It’s sometimes difficult to know if we are making any real impact. How can we be certain if we are on the right track? Are there other paths we can find to greener pastures? When Jesus was asked about this dilemma he simply answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.” (Matthew 12:39). We have begun to know a little about what this sign of Jonah means for us as, our journey in Birmingham continues to unfold.
There is often the ideal. Jonah had a call as a prophet of God. He may well have understood this as a position of power and privilege, speaking for God against injustice and corruption as so many previous prophets had done. To have some idealism and vision can be a good start, but holding too tightly to expectations of certain results and tying our self worth to these measures of impact undermines our unique God given call. In Jonah’s case God called him beyond his own shores to help a city made up of those outside his own ethnicity and religion. Instead of going to the city of Nineveh as directed, Jonah tried to run away to Tarshish, a city far more in keeping with his ideal of himself and role. God loved Jonah, knew him well and got his attention in dramatic fashion to turn him around. Ideals and good intentions may be a beginning, but they are not enough to see real change.
There is the ordeal. Jonah ended up deep inside the belly of a huge fish. He couldn’t run away from himself and God’s call on his life. There was a kind of death and grief that he had to face about himself. In dark and smelly spaces our false images can be burnt off and change in us incubated. Indeed, Jonah would not have had the capacity to be a change maker without this trauma and humiliation inside a huge fish. Richard Rohr writes of this sign: ‘It seems to demand that we must release ourselves into a belly of darkness before we can know what is essential. It insists that the spiritual journey is more like giving up control than taking control. It might even be saying that others will often throw us overboard, as was the case with Jonah, and that will get us to the right shore—and even by God’s grace more than any right action on our part…Jonah indeed is our Judeo-Christian symbol of transformation. Jesus had found the Jonah story inspiring, no doubt, because it described almost perfectly what was happening to him!’ The belly of the beast is a necessary place for incubating change in us.
There can be a new deal. Jonah was spat out by the great fish in the place that God had intended all along. He landed on Nineveh’s shore smelling of fish guts and his skin bleached white, but this strange man was now ready to offer nothing but a deep and authentic sense of God’s message for change. God had changed the messenger and Jonah’s Message would see a whole city transformed, far beyond his wildest imaginings. I am convinced we can only make our unique change making contributions in the providence and power of God. That as we let go of our ego’s fragility and become the uniquely, even strange, people God is preparing us to be, we can see transformations we couldn’t even dream up if we tried.
In so many ways I can relate to Jonah. We thought we were coming to Birmingham in November 2014 to do certain roles, with certain goals in mind. Yet, these ideals were quickly swallowed up. Indeed our initial plan hardly survived the impact of landing in the UK. Twelve months in and we were deep in debt, despairing and not even able to afford to run away to a place we thought more suitable. I am sure it was no accident that our first home in Winson Green was literally on Nineveh Road! Over this time we became different people as God has worked in us to build our capacity for transformation through us. Consider these amazing places God has brought us since we moved into Newbigin House (the former Winson Green Vicarage) just 12 months ago.
Oasis Academy Foundry was named UK School of the Year for its diversity! This local Winson Green primary school, where Anji is based, was in special measures and facing closure in 2013. The role the Oasis Community Hub (that Anji founded and leads from the school) and its community based initiatives with parents from the school was instrumental in helping make this transformation possible.
‘Soho Albion FC’ was formed as a partnership between our local community and West Bromwich Albion FC and over 700 kids and their parents have been involved so far. Steve Hopcroft, who is head of West Brom’s Youth Academy and originally from Winson Green explained that no organised football for young people in Winson Green was available any more. As we talked a plan was hatched and after visiting every Primary School in the Soho Ward with local leaders a new football club was born. After initial trials wth over 700 young people, a training squad commenced with some of the best youth coaches in the UK. The Season proper starts in September and there is also a development squad preparing for trails to join the West Bromwich Albion Academy.
Over 20 neighbour-led community projects have commenced in Winson Green over the last 12 months with over 200 neighbours involved most weeks. Winson Green was the subject of a much maligned documentary shown on UK TV about contemporary poverty. Newbigin Community Trust was formed as a Charity in October 2016 as neighbours came together to renew our neighbourhood and support local initiatives. Many of these community projects are in partnership with local schools, churches and prisons. Some are self-help groups (eg, Grow Groups, Youth Group, Young Mum’s Group), Social Enterprises (eg Flavours of Winson Green Cooking School, Animal Encounters Mobile Zoo, Hair Dressing,), Recreation and creativity (Jogging Group, Dad’s and Lads Football, Soho Albion FC), Places to meet and connect (Community meals, community hub, prison visits and mentoring).
Over 70 urban leaders have participated in our courses, groups, forums and retreats. Many urban leaders need fresh insights, frameworks and spiritual practices to grow in their vocation. Newbigin School for Urban Leadership (CIC) was officially formed in January 2017 to raise-up more compassionate, resilient and innovative urban leaders. This has been happening through credited courses (eg, MA in Theology-Urban Mission with Nazarene Theological College, University of Manchester), leadership formation programs (eg. Newbigin Associates, residencies), immersion courses (eg. with Church Mission Society and Operation Mobilisation) as well as informal groups and retreats (eg. Gas Street Groups, Miss Dei retreats).
The United Nations invited us to host an ‘Urban Thinkers Campus: Faith Communities and the Cities We Need’. Christian often avoid going ‘upstream’ to see what is causing poverty. Urban Shalom Project was formed in Quito at the UN’s Habitat III gathering, October 2016 to help Christians engage in urban challenges, opportunities and the UN’s New Urban Agenda. Already Urban Shalom Forums and talks have been held in Melbourne, Adelaide, Bangkok, Birmingham with more planned in Detroit, Sydney and Cape Town. Publications (‘Urban Shalom and the Cities we Need’ and the journal ‘New Urban World’), Pod Casts ad a Call to Action are ready to be launched too.
These are just some of the headings and highlights to give God thanks for. While so much is set up for us now, there is still so much to do. A sense of call has emerged here is that we are to be ‘planted’ in Winson Green and then ‘linked’ to the world. That despite our weaknesses and mistakes, God can use our unique gifts and experiences to make unique contributions.
Ash and Anji Barker
PS. About 25 regular supporters have helped provide the finances and prayers to make these experiences possible and we are so grateful for this! To go the next level, however, we would love to add another 25 supporters who know us, trust us and believe in what we are doing enough to gift finances and prayer. Details can be found here: http://newbiginhouse.uk/donate/