Saturday, 27 November 2010

Christmas time, mistletoe and lies

Every year there is a supposed attack on Christmas. Every year it's another example of how our heritage is being dumbed down, hidden away and removed in the name of 'political correctness' and to avoid offending other faiths.

Often those allegations wheel out members of said faith communities to support the apparent slight being directed towards Jesus' birth by saying they have no trouble with anybody talking about Christmas.

The most famous of all apparent attacks on a festival that isn't important in and of itself  is Birmingham's. We've all heard about how Christmas was rebranded as Winterval in an attempt to minimise any offence at all and to make sure that we of a faithful disposition knew that secularism has absolutely and completely done away with God from public discourse. I saw a member of General Synod appear on BBC Sunday Morning Live telling the nation all about it.

There's just one snag with that story - that it isn't the truth.

The truth is pretty ordinary. I quote from Mike Chubb, who was Head of Events in Birmingham at the time, and who himself is quoted by Andy Mabbett in a post titled 'Winterval - the truth'. Mike says
Quite simply, as Head of events at that time, we needed a vehicle which could cover the marketing of a whole season of events…Diwali (festival of Lights), Christmas lights switch on, BBC Children in Need, Aston Hall by Candlelight, Chinese New year, New Years eve etc. Also a season that included theatre shows and open air ice rink, Frankfurt open air Christmas market and the Christmas seasonal retail offer. Christmas, called Christmas! and its celebration, lay at the heart of Winterval.
So, just like a red coated Father Christmas and actually the linking of Christmas itself to an existing festival by the early church, the brand of Winterval was that. A brand. The success of that marketing campaign is clearly up for debate but the pervasive understanding that it was an attack on Christmas appears to have been whipped up by people who would identify themselves as speaking for me, other Christians and by extension as a representative of God.

And one of the characteristics of God is truth. This means that as Christians we stand in the middle of an epistemological minefield. On the one hand we talk about absolute truth whilst at the same time following a personal saviour who is absolutely relational. It's why we find conflict with both ends of the philosophical spectrum. But our knowledge of truth and belief in the relevance and application of those truths is absolutely central to who we are.
One of the offending lights from Rochdale
(borrowed from the Daily Mail article)

So it's always really distasteful when people lie in order to present a position that attacks other people and somehow 'defends' Christianity. Whether that is the individuals and councils who are behind the supposed slights or entire communities of people who aren't like us the fact is that we're not called to dominate. We're not called to win. We're not called to force people and coerce people into doing anything. In fact, The Church should stand at the front, clamouring in support of any attempt to hang Christmas decorations alongside those of Diwali and Eid because we're called to love.

Not just a subtle, hidden and diluted love. No, our love is sacrificial. It's loving beyond our own capabilities. It's loving people for who they are, as they are, not for what they might become or how they can change. It's unconditional. And so, it follows, that we would pour ourselves out to give value to other people and would, as the Daily Mail so generously suggests, want to shout 'Merry Christmas EVERYBODY' (except they seem to be suggesting that is A Bad Thing).

It does not follow that we would continue to spread untruths about Winterval. It does not follow that we would simply applaud Eric Pickles for suddenly giving us permission to forget about Christmas being about more than memorial. It does not follow that we would do anything other than demonstrate what it is to know Christ by making Him known in our lives as we challenge injustice, act with humility and hunger after mercy.

Let's make more of a racket about how much we spend on Christmas. Not just focusing outside our church walls on 'the world' but about how much we invest into Christmas as The Church. The Advent Conspiracy put together this little video - £34 billion pounds gets spent on Christmas by Britain alone; £31 billion pounds could go a long way to solving malaria, feeding the world and providing clean water. Of course it's not that simple but where would Jesus have us place our focus?

Today is St Nicholas Fayre in York, we're opening our church during the day for 'Thank God It's Christmas'. The church, next to the Minster, will be open as a cafe with free drinks and cake on one of the busiest days of the year. We'll also be having 12 minute long carol services every half hour through the day - a couple of songs and a brief talk about 'why Christmas is important to me'. I'm involved with one of them. This wasn't my theme, it could have been.

