Where there is no vision from God, the people run wild – Interview with Berni Excell

RS56911_berni-1-scrThis month Helen Harwood talks to Berni Excell, about to go into her third year of a foundation degree with CMS, and someone else who found the CMS Missional Entrepreneurship week to be a significant staging post on their journey.

Berni, can you tell me something about your life and interest in pioneer mission?

I have lived in Penge for about 15 years and I have a deep love for the town and its peoples. In recent years I have spent more and more time wandering the streets, estates and open spaces connecting in friendship with people from all walks of life; listening to their stories, connecting with their journeys and where invited to do so, sharing mine. Over time a patchwork of stories of people and place have formed; myths and truths, dreams and realities, pain and heartbreak, and from these a patchwork of restorative relationships are emerging.

I find it odd to think of myself in terms of “pioneer mission”. I have no formal or strategised role and don’t feel what I do is anything particularly pioneering; I simply live my life as faithfully as I can to God’s calling. My mission flows from who I am called to be; a constant discerning process! At the present time I feel called away from structures, systems and bureaucracies into a freedom in Christ. If asked to describe a framework for my mission I would probably say there are some key factors of wandering, listening, seeing; connecting with the land, sharing my life in friendship and contemplative rhythm and practice. I am simply an ordinary Christian attempting to follow the call given to all Christians to join God in our neighbourhoods.

I would just like to add here that I am a member of a small Anglican church in Penge and have a great relationship with my vicar and many from my church family. I have a huge amount of encouragement and prayerful support; despite my increasingly poor engagement in church specific activities and I am eternally grateful for this. This has been very important for me as I do recognize my evolving sense of calling has not been easy for everyone to see or hear about! It does not make me a very “conforming” or at times “comfortable” member of the Anglican tradition to have around!

That is very moving, thank you. Thinking of you I am reminded of the passage in Proverbs that talks about vision. I found a nice version of it in the Voice Bible: “Where there is no vision from God, the people run wild, but those who adhere to God’s instruction know genuine happiness” Proverbs 29:18. I want to share your vision for Penge (in London), which I heard at the Missional Entrepreneurship week last year, with our readers:

My Dream of a New Penge by Berni Excell

I dream of Penge as a blossoming orchard. Where there is an intrinsic sense of growth, supported by tending and nurturing; where all fruit has a recognised use whether eaten, juiced, fermented or composted.

I dream of the mornings when we awake to unlocked front doors, to homes which are welcoming visitors at all hours, where no one sleeps on the streets because spare bedrooms are freely shared with those in need, where peoples from all walks of life meet together in the cafes, play in the park, share their gardens and open spaces.

I dream of a Penge where young and old talk to and pay attention to one another, where sick are cared for by the well, where the struggles and dreams of the rich and the poor are shared, heard and become entwined; where those with all faiths or none love exploring and growing together.

I dream of a Penge where the streets are a-buzz with chatter, laughter, playing and gathering. Queues are enjoyed as places to make new friends. Where groups gather to explore dreams and build solutions. There is a natural sharing of work, skills, resources and lives. Cash converters and payday loan stores are replaced with shared work spaces to bake bread, recycle clothes, restore furnishings and electronics. The skills, gifts and potential of every individual is known, encouraged, nurtured and set free.

I dream of a Penge where those with addictions, disabilities, sickness, loneliness, youth and age, working or workless, rich and poor are cherished and come to know Love through all they meet; where Hope is restored. Relationships of Love are for the long term; the rough and the smooth. We care and Love one another as the gardener has taught us in the tending of her orchard; not colluding with or avoiding struggles, disease and malfunction but recognising that if one of us is hurting we all hurt and as each of us blossoms, grows and heals another fruit of creation is set free.

Can you tell me more about your vision for Penge, how you got it and what it made you feel, please?

My vision came as I lay on the hillside overlooking the beach while staying at Pickwell Manor in November 2013. I was on a week’s residential with CMS exploring entrepreneurship. As I lay on the hillside praying, a visual image of an orchard covering the land came to me and the words and vision for Penge flowed from this; giving me some interesting food for thought, reflection and prayer ever since!

The vision expressed may sound fanciful and simply a dream for some but for me reminds me of the great vision of Hope we have been given. God is in our neighbourhood and fruits are being born on many levels. We are called to join in; to come out of our comfort zones and connect with God’s people and land.

How are you fulfilling this vision? Is it hard? What would you say were good bits of your work, ministry, or study, and what is it that has been most difficult? Are there any signs yet of your vision being fulfilled?

I can’t claim the vision as my own; simply my interpretation of God’s mission and calling in my neighbourhood. As to how I am fulfilling it… I can give you a bit of insight of my contribution perhaps but please remember my formation is still in very early days and ongoing!

