I’ve got a process I’m setting in place. I’ve got a plan. The periods I’ll spend immersed in each mission context give me a chance to ground my discernment in some real engagement and experience. (By the way, when I say ‘my discernment’ I don’t mean it’s just me. I will involve a whole range of people.) I don’t want to shortcut that process but there have been some tantalising nudges so far.
One of the biggest is the express desire of the Portsmouth Street Pastors co-ordinator to link up with another project that would provide a refuge/safe space for people they encounter in the Guildhall Square in the late/early hours of a Friday and Saturday. It’s one of the possibilities I saw straight away. Linking up with an existing and well known enterprise such as Street Pastors could shortcut a lot of the inevitably time-consuming work with city ‘gatekeepers’.
I think the model that Street Pastors have in mind is the Friday Fridge. It’s a model that would maybe work really well if it was recontextualised for the Guildhall Square pub culture – an area which is quite different from Southsea’s own pub culture. (Though I suspect one would meet a number of the same individuals.)
If you’re reading this and thinking ‘Friday Fridge… qué?’, first of all well done for reading a blog in English rather than your native Spanish. Secondly, Manuel, let me explain…
The Fridge was a mission project I helped get off the ground in the neighbouring parish of St Jude while I was curate. Basically some of the side rooms in the church building are temporarily redecorated with drapes, low lighting, funky furniture, screens, projectors and the like every Friday night between 22:30 and 01:30. This creates different zones: a Café, a quiet area and what’s called the encounter zone. This is basically sacred space with contemporary prayer/reflection stations. The chilled out Café serves hot drinks and bacon sarnies and most importantly, a chance to share in conversation with people who won’t judge you or try to evangelise you but will be genuinely interested in your story and offer what care they can out of their Christian commitment and experience. The encounter zone is a place to do something more explicitly spiritual if people want to.
People out and about on a Friday night first encounter the Fridge on the street. There’s often a couple of people out there serving tea and hot chocolate and again, the all important conversation. That conversation often includes an invitation to visit the Fridge itself.
It’s been very positively received generally. People know about it and think it’s an okay place to go and hang out.
A handful of other people (as well as myself and the Street Pastors co-ordinator) have independently [maybe – one never knows what conversations have taken place] identified it as a model that could be really effective and helpful in the Guildhall Square; including some of the people involved in the Fridge in Southsea.
I said from the outset of the conversations I had that led to this appointment that I didn’t want to just import a brand I’d devised into another setting. Because, 1. I didn’t devise the brand on my jack – it was a collaborative invention; and, 2. different contexts require different responses. The history of mission is littered with examples where a model of the Christian community has been imposed on a setting in a way that crushes the local culture and polarises the local people. Now there are sayings of Jesus (and stories about Paul) that suggest that the latter (polarisation) is an inevitable response to the gospel. But the whole point of the Incarnation is that God is found in the midst of culture. The kingdom breaks out among people, not wholly over against them. There is an internal critique of the prevailing culture but Jesus’s response to the indigenous culture (in which he lives) is not like Caesar’s. Basically I have wanted to avoid anything that smacked of colonialism.
I didn’t ask for this job just to peddle my product. I wanted to operate in a more sophisticated way than that. Funnily enough, I think I may have detected the tiniest bit of disappointment at that! I even heard of one parish expressing the desire that Fridge be set up in their patch too.
Back when I had a proper job, I was a graphic designer. So I have a background in corporate identity and small-scale branding. So in one way, developing and exporting a brand is something I’m quite well positioned to do. And brands aren’t always a bad thing. Street Pastors is itself a brand. Brands build awareness and understanding if they’re used well. Think how much easier it is to get street ministry going in urban areas both for the churches and secular authorities. I’ve even seen fresh expressions ‘brands’ developed in this diocese (Portsmouth) too – I’m thinking of Messy Church. The danger is when buying into a brand shortcuts the really hard contextual exploration that needs to be done before discerning the christian community’s particular vocation in any setting.
There’s another part of me that’s also wary of getting a reputation as being a one trick pony. Now actually if the thing I’ve already been involved in would be the most appropriate model for the city centre, I guess I’m going to have to get over it. What people think of me should be neither here nor there. But it does come into my thinking. I admit it. I’m human. I have an ego. So sue me! Actually I think if I did have only one trick, that would be pony. But it just may be these nudges turn out to be the Spirit’s gentle prompting. If that’s so, I will just have to get over myself and go with it. Just like I once asked the Bishop’s staff not to rule out the possibility that where I already was (St Jude’s) might be the best place for my curacy, so I’ll have to remain open to the possibility that what I’ve already been involved in might be the best model for where I am now.
The point is that despite the tantalising suggestions, there really is no other way to discern what the vocation is for the city centre than listening, through prayer, through study, through conversation and through immersing myself in the place. I really don’t want to be a one trick pony. But I have to let that one trick be a runner. It might just be the winner at the end.