During the four-hour drive from Oxford to Plymouth, writes Sarah Holmes, I recount what I know, or think I know, about our destination. Jonathan, the photographer, and I have been invited by Ruth Sayers to come and get a glimpse of mission in Devonport, where she has been serving with Church Mission Society for three years.
My understanding is that despite being in picturesque Devon, the area faces real deprivation – high unemployment, low wages and prohibitive property prices.
My mind is already constructing a story about the ‘forgotten people’ of Plymouth – those at the end of the line, broken and without hope.
The first morning of our three-day visit we join Ruth at St Aubyn’s work club. She is a member of the support team and is there every week. The club helps unemployed people with their CVs, job searches and general employment advice. The team members also help jobseekers get access to training, and things like Maths and English support. Ruth’s directions say to look out for a church opposite a new housing development.
What looks like a grand old Georgian church from the outside turns out to be so much more inside. Walking in, I’m struck by the fact that the space is open plan, light and airy, with tasteful glass and chrome. I also see rows of neatly stocked bookshelves. It turns out I’ve walked into the Devonport Library and St Aubyn’s Church. Later I learn that in 2008 the original church, which was down to a handful of members, was given a £2.2 million facelift, funded by the Devonport Regeneration Community Partnership. On the ground floor, the space now houses Devonport’s public library, community facilities, plus a cafe.
My eyes are quickly drawn to a large stained glass window, on the east wall, which bathes an altar below in sunlight. This is St Aubyn’s chapel, the heartbeat of the building, which sits on a mezzanine floor in the former chancel. This is where Ruth worships with the loyal congregation of 16 – and growing – which meets on Thursdays when the library is closed.
We’ve entered the building behind a couple of middle-aged gents in fleeces, jeans and trainers on their way to the work club. We pass Shelley on the front desk; she’s long-term unemployed, with health problems, a smiley lady who meets and greets people on arrival. Past the public library, which includes Plymouth City Council’s naval history collection, we follow the stairs up to the top floor – an interior balcony (based around the architecture of the original church). We see a table set out with tea and coffee urns, slices of cake and a bowl of fruit. Behind this are computers for the jobseekers to do job searches, write CVs and consult with Ruth and other volunteers on their quest to fulfil the benefits office requirements and apply for four jobs a week.
For Ruth, it’s a far cry from her previous nine years of mission in the Middle East and North Africa. But she believes her experience gained overseas was part of God’s plan to prepare her for Plymouth – which she describes as her hardest mission field so far: “I was in Egypt following a short spell in Bethlehem – then went to Jordan and worked in a school for deaf children.
I came home, knowing there was an opportunity here. But this has been much harder – the culture shock. Yes, I speak English but being accepted as part of the community is hard. I’ve been in Devon three years but sometimes still feel like an outsider.” Ruth originally hails from Guildford – a long way from the sea – so a big thing for her was getting to grips with the city’s long maritime history and tradition. The people of Devonport have seafaring blood running through them – several generations of families have worked in the dockyard, been shipbuilders, worked on the ferries, in the navy, or as fishermen.
She adds: “Coming here has made me think about what mission really is. It’s about walking alongside the community. At work club, I often just sit and listen. We’re not here to judge. We accept people as they are and love them.”
Observing people at work club interacting with Ruth, you see that they trust her and appreciate her quiet, diplomatic, caring and common-sense approach. I sit down with Rob – a wiry man, with kind, twinkly eyes. He wears a blue cap and looks older than his 52 years.
Originally from Bromsgrove, Rob is long-term unemployed – a painter and builder by trade, doing contract work. He lives in lodgings in Devonport and is now looking for jobs as a care worker. He’s applied for nine jobs this week. He had a tough start in life. His mum had an affair when Rob was about four years old; his father (a gamekeeper) found out, shot her lover and then killed himself. The mother left home never to return and Rob had to take care of his younger siblings – including a baby sister – for a month on his own. A neighbour discovered them and then Rob was in and out of children’s homes. Another tragedy struck when Rob’s wife and son (age six) were killed in a car accident in Newton Abbott. Rob moved to Plymouth 21 years ago to get away from the memories – “It was haunting me.”