Tonight Conversations is celebrating Christmas. We're holding a Party with A Purpose. The purpose? Providing 'Christmas' for families in York who otherwise won't enjoy a turkey and trimmings, decorations or even presents. This is a city where 1 in 3 children live in poverty. That isn't my theme either, although maybe it should have been.

One reason Christmas is important to me is because it's a victory for humility. And that means it's all about everybody else. And even that isn't what I've prepared to talk about. Christmas, it is important...can we get on with telling people why please?

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Reinventing the wheel

Sunday evening took this passage from Acts as its backdrop.

"They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved...All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need. Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means Son of Encouragement), sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles' feet."
Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-37

That's a revolutionary expression of community. That model of fellowship without borders was the hallmark of Jesus' relationships. Not just with his disciples but with those society wouldn't touch. The church of Acts are living with that same authenticity, vulnerability and generosity. They live grace, they are church. Those words aren't theological constructs, they're dynamic adjectives.

Their faith changed the world. Theirs a religion built around the service and love of those around them. Theirs a fundamentally relational pursuit of Jesus. Somewhere in the annals of history we dropped the ball. Religion became a dirty word bound up in ritual and show, dominated by fear, judgement and hypocrisy, not synonymous with the Gospel of 'good news' but seen to be something manipulative and controlling.

That's not the true story. When the Archbishop of York was asked about his thoughts on Big Society he claimed the idea as a rebranding of what the church has been doing since its birth. For Sentamu (whose full article is well worth a read), Big Society's just another name for the wheels which the church, alongside others, has consistently been involved with oiling for the last couple of thousand years.

Following the Spending Review the state is going to shrink, and there will be a reduction in services. There will be increasing needs and the church has the infrastructure, human resources and experience to contribute to finding solutions - the Church of England provides 23.2 million hours of voluntary service per month (and that's just one chunk of The Church). More specific is Acts 4:35 an initiative of Archbishop Sentamu that provides a mechanism for giving money directly to others for specific purposes (in many ways it's a local version of Kiva).

That's great, as is our local commitment to The Besom. But we are absolutely wrong if we think that we're the only people who care about kindling community and getting involved with transforming the lives around us. I might not enjoy the political rhetoric and cost-cutting reality that surrounds us at the moment but I do love the fact that there are lots of people who are exploring opportunities and experimenting with technology to give voice to the voiceless and support those who might otherwise fall through the gaps.

Sadly God's hands and feet are conspicuous in their absence. This just doesn't make sense. I can't get my head around why we're not round those tables, entering those debates and talking about the kind of compassion that hurts. The Acts model of community was radical 2,000 years ago and nothing has changed. What are we waiting for?

If it's permission we're looking for then the irony is that Acts 2 models of community are being spoken about and developed, probably by people completely oblivious to what's written in the New Testament. Maybe it's time we twigged that there's universality to the wheel? God doesn't always need us to start something, or for it to wear his brand or come under his 'ownership' for it to bring him glory and transform lives.

Is the Acts 2 challenge too hard given the busyness of life? I hear that, my daily commute sees me out of York for 12 hours a day. How do I foster meaningful community with those around me?Well, perhaps these four things which are already set up and focused on building relationship, fostering community and living generously can provide us with a platform inside church but also in dismantling the walls around our worshipping community.

The Big Lunch began life at The Eden Project a couple of years ago and encourages neighbours to spend the day with one another through street parties. Christine and I hosted one for our street in 2008 and it was brilliant (sadly we were both out of the country this year), instead of church on June 5th 2011 why don't we shut up St Mike's and break bread with our neighbours?

Flock Local was born at Glasgow's Social Innovation Camp last June. The premise is pretty simple - directing the energy of a flash mob into an activity with a social purpose. The website provides a front end for listing local events and a mechanism for people to register, communicate and pitch in.

Street Bank exists to help people share what they've got with people in their locality. Sign up, list the skills you can offer your neighbours or the things you've got to lend or give away and see what happens.

Street Club overlaps the others and is a sophisticated approach to providing digital foundations to a local community. It's designed to be a private online members club that revolves around ten key words - discuss, volunteer, ask, share, recommend, give, trade, play, save and party. There is something daunting about a resource this comprehensive but then it isn't a website designed for individuals is it?

