Guerrilla gardening, young adults – and a new vocabulary: interview with Elizabeth Alden

Elizabeth among lush green foliage

Guerrilla gardener: Elizabeth Alden pioneers in Frome, Somerset.

Elizabeth Alden, a third year MA student on the Lay Pioneer route, told me about pioneering mission among young adults in the West Country, outdoor pop-ups, gardening projects and finding a new language for making sense of her calling.

HH: Elizabeth, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. I know your work is based in the community in rural Somerset, beginning with getting to know and listening to young adults. But what took you off to Somerset in the first place?

EA: I had worked in a secondary school academy as chaplain, and wanted to work in a way which was not restricted to term times and students’ time in school. I had seen students beginning to show interest in God and to relate to him in differing ways. The majority, however, did not make what seemed too big a cultural step into established churches.

When I investigated this pioneer post, I realised that it presented an opportunity to support young adults to work out for themselves what a community of young adults working out life with God in their context could look like.

I had valued the contact I had previously had with the Diocese of Bath and Wells and was keen to join them in this courageous venture to pioneer among young adults in the beautiful town of Frome.

Please tell us more about the young adults, about starting up a book club, mentoring and how local churches are beginning to pace the parks one evening a week, chatting to the young adults gathered there?

The young adults we have met in Frome are very precious, and diverse in character, interests and culture. We began by getting to know individuals and exploring with them what they value in Frome, and what gaps there are. Our local independent book store asked whether we might like to start up a book club for young adults, so we thought we would give it a go. We advertised on Instagram, Facebook, with interviews on local radio and an article in the local paper, through contacts and posters in town. A group has gathered, meeting once a month in a community cafe. We soon realised that for most members, meeting other young adults was perhaps more important than sharing about books. So, we have organised social gatherings, which are as well attended as the book club itself.

Through contact with young adults and some agencies, we have begun to mentor some young adults. We are looking perhaps to expand this with volunteers, but are waiting on a meeting with the Frome Youth Network, to check how this might dovetail with other mentoring on offer.

In the parks, we are working with teams to organise fortnightly pop-ups in outdoor spaces, for young people. We are prayerfully – and with other agencies such as the police, who are very enthusiastic for us to be a multigenerational presence in the parks – making this up as we go along: pop up pizza and barbecues where a dozen to 20 young people have surprised us by staying sometimes for over an hour to chat with us and each other. The teams are gaining in confidence, and we are building relationships (still very much beginnings) with some of the young people. We have some germinating ideas as to what to do as winter approaches…

We are also at the very beginning of a gardening project – guerrilla gardening in a disused piece of church land, enthusiastically supported by the local church. We have broken in! Local church members and neighbours have done an initial clear and we have garden designers volunteering to help us plan how to use the space. All this will be documented in a TikTok story…watch that space!

You chose CMS for the Pioneering MA in Theology, Mission and Ministry and I know that you said we have not disappointed you. How have we satisfied you?

  • By providing systematic and discursive learning opportunities on culture, mission, ecclesiology, theology – and always with a practical end in view
  • By supporting me through the challenges of the inevitable overturning of my prejudices or uninformed views and practices – thank you tutor, chaplain, fellow students – a few tears have been shed!
  • By providing space and food for interaction with tutors and fellow pioneers on pioneering
  • By giving me vocabulary with which to work out for myself, and communicate with others (community, churches, young adults) what it is we are trying to do
  • A worshipful space, with good coffee, and laughter too!

What are your future ambitions for your local projects?

Always to see God impacting the lives of those we meet in our local community in powerful ways:

  • for life to be better and better in many different ways for young adults in our town and beyond
  • for young adults more and more to be taking the lead
  • for strong worshipping communities to emerge from the gatherings
  • to see the glory of the Lord in the land of the living

You’ve mentioned prayer a few times to me, how is prayer important in your work?

I believe absolutely that ‘unless the Lord build the house, the builders labour in vain’ so I value prayer for us to be c-operating with God in all that we do. I believe that it is God who lifts the veil from our eyes to enable us to see him.

We pray as a team, and communicate in different ways with different individuals and groups who selflessly pray faithfully for young adults most of them have never met.

How can we pray for you, Elizabeth?

  • Please ask God to bless the young adults with hope, joy, and knowledge of quite how much he loves them.
  • I would value God’s guidance in the work, and as I plan my research project, interviewing young adults in worshipping communities to find out what they value in them.

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ANVIL journal of theology and mission

Volume 38 issue 2 is out now, focused on sustainability in mission. With articles on African eco-theology, community organising and apophatic spirituality.

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