He adds: “I lost it for a bit. Not had a relationship since.”
Rob usually turns up at work club every week. “He was very sceptical at the start about church but now comes to Bible study and to church every Thursday,” Ruth later adds.
When I ask him about Devonport, he says: “Apart from the drugs, violence and pubs – everything is OK. You get it everywhere you go.” When I ask him about the difference Ruth makes, he smiles: “She’s a little diamond. I like to wind her up and make her laugh. I like to make people laugh and make them happy.”
And work club? “It’s made a difference. It’s good, looking for jobs, the staff are friendly and make time to help you out,” he says. So what would be his ideal? “A nice job, a little place and a few more snakes.” Rob’s passion is snakes alongside fishing.
Ruth overhears me interviewing another jobseeker, Dave. He is 40, lives with his mum and struggles with reading and writing. Work club helps him do applications, online job searches and print things off, as he doesn’t have a computer or printer at home. He knows work club is attached to the church. I ask him if he will be going to the Thursday service in the chapel. “No, no, I won’t be,” he says quite emphatically. Ruth overhears. She’s fiercely protective – and asks me afterwards to go softly, softly when talking about church. She has seen that when people are ready they will come and find out more about church and God.
After four hours at the work club, we take a walk. There’s a sense that change is in the air. The housing estate is going to transform the old town centre of Devonport, which was ripped out by the Blitz. Ruth explains that a lot of government money is being invested in Devonport (and Plymouth as a whole) but so far it hasn’t really benefited local people. New housing is being developed but local people cannot afford to buy – many of them are workers who lost their jobs when Devonport dockyard scaled back and became more mechanised (and privatised). The new houses are being snapped up by second homeowners, including parents whose children need accommodation while they are at Plymouth University.
Behind the new housing, there are older estates – which are on Ruth and her colleague Tim Woods’s beat. Tim is a church community development worker; he was one of the group who originally set up the work club, which is currently supported by St Aubyn’s Parish, Job Centre Plus, Plymouth City Council, local housing associations and other organisations.
Ruth explains: “The best thing Tim and I can do is walk the streets. It’s about building trust and being a presence. I used to work in countries where people believe in God. They have a strong faith – Muslim or Christian. God is not an issue for them. It is different here. ‘What do you mean, God?’ ‘Who is God?’ Here most people are ‘unchurched’, some are ‘de-churched’.
“Church is not a connection people have. It isn’t part of society anymore. We need to reach the community and the only way to do that is one to one befriending. You may not even talk about God. Rob has taken nearly two years to get to the point where he will talk to you about the Bible. We are just part of the process of leading people to God.”
We arrive at three 15-storey tower blocks named Lynher, Tamar and Tavy after local rivers. We visit Sandra – St Aubyn’s longest serving parishioner, who lives on the 14th floor of one block. Thirty-two years at St Aubyn’s; 20 as church warden.
Ruth points out another block of flats that is boarded up. It burnt down last summer – allegedly caused by an incident involving a teenager and a Bunsen burner, according to the Plymouth Herald. The fire destroyed 24 flats. (No lives were lost.) St Aubyn’s Church stepped in to help and was entrusted with the support committee’s collection fund. Nearly £16,000 was raised, mainly from local contributions. Despite having very little, the surrounding community dug deep to help the fire victims.
Our trip to Devonport ends with a wonderful, intimate Eucharist at St Aubyn’s. Driving away, I think again about this notion of ‘the forgotten people of Plymouth’. The truth is, the people we met are not forgotten, thanks to Ruth, Tim and others. The individuals we met do not appear bitter or sorry for themselves. They are just living their lives as best they can and are grateful for help along the way.
A prayer request from Sandra, longstanding St Aubyn’s church warden, sums things up: “Pray for our church. For those who are poorly. God has always looked after us and sent us people like Ruth. We’re looked after so good… although we are small in number, we’re in his heart. Plymouth is a wonderful place and there’s a lot of potential. I love my city.”
PS: Since this article was written, we have heard from Ruth that Rob has got a job as a care worker.
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