Living in a laboratory

It’s a rather a strange experience when a group of people from another country come to visit your friends and city, with a view to learning from you. The week before last saw Matryoshka Haus’ inaugural ‘Learning Lab’, sharing our community, the varied life of the church in London and our fabulous city itself. For a week, all of us were living in a laboratory, in the company of a team from Bent Tree church in Dallas.

Thankfully there were no bunsen burners or chemicals, but there were plenty of experiments – for both Americans and Brits.

DSC_0512Lindsay’s fabulous programmes for the week. (Credit.)

For the Americans, this was a full immersion into a culture that may have a language in common, but in many ways that’s where the similarities end. They came from a mega church; we’re a small missional community and the churches some of us attend are tiny compared to it. We live in an increasingly secular society; Texas is in the heart of the Bible Belt. Christians in London (and the UK in general) are increasingly experimenting with what being a Christian actually means in our context and what relevant worship looks like. There was a lot to learn, explore and consider.

Irony of ironies, I couldn’t play as big a role as I wanted to because I needed to work on an ecclesiology essay on the subject of ‘gathered congregations’ versus ‘informal networks of communication’ in contemporary British society. Thanks, Vicar School!

Bent Tree at St George'sBent Tree meets St George’s. At least they were able to come and visit me while I was working!

Despite not being able to get to know the team as well as I wanted to, I did end the week genuinely sad to be saying goodbye to a group of people with whom I’d shared life for a week and who I’d connected with on many levels. Gleefully, I left our final meal with many offers of accommodation in Dallas, so I’m sure this is not the last I’ll see of the team!

Learning Lab farewellsFond farewells on the final night. [FYI, that blue bag in front of me contained 4 bags of Peanut Butter M&M’s – score!] (Credit.

What it brought home to me is how much just living our lives with others can have an impact. Each night, members of the team ate with different members of our community. I shared an excellent pub meal one night; had a couple of women round for dinner at my flat another evening; in between, we all gathered at an Ethiopian restaurant where I was part of a panel sharing my experience of blogging. A group came to my church, where I was leading a service and was hugely encouraged by the smiling team of Texans sat on the front row. So, over  just a few hours, some of this team got to see me at work; heard personal stories about my life and calling; got to ask me questions about why I do what I do; and spent time with the group of people who are effectively my London support network.

UntitledOne of my non-Texan highlights – sitting next to Dave Tomlinson on our panel. (Credit.)

Obviously, it wasn’t all about me! In fact, it was just as much about me as it was about each of the individuals within the community – because the reason Matryoshka Haus is the way it is, is because of the individuals within it!

This was a brave trip for the Bent Tree team. Traditionally, church ‘mission trips’ involve constructing worthy buildings, or leading  a vacation Bible school – or something similar that has a tangible outcome. London is not a traditional mission trip destination. Tantalising city break? Yes. Gritty mission field? Not so much. These guys had to explain over and over why there were going while raising funds, dissuading people from assuming that this was just a jolly. They came knowing that they weren’t looking to change things or leave a visible mark, but to allow themselves to be changed.

[Incidentally, that latter point is an issue on which could be written an entirely separate article. An article that I may in fact be overdue in writing for a different publication…]

But London IS a gritty mission field, and I think the Texans went home realising that and appreciating what a different context we face.

DSC_0927Reflections turned into tablecloths… (Credit.)

And it wasn’t just the Texans that went un-touched by the experience. At our final meal together, one of the Texans told the room that their week with us had given them “a good idea of what humanity looks like at its best.”  I’m not certain, but I’m pretty sure that I heard a gasp from the British person sat behind me. We aren’t really humanity at its best – far from it. We are broken, hurting, confused, healing, growing… I could go on.

We are humans and humans by their nature are some mixture of: broken, hurting, confused, healing, growing, etc… But we can do better. Our community can work harder at being just that – a community. We can be more hospitable. More sacrificial of our time and talents. We’re still figuring out how this life together works and may never work out the answer.

In fact, I rather hope that we don’t figure it out, because I think the excitement is all in the trying.
Life is one continual experiment in one rather large laboratory.

Learning Lab in front of St Paul'sA whole ranch of Texans on the Millennium Bridge. (Credit.)

The Learning Lab blog shares the preparation & the first part of the week.
The In Da Haus blog tells more, from a MH perspective.
We’ve Storify-d some of the tweets and photos.
There’s a Flickr pool full of photos.


What we’ve particularly come to observe in Uganda is the work done by Tearfund’s partner – PAG (Pentecostal Assemblies of God) who have been working on an initiative across the the country called PEP (Participatory Evaluation Process). Everywhere we go, we hear the acronym ‘PEP’ cropping up in conversation – it’s easily identifiable even before the interpreter translates. I love the way it sounds so cheerful and joyous – PEP!

