Anvil journal of theology and mission
“Living alongside people”– learning in and through relationships. An interview with “Sarah”
by James Butler
In this interview Sarah reflects on her own faith learning and the learning going on around her in her role as a family worker in the church. She talks about the big things that have shaped her own faith and reflects on the ways in which she sees people learning and growing in faith around her. There is a strong mission focus to her work, and in the conversation she reflects on many of the themes of the research in relation to the families she meets, particularly on the place of care, conversation and learning together.
James: Sarah, tell us a bit about yourself and your involvement in the church.
Sarah: I’m a children and family worker in my local Methodist church. I run activities for children and families including a toddler group and a Messy Church during festival times. I go into the local primary school to read Bible stories and listen to readers, and I lead services in the school at festival times, such as a Christingle service at Christmas. Alongside this I volunteer at the local children’s centre, attend the Friday community coffee mornings and host a monthly sewing bee day.
I have also been training to lead worship in the Methodist Church, which in Methodism means planning and leading the service, but not preaching. This can be very rewarding but also challenging, making sure it is interesting and accessible for all. Leading a community in worship is a real privilege. I am still working through my training as a worship leader. The material is all online, which for my learning style and dyslexia is a real struggle at times. I have a loving and caring husband, who is fabulous at supporting my work. He is also involved in most of it, helping where he can. I have made many lovely friends and I feel really settled and called by God to be here.
James: We’re thinking about how faith grows and changes, so what is faith to you and what encourages or enlivens you in your faith?
Sarah: For me faith is about living alongside people, loving and caring for them. I want to bless the people I meet, including those who, like in the story of the good Samaritan, I might be tempted to walk past on the other side. The thing which has really enlivened me in my faith is the toddler group, which I run with the team. It is exciting to see the adults at our toddler group blessing each other, supporting and caring for each other and being so generous towards each other, particularly when some of them have so little. They often ask whether we need anything, and for me that is like Jesus working in everyone, even if they have no idea that Jesus is there with them.
James: As you know, this project has been looking at the grassroots experience of learning and how people grow and develop in faith. Are there times in your own life can you identify this kind of growth and change?
Sarah: Well for me, the biggest thing has been bereavement. When my husband died leaving me a young widow with two young children, I knew I was not alone and God was by my side. I could talk to him, cry with him, scream and shout. He would be there with his calming spirit. He would not leave me as I am a child of God and he loves me whatever I do, wherever I am. Knowing how much I was loved deepened my faith and made me want to know more. While praying I felt a sense of peace fall over me, knowing God had his calming hand on my grieving body.
But eight years later I met a new partner who had two young children and then 18 months [later] he suddenly died, leaving two young boys orphaned, and I thought, “How could there be a God?” After eight years of being on my own, I was thinking I’d got another future ahead. A friend of mine, who had also been widowed and was a churchwarden and children’s worker, invited me to come for Sunday lunch. I thought that would be lovely. And she said, “You’ve got to come to church first.” I just thought, “Oh really, I don’t want to go, you know, I don’t believe this. I can’t say these things.” I couldn’t say them from the heart, because I didn’t know at that time if I believed that. I just thought, “She does a really lovely Sunday lunch and she’s really good company and so is her husband and daughter; OK, I’ll go sit at the back. What harm is that going to do?”
So, I went, and I did sit at the back and there was somebody that I knew and she just put a hand on my hand, didn’t say anything. And then I just cried all the way through this service. At the end the person who was presiding said, “Somebody here is really hurting and these words of this, this last hymn we’ve sung, are going to resonate with them.” And I just thought, “Oh my goodness, I think she’s talking about me.” And she just looked at me, and then they prayed with me. At that point I actually felt hope, which I hadn’t felt for quite a few months. I started to realise that although I didn’t believe in God or feel that he’d been there for me, he was still there with me.
James: Thank you for sharing that. It really resonates with many of the stories we have heard, that these big things in life can actually become places of experiencing a deepening in faith for many people. Do you see people’s faith growing and changing around you in the community?
Sarah: Yes, I’m quite a people-watcher. I like to sit and watch and then kind of reflect on that. I learn from watching people and talking to people. It’s all part of getting to know them, I think. In the toddler group, as I get to know the families, I see how they learn. I hear their expectations and in response I start to change things and accommodate their needs in different ways. For me the toddler group is church. We have a craft team; we do different activities together and I see how we are forming a community and learning from each other. The mums might not see that as church, but I do. We are showing them love and blessing them, as Jesus did, and one mum has started asking questions and has asked for a Bible.
James: That’s interesting, because one of the big questions from the research has been the place of the Bible and of the Christian tradition. How do you see that in your work?
Sarah: We really don’t push that. Lots of parents come from the children’s centre, which is just down the road. We just we offer them a space. We offer them refreshments and we offer them support, a chat, activities, those kinds of things. We don’t push the God bit as it were, but hopefully through our actions and what we share, we talk about church, we talk about what we’re doing in church, we talk about the other things going on. For that woman who asked for a Bible, I think just from her seeing the examples, learning from us, seeing different things and feeling supported, that encouraged her to open up. It’s more than just statutory support; I think we are learning from them too.
James: Do you see that happening anywhere else?
Sarah: Yes; before Covid we had “Brunch and Natter” once a month, where people from church would come together to eat and discuss the lectionary passage or something topical in the news. We would share a meal and chat together. I see that as church. It’s about us going out to people instead of expecting them to come to us. We are meeting them where they are, and supporting them and being more like Jesus, really. It doesn’t have to be worshipping in a church. It’s about the practical things of life.
James: When we spoke during the research, it was in the middle of the pandemic and lockdown. How did that change how you approached community and learning?
Sarah: It was challenging. We had online coffee mornings to keep in touch with parents. We did what many groups did – recorded stories on YouTube and Facebook. We managed to stay in touch with families. It has also shown us that Zoom can help us to reach out to certain people who can’t get to church on a Sunday or who work shifts and can’t be there. It would be really good to still have an interactive Zoom service, as we have been doing. I don’t know how that would work, but through Zoom we have been able to connect with different people.
It was also great to be able to connect with more people from the Methodist District who are involved in similar things. Before it was really hard to get together because we were far away from each other. But now we can meet on Zoom. It has been a really good learning opportunity and good way to meet different people from around the country and around the District. We have our lay workers meeting once a month on Zoom now, where we can share ideas and we can talk.
James: And what have you learned in your work?
Sarah: I learned that you can’t fix everything. And you can’t be there for everybody all the time. It’s about being a team, not just you on your own. I’ve learned that whatever we do, whoever we are, God loves us and he is there. Lots of people don’t see that, but I know that he does. I know that he’s there supporting all these families.
James: And what is your hope in all this?
Sarah: It’s encouraging to have these conversations with the parents, about life and faith and to learn together. I’d like to see the parents who come regularly begin to take ownership of the group and be able to run it. We would just be there to support, but they could lead it. We have run this on a limited budget with a small group, and it would be great to see others growing and enjoying taking a lead in this.