Where do we find the sacred?
A few months ago I found the sacred in the middle of a celebration of mass. This mass was on a Tuesday night at 7pm at a church placed on one of the most deprived estates in Leeds. I definitely did not expect to see any children or young people celebrating mass with us. But how wrong was I. I was met by two boys, about 10 years old, in the small congregation of about six adults. The two boys weren’t ‘forced’ to come along, they were excited to be there. One boy sat at the altar rail on one of the cushions with a look of wonder and excitement on his face. He watched intently as the Father performed the rituals of the ceremony, never taking his gaze from the altar. The other boy asked questions of his Grandma when he was unsure of what was happening in the celebration and why. In that moment I saw the sacred and was so blessed by witnessing such a beautiful moment.
Father Darren has found a way to authentically and intentionally include children and young people in the life of St Hilda’s so that they can tangibly feel God’s love in that place.
Cross Green is an estate to the East of Leeds, just 1.5 miles out the centre. However, the difference between the cosmopolitan city centre and the obvious deprivation of the Cross Green estate is a stark contrast. Cross Green comes with the same problems of crime and anti-social behaviour that is associated with many estates across the UK. It has the A63 road circumnavigate the estate, so there is lots of traffic going past Cross Green, but rarely does anyone come to visit unless they live on the estate. Father Darren describes Cross Green as an island, and one that he’s very happy to be on. And I guess in lots of respects, it probably is.
Father Darren came to Cross Green in 2016. His first official duty was a confirmation service and course. On the first day, Father Darren gathered the participants and they looked at a window of the Saints. He began talking to them about where the Saints had come from. He asked if anyone had visited some of the places that the Saints came from. One of the boys said that they never get out of Leeds. In that moment, his heart broke. Instead of just empathising, he decided to do something about it.
Father Darren applied for some funding and decided to take the families of the church to York. They had mass in the crypt at the Minister, picnic in the grounds and had a great day out. In 2017 he again applied for some funding and took the church families to Whitby for the day. Most of the children had never even seen the sea so took great pleasure in running in it with their shoes still on! Then in 2018 Father Darren was this time given some money to hire a coach and he took the church families to Lindisfarne. He charged a nominal fee and was able to give some of the funding back and secure some for the 2019 adventure. These days have really helped families feel a sense of the church being family, not just being open on a Sunday.
It doesn’t just stop there. Father Darren works hard at intentionally including children in the life and service of the church. Most of his children and young people serve as altar rail helpers. He puts on training, feeds them pizza and instils values of being on time, praying as a team and serving as a body. Once a month they have a community cinema. £1 on the door for those who can afford it and that gives you the film and a piece of pizza. Those children who regularly come to church almost teach the children who don’t regularly come to church on a Sunday how to behave and respect those around them. It can be hard to get the community to events. Chaotic lives often mean that people won’t plan to come to a special event that the church is running. Father Darren has found a way around this by bringing church to the community. So often he will walk the streets of the community on Ash Wednesday ashing people and sharing the gospel. Or on Maudy Thursday set himself up with a washing up bowl and a towel and offer to wash people’s feet whilst sharing the gospel.
The church runs a weekly lunch club which is supported by the Real Junk Food Project and people come and eat as part of a community. When I visited Father Darren one of the residents had visited him to bring him lunch that she had made, a way of saying thank you and giving out of their own meagerness. I find that often the poorest of people are the most generous. Father Darren’s door is an open one. Children come in after school and he will sit there helping them with homework and just wanting to be in the warmth of the church family.
St Hilda’s run no midweek youth groups or children’s groups yet half of their Sunday congregation is under the age of 16. It has been the churches great intentionality and firm believe that children and young people need to be authentically included in the life of the church that has led to a congregational growth. It is the openness of Father Darren, the belief that the congregation has in him and the generosity of the funders and the community that makes this place so special. Father Darren firmly believes that St Hilda’s is a hospital for the sick and that he is a simple builder of red bricks in the community. He doesn’t let the fact that he has no volunteers to run groups stop him. He uses the resources that he has, his enthusiasm and deep faith.
So use what God has given you. Instead of looking at a recipe and going out to buy all the ingredients that are needed, why not open the fridge and just see what you can make with what you have.
Relational. Intentional. Authentic.