Shimmering and Dirty – reflecting theologically on Romford street art

colourful large scale lettering on a bright red hoarding in Romford, spelling out "shimmering and dirty"

Shimmering and Dirty by Ben Eine. Photo: Colour in Romford, used with permission.

Jo Smallman

A well-known piece of Romford street art inspired this theological-reflection-as-spoken-word by Joanne Smallman, a student at the St Cedd Centre for Pioneer Mission, our training hub in partnership with the Diocese of Chelmsford.

I caught up with Joanne in her lunch hour to find out more about the inspiration behind the poem and her own pioneering. But first the poem…

Shimmering and Dirty

Aren’t we all?

Beneath the surface, or on the surface

I hope I am. I hope there’s a sprinkle of glitter on this girl. With my blunders and mean streak, with my self-righteousness and errors in ignorance, weakness and my own deliberate fault

Do I shine despite all that? Sometimes?

Shout it loud and clear! Let Romford see it. No shame in that, no need to sit on your pious perch.

Thou shalt this or that or the other. Stiff upper lip. Holier than thou. Christianity is a behaviour code!
Is it? Is it? Is it about the rules and God save the Queen or is it about _

No, human. Shimmering and dirty. Loved just like that.

Like the disciples, like the tax collector, like Magdalene and Judas. Like his teenage unmarried mother. What a bunch of us, ramshackle and broken, but transformed in 1,000,000 colours when God paints our story.

Hold on to hope. Burst from cocoon into flight.

This time hope’s painted in graffiti. A language of this town. You’re covered in sick, it’s 2am, you’re off your face. Are you even safe? You’re dirty, but a fearfully made human you still are.

This is your story. Our story.

The story that nailed those hands to the cross and the story of the sun that broke out three days later

Break out

Break out of boxes. You don’t like this take? It doesn’t go with your Sunday Best?

Don’t choke on your roast, meat is murder and you just killed the width and breadth of the

God of all

God of all of us

Scrubbed, shower fresh but always a little dirty.

But FEAR NOT you shimmer when you catch the light.

Metres high in circus-style lettering on a postbox red hoarding, Ben Eine’s Shimmering and Dirty street art is a familiar sight to the residents of Romford.

Who knows what thoughts and ideas it has inspired in passersby but one of the more unusual has to be a theological reflection in the form of a poem.

It was merely homework, explains its author, Joanne Smallman, who was required to do a theological reflection on culture as part of the Doing Theology module for the CMS Certificate at the St Cedd Centre for Pioneer Mission, based in Collier Row, Romford.

“We had to look at that picture and ask, how is this talking about God?” she says. “I wrote a poem when I was 11 and hadn’t written another since. But when we had to do that homework, I wrote it in about five minutes.”

Joanne is familiar with the local streetscapes, as she works in community engagement for a neighbouring local authority, supporting “anything to forge community and civic pride” from encouraging recycling to play streets and community gardens.

“My paid work is about community transformation and not in a Christian bubble,” she says. And a similar thread runs through her own pioneering mission activity.

Now 37, a mother of three boys and, it turns out, a board game fanatic, Joanne co-leads what she describes as a “collaborative gathering to explore spirituality” called Family Pitstop. But the history of her relationship with ‘church’ will be familiar to many.

“Church seemed very out of sync with normal life, something so alien. Sunday meetings did not practically support me as a new mum – trying to feed a baby in the pew – so I left. I didn’t actively stop going but at one point I realised I hadn’t been for ages because I’d been making excuses not to go.

“Then I stumbled on the Salvation Army church in Stratford – their meeting space is a hall so it is flexible and responsive and they were focused on the needs of people and trying to bring about kingdom of God. I walked into that place and thought, this is what it’s all about.”

Having moved to the borough of Havering, Joanne started Family Pitstop. “People my age are missing from church or find it hard – I just wanted something for my family to go to.

“It’s a bit like Messy Church but I also describe it as a collaborative gathering to explore spirituality – there isn’t a team of church people running stuff for non-church people – you help out when you come along.

“There’s a nice mix of people who already have Christianity in their story and people who have never been anywhere near a church.

“We try to do things to benefit people’s family life – to help bring up conversations in the family on themes like worry or love, challenging things to have conversations about.”

Family Pitstop meets once a month on a Saturday afternoon and tries to build in normal family activities.

“We meet at the park at 3, have a run around – the things you normally need to do. Then tea coffee, and healthy snacks, in the church. We gather and introduce the theme – maybe a parable with props. Last time a six year old read a poem from the psalms, then we do arts and crafts activities to get a bit more involved, make the dessert, then have reflection and prayers. My two year old led prayers by turning a light on and off. We allow people to own the space and don’t over-assume what we’re saying about prayer and God – we’re just promoting talking to God.”

As well as talking to God, Joanne is fascinated by talking about God and has a degree in theology from Nottingham University.

“What I love is, God is always going to be bigger than I can understand. I love the ideas that people have about God – I like playing with them in my head and in my life – you see that God is always far bigger than your tiny brain can grasp – it’s wonderful really. And exploring what we have in common with people of other faiths – I really love that.”

So with a degree in theology, why did she still want to do the CMS Certificate? Part of the answer is gaining official recognition – “a bit of a rubber stamp to say I’m allowed to do this – but personally I’ve got a lot out of it. It’s helped me understand where I had got to: I got to a place through being at Salvation Army and rediscovering what Christianity could look like – it’s helped me unwind that and understand it. And it’s given me more confidence in my natural disposition.”

Explore the website to find out more about studying the CMS Certificate at a pioneer hub.

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