Helen Harwood talks to Pioneer student Hannah Davis about living and working alongside young people on an Oxford housing estate.
HH: Can you fill us in a bit about your background and how you got into mission and pioneering?
HD: I spent a year in Argentina with Latin Link from March 2011–2012, having loved my seven-week team project in northern Argentina in 2009. For the second half of the year, I was volunteering at an NGO that had a space for at-risk girls in a poor and basic community to hang out and attend workshops. Towards the end of my time, I really wanted to stay and strengthen the link between this NGO and the local church just down the road. I was keen to start up breakfast clubs and groups for girls, and all the other children we didn’t yet know in the barrio (neighbourhood). There were so many ideas I had, but the timing wasn’t right and there weren’t people around to help me.
However, through this, I grew a real interest in community development, mentoring and discipleship, theology, missional communities, working with pre-teen girls in particular, as well as wanting to develop skills in entrepreneurship and a better understanding of sustainable business/community projects.
Returning to the UK, I wanted to soak up and learn as much as possible, particularly in these areas, and feed whatever it was in me that loves to start up projects, dream big and spot and make the most of opportunities. When I finally discovered the Pioneer course, I really felt it covered a lot of those things that I was looking for, with the bonus of it being very accepting and accommodating of creative people.
Without realising it at the time at the time, I had been part of a pioneering community when I was 17, in the form of a Friday-night café ‘service’, and then again at university, as part of ‘Canvas‘, a student community in Birmingham. I was drawn to Canvas by its organic, unforced atmosphere, where for once I didn’t have to bring my ‘non-Christian friends’ to some one-off event: I just had to turn up, enjoy the live band and stay up late having deep chats and good food: my friends were already there!
How do you see your mission in terms of where you live and the worshipping community/church you are part of and how do you balance this with working in a secular environment for your day job?
I was living on Barton estate up till about four months ago. Unfortunately, finding a house for three people is really difficult in Barton so I’m not able to live on the estate for now, but I’ve made sure I’m still within walking distance.
Living on the estate is really important to us as the church community as it allows us to be, more than anything, present and available. It also means that we are trusted and respected as we are walking in the shoes of those who have grown up living there (though in many ways we never truly can – we don’t have pay as you go electricity meters for instance). It means there’s fewer barriers and distances. You’re already there. Honestly, it is really hard to juggle my work life with the work that I do with Thrive. I can’t be so available for the young people, to just have a chat in the daytime like the paid Thrive staff can. But that can also help me set clear boundaries with the young people, as I can only chat or meet up at certain times.
What is great is that my everyday job at Family Links has taught me a lot about working with children and young people in developing interpersonal skills, building self-esteem & self-awareness, appropriate expectations, empathy and positive discipline. It all feeds in.
Can you tell me a bit about Sunday@5, the weekly gathering of Barton Community Church and anything else the church is regularly engaged in?
Sunday@5 is brilliant. It’s unpredictable, fun and a good amount of chaotic. Probably about 90 per cent of those who come grew up living in Barton and many of those have begun a journey in really seeking God. We’ve had three baptisms in our church family, which were really exciting. Two teenage children and their mum; it’s amazing how transforming change ripples through a family.
When the church was planted in 2010, I am told it was like a youth club. There was no structure, and the young people were out of control. Now we find that people are turning up early and really wanting to learn and be with community and soak up God. Our weekly gathering is always very shared. We try to share leadership – one person leads the service, but they often delegate bits to people – to tell their testimony, to provide the music, to lead discussion groups and craft, etc. At the end of the service we have a meal together – and for that we have a cooking rota. We have an average of about 30 people together each week. Barton Community Church is supported by Headington Baptist Church up the road.
Up until a couple of weeks ago we had just one Tuesday night Bible study group every other week. The group grew a lot, and about 15-20 people were coming each time until eventually we decided that we would have to split groups. In my new group so far there’s three of us adults, and two young people. Two of those are two boys who have recently come to know God and are passionate about linking music with their faith. Their dream is for us to write and record songs together and to then be able to share it with our community and it be a gift to it. It’s really exciting! The hope is that these groups will grow and be more open to newcomers now that the groups are smaller.
Can you tell me about the self-esteem course you are running/working with and was it a conscious decision to go for a course just for girls?
Yes, this started just as I moved to Barton last September and I was really keen to help. The VIP course is a brilliant resource. It is a 10-week course, and each week we would have a half-hour time to snack and catch up on each other’s days and shake the day off a bit. Then there would be about an hour of content. Sometimes there was opportunity to share with each other, sometimes to respond in quizzes or crafts, and other times to personally reflect.
The first course we did with five girls we already knew, and the second one with four girls we didn’t know at all – they had been referred to us by the council, a mum phoned up, and one girl was a friend of a girl we did the course with last time.
Though the teaching on and discussion around self-esteem and healthy body image really impacts the girls, they also really value being able to meet with other girls their age, be supported by reliable older female role models for 10 weeks, and just to have an hour and a bit where they can think about and learn to care for themselves. Where they can be listened to and nurtured. This is really important to these girls, as many live in large families or don’t have much quality time with their parents.
I think it’s really important to provide a space that is just for girls. The topics are sensitive, and we have to spend time building their trust in a safe environment; the 10 weeks helps us to do that. The Oxford Mail wrote an article about the course – which later led to BBC oxford coming to film us. Though the links they made to vulnerable girls were a bit heavy, it was great that they were recognising the good that was emerging, and how powerful a healthy self-esteem is.
What are the ‘best bits’ of your pioneering and missional work, and what has been hard, and how do you see your work developing and continuing into the future?
Best bits of pioneering… getting to witness people in the community discovering their beauty and having a more stable and confident identity as they find it in Christ. Creating spaces and resources that enable young people to dream.
I would love to be able to use my art and creative expression more with the community and encourage it in the young people. I got to do this in a small way when I helped one of our young girls design the logo for the Young Achievers’ Dinner (our annual fundraising event). I lent her my laptop and software, and met up with her on her request so that she could spend more time on it. We have some plotting for things to come creative-wise…
I love getting to know the young people, going for walks and just being available to be a listening ear. Things that have been hard: working four days a week means that I can’t be as available for the young people as I’d like, or be around for some of the activities. It was also a little difficult being solo living in Barton – not part of a family or couple, as the rest of the team was. I had housemates, but we weren’t being a ‘community house’ or anything so it didn’t always feel very cohesive.
How has the Pioneer Mission Leadership Course helped you in your journey? And lastly, Hannah, how can we pray for you?
The Pioneer course has been such a great resource in getting me to think about all sorts of things – about what is work and vocation (helpful in how I think about my work with Thrive, where church community spills into most days), looking at culture and context (thinking about the context of the estate and youth culture), the mission entrepreneurship module (starting up new projects and pioneering new things and nurturing that ‘dreamer who does’ spirit in me). I feel really supported by the CMS Pioneer course and friends there and by those who have ‘the gift of not fitting in’. Ironically, perhaps, we’re growing quite a family of non-fitting-in-ers! It’s so good to share with, support and inspire each other.
A couple of weekends ago we met as a Thrive core team and were doing some brainstorming and re-evaluation of our vision, mission and purpose and strategy – things that I get to research and write up on my ‘mission in contemporary society’ assignment for the Pioneer course (it all connects, see!) Please pray for me, and us as Thrive team as we manage our existing projects and seek to start new ones up to meet the needs of the young people, and that we would manage our time well and work well as a team as we continue to get to know each other better. For information about the work of Thrive, see the Thrive website where you can sign up for regular blog updates and this article that was written about me: Hannah is seeing change up close.