Joining the dots (God paints a picture)
I am lying in a sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor in semi-darkness in a large, warm church hall, listening to various people snoring. On the floor next to me is a pair of shoes, and my small bag of belongings is on a chair. I have just cooked dinner for twelve people in a well-equipped church kitchen, and I compare it favourably with some of the other kitchens I use. I am only here for one night; in the morning I will return to my comfortable house. I am one of the volunteers at the Barking Churches Unite night shelter.
We have ten guests here tonight, who are currently homeless in Barking and Dagenham. They come from many strata of society and have different ethnic origins. We as churches in the area are providing a night shelter for the winter.
Homelessness, loneliness, poverty, hunger, sickness: these are all around us in society and in our churches. What can the church as a body do to alleviate some of these things and to show the love of God to people outside? When churches work together, amazing things can be achieved.
In Barking and Dagenham we believe we have been shown a ‘blueprint’ from God as to how we can make a difference to the lives of some of the people we encounter. This is the story of how God has led us step by step to represent His love to people in the community.
Joining the dots
Why ‘Joining the dots’? Only God sees the big picture of our lives and circumstances, and He sees the needs in the world that Christians ought to be meeting. There are two ways of looking at the phrase. The first relates to our own spiritual journey. A beautiful picture can only be made by first having an outline of dots and then it can be filled with colour. Only God knows what the picture will portray. We have to be willing to wield the pencil, one dot at a time, as God reveals each new number of the outline as our personal journey emerges. We trust God for one step at a time. As He reveals the next step, or dot, the picture is revealed.
The second interpretation relates to the larger picture of the world. The ‘dots’ resemble the people and circumstances that God links together to form His outline and picture. We have encountered this time and time again as God has revealed His plans for the work in Barking.
Our personal background
My husband, Mick, grew up in a non-Christian home in Barking, Essex, and his father was a shopkeeper who owned a launderette and another small business. He fully expected Mick to follow in his footsteps and continue the businesses on leaving school, but God had other ideas. Soon after his parents divorced, when Mick was thirteen, he became a Christian while he was at a Boys’ Brigade camp. Mick knew in his teens that he wanted to teach in special needs education and duly enrolled in a teaching course in 1978, encouraged by his mother. He qualified as a special needs teacher in 1981 and went on to qualify as a Teacher of the Deaf the following year.
I was brought up as a Christian, with staunchly God-fearing Christian parents firmly rooted in the Church of England tradition. We lived in Gloucestershire, where my brother and I enjoyed a country childhood in a very isolated hamlet called Hewelsfield. When I was eight my brother and I attended a mission for children on a holiday, where I committed my life to God. When I was twelve we relocated to Crawley in Sussex. The Church Army Captain of the church we attended held weekly youth Bible study and praise evenings and introduced us to the Pentecostal movement. We also encountered a Youth With A Mission (YWAM) team in Crawley who ran a pizza restaurant called The Cottage Door. A group of us used to spend some of our evenings there, doing more debating than eating pizza.
One lunchtime, when I was seventeen and was sitting in the restaurant with a friend, Corinne, we arranged to go together on a Christian holiday. We both liked the idea of different places, but I agreed to the holiday she wanted, which was a week in a large house in Devon. While we were there, I met a boy called Michael Mednick from Barking. Mick and I kept up a friendly, spasmodic correspondence over the next few years, and would meet up occasionally.
The YWAM team were very welcoming and keen to encourage us in our faith, and they invited us to attend their weekly prayer and praise meetings at their base, Holmsted Manor in Staplefield, Sussex. They would drive us there in their minibus every Saturday and bring us home again. I looked forward to these events, as they were my first real experience of God actually speaking to individuals in words of knowledge and prophecy, and I found them to be very exciting.1
Meanwhile, Mick had been discovering a deeper faith for himself. Between the ages fifteen and seventeen he attended similar events in a room above a pub in Seven Kings. There he encountered the teachings of Trevor Dearing, who spoke about the gifts and anointing of the Holy Spirit – that is, the opportunity to give oneself to God more fully and to experience a closer walk with Him on a daily basis. (In the 1970s Trevor Dearing had an apostolic ministry among church leaders; he supported the work of various churches, bringing words of guidance and visionary ideas to them.)
