Who wants to live in areas where drugs, guns and theft are rife? Andy Peck visits meets with Christians in Manchester who say God has led them to serve in some of the most deprived areas in the UK.
Hearing a knock at the door, Paul opened it to be confronted with two youths aged around 13. Despite holding the door slightly ajar, one burst in under his arm while the other pointed a ball bearing gun at him. Paul, 26, was at his shared digs in a terraced house in Old Trafford, Manchester, five minutes drive from the stadiums of Lancashire County Cricket and a world-famous American owned football team. Paul could hear the intruder searching for valuables and wanted to slam the door on the youth with the gun, but within the St Bride's amd Eden Child Protection Policy, closing the door was not an option.
Thinking fast he called: “Guys you have a choice. You can leave now and we’ll forget about it all. Or if you carry on I’m calling the police.”
They chose to continue; the guy inside finally leaving Paul’s home with a car amplifier. Paul duly phoned the police and discovered the thief was already in trouble for a string of other offences. Within a month, the young man was in youth custody.
Paul thought no more about it until he returned home one day to be met with six teenagers milling outside his house. They were part of the Old Trafford Crew (known as OTC locally), one of half a dozen gangs that operate in Old Trafford area.
“You grassed on one of our mates,” said one of them, menacingly.
Paul was initially taken back and not sure what to do. It didn’t look good. Thinking fast he eventually blurted out: “I had to. You see we had a deal. I told them if they didn’t leave I would call the police. I was just following through. They knew the deal.”
This line of argument evidently surprised the youths who were used to people keeping silent about crime for fear of reprisals. After a brief pause they continued: “You mean that if you saw one of us breaking into a car, you’d say something?”
It seemed to Paul that OTC had grudging respect for this stance. After a little further banter, they left him alone.
This double confrontation is not especially unusual within urban areas of parts of Britain. Manchester itself is full of gangs – the OTC are small fry compared to the organised gangs that dominate parts of the city. For the youths in question, the situation was typical - petty theft is a way of life. A young person aspires to own a gun and join a gang. “When I have a gun people listen to me,” one youth explained. Many will be from broken homes, or have parents who are frequently drunk. Smoking ‘weed’ (cannabis) is like drinking tea – everyone does it and no one thinks it’s of much note.
What is unusual about the whole incident is that Paul Hobbs didn’t have to be there. Born and bred in Cheltenham, Gloucester, he had moved to Old Trafford in 2000 in response to a call of God to serve in urban areas. And he’s not the only one. There are currently around 100 living and working on associated projects in and around Manchester, in the most deprived areas.
So what has brought him, and why do some people say that the work of people like Paul is among the most significant things to happen in the UK in the last decade?
In 1991 the World Wide Message Tribe (WWMT) were a newly formed Manchester based rap band led by 30-year-old Andy Hawthorne; a manufacturer of elastic braces who doubled as an evangelist. The band was the ‘means to the end’ of communicating the Gospel as part of ‘The Message to Schools Trust’ (The Message). They picked up the brand of music that was popular in nightclubs and pirate radio stations, their energetic performances were welcomed in schools assemblies and after-school concerts. The early years saw hundreds of youngsters making decisions for Christ as the wave swept around various areas in urban and suburban Manchester.
One evening 100 youngsters came to faith following a concert in Wythenshawe, south Manchester, an area of 100,000 people. The Benchill district of Wythenshawe was statistically the most deprived area in the UK. WWMT sent the youngsters to the local church, just as they always did. The local fellowship, 25-member, Kings Church had been supportive of WWMT, but weren’t equipped for an influx of youngsters whose habits and approach were poles apart from the church. Some did ‘stick’ but most didn’t. This failure to establish many of the youngsters in a local church became the catalyst for what would become known as ‘The Eden Project’.
The Message was committed to providing every young person in Greater Manchester with the opportunity to hear the Gospel repeatedly. Now Hawthorne and co decided to specifically focus on youth in the most economically deprived areas (boroughs in the worst 10%). These were areas where there were few Christians per head of population (75% of the population of Manchester live in the urban areas, yet 75% of the Christians are in the suburbs). The plan was to send groups of Christians to live in these districts.
