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Ministry in One Place

By Colin Marchant and Judith Marchant.

What follows is both quirky and profound, very unlike the articles we usually offer. With great skill and a minimum of words, Colin and Judith capture an image - both beautiful and challenging - of what it means to embed oneself in ministry to a local community, in all its diversity and colour. Ed.

Our home is both base and centre. From our base we go out to our church, shops, libraries, activities, local walks and drives out. In our centre we live, love and have our being. We are local people. After Baptist ministries in Birmingham and Luton, we’ve been in East London for over 40 years, living and working in churches and community centres. Now we’ve bought in and settled down. Belonging to a lively, growing congregation who worship in a community centre, have started a church plant, host a Portuguese and an Urdu speaking congregation and are really involved in The Well community centre and the Flanders Playing Field. Standing back now from preaching engagements, committees and dead-lines. Going local, starting where we are.

Around our front door are a fish sign, a shalom plate and a Neighbourhood Watch sticker.

Every morning, we sit by the upstairs window, praying. Time now to work through the Bible. A better chance to hold people in our prayers. Opportunity to use Operation World. Judith reads the, our church, friends, other congregations, and the neighbours.

We go out ... people wave, stop to chat. We know them well now. We’ve been here for twenty two years (our first home after life in church manses and community centres). We are key-holders for four homes, lots of people wave as they walk home from school or work, we feel we belong here. We enjoy it.

We have welcomed many and said goodbye to others. Older white couples have moved out and away. Younger immigrants have moved in. Couples coming to start a family, groups of single men clustered together - Asian first, then Eastern European. More professionals now - dentist, social worker, teachers, lecturer, pastor, nurse. Many more young children. More ‘house-to-lets’.

Opposite us are five facing homes, telling the change story. On the corner the Mahoneys, Irish Catholics, have gone - mother dying first and father later, releasing daughter Stella for a new suburban life - to be replaced by a stream of African Catholic sisters who seem to change every year. Gwen, next door to them, lives alone now (I visited and then buried her watch-repairer husband) with her two children now married and away. Sandra, a GP receptionist, has seen father, mother and sister all die, and now feeds cats, foxes, and birds! At 66, there has been a series of significant changes. When we came in 1987, a solitary 90+ year old woman emerged every Sunday to go to mass. In quick succession a lively African couple (tube-driver and office-worker) produced two children and moved out. Jackie followed - a single, high-income, Canary Wharf worker spending much money on rehabbing the house, fencing the garden and Saturday night clubbing before suddenly leaving her job and selling up to travel the world. Now an Asian family centre their local network...child-minding, carrying food to others, housing single men. Number 68 is recently renewed with a loft-extension and a tenant alongside Ayub - a night-working security man whose wife and daughter went to live with her parents after a mental breakdown.

Among all this flux, there are the pensioners. Some, like Ron and Gwen (both widowed), now channelling energy and time into The Well community centre. Others grow older and frail. Alice and Harry are now settling into their new care home. They used to live just down the road in a rented home. Judith visited them regularly, taking local books and news, listening to the East End stories. He was blind and battling with poor health, she valiantly watched over him with the help of carers. Often people marked retirement by moving away, but the recession has blocked that and For Sale signs stay up for ever.

There are those who are disabled. David, in his 20s, had been targeted again -this time handing over money and wallet to the predators. One evening he stood at our front door. He came in. Told his story. We dialled 999. The police came, took him on a fruitless cruise round the streets. “Dress down” we told him. “No ties.T-shirt”. Suits don’t fit round here!

Crime invades. Cars carrying drugs sometimes sit silently opposite us - we take their number and tell the police. Once the police borrowed a ladder to break in to a suspect home...terrorists? drugs? fraud? I chair Neighbourhood Watch, meeting up with the Neighbourhood police team, listening to the recorded crimes, sharing concerns. We live in a low crime district and there is a lot of ‘watch-over’ networking going on.

Death comes. The ambulance was parked in the centre of the road, blue lights flashing. Les was carried out, white-faced, eyes closed. Nicola, his grand-daughter, stood with her father outside my gate. Les was 98, living alone, in and out of hospital, cared for by Nicola .A fortnight later he died in hospital. I took the service. Since we came here, fourteen of our near neighbours have died - thirteen of them in the opposite seven houses, only one this side. I’ve buried most of them, often visiting as illness came, then asked to take the funeral, once sitting with Ron and Kath as they bravely prepared her service - “don’t make it too religious”.