I felt a very clear call from God about two years ago to stop what I was doing; working long hours in a neighbouring borough. Not because the work I was doing was a ‘bad’ thing, but for me it had become a distraction from God and from my neighbours and local area. I quit my full time job, opting for a simpler lifestyle for myself and my son, with a focus on God’s rather than my own calling instead. The most wonderful decision and blessing for me and my son!

I subsequently signed up with CMS Pioneer Mission Leadership Training and simultaneously spent many months reconnecting with my neighbourhood; wandering the streets, praying, talking, listening and simply “being”. I explored local networks, churches and organisations; praying and thinking about issues of social justice, power, inclusion/exclusion and connections. I volunteered and joined in with many networks and provision and have maintained many of these connections; simply offering my time, skills and presence. As my mission and practice evolves on the ground I increasingly find my space for reflection, challenge and support comes from the CMS community; a lifeline in both the good and the hard times!

If it is useful here to give an indication of some of the manifestations of my mission I will summarise as tidily as I can….

I continue to wander, a lot, and this is the basis of all my relationships. In my wanderings I connect with many people, known and unknown, and simply spend time whether on the streets, in the parks, cafes, homes, pubs, community centres or events. Some of these wanderings have developed to regular gatherings both one to one or in small groups where we share more intimate journeys; meditate in silence or using scripture and imagination, connect with nature, grow food, go out together to do “local action” of some sort or simply have fun and do “normal” lives together.

I am a member of many local communities, groups and networks at both strategic and operational level; prioritising my hands on involvement over strategy as relationships are what are key for me in my calling. Being involved and invited into gatherings of older people, those with learning difficulties or mental health issues, youth activities, provision across the estates, patchwork farming and many transition town activities opens my eyes and ears to the everyday experiences of others and every time I am the one who walks away greatly touched by the encounter. Today is a wonderful example, by chance I met a group of adults with severe learning disabilities and their carers. I hung out with them for a couple of hours and danced, laughed, chatted and one of the carers taught me the alphabet in Makaton. By the end of our time together I could sign goodbye to each one of them by name and left with a promise to return next week for tea and chat.

Living Well is a key part of my life blood. We are a community of 80-100 who gather each week in my local church for lunch, art, music, meditation and support, advice, information and referral (eg, to drug and alcohol, mental health, debt advisors, etc – if people have practical or medical support needs we work with lots of agencies. We started off as a small once a month lunch about three years ago for those who were coming to the vicarage for food, money, prayer or help and over the last two years have grown to a core community gathering every week that has had contact with well in excess of 300 individuals. Community members come from all walks of life; living on the streets, sofa surfing, drug/alcohol dependent, mental health issues, learning disabilities, lonely, young, old, working and non-working. A core of committed community volunteers cook lunch, run a foodbank (three days a week), run art sessions and offer advice and information but all of us eat and build friendships together as members of the one community and as time progresses there is a distinct “blending” of those who came initially to seek help and those who came as ‘helpers’.

My home and garden are open door and as friendships and relationships develop the flow in and out of our home brings much to the growing sense of community; at times this is a challenge for my son and for me as many who come arrive at strange hours and in very challenging conditions, but for me this is a crucial reminder of who we are called to love. From barbecues to gardening, bonfires to shared lunches, meditation to simply time to drink tea and chat, cry, laugh and share lives.

What has been the impact of the Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course on your life and mission and on your vision?

The training has opened the doors for me to CMS as a community of lifelong support, challenge, inspiration, companionship and learning. Within this community God is taking me on a roller coaster journey in which I feel my whole sense of who God is and who I am in God is being turned inside out. The course has brought me into contact with many inspiring and thought-provoking leaders and facilitated a space to ponder, reflect, challenge and question.

The course is helping me to form a language and a framework for my missional calling; to recognise the gift of being a wanderer and a friend maker and to remind me that my “old world” of boundaries, rules, policies, products and outputs is no longer relevant or the priority! No matter how much the world may try and demand it from me.

What do you think the future holds?

Penge will wake up to God’s call; those with a Christian faith will recognise and respond to their calling and the whole community will have their eyes, ears and hearts opened to God’s mission in our neighbourhood.

How can we pray for you?’

That I will continue to respond to God’s call to be with his people in the here and now, in the day to day, to live life in genuine open community where I connect with others and share our homes, dreams, skills, resources, struggles and journeys, and together connect to God’s vision for transformation and restoration. That eyes, ears and hearts will be open to the beauty of the peoples and the land around us. That ministers of the many local churches will bless, encourage and release their congregations to go out and build disciples who in turn will go out and multiply…

Thank you Berni, that is indeed a beautiful vision… please do keep us posted!

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