When I first moved to Barton, a council housing estate in Oxford, I wasn’t expecting to find real poverty. And definitely not the type that causes people to go hungry.
But two years on I find myself continually struck by the levels of poverty that I see around me.
Yet even now writing this, I immediately defer to my default middle class objections that say “It’s their fault” or “They’re workshy”. It remains hard for me to know which problems are inflicted and which are invited.
But here’s what I do know – That there are kids growing up on my estate poor.
I know that they’re growing up in an area with 34% child poverty, high unemployment and a life expectancy that is significantly lower than the city’s average. I know that in a city famed for its university, they’re growing up in the most deprived area in the county for Education, Skills and Training.
And I know that they did not choose to be born here.
More than statistics
These aren’t just hollow statistics for me.
One night we opened our door to a teenage girl and her younger brother. They were holding a bag of four raw chicken drumsticks and wanted to use our oven to cook them. Their electric meter had run out, and their Mum had no money to top it up to cook these drumsticks – the sum total of their dinner.
These knocks on the door have been a common experience.
Hope in unlikely places
And yet in the middle of this poverty and culture of hopelessness is a church plant where this single Mum and her children go. Just a few weeks ago I had one of those moments in life where you just stop and take stock and smile. I was watching over 50 people, many of them teenagers, share food and worship Jesus a part of a church community that didn’t exist three years ago.
I looked at the couple who I now call friends, who first came to the church for something to eat when they had run out of food. I spotted the 15 year old boy whose family were almost evicted by the Housing Executive which would have resulted in splitting the younger children up from the parents. And watched the 6 year old girl playing with her new friends, who after a year of being fostered has been allowed by a court to live with her Grandmother, who brings her to this church.
And here we all were, sharing life and pasta together.
It’s a church that has been built on the relationships developed between young people on the estate and members of a Thrive team.
Launched at the end of 2010, the first Thrive team of staff and volunteers moved onto the estate to reach the most disadvantaged and disengaged young people living here. The team inspire young people to bring change in themselves and to lead change within their community. We run a number of projects that facilitate this, and provide opportunities to meet Jesus that are relevant in this context.
The live-in commitment allows us to build relationships with those young people who are also our neighbours, responding to needs and crises as they arise, building trust by displaying commitment.
The young people love this model of the team actually living on the estate, feeling valued because we’re there during ‘out-of-hours’. Families comment how much they appreciate the model, that has given their kids a constant in their lives when others services and personnel flit in and out. Even the local police appreciate it – One officer knocked on the door of a Thrive Youth Worker one evening to say;
“I have a mate who owns a local business. Here’s his email. Go ask him for money to help you do what you do and tell him I sent you.”
I guess people appreciate the model, not because it’s flawless, or polished, or without mistakes, but because they are seeing how living in and amongst this community is having an impact on the estate through young people experiencing hope.
Thrive first met Josh a few years ago when one of our team met him outside the shops and asked him if he wanted to play some football.
Josh grew up on Barton with a Mum who was an alcoholic for 27 years and with a Dad who he didn’t see much of and hasn’t seen for the last four months.
“My Dad ran away and my Mum was never conscious. I grew up with no one to tell my problems to.”
By the age of 14, Josh was smoking, drinking, and beating people up for no reason. He got into drugs and crime.
Josh told me, “There are three categories of robbers in Barton. Those who rob bikes, those who rob cars and those who rob houses. I was in all three.”
Yet, as a result of consistent input into his life from some of the Thrive Team and some other churches involved in Barton, Josh now follows Jesus wholeheartedly.
And as he discovers that life is best with God, he has been adamant that others need to embrace this too.
He told me, “I gave my best mate a choice 10 minutes before I was going to church. I said, ‘Look, you can either come with me now and sort your life out, or stay in this dingy dark place that you’re at. He put his coat on and said, “Let’s go”. Now he’s even more into God than I am!”
When I asked Josh – now 18 – if he would consider moving out of Barton, he told me in no uncertain terms, “No way. When I was growing up I wish that there was someone a bit older than me who knew what I was going through and could have offered a better way. Now I want to be that for kids growing up here.”
So Thrive are helping to develop his potential to lead change, providing him with opportunities to use his credibility to impact those around him.
Not for you?
When I tell people where my wife and I live and about Thrive, they often respond with “Oh wow, I could never do that.”
You could never live beside people in debt? With addictions? With difficult kids and dysfunctional families?
Because you do.
I guarantee you that the people living above, below, beside or opposite you have any number of problems.
They’re just maybe better at covering it up.
What’s challenged me about the Thrive model is that – yes, it involves moving onto a council housing estate to work with young people – but it’s also just about being intentional about loving your neighbour.
Those kids with the drumsticks (one has since been baptised) were just some neighbours who we’d gotten to know and felt they could call on us for help. Josh was just a neighbour who the team built a relationship with by taking time to play football with him.
We shouldn’t treat mission as an add-on activity. Instead, we need to allow it to integrate into our everyday activities.
We feel far too busy to start trying to add on mission to an already squeezed day. But we have opportunities to take what we’re already doing anyway – be that our daily commute, our weekly gym or pub night or the 21 meals we eat every single week – and to be intentional about involving other people in these activities.
And by doing this, we will cultivate friendships with people who are drawn to the authentic Christianity that we display.
And then I say let them interrupt our lives with their questions, problems and needs.
So, what everyday activity are you going to involve someone else in this week?
Robin and his wife Debs live on Barton, a council housing estate in Oxford. They are part of Thrive, an initiative of the Christian charity Innovista, where Robin now works. You can find out more at www.thriveteams.org and keep updated via Facebook [www.facebook.com/thriveteams] and Twitter [www.twitter.com/thrivebarton]