In the community
Wythenshawe was the first Eden Project in 1997 and others such as Salford would follow in 1999. This was not a new denomination. One of the first members of this new work, Matt Wilson says in his book ‘Eden: Called to the Streets’ (Survivor 2005), ‘The Eden Vision has not found its form from any single tradition theology or emphasis. It is born from and returns affection to the whole body of Christ.’
He explains the four cornerstones for an Eden Team:
* Rooted in a local church (existing churches, church plants or ‘re-booted churches’).
* Focused on the toughest neighbourhoods (communities widely recognised as suffering from multiple deprivations).
* Include a large team of people who will establish their homes in the heart of the community.
* Make top priority reaching youth to see their full potential unlocked.
In the news
In Wythenshawe crime rates fell, the atmosphere of the neighbourhood improved and in time house prices rose. The local Police took note concluding that the church community was having an impact. Some of the locals, aghast at what had happened to ‘their neighbourhood’ in previous decades were delighted to see the change. In time, what was done in a corner was shouted in the rooftops, with the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian among the broadsheets carrying major features.
The ministry also became better known within the Christian world: in 2000, the Soul Survivor annual Bible weeks for young people decamped to Manchester to join with The Message. Teaching and worship in the morning was followed by opportunities to ‘bless’ some of the deprived areas with ‘random acts of kindness’ by some 10,000 young people at all points of the compass around Greater Manchester. Three years later, evangelist, Luis Palau and his team were involved in Festival Manchester in 2003 following a similar format, this time with 5,000 working in some 300 projects in and around the city. Some of the thousands who came stayed and in the last seven years some 300 have made the trip to spend time in the city, some 50% from the south east, and most committed to making a long term impact. With a minimum age of 18, they come in all ages and all backgrounds; one is heir to a Scottish estate, another a grandmother aged 73.
In Old Trafford
The initial vision was to plant 10 Eden Teams, which brings us back to Paul Hobbs. When Paul moved, the work in Old Trafford was not at that time an Eden project as such, but part of St Bride’s Church, an established Anglican church in Old Trafford, whose former building was famed for once appearing on the opening shots of ‘Coronation Street’. St Bride’s was a partner church with The Message, but under the leadership of vicar, Phil Rawlings, the ties were strengthened to the point where it became a host church in September 2005, of the 10th Eden Project. Ben and Amy Woodfield moved in ‘Eden style’ into the area, just a stone’s throw from Paul. Now the 80-plus congregation support Ben, Amy and Phil through The Message Trust and understand the slow, gritty grind of building relationships with young people. Old Trafford is one of the most racially diverse Eden areas comprising white, black and Asian, and a sizable number of asylum seekers. Around half the population are out of work, and there seem to be few role models of stable adults who believe in education and finding regular legal employment. One of the main pubs was shut down after the landlord shot someone through the hand. Memories of a drive-by shooting in previous months still linger.
Paul had selected a home in a notorious part of the 4000-population parish. When he suggested a street where he would like to rent a house, the Housing Officer at the local Council said: “When we offer this house to people in the area they say, ‘we’re desperate but not that desperate!’” In apostolic fashion he works with his hands making clothing (fleece jackets) and tents (yes a tent making missionary…). It hasn’t been smooth. Paul has had fruitless searches for other work as he tries to support himself alongside his ministry of building relationships with young people. 1 Thessalonians 4:11 is special to him: ‘Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.’
Although trust is growing, there have been battles. “When I first arrived my back fence was kicked in by youths from down the street, says Paul. “A group of youths later told me that when I first moved in: ‘we were going to break your windows’. Another time a ‘playful’ headlock almost finished me. It is tough work. They have an intuitive grasp of where your weak points are and go for them,” Paul explained.