This week Conversations starts life in its latest venue (upstairs in The Graduate, formerly Varsity). I'm (justifiably) proud to belong to a community that hopefully looks like that early church. I hope we're not just a community for ourselves but one that is committed to getting stuck into the world around us. We're here to follow Jesus and that means pouring ourselves out for the people of York, til it hurts. Maybe signing up to a few websites can help?

Friday, 3 September 2010

Success and how you define it...

In the last 24 hours I've seen two totally different ideas of what success looks like. I liked one, I didn't much like the other.

Today we had a celebration of Hull City Council's graduate scheme. We three grads popped over to the Guildhall for an hour with our line managers, mentors and the HR guys who've been running it. In the end four line managers made it, out of 12, and one mentor, of three. And rounding it off were our two handlers, a big HR boss (who I'd never met before) and an even bigger HCC boss (who I'd not met but who seemed, on the strength of our brief conversation, like she will be an asset to Hull. She's also been to Sierra Leone before which gives her many brownie points).

When we got the invites it felt a little weird. It didn't seem to make much sense to celebrate a scheme that has four of us looking unemployment squarely in the face come October 1st. Gallows humour on my part suggested it was more like a wake so when there was a little speech on how successful the scheme had been and there was a (muted) round of applause I just couldn't stop the incredulity and had to ask what criteria of success we were using. For me, the elephant in the room was our future employment, or not, as the main criteria of how successful this two years was for us.

I shouldn't be surprised. When we started in 2008 the graduate scheme made no promise of further employment and the 5 graduates who made up the first cohort warned us very early that little planning or forethought went into what had happened for them (eventually shoehorning them into temporary contracts until something came up...only 2 are still there today).

Call me naive but I thought they might have learned from that and heard the disappointment of our predecessors. It was the first time they'd run it after all, wouldn't they clock that paying the salaries of the three of us for two years, paying for an MSc in Public Administration at INLOGOV and giving us the breadth of experience and knowledge and building relationships across the organisation would make it strategically worthwhile to retain that value come the end of the programme?

So I asked the question and it led to a healthy discussion between me and the speaker. From the HR perspective it was successful - look at what we'd done in our placements, how we'd grown and how we were now really valuable assets not just to Hull but well prepared to go and contribute to the wider public sector. Sadly we were just the victims of poor timing and there was work going on to try and match us to vacant positions in Hull but clearly noone could have foreseen what the situation would be.

Those vacant positions form something called redeployment. Now, as you might imagine the public sector is full of terror about impending doom (we'll bypass the bit where that writing was on the wall 18+ months ago). So we have a recruitment freeze. That means they can't just keep us around in a job they make for us on an ad hoc basis. So since July 1st we've been on redeployment - that is we get first dibs on jobs at the same grade. We're not the only people at our grade and there aren't many jobs. Since July 1st there have been 3 jobs. None of us have got one. So, with four weeks to go, we are creeping closer to not being in education, employment or training.

However, the thrust of that argument about success was very selfish - what had we got out of it for ourselves. Call me old fashioned but I'd like to reclaim Weber's ideal of 'bureaucracy'. I am not working in the public sector for my own personal development. It wasn't about being a good way of getting another degree (who needs three anyway?!). It wasn't about what I would get out of it. It was, and is, and always will be, about the public. I chose the switch from international development because I desperately want to get stuck into the communities and lives that I can engage with as a British citizen who understands where people are coming from because I understand language, culture, history, food, weather, etc. And I chose to apply for the graduate scheme in Hull because of the hope filled vision of the future that this council shared with us. This idea that actually the problems facing Hull, of which there are plenty, aren't insurmountable and we could be part of that organisation getting stuck into it over time.

It's wonderful that the council is altruistic enough to train up people for two years so they can give them away but I'm not sure you could sell that to the ordinary man or woman on the streets of Hull? Don't they want organisations to develop people and retain the knowledge and build on those individuals? That's what I'd want City of York Council to do.

The reason this stuck was because of something I'd heard at Conversations on Wednesday night. We watched Nooma - Today, a video from Rob Bell (leader of a church in the US and author of a couple of really good reads - Velvet Elvis and Sex God). He was talking about how being stuck looking backwards means missing today and what that means for our approach to the future.

