Today I saw a post from a friend who moved into our previous vicarage in Birmingham two years ago. He is a missionary from a former colony of ours (!) who spent many years living with his wife and children in a slum in the far east, and has some very challenging things to say about how little we’re prepared to sacrifice for the sake of others. He and his wife are a great couple.
They are making the vicarage into a centre for the study of urban mission, and he’s often on the speaking circuit, making contributions to this ever-moving area of study. No probs with that at all.
And yet. When we left Brum, we also left our colleague, a fellow-minister from a different denomination. She is completely committed to the area, run-down as it is, with a shedload of social problems and high levels of population turnover – if you watched ‘Benefits Street’ then that runs directly behind the church and is therefore in the parish and gives an accurate picture of what life is like.
She’s been there 8 years and works consistently, full-time, with a painstakingly-built neighbourhood network to make things better and easier for people. In a multi-faith area she does not proselytise. Her big ongoing project is to encourage people to stop dumping waste on their streets, and her most cherished hope is that, in a few years’ time when she moves on, people will have learned to appreciate a clean street and take a pride in it.
However. I’ve noticed that often, the mish, in his numerous posts, letters and Facebooks, tells his story as if he is the only one doing anything there. The neighbourhood is in desperate need, except now he and his wife arrive on their white chargers and the whole place will start looking up.
I’ve ignored this irritating habit up to now. To a certain extent, I can understand why he does it. They are entirely reliant on donations from supporters back home, and in such a situation there is a huge temptation to spin the information in order to encourage people to keep on giving.
The twin temptation is to build things in such a way that it is your kingdom. You don’t share it with anyone. Then you get all the praise.
I have no idea what his motives are. I’m only commenting on experiences and observations I’ve had in the past.
I suspect it’s part of his personality, to think big and not be too concerned about details. However, today I considered he crossed a line. He had, he said, been to see somebody who ran a neighbourhood scheme to clean up some nearby wasteland. This was the same person who started our community garden to such good effect some years ago:
Before the community garden was established
The mish commented that now they were going to ‘renew the neighbourhood from the ground up’.
I cracked. I sent a private message saying we were concerned at the way he sometimes phrased things. He made it sound as if nothing was going on in the community until he came along. We felt it was not honest. I suggested it would be more helpful if he outlined what others had already been doing for some years, and let people know what contribution he and his wife would make to it.
I know for a fact that he is not involved in any of the community schemes which have been running for some time to improve the neighbourhood.
He was a bit miffed with my comment, understandably, and said that it wasn’t so. I replied, repeating that it was important to acknowledge and affirm what others are already doing in the same area.
He said he had ‘slanted’ it in such a way because the letter was just for friends and family.
Really? When we were mission partners, our letters to family and close friends were more, not less honest!
I don’t think he has any idea what I meant.
It matters for our erstwhile colleague. It’s such a deprived area with so few people to meet so much need. She was hoping very much that they would prove to be friends and allies. It is demeaning to her when he makes out nobody else has been doing anything there before he came along. It is also deeply discouraging to her when she discovers that they are starting projects in the vicarage, right next door to the church hall, where she is already running such projects. It starts feeling like a competition instead of collaboration.
It was worth challenging him for her sake, but I fear it will make no difference.