Ben, and Amy Woodfield have been in Old Trafford for 18 months, both technically working two and a half days a week, with Ben, 24 originally from Preston spending the rest of his week time working in Hindley and Thorn Cross Young Offenders Institutes, work which, given the neighbourhood, means he can have further contact with people he knows. On the evening I visited, the word on the street was that one young man they knew was ‘probably inside’. Amy, 23, originally from Derbyshire, is discipling a 12-year-old girl. The day I visited, two of her classmates had been arrested at school that day, and she casually told me exactly where people bought guns and what they would cost. The Woodfields are developing one to one discipleship opportunities and hope in time to provide groups that will link in with the church. One woman will join the team this summer and they are looking for more to join.
”It can be a loveless environment,” says Ben. “Self-image is low and there seems to be little hope. The young people are asking: are you for real?”
This is no, “pleased to meet you, I’m Jane, who are you?” style youthwork. Suspicion and anger are often beneath the surface and vulgar and personal taunts are not uncommon. It’s a place where security in Christ and your ‘calling’ is crucial.
“We’re not saying we’re heroes,” says Ben modestly. “We are normal people who have stepped out of our comfort zone. Youthworkers in the middle class areas have their problems too.”
But middle class areas don’t have to cope with the occasional shootings in the neighbourhood, or being the brunt of anger and frustration from a generation that believes there’s no way out. The devil is no more at work in the deprived neighbourhood than a middle class suburb dominated by materialism. But the physical signs of his work generate an atmosphere that makes it harder. The relational skills that make for easy discourse with young people on Gospel matters are not in place. It’s as if you are building a bridge over a chasm but face gunfire establishing the other side of the bridge. The young people are not at all sure it is in their interests to allow you to establish the bridge you might cross! But when you do cross it, there are rich possibilities as the hopelessness of life is all too obvious for the young people. It’s easy to concur with Hawthorne’s view that “the youth of our nation are ripe for harvest.”
Reflecting on the work of The Message, Andy Hawthorne was typically modest: “We are basically throwing mud at a wall and seeing what will stick.“ But he also spoke of the sense of momentum that is being generated, borrowing an illustration credited to Matt Redman: “Evangelism is like surfing. It can be really hard to get up – you find you have a few mouthfuls of water - but once you get the right wave, you can really move.”
With a budget which began at £20,000 and is now £2.5m 11 years on, and with many hundreds having come to faith, The Message are riding a very large wave: “We are not seeing revival yet, but we are seeing a turning of the tide, ” adds Hawthorne.
They are not complacent. Their vision remains large: The Tribe have now disbanded but spawned other creative initiatives including Genetik, The Tribe Academy, which trains and equips young people over five months and sends them back to their communities. They would love to see more Eden style teams, reaching towns and districts in Greater Manchester. Once a month everyone downs tools to seek God for a day. It seems clear that The Message will need to fill key personnel to join them to realise their vision.
Assessment of the long-term impact on the area would be premature, The Message say they are ‘in for the long haul’. But already there are signs of areas ‘turning round’, enough for Christians around the UK to take notice. Blessing deprived areas has formed part of a number of ‘Word and deed missions’ based on the The Message model: Soul in the City - London 2004; Street Reach Belfast 2004 (annually); New Day Nottingham 2004, 2005; Merseyfest – Liverpool, 2005. Future festivals include New Day Derby –2006; NE1 –Gateshead 2006; Mission London - 2007; Soul Action in Durban, South Africa - 2009.
The church in the UK happily welcomes the input and advice from ministries from all over the world, notably from across the Atlantic. It is good to have ministries like The Message to provide a home-grown model of how the church in the UK can reach spiritually barren neighbourhoods. The principles of living alongside those who you minister to and sharing the Gospel in relevant ways follow classic New Testament principles. It’s not rocket science, and yet few care enough that God’s kingdom might come where they live that they give their lives to the Gospel cause. Moving into a deprived neighbourhood where anti-social behaviour is common comes with a price. The Message have brought old fashioned principles of New Testament discipleship bang up to date. Maybe it is time you joined them, or replicated their ministry where you are?
Andy Peck is the deputy editor of Christianity magazine.