He talked about the exchange between Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Garden of Gethsemane after his resurrection. Jesus says to Mary 'don't hold on to me' and Rob Bell made the point that after the resurrection, Jesus wasn't saying carry on and do what we did, he wasn't saying to keep harking back to the loaves and fishes, to bang on and on and on about the Sermon on the Mount and how great it was when he turned water into wine. Jesus' point is that all of that, it was about what's next, all that has been is nothing compared with what is next. And so we have Acts and the Holy Spirit and the church turning the world upside down on the basis of the resurrection kicking that off, not really because of the nice stuff Jesus said.

Rob Bell illustrated it with stories of people who spend so long rooted in the past and holding on to their experiences that they fail to live for today and tomorrow. The decisions that get put off because 'we're not ready' only to find that the opportunity has gone. Of not being able to see beyond the success we had before.

Instead it begs a different vision of success. One that's totally about the future and how it impacts on your life, the lives of those around you and the life of your community. That's a measure of success I can get behind because it's rooted in the hope of the future and what can be as a result. Not just pointing to how great stuff was (even if that has a longer term impact). I wanted to commit to Hull, I did. We might not have moved from York (and I've had the 4 hour daily commute as a result) but that wasn't because I wanted to leave after two years it was because of Christine's phd. That's finished in April, we could have left York and moved. Success for me would have been the future implications of what Hull City Council invested in us these two years. But for Hull, not for anyone else.

I'm full of hope about the future because it's literally the only way I know how to think. Naive idealism to some but I'll take your cynicism. There's some great stuff happening in the public sector and I'd love to be involved with it. There's some great stuff happening in the space between the public sector and the public public and it's going to be brilliant watching that unfold. What I do next is something of a mystery. There is a phenomenal job in York that I'm applying for but I don't just want to do a job for the sake of doing a job...If that's what keeps me in Hull beyond October I'd rather get paid less and temp in York so I can look after Christine and get stuck into my community than just go to Hull and get paid public money to do a job that happens to be there. At 26 I'm not prepared to just settle for shunning my passions.

The bottom line is that it wasn't a very celebratory affair. I hope what I said was reasonable, I certainly hadn't planned to get into the question of the scheme's success and I didn't go to cause trouble. It's not bitterness or anger, it's just disappointment. Maybe it was the fact this celebration didn't even have any refreshments. Too much to ask for tea, coffee, water and biscuits given that we were celebrating? Not even a round robin email saying 'we can't spend money on such frivolities but maybe we could all bring something'. It felt nothing more than a self congratulatory back slapping exercise for a vision of success that's rooted in a measure of how it makes your own life better, not what it's made possible for Hull.

So, now the dissertation is done it's time to get into what that future looks like. Exciting, innit? :)

Picture credit to:
su-lin: Party Poppers and More
Will Lion: successes and failures in this version but original CC image from parrhesiastes: 4th Dan throws First

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Deuteronomy 5:16 - Commandment #5

Conversations is currently working its way through a series on the 10 Commandments. Last Wednesday (11th August) I spoke on number 5. I'm publishing more or less what I said not as an act of self indulgence or publicly air my dirty laundry but because maybe someone will find it useful. I've been umming and ahing about posting but have decided to do it.

"Honour your father and your mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you."
Deuteronomy 5: 16 (NIV)

Over the last few weeks we've heard about commandments 1 to 4, those commandments which look to our relationship with God over and above anything else. Commandment 5 is a step change in what Moses received at the top of Sinai. It's the point at which we look to those around us and the way our lives shape them.

I have a hunch that this is one of the least familiar of the ten. When people indicate that they live by the 10 Commandments, citing it as a benchmark of common sense natural laws they're thinking thou shalt not murder, not commit adultery, not steal, not lie, not covet their neighbour's ass. I don't think family relationships come into it.

A few years ago I spent some time temping. The job was incredibly dull and involved preparing forms for scanning by removing staples and paper clips, then scanning them in and then reading through the electronic versions to make sure the right letters had been recorded in the right boxes. The only thing that broke the monotony were the free text boxes which had to be entered manually. Sometimes they would elicit a good chuckle at someone else's expense but the majority were far from uplifting and spoke of children out of touch with parents or parents disconnected from children. Occasionally it was a casual and accidental drifting apart, sometimes it had happened many years ago and there was obvious regret in the writing but other times the tone left you in no doubt that massive tensions continued to exist.

