On the first Sunday of Advent 2015, a friend and I started talking about what we would like to see in terms of mission and outreach. We kept going and then we looked around coffee time was over and the others packing up ready for off. Oops if we are going to keep this conversation going then we had better get together during the week so we arranged a time and place so that we could keep talking.
When we got together during the week it was obvious that God was up to something. We had overlapping visions. Not only that but we knew of others in the church who also had overlapping visions. It was crazy. We decided that we must talk to Edward about this. The second Sunday in advent we rounded up Edward and the minister got his diary out.
A few days later the two of us tried to explain what we had noticed that God was doing. I am not sure how well we did because the outcome was not quite what we expected. Edward said why don’t you start a craft group for people with learning disabilities. We wondered if he had really heard what we were saying. We both had different ideas about how to do more than that.
That was not easy to handle. We had to deal with our anger at having to do something that was not really what we were thinking of doing. We had to come to terms with starting at a level that was so far below what we wanted to do. Our dreams included setting up social enterprises rather than a church-based project. Yet here we were being encouraged to set up a church-based project.
Third Sunday in Advent saw us both being invited to the first part of the elders’ meeting. We explained our ideas and Edward’s plan for a craft group. They listened asked a few questions and we came away feeling very positive. They then kept talking and decided to back the project.
Sometimes you know that God’s hand is on something because it all falls into place very quickly. I had suggested ideas for things at my previous church and they had got bogged down for months. We need to check all the materials you are going to use to run this course before you run it. OK, I will print out all 140 or so pages and put them in a file for you. Give the file to them and a few months later it comes back with the comment we cannot make this into a church project. You can run it but we will have to charge you the going rate for the room. Yes, we know that given the subject matter you cannot charge the attendees so you will have to pay for it yourself despite the fact that you do not have a job anymore.
Putting the plan into action
Now we had the permission we had to get the thing off the ground. Publicity and awareness raising is not easy. We got some posters done and put them in local supermarkets. To be honest we could not think of anything else that we could do. We were outsiders looking in. We had no network of connections to tap into.
We decided to run the group during term time only. That way we had breaks built in and a timetable that was easy enough for everyone to follow. We used the first half term after Christmas to get organised and get the publicity out there.
The first Tuesday after half term we opened the doors. There was me, my friend and Edward. No craftees (the name we came up for those who came along) and no carers. The same the following Tuesday. The third Tuesday became a prayer meeting for the three of us. One thing I remember about that was saying that we wanted to do this for you God so please make it work.
The fourth week our first craftee and her carer came. She was not what we expected. She came in her wheelchair. She has limited use of her hands and is full of fun. We quickly adapted what we had planned to do for the first session to her abilities. We then thanked God that we were able to do so.
It seems as though Fiona goes to church and someone from the church saw one of our posters and passed the details on to Fiona and her carers. Word started to get around. Here was a safe place to take clients where carers could have a bit of fun as well.
We have met six craftees so far. One or two of the craftees can hold a conversation but not all of them can talk. They need a tremendous amount of encouragement to do things for themselves. Painting is often hand over hand. Hand to eye co-ordination makes it hard to put the money in the box to cover our expenses.
The same craftee can come with a different carer every week. We have met dozens of different carers. That is a challenge when we do two part activities like rolling out salt dough to make fridge magnets one week. We then cook them during the week and a different carer has to help them paint their fridge magnet the following week.
Every week we have someone who is either very early or very late because finding us can be challenging. Even if the craftee has been before they cannot help their carer find us. It is a case of take so and so out to this group but where is it again. Lets get the map out and put the postcode in the sat nav because we have never heard of that village.
What are we really doing?
There are times when we wonder who we are serving. Is it the craftees who need to get out of the house to so do something different in a safe environment? Is it the carers who want a bit of fun on an afternoon out? Edward has had some interesting conversations with the carers. We have raised the profile of the church in the wider community. Only one carer comes from the village itself. Most people drive 5 to 10 miles to reach us.
The people who are coming are not the sort of people we expected. Yet these are the people who God is drawing to us. My friend and I have been carers for family members with either brain damage or mental health issues but this craft group is taking us to a new level. We are reaching out into a community that to be honest we had not really noticed before. A community that few churches actually reach into. A community that is obviously on God’s heart.
Here is something strange. One of our craftees grew up attending church with his parents. His care plan includes the idea that he should be involved in church-based activities. I am not a particularly good judge when it comes to age, but it would not surprise me if he was in his fifties. Therefore if his parents were still alive they would be elderly. What if what we were doing was the result of his parents’ prayers? Who knows but it is an interesting thought.
What we do know is that God is working His purposes out even if they are not what we expected. We can look back now and say yes we needed to do something small so that we could build up to something bigger. Doing it this way has helped us build up the contacts and the experience that will help us do something more. It has become a case of here we are God but get our wrong thinking out of your way so that what you want to happen can happen.