I was slightly concerned, genuinely 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 housing-estate in Europe. Of course it was said tongue in cheek but what was striking was the sheer number of individuals who greeted me with the standard local line, “nothing good comes out of Wythenshawe!” whenever they found out where I was working. They often said it with one of those knowing smiles. “Nothing good comes out of Wythenshawe”. And one person added helpfully “… except for the bus”.
Well apparently nothing good was supposed to come out of Nazareth* either …
Since 2014 I have been on a ministry training placement at Brownley Green Baptist Church, Wythenshawe, a small but active church with a congregation around 50. Wythenshawe is a large estate on the edge of Manchester. Although the church is 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. People live day to day and that can strip away both our layers of false security and our layers of unbelief.
One day – it was a 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 … for lots of people I know, £16 could fall out of their pocket and they might not even notice – never mind running a family for 4 days.
On a happier occasion I happened to know two couples who were getting married. I learnt that one in a Cheshire suburb were spending over £1,000 on flowers for their big day. Whoa! That’s a lot but apparently not that exceptional since the average British wedding is coming in at £10-20,000. Our couple in Wythenshawe however sensibly went to the local flower shop with £60 and asked them what they could do. More recently a second couple looking to get married with church providing ceremony and reception, postponed their plans after learning they needed to save up £70 to pay the registry office.
This closeness or rawness to life does have benefits. If you say you’ve got some good news, most people are at least interested in what you have to say and will hear you out. Perhaps folks are simply less insulated from the need for good news.
Food usually crops up – in one form or another – at Brownley Green
Thinking in the moment
All of us absorb the culture we are in, and to an extent that can surprise us. I used to live in inner-city Manchester but for over 15 years have 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 some “bad language” by way of conversation. Now admittedly I am guilty of swearing but I do it in that quiet 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 conventions which simply don’t belong here?” After some uncomfortable minutes – and realising unfortunately 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**. Anyway people took it well – conversation continued, with a little less colour.
Going beyond the moment
Through the week the church is very impressively engaged with this community and across all ages – last year 9 people came forward for baptism half of whom were new to the faith. They also know how to celebrate. 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 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 – 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 in “random acts of kindness”, as a mitigation against worrying about ourselves, and the surest way to grow in one’s own faith.
Easter – and Christmas – at Brownley Green
Nothing but good comes out of Wythenshawe
There’s a deep honesty about people here – 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.
*John 1.46: ‘Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?’ Nathanael asked. ‘Come and see,’ said Philip.
** Feel free to contact me for a table of permissible swear words to use in church Bible Studies
If you enjoyed reading this post try reading Is Consumerism Killing Your Faith?
This blog was also published by Premier Christianity and the Baptist Times