Interested in literally living out your faith? Christianity magazine travels to Leigh to meet the Christians doing just that
When Bob Foster told me he alternates between bleaching his hair blonde and dyeing it pink, I asked which I should look out for when meeting him in Manchester. On finding him, I discover his appearance and laid back manner don’t quite fit a man who describes himself as a workaholic, getting by on four hours sleep a night. Even more arresting is his story; how he turned his back on the ‘good life’, to go and live on one of Britain’s most deprived council estates, in Leigh near Wigan.
‘I was a successful manager for an electronics company, headhunted and dedicated to work, travelling the world,’ he says. ‘I lived in an Oxfordshire village and had a faithful, hardworking wife. Life was great! But, successful as I was, it was never enough. I’d always have to work harder, faster, trying to get the next buzz.’
When he fell ill in 1989 with deep vein thrombosis, Bob was initially reluctant when some Christians came round to pray for him. ‘But as they prayed I really felt God speaking to me and suddenly realised here was the answer to this emptiness inside, and I heard myself asking God to come into my life, to forgive me for all the wrong things I’d done and to make a change for me,’ he says. ‘It was amazing.’
Almost straight away, Bob felt God saying he wanted him to do youth work, something he’d never considered. ‘I had three daughters who I loved dearly but thought everybody else’s kids were obnoxious brats who I wanted absolutely nothing to do with,’ he says. ‘But I quickly learnt with God, you do as you’re told, and amazingly, he gave me a real passion to work with youngsters.’
He began doing youth work in his village, along with studying theology part-time while working full-time. ‘I was still working and had a deep desire to do full-time Christian ministry, but God hadn’t given me the green light,’ he says. ‘So it came as a surprise in 2004 when God seemed to say “yes”. I was terrified and decided to put out a fleece by asking him to put a stop to all my contracts if he really wanted me to go into youth work. At that time, I was quite busy but the work just stopped!’
In 2005, he was offered a post at Christ Church Pennington near Leigh and he and his wife Sandra moved onto the nearby Diamond Street Estate. It was a very different life. In Oxfordshire they had lived in a private house in an area which was in the top 2% of affluence in the UK, whereas Leigh is in the bottom 4% of deprivation. The Fosters lost any profit they should have made on the sale of their home, as well as their pension. ‘We’re in our 50s and we’ve had everything stripped away,’ says Bob. ‘All the financial trappings and security are gone.’
Based at Christ Church Pennington and its daughter church Sports Village Church (SVC) situated between the Diamond Street and Rugby Road Estates, Bob runs three youth clubs, Whiz Kids, Pathfinders and Meet To Eat, and is heavily involved at the local primary school. Connected to The Message Trust in Manchester as Eden Leigh team leader, he is supported by a local charity called Life For Leigh. ‘Eden is all about the Bible’s message that God loved the world so much he moved into the neighbourhood.’ Bob explains. ‘Instead of doing the old-style of youth work where you go into the war zone, do the work, then go home to a nice area, Eden is about living among the problems and seeking to solve them.’
Whizzing along in his small car through the urban landscape, we talk about the history of Leigh. Once a rural centre of textile production, it then became a mining community but was shattered by the mine closures and strikes in the 1980s. This set in train a culture of unemployment, deprivation and years of bitter enmity between its residents and those of Wigan, who crossed the picket line to take up alternative employment.
Passing a flat area of green fields, I wonder what this community will look like. Having driven through the more affluent Pennington area we enter the red-bricked Diamond Street Estate. The neat and tidy gardens, fronted by carefully painted black and gold railings, don’t immediately send the message that this estate is in the top 4% of deprivation in the UK. I begin to wonder if this is really the forlorn backwater I’d expected to find. Yet there is an almost eerie stillness as we walk the streets. They appear void of amenities, bar a row of boarded-up shop fronts, a couple of tired looking takeaways, a pub gutted by fire, and a seemingly ill-advised and unaffordable astroturf pitch.
Bob and Sandra fill me in on some of the happenings on the estate. ‘The biggest shock I had was seeing kids not going to school, but hanging around in gangs on the streets. I’d never seen that before,’ says Sandra.
‘People here live pretty tough lives,’ Bob continues. ‘There’s crime, poor health, 40% unemployment, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse and physical, emotional and verbal abuse, which you can hear coming from people’s houses. Some kids have barely had one positive word spoken into their lives. We’ve got parents doing time in prison, broken relationships, homes devoid of love, kids riding motorbikes without lights or headgear. One lad was hit by a bus and taken to hospital in a coma! Life here’s the complete reverse of what we were used to in Oxfordshire.’
‘It’s a challenge to maintain good relationships with the local people,’ adds Sandra. ‘We’re on display 24/7. They watch really carefully what we do. There isn’t anywhere we can go where we’re not known, so we have to live a godly life. They even know all about the serious problems I’m having with my health and it’s amazed them to see it hasn’t shaken our faith.’
‘The first question all the kids asked when we first arrived was, “And how long are you here for?”’ Bob relates. ‘I answered, “Till God tells us to go.” People here are used to ineffectual sticking plasters being put across deep holes. They’re used to being dumped on and listening to empty promises. So this work requires long-term commitment.’
I want to know what difference Bob and Sandra’s presence has made to this estate. ‘I’d always imagined northern estates to be community-minded,’ begins Bob. ‘But here it wasn’t the case. In our first year we held a barbecue on the green in front of our house. To begin with the locals just peeped at us from behind their curtains, then eventually got themselves a “brew”, the local word for tea, and came out and sat on the walls. In year two they joined in more and last year around 400 turned up. So there’s more community now.’
