For the past eight years I have worked from a small room in a local community centre. The two Methodist churches that previously served the area have been closed and subsequently demolished. The past eight years have been a lot about listening, learning about issues and concerns and working alongside community members to challenge the injustices they encounter on a daily basis.
Just over two years ago, in partnership with local Anglican churches, I established a debt advice project which has enabled people to get out of the spiral and entrapment of overwhelming debt.
Work in the debt advice project has been particularly challenging during lockdown. The centre we run the service from was closed for much of the time; there was no face-to-face contact with clients from the end of March until the end of September. This is an important factor for us because we are not just an agency dealing with debt; we’re interested in people’s stories: we listen, we build relationships. I have come to a new appreciation of the importance and value of these relationships during the months of lockdown. It’s been wonderful to start meeting with people again, and I believe the feeling has been mutual.
I’ve borrowed Jacob’s words from the Bible for the title of this piece because they feel close to my own experience of working in community. Yes, we know, we pray, we sing (when not restricted by Covid-19) of God’s presence everywhere. Yet it’s difficult for me to explain the sense of God’s presence that fills the space when I’m sitting alongside another person and sharing in their struggles, anguish and despair. When love and justice come together, the presence of God is powerful and tangible. At the heart of justice there needs to be an understanding and acceptance of our shared humanity and shared vulnerability. This can be painful but it opens the door to the power of God’s love.
I often offer a prayer at the end of a debt advice session. Most people are open to this – and God comes, tangibly, quietly into that moment which is the intersection of our lives. Our God is a God of community who is with us in the midst of our struggles.