And I think that our experiences will fall somewhere along a spectrum where that is at the extreme. For some of us the last thing we want to do is to honour our mothers, or our fathers. For others your family relationships are the bedrock of your existence, your support and your guidance.

When Dave asked me to talk he said 'pick your favourite'. It's not something I'd ever thought about before, a favourite commandment as such but for the 24 hours subsequent to that I couldn't shake off the relevance to me of this commandment. Not because it's a doddle, but because it's very much not. So, in order to give that some context I need to unpack my experience of family.

If you had asked me 6 years ago to talk about my family I would have given you a beautiful picture of Christian family life. Of a marriage proposal by telegram from a missionary in Uganda, of my arrival whilst Dad was completing vicar school and then my brother being born two years later after we'd moved to Bristol. A move again to Bradford, a church that began to flourish and the birth of my sister before we all moved to the idyllic Devon countryside where my parents even built a house to retire to. Beyond the five of us I was lucky to have both sets of grandparents and the families were connected not just by my parent's marriage but by Dad's brother and Mum's sister so we had overlapping aunts and uncles and plenty of cousins too meaning great Christmases and Easters and time spent surrounded by loving, nurturing
and encouraging relatives.

That's not to say there were no ripples. Just before my brother's second birthday he was playing in the car when it spontaneously combusted. His survival was a miracle. Also in Bradford my mum sadly suffered a miscarriage. I found the move to Devon really tough though that was nothing compared to the horrendous parish politics awaiting my parents and a combination of food allergies and rheumatoid arthritis left my mum operating below 100% in the health stakes.

By and large then we’re talking about 20 years of slight disturbances, of middle class dilemmas, of stable lives. Maybe Devon life saw tempers flare more often as the level of stress increased and we children became teenagers but there was never any doubt in my mind about the love in the family.

It was a Saturday in 2004 that turned life upside down. Christine and I had been having the day together and we'd been sat eating lunch in Cafe Rouge. Anyone who knows me will know that my phone is pretty much an extension of my hand and even six years ago that was true and I remember making the point of ignoring a phone call as it came in. A couple of hours later when I picked up the resulting answerphone message it changed everything. My parents and my sister had gone out shopping far from home when an angry outburst behind the wheel from my Dad broke the camel's back. He was left at the side of the road while my mum took my sister home, packed up their stuff and fled to a women's refuge. That's a big statement - it wasn't to family, to friends, or to neighbours it was effectively into hiding.

And this was how the disintegration of my family ideal was characterised. The narrative thread of happy families suddenly replaced by this new tale of systematic abuse and controlling behaviour by my father towards my mother. I still can't square that circle with what I knew growing up but individual, relative, perception of events is what's key and what 20 years of that perception produced was a very final situation almost instantly.

My dad went on the courses for abusive husbands and God did some remarkable healing in him that dealt with some of the root causes of the issues. It was like having known that the earth was flat and then seeing the world from space - what he had done and how he had behaved had not been malicious but they had pressed the wrong buttons and he could see just how far off course he had strayed. He wanted to fix things, it’s what men do. He chose to forsake any claim to an opinion of his own when discussing anything with my mum. He was humble, repentant, contrite. It didn’t matter. My mum was immovable on whether he might know redemption or whether it even mattered to her as she seemingly saw no value in him which, despite assurances that all is now well, seems to suggest there's still pain and hurt and stuff that isn't dealt with.

As the years have passed and the relationships have remained strained (in all sorts of different ways) it's almost as if reconciliation isn't that important. As I attempted to get my head around what was happening I stood on the faith that my parents, together, had shared with me and demonstrated to me as I'd grown up. To know the power of loving first, without condition, to honour repentance and to eternally be striving for healing. That’s a position with strange consequences - greater sympathy toward the abuser, than the abused.

But as Christians we believe in redemption, we believe in forgiveness and we believe in restoration. Our faith is all about what happened on the cross, and we leave what we’ve done there...and we leave what other people have done there too. Jesus’ resurrection makes the past irrelevant because we’re living for our God-inspired futures. When we are injured we could wait for the first move from elsewhere, for it to be made right by someone else but God’s already done that for Every Thing that Any One has Ever Done. And that's not something I can give up on.

Forgiveness is not something I can turn my back on.

