Safe and Supportive Environments

A short time ago, I bumped into a delightful couple called Ian and Alison who were married in St. Finnian’s 44 years ago today by Bishop Mehaffey. They like to drop in if they are passing and, as they were on holiday from London, they stopped in on their anniversary. I was just dropping my robes in after a service elsewhere and they took the opportunity to have a look around and take a few photos. I was able to give them a church magazine and invite them, if they ever wanted, to tune in online to join us for worship on a Sunday morning from across the water.

Campbell College Junior School

I’ve been thinking a little about safe and supportive environments recently after a couple of experiences over the weekend. On Friday morning, we went to Conor’s last prize day in primary school. In recent years no such gathering was possible and so it felt special to be able to gather together and catch up with some parents we haven’t seen for a while. One of the things I loved about this particular occasion was that every boy in P7 got the opportunity to walk on stage and be presented with an award, a leavers medal, a book documenting their achievements over their primary school career, including photographs and examples of their work. Being honest, it’s probably the kind of book parents will spend more time reminiscing over than their children, but it was great to remember different photos and occasions over the years. It was also lovely to hear tributes being paid to certain teachers who were retiring and, over a cup of tea after, to get to say thank you to some teachers who have worked so hard over the years and been a real influence for good.

I remember in my own schooldays, sports day and prize day used to be dominated by a few who seemed to be up and down like yoyos while the rest of us stayed firmly attached to our seats. On this occasion, there were prizes for academic excellence as well as for progress made. There were awards for sports combined with academic success and awards for particular qualities of character and music and art. As a result, there was a huge cross section of the pupils who got the opportunity to come up to receive prizes and awards, including all the p7 pupils. It struck me, as a parent, just how fortunate both our children have been to go to schools where the ethos and environment is one of encouragement and support. There is certainly an emphasis on academic achievement and giving of your best, but it’s not the only show in town. It’s good to celebrate those who go out of their way to be welcoming and help pupils more junior than themselves and recognise the variety and diversity of gifts among the school community. Perhaps the ‘church without walls’ has much to learn from this.

We often recognise those who stand up at the front or lead organisations, but there are many hidden tasks that go unrecognised. We need people to oversee governance and finances, we need people to volunteer to do unexciting tasks like maintain the grounds or count the free will offerings. We need people to sing and help to lead worship and, indeed, to visit people in their homes or support people through regular phone calls. We need people to pray regularly and earnestly for the work of the church, to encourage those who are on a journey of faith to learn more and offer opportunities to do that. We need, more than ever, people who love the Lord to pass on the faith to the younger generation and teach them about prayer and bible reading and inviting God into their daily lives.

Tor Bank School

The other special event I attended at the weekend was a birthday party for one of Lucy’s classmates. Lucy, our daughter, has special needs and her school always hosts wonderful class parties whenever anyone in the class has a birthday. Lucy has known Jamie for most of her life, as they first met on the corridor of the Ulster hospital when Jamie’s mum was going to a paediatric clinic and seeking a diagnosis for her son. She recognised some of the classic features of Lucy’s syndrome when we passed each other and we got chatting and we have been friends ever since.

Jamie’s party was a very special occasion as he became a teenager. There were lots of people in buggies and chairs. There were people being peg fed, there were people with lots of different challenges in the room. There was food and drinks and lots of laughter and fun. It spoke to me a little about what heaven will be like. Jamie’s family are the most hospitable and welcoming people and the message to everyone crossing the threshold on this special day was, “You are welcome.” The grownups in the room seemed very aware that this was a very special gathering. Nobody minded the more sensory children wandering about and taking people by the hand or stroking their face or rubbing their hair. In fact it made it much more memorable. There were young people who liked machines who spent the afternoon watching the washing machine going round. 

There were quiet children who just sat peacefully holding someone’s hand and there were all shades in between. It’s a very special thing to give over your home to an afternoon like that and people could stay as short or as long as they wished.

One of the things we are always mindful of in the ‘church without walls’ is to do all in our power to make our activities safe.

That’s why there was such challenge and complexity around the resumption of in person activities after the pandemic. That’s why, at some of our childrens activities, we need parents or guardians to be present to ensure that all our volunteers, who do such an amazing job, have extra support when children have additional needs. I guess that’s what made Jamie’s party work so well. A space was made available, an open welcome was extended, but lots of parents needed to be there to look after the needs of their respective children, so it was a team effort. It was a great opportunity to make new friends in a very supportive environment.

How can we in the ‘church without walls’ do all in our power to make people feel welcome and safe and affirm each person who crosses our threshold? Each one of them, whether we care to recognise it or not, is created in the image of God.

The blog will be taking a break for a couple of weeks, but look forward to speaking again soon. 

Much love to everyone,

Jono.

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