I’m a relative newcomer at Church Mission Society, having joined the communications team in the autumn. Had I been asked to predict where I would be travelling to research my first story for a mission organisation, Hull might not have been my initial guess!
On reflection, this is fitting, as 2017 was a big year for Hull – being put on the map (literally – it was added to the BBC weather map!) as a destination in the UK through being the City of Culture.
Yet it is also a city with many challenges, including one of the highest concentrations of deprived areas in the UK, according to the Index of Multiple Deprivation report in 2015, an image that the City of Culture events have tried to challenge.
It turns out that life is far from dull in Hull, particularly for CMS mission partners Anna and Chris Hembury, who have been working there for the last 20 years.
Anna and Chris started off with a shared passion for working with young people on the margins, and this was the focus of their work here for many years – although they didn’t realise at the start how long they would end up staying!
They expected to spend around five years in Hull, but three years in, it became apparent that wouldn’t be long enough. Now, they simply say they “forgot about going anywhere else”.
So, what could I find out with just 24 hours in Hull?
THURSDAY, 12 NOON
Arriving shortly before lunch, I started my glimpse by heading to Orts, a sewing collective for women, born out of friendship.
Anna explained that she got to know a woman in the community who had been grappling with addiction and began to build a friendship – nothing out of the ordinary, we might think. Yet for Anna’s new friend, this was a unique relationship – as Anna was neither a support worker, nor part of the vulnerable or addicted community.
This gave Anna the idea to create a space where women could come together from different parts of the community, bridging social gaps and allowing friendships to flourish.
Orts means “scraps” or “leftovers” – and this is a community where those scraps of fabric and other materials are brought together into something beautiful, just as a beautiful community flourishes as the women come together each week.
Turning left in the entrance of St Matthew’s Parish Hall, I entered a different world from the slightly austere-looking outside – a stunning, colourful space, covered with banners and other craft projects, along with fabric, thread and myriad other craft supplies. Anna feels that “everyone needs colour in their life”, and Orts helps to provide that.
Round the table, over lunch and sewing, knitting and running repairs, there was shared life, laughter, poetry, frustrations and joys.
Some of the crafts are made to take home, some to sell and some for community activities or campaigning – including a knitted zebra crossing as part of a bid to improve safety on a local street! The group have designed or adapted simple craft ideas, so that everyone (even me!) can make something – from flowers and birds to bunting and quirky tea cosies.
This is a beautiful space, but quite a tight squeeze. And although this is a community doing life together, there are times when quiet or privacy are needed. So Orts have a dream to remove the false ceiling in their room and create a mezzanine level to allow space for quiet conversation away from the craft table.
Once clearing up from Orts was complete, and Chris had returned from an estates meeting with other church and community workers and the Bishop of Hull, I was taken a few steps down the street to Matt’s House, where I was staying overnight.
2017 was an important year for Matt’s House, as renovations were completed on this CMS-owned property used by CMS and Hull Youth For Christ (who lease the property) to facilitate mission in the community.
Major work was undertaken to weatherproof the house, including on the roof and chimneys, double glazing some of the windows and addressing issues with heating – for which I was truly grateful on a cold January day!
As well as accommodation for those working in the area, there is a community garden, where local people can come together to cultivate fruit and vegetables, and have social events in summer.
Even after just a short time in the house, named after its former role as vicarage for St Matthew’s Church, I could see that it underlines that mission here is about the long term.
At the moment there are just two residents in the house – Sam and Martin – but there will be others moving in to join them soon.
Sam and Martin have both been here for several years and are committed to living incarnationally as part of the local community, being part of bringing God’s kingdom as they do life here.
The garden, too, speaks of the way that Anna and Chris want to do mission. They speak of “moving towards mutuality” as they share the work in this and other projects, and of learning about mission as “a two-way street” where they receive as well as give.
Here, the community are working to create a space to enjoy and be proud of, and it speaks of life and hope even in the midst of struggle.
After spending the early evening catching up with Anna and Chris to hear more about their work and passion for mission, we returned to Matt’s House for Soul Space – an opportunity to reflect and share spiritual conversations each week in a relaxed setting which is just restarting after a pause.
