Gina Lazenby at the Common Purpose event in Skipton with Helen-Ann Hartley, Bishop of Ripon (centre), and convener Marion Tweed-Rycroft, North Yorks County Council

Good news is actually  … good news

Stronger Communities SkiptonThe fact that I find positive stories so uplifting must mean that I have been tuning into too much TV news reports recently where there is hardly ever any good news (and even the bad stuff seems to get worse). You just might fall into the trap of thinking that there is nothing good happening in the world.  Yesterday my heart was uplifted when I happened to attend “by chance” an event designed for the voluntary sector and faith groups in Skipton and Craven district. Not my normal milieu as I belong to neither community, but something about the event name .. Common Purpose .. called me in. Even though I was not on the invite list I was warmly welcomed and that about sums up everything about the day … the human capacity to reach out to a stranger with a smile and a word of welcome, and then afterwards ask who they are.

The full-capacity meeting was convened by Craven District’s Stronger Communities Delivery Manager, Marion Tweed-Twycroft.  The attendees were representatives across all faiths and local charitable networks. It’s quite astounding that so much is going on ..behind the scenes and with so many unsung heroes and heroines. The idea of the day was to bring everyone together and make more of what is already available by encouraging more partnership activity.

Collaboration is key

You might assume each church does its own thing with its own membership. Not at all. There is a strong spirit of collaboration and cooperation among the local churches to the point where the group name has apparently become the ‘Church of Skipton’. Congregation sizes might be getting smaller but the activities of the churches are growing with a strong outreach.

In 2015 a survey was done nationally by the Cinnamon Network to determine what was being provided at community level by faith groups. In Craven district that year, 150,000 hours of volunteer time were recorded with a financial value of £1.37 million added to the community. And two thirds of the faith-based projects were collaborating with other groups to make their initiatives even more effective. 

Times of Austerity call for greater creativity

There is an expression about necessity being the mother of invention. In these times of cutbacks that slash community budgets that hit welfare support, whatever resources have been to hand are now being leveraged to the hilt. The approach has been one of determining all the assets that everyone has in terms of buildings, resources, skills and connections. If a church building is used by only a handful of people for Sunday worship, it can filled with other groups through the rest of the week. The need to think outside the box and make more of what there is has grown many successful initiatives.  

Putting the kettle on 

Mark Waddington, CEO of Wellsprings Together, an initiative from the Diocese of Leeds, nailed the spirit of community effort when he said “The first step is to put the kettle on”. One of their most important projects is ‘Places of Welcome’ where he stressed the importance of creating spaces where people can come together, feel safe and connect. With the burden of spiralling mental health issues falling increasing across the community, he said it is crucial to have places where it is OK not to be OK.  

The Wellbeing Cafe is a project that appears to be run by Baptist church member Peter Smith in a United Reform Church where there is an open house to all for three hours every Thursday afternoon. This regular community space where you can get a tea, toasted sandwich and an art class is having a big impact on many people’s lives. The social interaction and support by friendly volunteers is giving people back their confidence and boosting self-esteem. There is no talk of religion, it is simply a space where the faith-based community provide a caring and judgement-free place for connection. A Muslim leader also spoke of the powerful impact on community cohesion by providing a place to cook food and share it together once a month with the different nationalities and faiths living in one neighbourhood.

The Medicine of Listening

There is increasing science behind the study of loneliness which says it not only makes you sick; it can kill you. Emotional isolation is ranked as high a risk factor for mortality as smoking. Putting that kettle on, providing an opportunity to sit round a table and have a chat or a meal, can literally be a life-saver for many. Being listened to and feeling heard is a much under-valued medicine and if it is provided as an earlier intervention it can stave off more serious mental health problems later on. Having access to a friend listening ear, someone who makes you feel valued by giving time, attention, and in that moment of being heard .. love. This is what the web of collaboration from a huge network of faith-based organisation is providing. 

The Bishop of Ripon, Helen-Ann Hartley, summarised the power of the morning’s gathering by drawing attention to the importance of making people feel welcomed and valued. She quoted a Maori chief in New Zealand, where she previously served as Bishop and worked closely with the indigenous communities, as saying “the most important thing in the world is people, people, people.  She said everything that had been shared in the Common Purpose session had highlighted the many community projects that are providing help by wrapping around people with love and compassion.  So much more was being achieved by everyone working together. 

Making more of what we already have, being kind and compassionate .. what does that cost? Money may be tight but it not always the simple answer. Kind people are the answer, and especially those who reach out to each other to create a much-needed net of loving support which is the glue holding our social fabric together. 

Gina Lazenby hosts monthly events for the Conscious Cafe Skipton community where folks get together to talk about things that matter… find out more on MeetUp.