An opportunity to open our arms
One of the great joys of my job is discovering the Church at work all over the country; God’s people expressing God’s love in their communities.
Recently I visited Latymer Christian Centre, a small church in north Kensington. Although a tough area, this relatively small group has been faithful for years and is the hub for many activities in the community. Alongside Alpha and Journey are English conversation classes, line-dancing, cooking and craft courses – you name it, this church is offering it. However, one initiative caught my attention. They were recently joined by an Eden team led by Jamie and Beccie. They really missed their family Sunday lunches. Rather than feeling
miserable they invited the teenagers they were working with to join them for a sit-down Sunday lunch and were amazed by the response. The table quickly filled up and the ‘kids’ behaved and participated in the ‘God slot’ between courses. It was such a success that these lunches have become a regular occurrence. On hearing this I was profoundly moved. Here was the family of God extending its boundaries, including others at the table to hear the story of God.
Family life across the UK is, for many, in a state of crisis. Every statistic represents real people facing often traumatic events with significant implications for their wellbeing. Some 3.15 million children live in single-parent families (that’s 1.9 million families, 23 per cent of all families in the country); one in three children live without their father. Often the social services have to intervene and 46,000 children were ‘looked after’ by the state in 2010/11. Sadly being ‘looked after’ as a child means you are likely to continue being ‘looked after’ in the prison service, with 26 per cent of prisoners having been in care as children and almost a third of rough sleepers. The Children’s Society’s Good Childhood report concluded that the UK had “the worst record of family breakdown in Europe”, with 500,000 children describing themselves as ‘unhappy’. What an indictment against civilised society. The Church across the country has responded making some great resources available to support parents. The National Parenting Initiative (NPI) website has material available for many situations.
In writing this article I am aware that family life in 21st century Britain is complex and comes in all shapes and sizes. My father was killed by a drunk driver when I was five and I was brought up in a single-parent family. As I reflect, however, although the loss of our father was an enormous thing for my brother and I, other relationships began to connect with our family – uncles, aunties, friends and our church all rallied round to support,
love, and befriend.
I am convinced God loves family; it is part of his plan for all of us. Psalm 68 says: “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families.” As Church we are called both to model the renewed family of God by the power of the Holy Spirit and also to open our arms and include others.
For Ann and I and our two children, it has meant welcoming others to live with us. It started in the first year of marriage with a young Muslim friend who faced conflict in his family over an arranged marriage. It continued over the years with more than 50 people who have lived as part of what we call our extended household. For most it has been for two to three years. The record is someone who came for three months and stayed for nine years! Sometimes our children were asked what it was like living with ‘strangers’. For them the answer was easy, having never known anything else, it was normal. It might not always have been easy but looking back I realise how they have benefited from this way of life.
Not every family is able or called to live as we have lived. Going back to the small church in Kensington, I loved the way the church invited others to sit around the table with them.
How we do this, as a Church, as a family will look different but as we ‘include’ others perhaps we play our part in God’s mission to set the lonely into families.
In the coming months you are going to hear a lot from us on adoption and fostering. This is
the UK Church’s opportunity to open our arm and include some of the most vulnerable into
our families. My prayer is that not only individual families but whole church communities will say ‘we respond together in this, we will provide the back-up and support to make it possible for those who are opening their homes to foster and adopt’.