Unravelling a continuous creative thread
What started as churchyard clearance has grown into a multifaceted community project
Pioneering Parishes is for all church leadership including lay people such as PCC members. When there is whole leadership engagement the results can be exciting! As Rev Jacki Maw of the West Wight benefice on the Isle of Wight discovered when Ali Mascarenhas, a member of her PCC, came on the Pioneering Parishes course in autumn 2022.
Ali runs a gardening business with her husband, having previously worked for the NHS and National Trust. She is also a glass artist. They moved to Brighstone in 2016. When she heard discussion about the overgrown churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Brighstone, Ali suggested that the church invite the local community to help clear it. They ended up having several work parties, with up to a dozen local people helping each time.
Ali realised that the path across the churchyard was a village thoroughfare, connecting people to the GP surgery and Brighstone C of E Primary School. She wondered about creating a noticeboard with some spiritual input and environmental information on the path. A volunteer skilled in woodwork created one.
As part of the church’s move to becoming an Eco-church, Ali organised events including hosting a talk on lichens. Twenty-five people came to look at lichens on the church’s gravestones and the medieval church with magnifying glasses. There were also talks on wild flowers, butterflies and moths, and some wildlife recordings. In addition, the church held an Easter photography competition centred on the churchyard with its spring bulb display.
Around the same time, one of Ali’s gardening clients had a table top made from toughened glass that was spare. Ali was inspired to use it as a base to create a ‘tree of life’ mosaic, put together by members of the local community and based on Revelation 22. Around 40 people took part, learning glass cutting and mosaic skills. Ali says “I came and set up all my glass cutting equipment in the church, so people could be creating this mosaic in a spiritual context, and also the church family could see it develop week by week”. She added “They really enjoyed creating leaves, animals and fruit in glass and adding them to the overall image. The sky is created with transparent paint, so that the sun will shine through it.” Another volunteer created a wooden frame to hang it.
The mosaic has been placed in an area known as the Olive Garden. A small area towards the south-east of the churchyard with no graves in it, which once cleared had revealed a great view of Blackgang cliffs. Ali had wanted to create a space which featured plants mentioned in the Bible and could be used for prayer, Celtic worship or other small outdoor events. In addition, there is a stone bench and an audio description of the view. The garden is accessed via a strip of mown grass.
Reflecting, Ali said: “It has been a huge learning experience in all ways! I feel in awe of what God has done and how the many volunteers have come together to work on different aspects of the project. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to do this and to develop things as the Spirit has led me and a greater dependence on God.
“At the start of this, Jackie Maw suggested that I might be a pioneer. I didn’t know what this was, but she encouraged me to attend a webinar on ‘pioneering parishes’. It was inspirational and reassuring to meet others who seemed to think similarly.
“I’ve gradually come to understand that it means taking one step forward in trying something and then one thing leads to another. God sends you encouragement and pointers along the way for the next step and you need to watch for them, and it’s a bit of an adventure wondering what is next!
Rev Jacki Maw says: “What started as churchyard clearance has grown into a multifaceted community project that embraces craft, gardening, creation care and prayer. It continues to draw people together from village and church. Friendships have been made and there is a greater sense of what might be possible when we step out in faith and prayer. The Olive Garden has become a focus for prayer, and reflection through the Celtic Experience as well as the seasonal walks and reflections over the past year have engaged young and old alike. Ali seems to follow a continuous creative thread bringing all kinds of people with her. There is an increased sense in the village that the church is alive and engaging with the world around us. I am praying for more people with Ali’s spirit led vision, gentleness and tenacity in my other parishes.”
Since starting the churchyard clearing, 80 people – of whom 70% previously had no contact with the church – are now connected with the church congregation.
Ali concludes: “Some people ask me what is the future of the project? I don’t know. I have a few ideas, but I will keep stepping out and see where it leads with God’s help and direction.”
Find out about how you can shift the energy of your church outwards on the next Pioneering Parishes First Steps course.