I decided to train at Durham, not because of the beautiful and inspiring cathedral nor the excellent theological and academic study programme but because I wanted to go into a rough, working class setting and show myself how much of a spoilt middle class boy that I am; hence why I find myself nearing the end of my time in Byker, one of the most deprived areas of the country. I chose Byker as my Mission Study Block because of the reasons above. I knew nothing of the place itself except of the famous TV programme that spawned Ant and Dec.
As my colleagues and I walk around the estate and hear stories of community breakdown and regeneration project after regeneration project I am struck by how comfortable I feel here. Admittedly we are walking around during the day in the glorious sunshine but I’ve met some members of the residents here and they all seem nice enough. I would like to visit at night and walk the streets to see how the place changes but at the moment I don’t hear horror stories of rough neighbourhoods, I hear stories of isolated, disillusioned and disposed individuals trying to escape the situation they find themselves. Byker is a place where you get dumped; either as an asylum seeker or as one of the people who are not needed by society anymore.
The history of this estate is long and complicated but here’s my basic understanding of it:
It grew in the industrial revolution as the centre of the glass industry. All the accommodation was built to house the workers of the factories and the subsequent industry that filled Tyneside. Byker became a place where families grew up living together, everyone knowing everyone else; a real working class community. As time went on and industry came and went the housing began to look and feel dated and so it was decided that a revamp was in order. People moved out of their houses and the place was knocked down and the terrace houses were replaced. It was done in stages and people were moved and removed and, by the end of the last set of building works, the community was, as you can imagine, dispersed. Some returned but many couldn’t afford the new housing or didn’t want to uproot again. The housing became home to the only people who could afford them; those on benefits. The community was subject to many concepts and consultations from council and committees. Plans were thrown at these people but funding and planning permission all slipped through. What is left now is an area where no one has any hope, probably because they’ve had them broken so many times, where no one knows if they belong here because it’s not clear what ‘here’ is.
As the six students from Cranmer walk and talk lots of things are coming through and it wouldn’t be right for me to try and voice them all at once (I wouldn’t know how to sew them all together anyhow!) But one thing for me seems clear…
This is a place that needs a new story and I think we can find it in an old one. The story speaks of death and resurrection.
Parallel to my time in Byker I have continued to read ‘Organic community’ by Josef Myers. At almost every meeting and conversation I’m reminded of Myers thoughts on how communities are built and sustained and I’m struck by how much Byker has been failed by those who believed they were creating community. The councillors came into Byker with grand plans and ideas of how Byker should exist in post-industrial age. What’s the problem with that?
Some quotes from ‘Organic Community’ may help,
‘people are not primarily looking to co operate with our plan for their lives.’
‘Organic community is not a product, not an end result. Organic community – belonging – is a process… it is not the product of community that we are looking for. It is the process of belonging that we long for.’
We love to fix things, don’t we? Why? I suggest we are all scared of failure. We idolise success, we are told, again and again, that we need to reach excellence, personal bests and achievements. If you don’t attain what you set out to do then you are weak and dependant on those who have. Our society is structured so that those who succeed give support to those who haven’t ‘made it’.
The situation in Byker is so complicated I can’t go into it all now but the impression I get is that the rebuilding and all the subsequent regeneration projects that have taken place have been master plans of fixing the ‘issues’ of Byker. Good willed people trying to bring life to this community by papering over cracks and thrusting false hope into a community hungry for some light.
‘Dying to live’
This is the phrase that’s been buzzing round my head as I reflect on the situation in Byker. What follows is only an impression and my reflections. To believe that i have the answer is foolish and naive but I have been hearing and seeing some profound things and I’d like to share them in the hope that they may be of some help.
The church of St Michael’s is a group of people who have moved from their building to a shop front and they don’t know whether they’ll ever return to the empty shell on the hill and if they do what happens to the shop front? How can they invest in a space they don’t know if they’re keeping? The church of St Anthony’s is a group of people who find themselves in a ‘fortress’, fenced in and separate from an evolving resident community not willing to let go of relatively superficial factors. What are they holding on to and why? These are communities that need to embrace death, knowing trusting in God who has conquered death!
This imagery of death and resurrection is everywhere.
The church of St Martin’s has experienced a death of their building; it has been taken down, every brick, and replaced by a community centre which doubles up as a worship space. A wonderful concept but this has come with some great heart ache. This community experienced a death of an old way of identifying themselves. They are now in a new stage. I feel like God is leading them through death into resurrection hope.
St Michael’s are in an Easter Saturday moment. All around them is uncertainty and ‘death’; death of a building, of their identity, of cohesion. The last thing they need is human beings giving them a metaphorical plaster to ‘make it better’. They need God’s power to bring about resurrection. They need to be reminded that in God we have hope and it is only in trusting in Him that His power is made perfect in weakness.
The Byker community, at large, needs to hear this story as well. That, in Christ, death is a victory, that it is only Christ who can turn failure into hope. Unfortunately, as I look around Byker, I see death and then human beings trying to imitate resurrection. John Sadler, vicar at St Michael’s, suggested that ‘regeneration’ is like ‘resurrection’ and I would agree with him. The impression I get, however, is that this ‘resurrection’ plan is more the work of man than of God. Yes, God will use it but I don’t feel the power that brought Christ back from the dead is at work in some for the regeneration work that is going on. At St Martin’s there is a tangible hope in and around the ‘St Martin’s Centre’ and I put it down to the faith of their new Centre manager and the relationship she has with the vicar. This partnership, a long with the congregation there, are actively seeking God’s power to bring resurrection to this community. At Kid’s Kabin, in Walker, Catholic nuns pray and discern God’s will seeking to follow where He leads them, knowing that it is only this way that will bring new life. I have seen in other areas well meaning people try and create new life without God. Yes they have some success but there lacks any meaningful hope. What they produce is resuscitation not resurrection… temporary not eternal.
What is it Byker needs? Real Hope. How will they find this? I believe in modelling the gospel message of resurrection. “Show us Christ risen again!” We show them through real new life like the one modelled in Kids Kabin and proclaim God’s marvellous works. We show them community centres like St Martin’s when God has brought about real powerful resurrection in community.
Byker needs to be helped to embrace death, in its many forms, and be shown hope of resurrection. The Church in Byker needs to be reminded of resurrection hope, the heart of our faith. They need to be encouraged to remember what we have to offer that no one else does, eternal life in resurrection hope.
This isn’t the most clear and concise explanation but I hope you can hear my excitement for this area. I know God has the power to breathe life into Byker. I have seen His power working but I also can feel darkness trying to get in.
I pray for the Christian community in Byker for the courage to stand up and proclaim from the rooftops and in every alley way of the estate,
“Christ is risen. He is risen indeed!”