The moment I give up on reconciliation or on the transformation of hopeless situations I’ve sold Jesus out and cheapened everything I believe.

So that's the context of where I'm coming from. My relationship with my parents is far from perfect. So when it comes to Commandment 5 I’m struggling.

But that’s a low key family story – for 20 years I knew middle class apple pie and ice cream. It’s nothing compared to the family stories I saw on those forms and it’s nothing compared to the dysfunction of God's people in Genesis. It only takes until chapter 9 for Ham, the son of Noah to incur his dad's wrath by telling his brothers about him lying around naked and drunk rather than covering his shame. Then Abraham abandons Ishmael in the desert, albeit on God's say so but hardly the basis for great father-son relationships (although it does cast Hagar as an incredible single mother). The conniving doesn't stop there as Rebekah plots with Jacob to manipulate Isaac into giving him Esau's birthright. And on, through Jacob's family line to Israel and the ridiculous soap opera of that family involving shared concubines, honour killings and eleven brothers selling their father’s favourite into slavery.

Basically the shape of Israeli families is a mess. The heritage of the people at the foot of Mount Sinai is not one of perfect fathers or wonderful mothers. But here, on the tablets in Moses’ hands, the distillation of what’s key to living it’s where God places the focus ahead of murder, of theft, of deceit, of lust. And in doing so he champions something that's actually new and different, he gets behind something to aspire to, he hitches his wagon to a picture of community that's for everyone.

If we were to pause and consider what the ‘ideal’ family might be it would be a place where relationships are unconditional, where people choose to love not only because of emotion, an environment where what we do is greeted with delight and interest and support and encouragement. But it would also be a place of challenge, and of discipleship and discipline.

That might be our projection of ‘ideal’ but when God tells us to honour our fathers and our mothers he can't point at a perfect, real world example from history. He knows that families are curious things, that they come in all shapes and sizes and that sometimes they don't work properly but here's a creation built on the premise of taking characteristics from a father and a mother to create unique, new individuals who are not carbon copies of their parents. Individuals like us who are not simply defined by our families and who are not, just, the product of a father and a mother regardless of their perfections or flaws.

Whatever separates us we are all united by this common fact: we are children. It's how we come into the world so of course the first commandment about other people is for the family.  We may have stories of parents that don't deserve honour. Or situations that cause hurt. Or circumstances that are marked by evil rather than love. And I'm not going to stand here and glibly say that the 5th commandment says to honour them, so you better had. It’s not that easy but it is that important – the way we approach family relationships is fundamental to who we are.

But how do we as individuals do that?  I think to get our heads round that question we need to take a step back from the biology of relatives. In the act of growing up we can break our interactions down into being about the words we say or the things we do: what we model. And those implications are about our wider community, not just our nuclear family.

Commandment 5 marks a step change from the heavenly to the earthly but it’s got a foot in each camp. Our relationship with God is inextricably bound up in the act of a parent sending a son to rescue us, out of love. This isn’t just a commandment about our earthly parents it’s a continuation of the 4 that have gone before, it's an instruction about worship.

It’s also a statement about community. In Revelation 21 John is told to come and see the bride, the wife of the Lamb. That's the church. Extend the analogy and you cast The Church as mother (Mothering Sunday is both about our real parents and 'mother church'). This is a reminder for us about honouring the body, about honouring Conversations, about honouring our church, and the rest of our family as embodied in the people of God. About choosing to love and to be united. About choosing to approach our difference together like we would difference in our families. About dialogue and engagement rather than private withdrawal or public criticism.

This is the first commandment instructing us how to support and strengthen one another. It’s a direct instruction for us to be involved with the lives of those around us as God’s hands and feet. Yes, we’re being told to make sure our homes are places of honour and responsibility but this is also about how we behave with each other as a family here, about the way in which we meet together as cell groups, the way we pray together, laugh together, cry together. It’s about the depth of relationship we strive for with one another and the effort we make to be that ideal model of ‘family’ we suggested earlier.

A place where relationships are unconditional, where people choose to love not only because of emotion, an environment where what we do is greeted with delight and interest and support and encouragement. But also a place of challenge, and of discipleship and discipline.

