Helen Harwood talks to first year student Jo Howie about bridging the gap between business and faith, church and community and creating the Grieve Inn.
HH: Tell us how faith has worked out in your life so far and what led you to be here at the Pioneer course.
JH: I was brought up in an evangelical church setting and was very active in church life in my early teens. When I went to college, I struggled to fit in and felt like my faith alienated me even further from my peers and became increasingly detached from the church. After making some bad life choices, I found myself back in church in my mid-twenties, really through the kindness of a couple of Christians who went out of their way to love me. However, I found myself in a church setting where I wasn’t free to doubt or question, and in particular, to struggle.
Having had a more difficult experience of fitting into a church context has given me the desire to bridge the gap for others, and to create space for people to connect with God and access the Christian faith who might never walk into a church building, struggle to engage with more standard models of church and who have been hurt by the Christian community. I think for me coming to CMS is part of my ongoing search to find a safe space to struggle and to question and to work things out.
Can you fill in a bit of back story for us. I know that you didn’t do well at school but set up your own business at 22. Which sounds pretty amazing! And that you went to study theology because you thought ministry and business had to be two separate entities. So feeling God was calling you into ‘ministry’ you went to Bible college and God helped you to realise that business can be part of ministry.
I set up a business during the period of my life when I wasn’t following God and had no church involvement. However, I could only ignore God for so long and after re-establishing a life of faith, my church commitment felt in conflict to the demands of running a business. I felt under pressure to give more of my time to church life and at times, that was detrimental to my business. I knew that God was calling me to something and in my naivety, I concluded that this calling must be to ministry; and ministry, of course, equated to church. My husband and I went to study together at Bible college and although I greatly value that time and all that I learnt, the biggest revelation was that God could use the person I am and that includes the skills I have. I was trying to fit into a box that I really didn’t fit into and it was a relief to stop trying!
This revelation is still working itself out in my life, and due to a number of temporary moves we just haven’t been anywhere long enough to really explore turning my ideas into reality. However, I was thankful to be trusted with the responsibility of setting up a social enterprise on behalf of a homeless charity based in Loughborough, and I am currently employed on a part time basis as the manager of the project while I try to get it established and self-sustainable.
I am very interested to hear about The Grieve Inn…
My husband and I have lost two babies in pregnancy, with the first we allowed ourselves no time to grieve and just tried to get on with things and suppress our emotions, however, the second was a much more public experience as I was in hospital and very physically unwell. At that time, the grief of our losses overwhelmed us and both my husband and I struggled to cope. The things we go through as people shape our lives, and that is no different with grief. My loss has shaped who I am now and I think that is OK. Lament plays a huge part in the Bible yet in society there is very little space to grieve, there is an unspoken but very real pressure to put a brave face on things and be ‘OK’, even when you’re not. Grief leads to isolation, as I discovered myself. Pretence is exhausting so it is easier to shut yourself away. Grief however is not synonymous with bereavement, we can experience grief through disappointment, loneliness, rejection, the list goes on. Our current context is a deprived inner-city area and our research has shown us that people there feel disconnected, many are from other countries and have no local connection. People are grieving for so many reasons. We wanted to create a space where people could come and just be. Someone asked me why the name couldn’t be more positive, for example ‘The Hope Inn’, but that creates a barrier to the many people who are feeling like they have no hope. With the name, we hope that it allows people to come as they are with no expectancy and no pressure to be positive at a time when they may be feeling at their lowest. We didn’t want this to be just another place where people have to go and pretend that everything is OK. We want ‘The Grieve Inn’ to be a place of authenticity and freedom.
The Grieve Inn started in February and is currently happening on a weekly basis. We have been thankful for the support of the housing division of our local council who recognised the need for such a space and have given us the free use of one of their community rooms. The space is very relaxed and although there are creative activities on offer, what we are finding is that most weeks, those that come, including the volunteers, just talk and share in a group. At some points, images or words have been used to generate discussion and every week, a chaplain is on hand if anyone wants to talk to someone privately. A really beautiful friendship has begun to form between all that come yet if anyone new comes they are immediately made to feel welcome. Sometimes people cry but there is laughter too and, actually, it is a place of hope.
I know you love creative arts – poetry, music, art, dance – and believe that engagement with the arts and allowing people freedom to be creative improves mental wellbeing and enriches lives. Can you tell me how you weave this into your life of ministry and mission?
Good question, and the answer is with great difficulty at the moment! I have found the first thing that suffers at the hands of busyness is creativity yet I also know from personal experience, that when I am not allowing myself space to be creative and to engage in the things I love, it has a detrimental effect. A few years ago, a spiritual director encouraged me to take up a hobby, purely for enjoyment’s sake. I took up singing lessons and it really enriched my life, not only did it give me joy but my mental wellbeing improved and so had a knock on effect on all areas of my life. I want this for other people.
Moving to a new place is difficult because being creative and disclosing something of your inner self isn’t always easy and being somewhere where I am known and loved enables me to experiment and push the boundaries more. However, I was grateful for the opportunity in December to run a series of advent art workshops for people of any faith (or none) to explore the theme of waiting through creativity and it was a real blessing for me personally to feel that I was once again able to use the things I love to help people connect with God. There is the ongoing possibility of collaborating with the venue that hosted the workshops again in the future and I am excited about this relationship.
In the future, I hope to facilitate community art projects on a larger scale, to not only create a space for people to be creative but also to encourage community.
Can I ask you to tell me some of your experiences so far on the Pioneer course? I know you are only just over six months in but I am wondering if there are already any highs, or at least any light bulb moments!
I have both loved and struggled with the course in equal measures. It has been hard in that life is so busy and at times this has felt like another pressure. I have felt at times that it is time spent away from my mission field and really I should be there doing the practical stuff and not at CMS doing the theory, however, time for reflection is really necessary and having a space to come and talk to people who are doing similar things and encountering similar problems is really vital. I love to hear about what other people are doing and to share stories and just that alone gives me courage and confidence to keep going and to keep trying new things. There is no difficulty in connecting with the people I have met at CMS, it is a safe place to be who I am and not feel that I don’t fit in, that in itself is so encouraging and life-affirming. I won’t lie, essay writing and me don’t go well together but I really value learning and even in this short space of time I am able to say that things I have learnt on this course are directly influencing the outworking of my faith and helping me to consider, more fully, how I can help others connect with God.
My stand-out high so far has been the Bible in Context module. It was a residential module so that meant being away from my family for a few days which was really tough but the teaching by John Drane was amazing. It was such an exhausting week yet simultaneously it was like a retreat, in that I came back from it feeling really renewed and so excited about the possibilities the Bible presents. It also accelerated the relationships I am building with the others on my course and that has been a blessing.
Please tell us how we can pray for you.
We have encountered some logistical problems and have felt held back by bureaucracy and red tape. However, God just might be in it after all and after feeling so disappointed by things not turning out how we had hoped, a really exciting and unexpected possibility has presented itself. Please pray for discernment as we try to navigate the way ahead and also for God’s guidance on when is the right time to lay things down.
Please also pray for our beautiful daughter Annie who is six in May and has found the challenge of moving cities, moving house, and moving school particularly tough. Please pray that despite a very rocky start, our life in Derby will prove to be a positive time for Annie. Please also pray for wisdom and patience for Darren and I as we parent through this difficult time.