We are far far too snug, smug, sheltered and warm.
A neighbour has lent me an old booklet and it’s amazing. It’s marvellous. It has me wondering and dazed. The chap who wrote it occasionally visits my village and I am desperate to meet him. It’s about the ancient area of Penrhys in the Rhondda, and it charts the work of God in the lives of a small – tiny tiny – Christian community. Penrhys, once a place of pilgrimage, was originally an estate of 750 council houses, built in the 1960’s on a high ridge between the two mining valleys, so high that it’s often shrouded in mist, buffeted by the wind. Bleak and inhospitable. This isolated and poverty stricken estate was built to attract new miners from Durham to work in the pits of South Wales, but of course that work was short-lived and very rapidly the soulless lines of concrete maisonettes and basic houses became neglected and desolate. The last pit closed in 1990 and by 1996, when our story really starts, 90% of the estate were eligible for housing benefit, and unemployment stood at 93%. There were single families, isolation, depression, crime and need. Desperate, desperate need.
In 1986 John Morgan came to Penrhys, searching for God’s will in his life. Two years later he was invited to become the minister to a congregation of ten adults and twenty children. He and his wife and children felt called to do this work by God, not an easy calling by any one’s ideas… social workers said that Penrhys comprised 2% of the valleys’ population but 40% of their case load… what madman would want to work there, among the hastily thrown up, badly designed minimal housing , on featureless streets, exposed to the winds and rain of a mountain top, serving a hostile, disillusioned and deprived population? A population written off by the rest of the world… read this, written later…
OK, chicks, to cut a long story short, John and his wife Norah started a new church community, now called Llanfair Uniting Church. It seems that several denominations came together to pray and believe, campaign and plan and finally the council gave them a dilapidated maisonette block (I so want to see this place!) and they refurbished it. At the time of writing this book, which was 1994, this is what God had achieved in that lost and lonely place:
1994: On the top floor of a maisonette block is a flat which serves as the Manse (minister’s home), under this a flat for a worship leader, another for an education worker, and a large flat for student volunteers. The next floor down is a community centre including a cafe, laundrette, nearly-new shop, crèche, music and education rooms. On the ground floor is the chapel and its necessary offshoots.
All this came with no money. It came to a modern slum, to broken uneducated people, and it came from God. Initially, although ‘given’ the maisonette block by the local council, the ten worshippers (all unemployed) and John had to raise £375,000 to refurbish the dilapidated building. Ten unemployed people! £375,000! On Feb 23rd 1990 John wrote in his journal ‘Yet I believe we will achieve the goal and develop the church’s mission in this community. That would be the greatest gift of God’
Two weeks after writing that statement of faith, John was told he would receive £45,000 from a charitable trust and an equal amount would be made available as a loan. He writes “I was staggered! What rejoicing!”
And so it goes on… wonderful surges of provision, but just as many knock-backs. The Welsh Office at first refused to help in any way, claiming it was ‘too religious’ and it was months before they received any help from the government.
By the end of 1990 the church membership had swelled to… well, no loud cheering just yet…. just twenty.
But twenty was enough, with God on their side. In March 1991 this tiny group of worshippers instructed the builders to begin, to fulfil their tender now standing at £413,000. That day John writes “We have witnessed many miracles during this past year and our expectation is that God will guide and bless.”
By 1994 there were 50 adult worshippers, and 100children. ONE HUNDRED CHILDREN!
I sometimes, quite rarely, tell the children’s story in my church. We have maybe 7 children on a ‘good’ week, but I have sometimes told the story to just two. How I would love to tell a story about God’s greatness and goodness to a hundred youngsters!
It took God’s miracle and power, plus prayer and commitment and vision from its tiny start-up congregation, help from charities and local businesses, and as time passed it was boosted by the unity between it and other local (equally tiny and struggling) churches.
I’m struck again and again, reading this small booklet, between the difference between the community at Penrhys and me. They realised that they needed more than their windswept ghetto up there on the hillside, they needed more than their own barren resources, and so they turned to God and to each other other. They saw their own need and the need of those around them.
We may know that the people around us are bleak, lost, lonely abandoned and in need but somehow we haven’t realised it. We may say piously that we are in need of all God’s grace, but actually we feel quite OK and comfy as we are….. We are snug in our little red brick church, and here we’re bloody well going to stay, come hell or high water. We will sing about stepping out into the storm but we’ll sing it only as we batten down the hatches and cut another piece of cake…..
Jesus said that if His disciples remain silent the stones will call out. I believe that the stones are calling out. Stone upon stone, calling us to step out, step away, demanding that we leave them to slowly sink back into the earth while we move on, taking the Gospel with us, wherever God may lead us.
It’s staggering, challenging, exciting, TOTALLY AMAZING!
I keep seeing an image that’s awful in its simplicity. I close my eyes and there it is. I try to pray about something else, and there it is. My millstone.
A millstone around the neck was a punishment. A millstone drowned the sinner. I wonder if a millstone can also drown a congregation?
I think I’d better shut up now.