So if you’ve got honouring your parents down to a T, that's amazing. Would you help those of us who don't? Would you challenge us? Would you encourage us? Can we together strive to honour God as our father, and this community as our mother? Can we be real with each in the struggles we face and the difficulties we have? They might not be solved overnight and it might take as long as we live but can we be a community that has hope at its heart? If we are a place like that then maybe those hopeless situations can be transformed and maybe a commandment like this can become attainable rather than a struggle?

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Friday - Kissy Dumpsite #sierraleone

Having visited the works yards we went to the second of Freetown's dumpsites.

Kissy is in the east of the city and is along the main route out of Freetown. It's not far from the works yards which are also located in this part of the city.

It's similar to Kingtom but probably worse. Kingtom has been created on an area of flat land through the middle of which a road runs. In the wet season half of the site is given over to farming because the land is not stable enough to cope with vehicles. Despite the lack of any earth moving equipment to keep the piles under control or the absence of any sorting it works, after a fashion.

At Kissy there was more evidence of people scavenging from the sites and people living along the border of the site. There were the remains of a broken Caterpillar slowly getting covered in waste. There was no sign of the road that had been built two years ago. This was a site built on a hill so when they'd built the road they had built it at a gradient. As the waste accumulated it became harder and harder to pass, harder and harder for vehicles to get back from the bottom and so the waste was dumped closer and closer to the road.

Now the situation is that they can't drive onto the dump. So it's entirely blocked from any new waste being dumped there. The result is they've started a third dump somewhere else where there was a whole.

During this visit we heard that a perfect location has been identified by the World Bank, somewhere that the waste could be properly managed and the landfill engineered well away from the residential areas it currently juts up against. Of course there's nothing to guarantee that people won't encroach upon that piece of land, or scavenge for whatever they can lay their hands on. But even before that becomes an issue there are a number of hurdles to overcome. One of the key obstacles is the logistics of the thing.

And that comes back to Freetown's roads.

This third site is down the road between Hastings and Waterloo. So it fits the bill for being out of town. It isn't near a water course and it could be engineered from scratch. However, it's hard enough for the 7 working vehicles to service the 45 transit sites and include regular trips to Kissy or Kingtom. For them to have to add an out of town excursion to that means more time sat in traffic, more strain on the vehicles, less time actually collecting the rubbish.

And then there's the economic ecosystem that lives off the existing sites. In the vacuum that had been left by waste no longer being filled at the farthest limits of the site there had been a lot of encroachment (this is the point being made at the beginning of the video). This is one of the hardest things to fathom about our time in Freetown - it's not just a dump, it's a home, a source of income, a source of food and a social space. The images of kids playing with kites, of parents carrying babies around, of whole lives found living on the edges is harrowing and difficult. We don't want people to be living on a landfill site but the reality is that this is a crucial slice of the economy in a city where there aren't exactly an abundance of different ways to make money. Perhaps a properly engineered landfill could see waste being sorted and might enable stuff to be retrieved without having to pick through the detritus of the city but it's likely that won't cushion the fall out and the repercussions on those lives we catch sight of in this video.


Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Friday - Freetown City Council works yard #sierraleone

After our tour round the Freetown Waste Management Company's (FWMC) depot we moved next door to take a look at the council's yard. Until recently the two sites operated independently with FWMC acting as a stand alone private business commissioned by FCC to deliver waste collection for Freetown. A degree of separation remains but the two entities are more closely entwined, at least for now (the council seem desperate to outsource it as quickly as possible).

It transpires that FWMC have not been handling all waste collection. Do you remember the night gabbage collection at the market with the two lads perched precariously at the back of a lorry? The central market areas were the responsibility of the council to look after and to help them in doing that Hull City Council had sent three Vultures about six years ago. At the yard we saw evidence of all three but only one of them was in working order. The others had been cannibalised for parts to keep the others going. Now the final vehicle was struggling to keep going and FWMC had been press ganged into making sure the market didn't drown under rubbish.

However, the highlight of this trip was undoubtedly the sweeper. Earlier in the day when Doug Sharp and Bowenson Phillips had been on Lunchtime Break a viewer had texted a question to ask what had become of Freetown's infamous road sweeper. And we were privileged enough to get a photo taken alongside the folly of a former mayor.