In my teens I became familiar with the music of some emerging Christian rock musicians. Mick introduced me to the music of Randy Stonehill, and another friend introduced me to that of Larry Norman, and at some time I encountered Keith Green, probably through my Cottage Door friends. At school one year we had a visit from Graham Kendrick and Peter Rowe who were promoting their first album, and from that time I listened to as much of this music as I could get hold of. I was learning to play the violin and had not listened to a lot of rock and pop music before this, mainly because I had been involved exclusively in classical music, and I found the lyrics of these artists very challenging.
After I left school I attended Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University) to study for a music degree. Throughout our college years Mick and I continued to write to each other and visited each other’s parental homes once or twice. The friendship grew into a close relationship when I left university and wanted some help and advice with career choices; I knew that he was involved with children with special needs and at the time I was working in a day centre for what was then called the Spastics Society, having ignominiously failed my degree course.
While at Kingston I settled into a Pentecostal Congregational church in Wimbledon. When I became engaged to Mick I moved to Ilford in East London, near Barking, where he lived and had a secure teaching job; my work at the time was temporary and I had no firm career plans. We searched for a church to be part of, as we knew that the church he had been attending was not right for us. We joined a Pentecostal church in East Ham, which moved to join with a Baptist church in Manor Park in the London Borough of Newham about six months after we joined it. We were married in 1984. We lived in Barking and Dagenham, the neighbouring borough, but Mick worked in schools in Newham and felt very much at home there.
After a few years Mick was asked to serve on the Eldership team of the church, and this he did for fifteen years until we left the Newham church. Those years were very exciting and challenging for us both. Mick had many duties and responsibilities and was heavily involved in the lives of the people in the congregation.
In 2003 we attended a Spring Harvest conference.2 Mick woke up one night with a very strong impression about uniting churches in local areas, specifically those in Manor Park, in worship and prayer. He said afterwards that it was like a series of instructions, almost like a blueprint, from God. The churches were to work together as His body, to look around the local community and streets and to make a spiritual map of the area. This would involve plotting the churches on a map, and also the temples, mosques, schools, community buildings, hospitals and places serving the public. These places would feature in street praying walks and then in prayer times in which all the churches of the local area would come together. For this purpose, Mick felt God was showing him that the area of Manor Park should be divided into five geographical zones, and the churches would be plotted in each zone. Every year in each zone, three events would be held: a prayer breakfast for the leaders, a street praying walk and, a week later, a united churches prayer evening, making fifteen events a year. All three events were to be hosted by or based in a church in each zone, and were open to members of all Manor Park churches, not only the ones whose church happened to be in that particular zone.
In many towns, churches of different denominations regularly meet together to pray for their town, or to support one another in prayer for their specific ministries. Church leaders of different denominations and doctrinal viewpoints have a real closeness and friendship. This is what developed among a group of leaders in Manor Park, and this continued for many years, in the form of the prayer breakfasts. This ‘blueprint’ would later be used in Barking.
So many of us get up on a Sunday and walk or drive to our church along the same route for years, not ever deviating from a prescribed path or really looking around us at people or places. As we walk or hurry along, the same thoughts may be in our minds Sunday by Sunday. ‘I hope I switched the oven on (or off),’ or, ‘I wonder how Mary is after her operation. I must visit her,’ or, ‘I hope Mr Jones is preaching today.’ We are locked in our own routines and habits and do not often see our community from a fresh viewpoint. Do we notice the faces of the people we pass, or the rubbish in a neglected garden, or the mobility scooter outside number 44? One day I was forced to drive a long way off my usual path because of a traffic diversion, and I passed the local travellers’ campsite, a place I knew about but had never actually seen at first hand. As I passed by, I wondered whether anybody thinks to pray for these people.
One of the interesting factors of the street praying walks was the opportunity to walk down roads that we would never normally have a reason to visit unless we knew someone who lived there. We would notice all kinds of interesting little lanes or alleys or community buildings previously unknown.
The whole church united prayer events were held five times a year, involving many churches, and were a combination of worship and prayer, both in small groups and congregational intercession. The five prayer walks would take place a week or so before the planned main meetings, and anything felt to be an issue of concern on those walks and any specific words of knowledge about the area would be noted. These issues would be brought to the main meeting for prayer by the church community. In this way, prayers of intercession would be offered in the prayer meetings for the needs of the people in the local vicinities and the schools and local government and health centres.
