Giving faith a fighting chance
A working-class boy from east London, Jay Lilley sparred with army life, wealth and homelessness before rebuilding his life and finding faith in the boxing ring.
A few years ago, Jay Lilley would have told you there was no way he would ever be working for a church. Yet now he is a youth worker running groups in churches and schools in Essex, and is studying with CMS on a youth work pathway. He explains what changed…
By Jay Lilley
Church under duress
I’m a working-class boy from East London. I went to church under duress when I was a kid. I had to go because my sister needed to be baptised and confirmed to go to a Catholic school. And then from about 12, I didn’t go to church anymore. The area where I grew up was not the nicest – kids ran in gangs and you could get yourself mixed up in really bad stuff.
I was a soldier for a while, then left the army and got a job that paid well and gave me a house and a car. But the company went bankrupt. I lost pretty much all I owned and was homeless for a while. Eventually I moved to be with my now wife and worked two jobs. I worked a lot and was motivated by the money more than the job.
Church across the street
We lived across the road from the Good Shepherd church, and David Harrigan (a pioneer minister who trained at CMS) was one of our neighbours. We used to say hello and have a chat in the morning. At that point, I was boxing but had an injury and wasn’t as fit as I should have been going into a fight. David said, “Well, we have this spiritual boxing community at the Good Shepherd. You should come along.”
So I went to the Good Shepherd Boxing Community, which David had started. It wasn’t to do with faith for me – I needed to be fit for a fight. I was used to a boxing gym, where you go in, you work out and you spar. It’s on your own, motivated by your trainer. But the boxing group was a community. You were going there to be with people. And it was more about the love side of it than the fighting side. For me, it was completely different.
After about four weeks, David invited me to come to church one Sunday. I’d always had this gap in my life and when I told my wife I’d been asked to go to church, she said, “Why don’t you go and check it out?”
I went and sat right at the back. When I came home I felt different, weird. I said to my wife, “I’ve got a feeling this thing I’m missing is a spiritual connection.” But I didn’t go for a few weeks because it scared me. Then I saw David on the school run, and he encouraged me to come back to the boxing group.
I started going to church more. The people at the Good Shepherd were from the boxing community and lived in the same flats as me. They were my kind of people. I just didn’t know my kind of people went to church.
The community is more than just boxing. We come together from the same kind of backgrounds. We talk, eat together, share stories and pray together. These guys, like me, have not been around church, probably ever. Or if they did, there weren’t good memories. So to see them ready to be baptised and give their lives to Jesus was incredible.
When five of the guys were baptised, David transformed our church – he put ropes around the pillars and turned the middle of the church into a boxing ring with the pool in it. It was like a boxing event, but with a baptism. It was amazing.
The church did an Alpha course, which David said might be good because I had questions. After that finished, our group said, “We’re not done yet.” So David started a new community, which was where I reaffirmed my faith. It is called Soyanna, a Sri Lankan word meaning the way, or journey or path (named because one of our group is from Sri Lanka). My children got baptised a few years ago, so did my wife. And their godparents are part of the Soyanna community. It’s a big part of our lives and it’s been a big part of my journey.
Having been mixed up in bad things when I was younger, once I came to faith I wanted to give back to someone. And one Sunday the youth worker explained, “We have an outreach group where the leaders have left because the group are unruly. We’re looking for people to sign up.” So I joined the team. And the second I got there, I finally felt some peace in doing something as a vocation.
When the youth worker moved, the church offered me the role. And David introduced me to Graceworks, an organisation who do Christian schools work and support churches in my area. They were looking for a schools worker, and even though I’m not churchy and I’m a bit on the edge, they hired me.
Appetite for learning
I was already part of St Cedd’s [pioneer ministry training hub] in partnership with CMS, but I wanted more depth. David suggested I get in touch with CMS. I was accepted, so I’m studying for the Certificate on the youth work pathway, and preparing to be a lay pioneer minister.
I hadn’t done any learning since I was about 16, so it’s taken a while to learn how to write essays. My search for knowledge is much bigger now, I’m reading more than I’ve ever read. At the moment I’m doing my youth module with another person from Australia. Our tutor also does youth work, so it is great to learn from him.
Putting learning into practice
I try to do as much stuff I learn from CMS as I can. And it’s because CMS and especially pioneering is so relational. I think that when you look at the church, young people are not usually interested, but the idea I’ve taken from CMS is that being relational and being something different is what young people are looking for. It’s helped me loads within my ministries.
The boxing community is still going and growing, though I don’t go as much as I used to because of my workload. Soyanna is ever growing. My youth work is ever growing. And that’s basically my life at the moment, which is so amazing!