PAG bus

It is joyous. Communities and individuals are being transformed by the process. While it’s initiated by the church, it’s open to everyone, so many, many people have benefitted from it. It’s about looking at what you already have, and using that to make a difference in your life and in the lives of others.

One evening this week, Odiira (PAG’s Communications Officer) explained a bit more of the process to us. She said that training sessions were held in the communities, to which all were invited, and which local facilitators ran. At the end of the first day, they were encouraged to go home and work out what resources they had. Many would return the next day and say they had nothing – they would be encouraged to look again. Eventually they would think of the land they already used for growing crops; the few livestock they owned; a particular skill they had; or even something as simple as their time.

BricksLocally made bricks ready for the planned new church buildingPart of Ogongora’s PEP plan.

I’m going to share some more specific stories about the process later (both Bex and Dave already have), but that particular evening, we also got to talking about whether such a process would work back in the UK…

We have so much, yet would we think we had the resources to start our own business or become self-sufficient? I don’t have any land. I don’t have any truly useful skills like carpentry. But I have been blessed with an excellent (nearly entirely free) education. I’ve had a secure job (or at least I will do once I finish training) since graduating (bar 4 months of unemployment). Therefore, as an individual, I’m pretty much ok.

Borehole inspectionObserving the site of a new bore hole for the community – another element of Ogongora’s plan.

But PEP isn’t just about individuals, it’s about how those individuals come together to form a community. As individuals increase their crop harvests, they have more to share with those who are less fortunate than themselves. As they make better use of their time, they are able to offer it to community tasks – like helping with building or cooking meals. They look out for one another and encourage others in the challenges that PEP brings. It’s not all plain sailing, and not every story we’ve heard has had a happy ending, but when it’s happening in the context of community, there are others around to support each other.

What can we do to support our communities? Do we even know who our community is? Is our church community the extent of those who come into the building on a Sunday or during the week? How do we build bridges between the different factions of the community?

I’m not sure what the answers are, but I’m going to be pondering them for quite some time.

A challenge:

Photo credit: The wonderful Katie G whose photos I love dearly.
One interesting idea came out of the team away-day I went on today. (I mean that very literally.)

We were challenged to spend some time thinking about what the world might be like if, overnight, the miracle of the church being as God intended occurred. [To non-spiritual readers, this will swiftly move into non theistic language, stick with me!] We were encouraged to think about how that first morning might seem different, what we might hear/see/taste/smell…
One of my thoughts was that the tube would be different. People would be talking to each other, trusting each other. The air of suspicion with which every commuter regards one another would be lost. Barriers would be broken.
Later, I shared this thought with the team and our facilitator issued the following challenge:
Spend the next two weeks trusting your fellow commuters and watching for all the good things that happen around you, rather than making note of all the bad things.
I began on the way home and was pleased to notice a man sat opposite me give his neighbour his paper when he saw him glancing at it – he was getting off and didn’t need it anymore. Simple but nice.
So I’m extending the challenge to you. I’m sure the ‘eyes down; don’t talk’ attitude isn’t unique to the London underground, whatever your form of transport, look around for the good that’s going on. Trust people. Be less suspiscious.
I have no illusion that the tube will suddenly be transformed into a chattering hubub of humanity, but if it people became a little less grumpy, that would be no bad thing.

Advent, recession and a new toy

Today’s December 1st and for the first time in my life I have no advent calendar. But I’m going to get over it and remember that actually, I don’t need little windows to help me remember the season. I probably should do something else to prepare for Christmas, but so far I’ve not thought of anything.

Over the last week, tallskinnykiwi has been exploring some ideas relating to how church ministries can cope with the recession. Today, he’s brought together some of the themes that have been discussed on his blog. One in particular resonated with me:

Move in together. Intentional Community is a wonderful way
for a small community [of] young people to mature together. Its ridiculous that we all need big empty houses for one or two people. Fill up those empty bedrooms. Maximize what you already have, or think about downsizing. And no . . . I am not suggesting you move in with your girlfriend.’

I’ve mentioned once or twice that I’ve got a couple of issues with my flat at the moment. There’s an idea brewing that relates to this quote, which I’ll hopefully be able to share before Christmas. And I’ll say it again, London life would be so much easier (in some ways) if I had a man to live with…(!)

New Toy:
In the space of a month I’ve gone from having an out of the ark, decrepit piece of junk as a work computer to a machine that is probably is the most sophisticated in the building. My lovely (though not purple) laptop is just a tad confusing, what with Office 2007…nevermind. Now I’ve just got to decide where to take it for its first outing.

Oh and of course I didn’t manage to not blog today! I didn’t especially want to – but you know, sometimes the creative juices just can’t be stopped…ahem.