These events took place regularly for ten years or more and were times of powerful intercession over the whole of the Manor Park area. Over the course of a year every street would be named in prayer, and the residents of those streets prayed for by small groups. Many people took back to their churches printed sheets of prayer needs, or took them home for personal prayer.
We believe that intercession like this is a powerful opportunity for God to work, as we declare God’s peace over the area, asking for His protection over residents and schools and for His favour on the churches. We would ask God to heal the sick and restore broken relationships in the families of the residents. It is important to pray for these things in a potentially volatile community in which people from many different walks of life, faiths and backgrounds live side by side.
Another important God-given inspiration was to arrange outdoor witness events. Mick felt that God was asking him to call the leaders of the local churches to meet for regular prayer events, to do outreach events at Christmas and to arrange monthly open-air events in the town centre of East Ham. Mick approached the manager of the BHS store which was situated on the fringe of the area we wanted to use for our platform, and received permission to use the store’s electricity supply for the musicians and PA system. We had a team of musicians and singers from several churches to sing, talk to people about Jesus and pray for needs, and we sometimes had a drama group. We would read Scripture and tell the gospel, but only in short talks.
These monthly open-air events developed into marches of witness at Easter and then at other times of the year, and Mick led a street outreach programme based on the ‘Make Way’ teaching and ministry of Graham Kendrick. These events were faithfully supported by a core of people; we had a lorry for the musicians and PA equipment and a body of people walking behind the lorry to give out sweets, balloons, etc, carnival-style.
During the last three years of our time in Manor Park I was very unsettled, as I wanted to attend a church fellowship more local to where we were living. I was also working part-time as a violin teacher in schools in Dagenham, which made me feel more involved in the life of the borough we lived in. I was meeting regularly with a teacher in one of the schools in which I taught, to pray for the needs of the school, and I was attending prayer meetings with the mothers of other children in the school my daughters attended. I had attended a local church ever since my schooldays and had continued to do so during my college years, and I wanted to be worshipping in my local community. But I had to wait for the right time. God had not told us to relocate to another church, and I had to trust Him for the future. I was not good at waiting and trusting; I am still an impatient person, many years later, but ‘God has not finished with me yet’, as the saying goes. There was a lot I had to learn in those years at Manor Park to prepare me for what God had in store for the future.
Part One – The Story
The call to Barking
Early Christian influence – a brief outline
This book does not attempt to study the history of Barking and Dagenham, but it is necessary to delve into history, albeit briefly, to see its relevance in the context of prayer and ministry today. In so doing, we are able to discover our spiritual heritage, to see how God has used people in the past and to reclaim in some measure the godly influences that were present in the community over so many years.
Waterways are vitally significant as a source of life, and Barking was established originally near the River Roding. The river was a natural gateway to and from the town, a means of transporting both people and goods, whether for good or evil purposes. It was the river that provided an access point from the sea for the Vikings to invade the town in the eighth and ninth centuries.
The most important historical building in Barking is the Abbey; it is in ruins today, but it was a hugely significant place in the seventh century and beyond. The Abbey was founded in ad 666 by a Christian missionary, Erkenwald. He established another at Chertsey, where he was the presiding Bishop, and his sister, Ethelburga, was the Abbess at Barking, which was an establishment for nuns. The land granted to the Abbey by the Saxon kings who jointly ruled in Essex encompassed a huge area, and included what is now Barking, Dagenham and Ilford.
In ad 871, following a Viking attack, the nuns from the Abbey fled and were dispersed. The Abbey was re-established in the 900s by King Edgar as a Benedictine convent. After the Norman conquest of 1066, the new King William made a temporary headquarters in Barking before establishing himself in London, staying in the land belonging to the Abbey. The position of Abbess was a very influential one: following the Abbey’s establishment as a Royal Foundation, until 1213 all the abbesses were of noble lineage and had royal connections. One of the abbesses was Queen Maud, wife of King Henry I. Another was Queen Mathilda, wife of King Stephen.
As Lord of the Manor, the Abbess had great control over the local population. (This male title may seem strange to us, but this was her official title.) She was responsible for the regulation of weights and measures used in the marketplace. She alone in the Manor of Barking held the rights to grind grain into flour in the Barking watermill. The Abbey housed the manorial court which maintained the roads and bridges and controlled the transfer of lands. The whole social structure of the town was thus under the influence of the Abbey.