Apparently, the story goes, the mayor acquired the sweeper for 500,000,000 Sierra Leone Leones (that's something like £80,000), a massive outlay for the city. It arrived with much fanfare about six years ago but worked for about half a day. The reason for it sitting dormant in the yard is unclear - someone suggested there was a skills gap in using it that meant the brushes could not be raised and as a result this damaged it, someone else said it was a question of parts but the overwhelming consensus was that the mayor had made completely the wrong decision in getting hold of a vehicle designed for evenly paved, properly made roads in a city where surfaces like that are not exactly common. Questions were raised over the cost of the vehicle and whether there had been a discount on it, or whether it had been given for free but nevertheless, as word of this waste of FCC funds got out the mayor was hounded out of the city in shame. Emerson, one of Sierra Leone's leading musical artists and well known for the political sparring of his lyrics even penned a song about the debacle.

At least we might be able to put to bed the rumour that the vehicle has been heavily cannibalised. But to the naked eye most of it looked to be in pristine condition. The problem is that the vehicle is completely inappropriate for Freetown's needs.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Friday - Freetown Waste Management Company works yard #sierraleone

Friday began with rain, and lots of it, but by the time we arrived at the Freetown Waste Management Company's (FWMC) depot the sun was shining and the ground was dry.

The tour of the works yard was fascinating. Led from one constraint to another by the clearly very capable Foday Fornah we saw the Freetown equivalent to Hull's Dalton Street depot. It would be more appropriate to think of it in terms of a graveyard holding the remains of both vehicles and strategic ideas.

I mentioned in a previous post that Hull has something like 60 vehicles for 117,000 households. These five vehicles account for about 40% of FWMC's total vehicular strength. That's to service the waste requirements of 2.5m people. And each of the ones in that picture, as well as another one elsewhere in the depot are in need of repairs placing an ever increasing burden on the vehicles that are working (well, they are for now).

We also saw the carcasses of the two earth moving vehicles that had, once upon a time, kept Kingtom and Kissy under control. Broken down, cannibalised for parts and now just left to rot.

In one corner were the yellow handcarts that had once been used by Klin Salone and other social enterprises to devolve the responsibility of collecting the waste still further. To enthusiastic youths who could collect the garbage and earn money from householders whilst FWMC gave them the tools and disposed of the waste. Because there were reports that some of them were taking money from householders and then dumping the waste round the corner rather than at the agreed sites meant this idea was knocked on the head. And so they sit in the corner of the works yard.

Elsewhere are the remains of these bins. The idea was simple - get some bins, go to retail businesses and charge them a monthly fee for locating the bins on their premises and FWMC will clear the garbage on a regular basis. Not only a way of generating some revenue but a further way of sensitising the Freetown population to use bins where they're provided.
Unfortunately, as you can see, they're completely unsuitable - made from a material that has rusted, without lids and not strong enough to stand the pressures they might have been subjected to. Nobody would pay to have bins like this on their premises. Chalk this one up to the 'former management'.

Given the road network of Freetown and the fact that it's not just streets of houses the solution isn't as simple as providing a fleet of waste compacting vehicles like we would have here. In fact, the way in which waste is being moved from house, to central point, to dump, is an effective principal. So it was a good idea to look at the hand carts and think that a similar role could be met by providing motorised tricycles that could take waste from one site to another. On the Thursday evening we'd seen them in action in the city centre but, once again, the utility of these approaches is let down by the fact there's more to go wrong. Of something like 20 vehicles, only 8 are in service.

We also had a look inside the stores - we saw some spare parts for the vehicles, and a few tyres and a collection of different bins including the familiar wheelie bins (without the wheels). Apparently they're keen to experiment with these bins but the unit cost of approximately $150 was a barrier. This is in contrast to the £30 cost of a bin to us in Hull. As part of our new waste strategy we recently replaced 140 litre blue bins with larger capacity 240 litre ones. They've all been recycled now but could we have usefully sent them here instead? Obviously there's a total cost to be worked out for shipping from here to there and it raises the contentious issue of #SWEDOW ('Stuff We Don't Want') but that's a debate for a blog of its own.

That's an attempt to distil the more important issues identified on our visit to the works yard but you'd really miss out if you didn't get it from Foday Fornah himself. There's a lot of info in these four videos and apologies that neither sound or camerawork is necessarily perfect but it beat taking notes!