'Nothing good comes out of Wythenshawe!'
I was concerned, surprised and frequently amused at the number of people who recited this line to me when I arrived in Wythenshawe, Manchester – which for many years held the awkward title: biggest council estate in Europe. Although it was said tongue in cheek, this standard local line was always repeated whenever someone found out where I was working.
They often said it with one of those knowing smiles. 'Nothing good comes out of Wythenshawe'. One person added, '…except for the bus'.
Well apparently nothing good was supposed to come out of Nazareth either...(John 1.46)
Since 2014 I have been on a ministry training placement at Brownley Green Baptist Church, Wythenshawe, a small but active church of around 50. Wythenshawe is a large estate on the edge of Manchester. Although the church has a good mix of professional and working-class folks, Wythenshawe itself has many difficulties including low literacy, debt, unemployment, poor housing, gambling and pervasive low self-esteem.
Living in the moment
But there is a rawness to life here.
One Monday I was sitting with a young mother in hospital awaiting news of her critically ill husband. I chanced to ask her how she was coping with shopping and finances, and her reply is one I will never forget. She thought about my question carefully and then said 'well we’ve money coming in on Thursday and I’ve got £16...so we’ll be OK'.
The last 4 words caught me completely off-guard. I sat there thinking that for lots of people I know, £16 could fall out of their pocket and they might not even notice.
On a happier occasion I met two couples who were getting married. The couple in my home suburb in Cheshire were spending over £1,000 on flowers for their big day. Wow, a lot of money! But apparently the figure isn't that exceptional since the average British wedding costs £10,000-£20,000. The other couple getting married lived in Wythenshawe and simply went to the local flower shop with £60 and asked them what they could do. More recently another couple looking to get married - with the church providing ceremony and reception - have postponed their plans after learning they needed to save up £70 to pay the registry office.
This rawness to life does have benefits. If you say you’ve got some good news, most people are interested in what you have to say and will hear you out. Perhaps these folks are simply less insulated from the need for good news than many of the rest of us?
Thinking in the moment
All of us absorb the culture we live in. For almost 20 years I lived in a Cheshire suburb and that has left its mark. A few months ago I was conducting a series of Bible studies in Wythenshawe and I noticed one night that people had slipped into swearing 'by way of conversation'. Now admittedly I swear as well, but I do it in that quiet middle-class sort of way (and I would like to stop!) So I sat there wriggling silently thinking, 'hang on, as the minister here should I be saying something about this? Or am I just bringing in values which simply don’t belong here?'
After some uncomfortable minutes – and realising it wasn’t going to stop by itself - I made up a random rule. Swear-words which began with certain letters would now be met with a gentle rebuke while others would not. Yes it sounds ridiculous - but I was again taken by surprise. Happily my comment was taken well and the conversation continued minus a few words. (Feel free to contact me for a table of permissible swear words to use in Bible studies).
Going beyond the moment
Through the week the church is actively engaged with this community and across all ages. Last year nine people came forward for baptism, half of whom were new to the faith. They also know how to celebrate well. Celebration is a big part of life here. Everyone’s birthday seems to get called out and every event that can be marked is done so with bouts of fine food, music, and even the odd dance. Of course there are deep-seated anxieties and issues in an area like this but there is also a joyful resilience that won’t be silenced.
What are our priorities as a church? Actually, no different to any church; they include:
- Reminding people (including myself) to give thanks for everything that’s good, everything we do have. Or as writer Ann Morisey puts it: 'learning to see the present through rose-tinted spectacles'.
- Empowering people to take responsibility for their own wellbeing and health (harder than it sounds).
- Encouraging people to volunteer 'random acts of kindness', as a mitigation against worrying about ourselves, and the surest way to grow in one’s own faith.
In summary, there’s a deep honesty about people in Wythenshawe. They don't tend to wear masks to hide their problems.
But the truth can also be shocking. I admit I sometimes feel like closing my ears to the messy stories people tell me. But then I remember that God is passionately involved in our mess, so much so that he became a part of our mess. My mess.
It’s only a placement, but I’ve been here 18 months, still enjoying it, and I haven’t caught the bus yet.