The influence of Christianity and the care shown by Christians for the poor and the sick were apparent in those early centuries of the Abbey. The first spiritual duty of the residents of the Abbey was that of prayer. People left gifts to the nuns as payment for prayers and Masses to be said in the event of their death or the death of a loved one.
It is interesting to note that the ministry of prayer has now, as in the days of the Abbey, such a great significance as a prelude to any work God expects His people to accomplish for and through Him.
The Abbess Adelicia established the Hospital Chapel of St Mary and St Thomas of Canterbury in 1145. This was in Ilford and was a hospice for elderly infirm men. Later, the place was opened to lepers. This was the only part of the Abbey to survive after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and it was eventually converted into an almshouse. It is wonderful to see that, just as society looked to the early Christians of the hospice to take on the task of caring for its outcasts, BCU today has taken on the task of caring for the marginalised, the poor and homeless in Barking.
It is significant that the Christian church at that time was the source of peace and security in the community. When the Abbey fell to the Dissolution in 1539, the nuns were retired with large pensions and the keys of the town were handed to the secular authorities, thus surrendering the church’s spiritual authority. Now, more than 400 years later, we believe that God has given a prophetic word that He will take back this spiritual authority and that the spiritual ‘keys’ to the town will be given back to the church.
Barking’s claim to a famous reformer is that of Elizabeth Fry, who was buried there in 1845. The Society of Friends in Barking, otherwise known as the Quakers, was established in Barking around 1658, and in 1672 they bought a plot of land to be used as a burial ground. A Meeting House was established the following year, next to the burial ground, and this became a Quaker centre of prayer and contemplation until 1830.
Elizabeth Fry had a faith in God, and the humanitarian work she did in reforming the terrible conditions in the women’s prisons of the time was a pivotal point in the history of social reform. I include her in this account because she embodied the Christian principles of ministering to the destitute and outcasts of society, those who were ignored and marginalised. We have so far briefly mentioned the very sick: lepers, prisoners and criminals, and the homeless. BCU was to establish ministries that would serve a similar group of needy and desperate people. It seems that God’s call to His church remains constant, and His people are to champion the cause of the same groups of people.
‘Life begins at fifty’
For quite a few months, Mick had been feeling a desire to spread the concept of unity and to extend the vision to other areas, specifically to Barking and Dagenham, our own borough. He did not know the specific time he was to move into Barking; he felt that he should wait until he knew it was an inner prompting from God. My husband is a patient man!
Around the time of Mick’s fiftieth birthday, in November 2008, he felt that it was time to prepare to leave the Manor Park churches scene and to start to make our base in Barking. He felt that God had called him to work for unity first, above any work in the day-to-day running of an established church, and that God was telling him that he had to be released from leadership in order to be able to work with many churches without being compelled to be loyal to one. This is a difficult shift in perception, and one that not everyone can understand. A conversation Mick had with a friend and leader, Jonathan Oloyede, sealed this word for Mick, as Jonathan, unaware of the struggle Mick was going through, shared his own experiences about being released by God for a wider ministry.
Another confirmation that it was time to move came from Matthew Porter, a member of Transform Newham, a group of united churches encompassing the whole of Newham. ‘If you sit on the fence you will just get splinters,’ he said.
The elders at the church we were attending – Manor Park Christian Centre (MPCC) – knew about Mick’s calling and recognised that God was orchestrating his departure, and therefore were fully supportive of his call to Barking. By way of transition, for the next twelve months we went to a smaller Manor Park Church where Mick was not to have eldership responsibilities and would work to pass on the Newham baton to a Newham leader and start to meet with the Barking church leaders.
Nearly twenty years earlier we had been friends with Phil and Eunice Burch, a couple from Barking who had also attended the East Ham Church before it merged with the Baptist Church and became MPCC. Not long after the churches merged, Phil and Eunice found a church fellowship in Barking and Phil became a leader there. Our ways parted and we lost contact with them, only meeting them rarely at larger events.
God is so good: He knew that Mick would need a partner in fulfilling the role he felt God was calling him to, and now we renewed the friendship. Mick telephoned Phil and told him what he felt God had been saying, both about his vision and that he felt he would need Phil’s help initially in making contact with the Barking church leaders. Phil was in a good position to do this because he was the only remaining contact for a former united churches movement in Barking which had ceased to operate. Phil confirmed this when they met: he told Mick that he felt that this was the time that God would do something new, and that God had brought to his attention two scriptures, one from John’s Gospel in which Jesus said, ‘Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’ The second scripture was about new wine needing to be poured into new wineskins, from Mark 2:22.
