants are decanted while the regeneration is taking place, thus feeling even more isolated, alienated and dispossessed than they did before.

Recognising this problem, there have been various attempts to encourage local residents to become more involved in the processes of regeneration. The current policy of the Department for Communities and Local Government is to engage people in the development of Neighbourhood Action Plans, which is all very well, but requires high levels of co-ordination and co-operation, and a great deal of hard work.

Castle Hill United Reformed Church is set in one of the poorest communities in the country, close to the centre of Northampton. Like many churches in similar locations, it has experienced the gradual shift from being a local to a gathered congregation, along with a decline in numbers. At a meeting to discuss the future of the church, various options were explored, one of which was closure. Another possibility was to apply to have a church-related community worker, and that was the path they chose.

Jennie Crane started in the summer of 2011, just as various groups within the Spring Boroughs community were thinking of applying for front runner status to enable them to take the lead in producing the Neighbourhood Action Plan. Jennie brought the various interested bodies together, hosting socials and more formal meetings at the church, spreading information by word of mouth through her rapidly expanding network of contacts. She became a channel of communication between statutory and voluntary bodies, gradually overcoming the deep-rooted suspicion of all things related to the council (or indeed any authority) which so often exists in deprived communities.

Of course, tensions still flare up, but events such as a jubilee barbecue jointly organised by the church and the local residents’ association, and mulled wine and mince pies at Christmas, helped to break down some of the barriers.

Many of the applications for front runner status have come from parishes, but Spring Boroughs is a community-led forum, of which Jennie is now secretary. She is committed to getting residents involved as early as possible in the decisions which affect their lives and convincing them that they have a voice which will be heard.

One of the purposes of the ministry of church-related community work is to help congregations engage with their local communities in processes which are transformative to both. Not all the members of Castle Hill’s gathered congregation are actively involved in the work Jennie is doing, but many of them are, and all of them are glad to see how the church’s profile has been raised in the local community, not least because some of the local residents are becoming involved in church life. The church fellowship is not only growing, it is becoming more firmly rooted in its local community. By engaging with the government’s plans for physical regeneration, the church which was contemplating closure is experiencing resurrection!

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This article was published in the March 2013 edition of  Reform.

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