There are hurting - often hidden - people. Roy lives a ghost-like life alongside a busy, bustling wife, slipping down the road. Unmarried Tina has two babies in a Jehovah’s Witness home where the dog is taken for daily walks by her divorced father. Mental break-down followed birth for an educated Asian girl as she lived behind drawn curtains, refusing to open up for her anxious parents who came in to tell us the sad story.

In two weeks in March, local became global. At the newsagents, Samantha’s brother and family were missing behind the lines in Sri Lanka, caught up in the civil war. Daily she shook her head. “No news”. Then came second-hand news that he was still alive. Giving money to the local appeal, understanding the Westminster demonstrations, holding in our prayers...feeling the drawn-out fears, listening, feeling impotent.

Then Elsan walked towards me, visibly upset. “My cousin is hostage in Lahore. A police station has been attacked. I’m so sad for my country and my family ask Auntie to pray”.  He is a university- educated Pakistani, lead-tenant at 61, working for British Rail, studying for another degree. We’ve exchanged visits, exchange news often, watch the Ramadan fasting, sometimes hear prayers in the garden.

The phone call came from Maureen in Australia. “Danny has died. I’m bringing his ashes back to England. Will you do the service?”  Weeks later, she called in. Then came the ‘do’ at the City of London crematorium, forty family and friends, interred between parents and in-laws, drinks at The George, Wanstead. Judith took old pictures of their children at playgroup in the 70s, we talked about the church and house-groups where Danny questioned and argued, but moved away to become another one who ‘used-ter-go’.

We’ve welcomed many more believers into our road - Christian and Muslim. There are now three Jehovah’s Witness homes down the road and we see them going out to do their door-knocking. Next door, Chris is pastor to the Assemblies of God, Selina is a hard-pushed, but serene, social worker - both from Ghana. Opposite, a changing relay of Roman Catholic sisters from Africa has come to support the dwindling priesthood - they know Harrison from Kerala at 73, the Lay Eucharistic minister at Our Lady of Compassion, the church beside West Ham Football Club. He and his four children are in and out of the church, go on to St Bonaventure and St Angela schools, while Judith joins carers in visiting home-bound mum Shirlene.  Gladius and Louisa are from India, but now with British citizenship, leaders at the ForestGateBaptistChurch, lecturer and teacher, still studying. Two single members of Plaistow Christian Fellowship and June at Manor Park Christian Centre have recently been joined by a Filipino Catholic household  and we’re spotting new faces (usually African) dressed up on Sunday, sometimes carrying Bibles. For some years, a Lighthouse of Prayer met here monthly. When we want a stronger liturgy (Scripture, Communion, intercession), we sometimes go to St George’s, our parish church, where David, the Burmese priest, is recovering well from a stroke.

Muslims are all round us. The local imman lived for some years down the road. The men at 61 go to the mosque every Friday. Over the fence behind us an incoming family passed a dish of food, talked about Allah, but then disappeared! Some families sit lightly to mosques and fasting, but others host a regular Koran teaching session with children.

Our home is open house. A steady stream of people come through our front door. Neighbours - to share news, exchange plants, ask about Neighbourhood Watch.  Family keep well in touch - Anne calling in weekly from nearby Haldane Road during recent health struggles. Her sons, Daniel and Matthew, sort out computer problems; Ruth staying overnight or having a meal when work brings her from Brighton to East London, John periodically staying over, with or without children, during trips from New York. Friends are now much more e-mail and Christmas letter links.  Church folk keep coming - groups for prayer, couples for meals, ministers for chats or books. Communications have changed. E-mails and texting have largely replaced post and phone. Few personal letters now and most phone-calls and many e-mails are family.

Ministry goes on. Face-to-face, direct, earthed. Shalom is the greeting word.  Barnabas is the style. Theology is incarnational. The Spirit is always at work. The world is with us here. Glo-cal may be the jargon word; global and local is reality here. Carpe Diem.

Judith Marchant

Baptist Minister based in East London UK

Ministry Today

You are reading Ministry in One Place by Colin Marchant and Judith Marchant, part of Issue 46 of Ministry Today, published in July 2009.

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