Thursday, January 05, 2006

Making something extraordinary out of the ordinary in Beeston, the story of Trinity and Faith Together in Leeds 11

Next week I'm going to Harrogate to talk about the story of Trinity Church and its involvement with Building Blocks. Here's part of what I am going to say.
As a small church in a rapidly changing area, the members of Trinity in Beeston Hill have wrestled long and hard over the last ten years with the question of what God wanted them to do.
Some people wanted to close down and leave organised religious expression entirely in the hands of the growing Muslim community. With the benefit of hindsight, we're certainly glad we didn't do that!
Some wanted to retreat into a nostalgic little grotto where they could safely recreate Methodism in Beeston as it used to be years ago when the parade of shops opposite the church included a high class confectioner's, and bank managers jostled with headteachers for car parking spaces outside the big houses on the main road. Of course, it would never be quite the same as it was in the days when 150 voices were raised in song, but it would at least be a pale reflection of past glories.
In the end, however, the majority of people agreed that we needed to engage with the community as it is now: multicultural, multi-faith, vibrant but decidedly different from the way things used to be. It wasn't an easy decision. It was a struggle, and the struggle to be the church for today in Beeston Hill goes on, especially as we are so few in numbers.
After lengthy debate about what God was calling them to do, the members of Trinity agreed that they needed to open their premises up to the local community, including a number of Muslim organisations. It soon became clear, however, that a building designed as an Edwardian Sunday School wasn't really going to work as a Twenty-First Century community centre, and so a still more radical plan was developed – to work in partnership with the Muslim community to redevelop not just the Methodist Church but the Anglican parish hall next-door. From that plan, after years of hard work, there emerged the Hamara Centre, a day centre for elderly people with a gymnasium for young people, a doctor's surgery and lots of other facilities thrown in for good measure, built on the site of the Methodist Church. And then, next to it, the Building Blocks Centre, a centre for parents and pre-school children, built on the site of the parish hall. Trinity Church moved into the Building Blocks Centre alongside the Anglican congregation, and a new charity – called Faith Together in Leeds 11 - was set up to oversee the work with parents and children and to fundraise for the project.
In moving into the Building Blocks Centre, and giving up a church building where many of them had been baptised or married, and had grown up, the congregation of Trinity took a leap of faith. For many people it meant laying aside the plans and mission focus of their parents' generation in order to embark on something new. It was a painful and challenging process which absorbed a lot of energy and called for great determination and commitment – at least from the leadership of the church. In facing up to the challenge, the congregation recognised that, unless we changed, there was no future for the Methodist Church in Beeston Hill. But it was also an acknowledgement that, to be authentic disciples of Jesus, we need to open ourselves up to change – especially if we are to help him disciple a changing world.
Trinity Church has less than thirty members. It's not a big, dynamic congregation. You wouldn't expect it to be a force for change. Yet, from the ordinary God has brought forth something extraordinary. We realised quite early in the evolution of the project that it was pretty unique. There are very few places where Muslims and Christians are working in equal partnership to regenerate their community. More often, Christians make part of their own space available to their Muslim neighbours. But we didn't think that was the right approach in Beeston Hill. We felt that we were being called to embrace full partnership working as a sign that faith in God can make a difference, whether that faith is expressed through Islam or through Christianity. People have come from all around the world to see what we are doing.
Little did we think, though, when we began the project, that Faith Together in Leeds 11 – and the community it serves – would one day become the focus of world attention. That didn't come about because of anything we had done, of course. It came about because a group of young men – with a very different vision of what God wants – attacked commuters in London with home-made bombs packed into rucksacks.
We were appalled that some people in our community could have such a radically different vision of what God wants. But the 7th of July didn't weaken our partnership, it strengthened our resolve to go on working together. In the midst of a huge media circus, which descended on Beeston Hill looking for signs of hatred and antipathy between Muslims and Christians, between people from South Asia and their White neighbours, Faith Together in Leeds 11 stood as a visible sign – for those who wanted to see – not of integration, not of compromising our different cultures and beliefs, but of sharing and collaborating, of friendship and harmony.
That's why, if you type the name of the project – or indeed, my name – into a search engine, you'll find references to it from all around the world. It's why my father was able to turn on the BBC World Service – early one morning when he couldn't sleep – and hear the project being discussed in a phone-in by people from Palestine and Bangladesh. Its why – on Christmas Day afternoon – I found myself being asked by Radio 5 live to comment on the Queen's Christmas Message. Something extraordinary has come out of the ordinary struggle against disadvantage in an inner city community and helped to make it possible for people of different faiths in Beeston to stand together in adversity.

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