“To catch a glimpse or hear a whisper of God” – interview with Richard Martin

Richard Martin is a youth and community worker in Knowle West in south Bristol. He is a first year student on the CMS Pioneer MA course. Helen Harwood asked him about detached youth work and missional community.

HH: I know you trained as a youth and community worker and are involved with a small missional community who also live on the estate. Can you tell us a bit more about the area where you live and what drew you to it, please?

RM: I was drawn to the area shortly after becoming a Christian, in fact I think it was about three months after in 2008. I had applied to do a course at CYM Bristol and they had told me that I needed some more experience and asked me to get in touch with Denise Clifford who is a youth worker in Knowle. I met with her and started doing some volunteering and she asked me if I knew Jane who was a Baptist minister doing some work with a particular group of very challenging young people on the estate. I said that I didn’t and she set up a meeting. Jane and I got on really well; I was then invited to dinner with some of the members of the missional community on the estate and quite quickly Jane asked me to move in. It all felt very right and very easy. The doors were being opened in front of me and I didn’t have to push so I just did what I believe I was being called to do and went and lived there. Knowle West is an estate in South Bristol full of character and characters, the young people are edgy and entertaining, it’s an area full of contrasts, issues, injustices, prejudice, stereotyping, laughter and friendship.

You told me you were “…doing detached youth work among other things and I am looking forward to studying Pioneer Mission theology and linking it to my context and developing work with young people.” I am sure our readers know what detached youth work is but just for the record can you explain and can you say a bit more about how you find working with youth in this way, the strengths and weaknesses of this type of work?

Detached youth work is about meeting young people where they are at. There are two of us that go out together and walk around the estate meeting young people, trying to engage groups where we find them. We have connected with a group comprising of about 10 young people recently, which is really good as they are now looking out for us as we are for them on our Tuesday nights. There are so many strengths I believe in terms of this kind of work. Ben and I are strangers who go out in twos relying on the hospitality of the young people we meet, but we are also inviting ourselves to their parties almost and being hospitable ourselves. This builds relationship and also friendship. We are in their space, so the power dynamic is different to a youth club setting. This vulnerability creates, I believe, a different kind of link and relationship to that of an attractional mode of youth work. You do have to be careful not to become too native to the group; we are still demonstrating certain values and have to hold those boundaries, but generally it’s exciting and fluid work, full of changing dynamics and relationships that you really become involved with.

On your CV you said “I believe that spiritual development is a key tool in helping young people to be more resilient and to make better choices throughout their lives. It will help them with value formation, if this process enables them to see, feel, or understand that there is a creator who is mysterious and wonderful then I want to explore how to do that within the cultural context that I live and work in.” Can you tell us more about that, please?

In terms of helping young people see, feel, or understand that there is a creator who is mysterious and wonderful, I don’t believe that I need to establish the reign of God and his kingdom, I believe that we are erecting bridgeheads and vantage points for young people to catch a glimpse of or hear a whisper of God – to touch or experience together something of the kingdom which stirs curiosity and mystery, with which God will work and a new thing will happen. This spiritual development and then value formation go hand in hand. Value formation is also about identity and young people are doing this naturally and biologically as they grow through adolescence. If they have a sense of who they are, and we can help them to become critical thinkers who ask questions about the mysteries of life, then when they make a decision that affects themselves or some other then this ability to think “bigger” helps them to hopefully make a more positive choice.

Can I ask about your church or worshipping community, how they connect to your missional community?

I meet with a small group of people in Knowle West for food once a week. We share some bread and wine and we have some kind of thoughtful, led, contemplation space, or chat or whatever has been planned by the particular person that night. We talk through some contextual ideas of theology of where we are at in our place and end with prayer. I would call it a kind of sending space, a place where we learn to try and be better humans, and reflect on how that is going together or if it’s not going well!

What drew you to the Pioneer Mission Leadership Training course and how are you finding it so far?

I was involved with a ‘theology to go’ group in Bristol which got my learning juices flowing again and I talked to a couple of people who recommended the course so I made contact and went for it. I’m really enjoying the course. I love the way these courses are run and with the size of group that it is, it means that we can all have a say and get into good conversations. The group comes from lots of different contexts which is also really helpful.

What do you think the future holds?

I think we would like to be able to run more nights of detached youth work on the estate, I think we will be here for quite a few years…. Hopefully just more of the same, and being more available.

Lastly, how can we pray for you?

I suppose prayer for the above, about hopefully having more time to be available to people on the estate. However, I also work in a children’s home for the council, working with some of the most vulnerable children and young people in the city. This is actually more challenging than the detached youth work as it is bound in very difficult structures, working with young people who have suffered severe trauma. Those young people in that home do and will find life a massive challenge – unfortunately, probably for the rest of their lives. Prayers for them, young people like them and all those working with them would be great!

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