‘It’s also been good for Christ Church,’ adds Sandra. ‘At first they were frightened to death of the locals, but afterwards said, “Ooh, they weren’t rude were they?” They were shocked by the kids’ good behaviour. The big lesson for them has been to get out of the boat and walk on water.’
Getting to know people...
We pay a visit to father-of-two, Ron Barnes. Sipping on a brew, I ask Ron how he has benefited from Bob’s move to Leigh. ‘I never believed in the church until I met this young man here,’ he says dryly, motioning to Bob. ‘It’s unusual to go to church and have some comedy before the serious stuff. When Bob talks about Jesus it’s not like a sermon, but we’re learning something without realising it. If I went to a normal service I’d just nod off, but Bob’s approach is more appealing; he never forces anything on us. Both my kids go to Christ Church Pennington and my younger one goes to Whiz Kids, where Bob invents games to teach the youngsters about God. They love it. My son’s at college now and hopefully he’ll find work when he leaves. He could have easily gone the wrong way, but the church has had a good influence on him.’
Bob’s high profile in this community becomes apparent as we pass numerous people on the estate who nearly all know his name, and he knows theirs, including most of the pupils at the local primary school. Here Bob plays a key pastoral role and Sandra works as a teaching assistant. Its odd location on an industrial estate is not without its challenges. There isn’t one blade of grass to be seen, and every morning Bob and others scour the playground for used hypodermic needles and condoms, which have been tossed over the wall from the industrial area.
I watch him take assembly, where he engages the school in a lively, interactive talk about the exodus, which is carefully pitched at the pupils’ level, and closely tied in to their own experiences. This is followed by a melodic song with words which show how they can apply the theme of the talk to their lives.
An ex-pupil of this school meets us at Eden’s youth café, which is situated amongst the boarded-up shopfronts and is undergoing refurbishment. Sixteen-year-old Carlie Unsworth is studying for her GCSEs and goes to Pathfinders youth group. Of slight build, yet a budding amateur boxer, she enthuses about football, boxing and…Bob. ‘Bob’s wicked!’ she says, grinning and giving him the thumbs up. ‘There was nothing to do round here before he came. We used to sit around on the street in big groups playing music and getting into trouble. Pathfinders and football help us find the right way to live.’
By now Bob’s relationship with people here is clear: he loves them, and they love him. It’s still early days for Eden Leigh but this work is growing. With the help of a generous non-Christian benefactor the school building is to be sold and replaced by a bigger, better one, with grass playing fields. The refurbishment of the youth café is almost complete and The Message Trust is now looking for a team of volunteers to work under Bob and Sandra.
Eden’s model of incarnational living comes from the realisation that the ‘hit and run’ approach does not work. When Andy Hawthorne, founder and CEO of The Message Trust (formerly The World Wide Message Tribe – WWMT) was touring with WWMT, he saw thousands of inner-city kids responding to the gospel at the gigs, but they struggled with how to follow it up and properly disciple them.
‘We realised we needed dozens of Christians to be living in these inner city areas,’ he says. So in 1997 the first Eden came into being on Britain’s toughest estate, Benchill in Wythenshawe. ‘It was a really scary place with drive-by shootings, drug dealing and prostitution,’ says Andy. ‘You could cut the atmosphere with a knife. We moved 25 young people on to the estate and began working in partnership with a local church there. Today it’s a very different place.’
Twelve more Edens have since come into existence, but not without some lessons learned. Short-term attempts by others to ‘fix’ things up on these estates had created burnout among residents, so the rapid arrival of numbers of Christians caused suspicion and anxiety. ‘We’ve learned the sudden approach isn’t the best way to do it,’ says Andy. ‘It’s also a shock for the volunteers, who are nice, often middle class Christians. It takes them six months to get over it! They’re a target for having their windows put through and cars smashed up, and need to be prepared to tough it out. So we tend to move people in at a slower rate now, building it over a year or so.’
People on the estates have often suffered deep pain, damage and trauma, so volunteers need to be prepared to stay the course, but in doing so, they learn about incarnational living as well as real and practical whole-life discipleship. Letting go of some middle class values and attitudes is a journey every Eden team member goes on.
By 2008 Eden’s growth also presented a challenge. The vision to start replicating the church-on-an-estate model around the nation couldn’t be fulfilled with The Message Trust shouldering the entire financial and managerial burden. A new de-centralised approach was needed. Known as Eden-lite, this new model consists of one full-time worker, a team of 12-15 volunteers and grant funding to the local church partner from a regional Eden Network Hub charity. In this way Eden becomes locally owned, encouraging long-term sustainability.
My day in Leigh ends with a visit to Meet To Eat where some 25 young people have gathered to enjoy a meal and topical discussion. ‘We deal with some really harsh subjects,’ Bob tells me. ‘Not long ago we talked about abortion using an interactive life game. Last week we watched My Sister’s Keeper, looking at the lengths we might go to in order to preserve a child’s life. For instance, is it OK to genetically engineer a child as spare parts for a sibling? When does man stop being man and start playing God?’
That, along with so much else on this visit, gives me a lot to think about. As we say goodbye I am left with the clear impression that God is on the move in Leigh; but not without sacrifice, in this case Bob and Sandra’s. ‘I’ve learnt the things I thought were important often aren’t; only Jesus matters,’ says Bob. ‘Seeing lives being changed is awesome. This work totally eclipses my best moments working for the company, and even though it’s a tough call, I wake up every day thanking God for the best job in the world.’