It was a bright and early start to head down the street to Breakfast Club, one of the most consistent parts of the Hemburys’ work in Hull, having been running every Monday to Friday in the local Baptist church since 1999. Indeed, some of the parents who now bring their children along actually came to Breakfast Club when they were children.
The idea is a simple one – each morning, children and their parents can come to eat breakfast, share life and perhaps play some games. It came about as Anna and Chris were running after school clubs, but wanted to create an opportunity to see more of children and families, and build stronger relationships.
The operation ran like clockwork – after gathering to pray, tables and chairs were laid out, food prepared, games and books brought out, and tea brewed. Over 30 children and their parents came along, sharing food and time together before school – fulfilling Anna and Chris’s vision of giving the kids a good start to the day, both relationally and physically. In the words of one of the girls, “We’re all one big family here.” Her mum, Bev, started coming along through a neighbour a number of years ago and this sums up her feelings about Breakfast Club – which was how she and her family were drawn to the church, and has been a key part of her journey to faith.
Shortly after nine, clear up was completed, and you wouldn’t know that Breakfast Club had been there, yet this ministry is key in communicating, through the presence of the church serving the community, that God is there for them all week, not just on Sundays.
Other activities have grown organically out of Breakfast Club over the years, including a Mums' Night, parenting courses and trips to the beach. Chris commented, “I never get bored of going to Breakfast Club.”
In the meantime, there was just time for a cup of tea before heading on to my next activity…
The final ministry I visited was the Selby Street Mission. This takes place in a small church building around the corner from Matt’s House, next to the railway line.
The Mission plays host to a range of activities to engage those on the margins throughout the week – this is a place where those who are vulnerable, perhaps facing challenges around mental health or addictions, can come and share community.
I joined in a gathering that combined a short liturgy, space to hang out and build relationships, a shared lunch and the chance to discuss a Bible passage for those who wanted to.
The room gradually filled with a mixture of regulars and newcomers, with all of the hubbub of people coming together. Yet in this slightly chaotic scene, as the liturgy began, a tangible reverence fell over the room. The simple service of prayer, song, readings and reflection gives this community a place of encounter, outside of the more daunting structure of Sunday church.
Indeed, Anna told us of this being the context for one of her “most real experiences of church”. One week at the gathering, a long term member of the group really connected with the discussion.
This was about how we can put up masks to portray what we want people see of our lives, even as Christians, and the need to share some of the reality of our struggles and who we really are. This member of the group initiated a deep time of sharing then and there – and though it was hard, it was a refreshing and non-judgmental conversation for the group as people shared honestly and deeply about where they were in life.
Overall this place, as with the other ministries I had visited, spoke of not giving up, even in the face of huge challenges – bringing light in the darkness, and planting seeds of hope while also sharing times of mourning and lament.
I left Anna and Chris as they prepared to take a group of young people away for the weekend – theirs is definitely far from a nine to five role! After 24 hours alongside Anna and Chris as they put their call into action, it is fair to say that I was a little tired – yet they have been ministering in Hull for 20 years. So what is their secret to keeping on going?
Their comment on their work is that “we love what we do”, and that it is not a job or a project but a life – doing life together, sharing grief and lament as well as joy.
As we walked around the local streets it was immediately apparent that Anna and Chris are a key part of the community – so many people just pause and say hello on their way past.
For Anna and Chris, people are central, and particularly those on the margins – they comment that “God is at the margins”, and as they work with people on the margins they are “experiencing something of God that you don’t get anywhere else”.
Through the many activities and groups that they are involved in, Anna and Chris see a real cross section of their community – and so part of what they do is build bridges, be that between women from different backgrounds, between the City of Culture events and a community that could be quite detached from them, or, most centrally, between God and a community that feels forgotten.
Their contribution in this community is highly valued. Alison White, Bishop of Hull, commented, “Anna and Chris do all kinds of things and make a difference, but I think what really matters is who they are and the relationships that grow from that.
“There are all kinds of words people use about them – generous, gentle, clear and passionate, courageous, fun, loving, Christlike.”
I left Hull feeling privileged to have been welcomed into this community, even if only for a short time. I was also hugely encouraged by seeing Anna and Chris put their call into action – living humbly as part of the community; showing that they, and God, are in this place and love this community for the long haul.