Phil became a valuable partner and an instigator in establishing the organisation, which would be known as Barking Churches Unite (BCU). Phil is an accountant, and for four years he managed all the accounts and dealt with grant applications and the legalities.
In January 2009 we left the church in Manor Park to start to make contacts within and to network with churches in Barking. We based ourselves at the Elim church, which I had sometimes attended with a friend over the years.
In Manor Park the principal focus of our work with the churches was prayer in the five zones. In Barking, Mick established the same structure as he had in Manor Park, dividing the town on a map into five workable areas and then visiting as many vicars and pastors as he could to explain what the vision was. Some church leaders were very keen to talk; others were at first a little suspicious. Some even said that they had heard what he was doing and had been waiting for his call. God had prepared the way and readied the hearts of those leaders. Mick would share the vision God had given him to work with them to help unite the churches, and he was given many opportunities to attend their Sunday service, sometimes as an opportunity to introduce this idea to the congregation.
This is the prayer zone map Mick devised:
This made very interesting Sundays for us – sometimes we would attend two different church services every week. Until we researched it properly, we had no idea that there were so many churches in the area, both large and small; sometimes as many as three would use the same building on a Sunday. In some churches we were treated like special guests and given the best seats, which was a little unnerving. In the first year the focus was to wait on God and to pray with church leaders every two months on a Saturday morning.
In October 2009 all the leaders came together and agreed on the name, and for Mick to be the coordinator. They decided to hold one street praying session a year in each zone (so five in total), each one to be followed about two weeks later by the united churches’ prayer and worship evening This would be hosted by a church from the zone, open for anyone to attend, at which any issues of concern noted on a street praying walk were offered for prayer.
We prayed for the town and for the vision of starting to reach out to the local people. We also prayed for the success of the further development of our partnership as churches. The newly formed trustees were introduced to the church leaders, and the name Barking Churches Unite was officially recognised. The leaders were from the Methodist, Church of England, Baptist, Elim and independent churches of Barking. Now we were an official organisation, and were personally sure that the church leaders were fully supportive of the venture.
A ‘prayer canopy’ was also established, comprising three church leaders who would be praying about the vision, and especially for Mick. These people would act as an accountability check for Mick, to ensure that his ideas were backed up by the prayer and wisdom of other leaders in his decision-making.
We now wanted to start to put in place plans to establish ministries to work together as united churches in the community. Mick had the support of different church leaders to approach the Council in order to discover what we could do practically to make our presence known as churches and to be of some service to the town. The first project we had in mind was to begin a Saturday children’s club. One of the church members had a particular desire and vision to do this, and was keen to get some official backing.
The Olympic Rings picture
Around this time, Mick also devised another diagram, using the Olympic Rings symbol. The image depicted the links from local church work and mission, and moved across the linking rings to the wider community and beyond. Mick explains the significance of the picture here:
This picture was given to me just after Barking Churches Unite was formally established in 2009 and was also given to a number of other people I connected with at the time. The picture was a strategy to take a nation for Jesus. Each ring signifies a practical way to reach people but relies on the unity of the churches to accomplish it. The first ring signifies local churches (zones and small areas) working closely together. The second ring links together with the first and third rings in that this model is then duplicated across a borough or county. The third ring signifies a whole borough or county seeing what neighbouring areas are doing, learning from them and working with them to bring about a similar model to bring about transformation. The fourth ring then duplicates this model to a regional context (North West England, North East England, Central England, South East England, London, South West England) The fifth and final ring signifies regions working together to capture a nation for Jesus.
Another word of guidance came from Jane Holloway, the leader of the National Prayer Network. She had been working to unite church leaders in different localities to pray and work together for mission. Mick contacted her to explain the vision of the Olympic Rings and its connection with his desire to unite churches. She affirmed his calling, saying that other people had felt they had received a similar picture of the Olympic Rings. Six months later she came to Barking to see what had been going on and to hear about the prayer networks.
Questions for reflection
- Have you researched the significant historical Christian influences in your town?
- Howmight this spiritual tradition be an inspiration for us today?
- Has God singled out an apostle in your area to coordinate church unity? If not, pray for someone with this gifting to come forward.