Story 9 - Chaos but a lot of fun!
57 West , Southend
Written by Suzie Abramian in conversation with Pam Davies May 2020
It is perhaps hardly surprising that Pam Davies, soon to be ordained minister of 57 West Church in Southend, seems totally unfazed as I apologetically turn up half an hour late to our meeting. In the day to day life of her church, 30 minutes here or there can be of little consequence when the church community largely consists of those dealing with the more pressing struggles of homelessness and the many issues surrounding it (although this is still no excuse for my tardiness!).
Originally aimed at young people, particularly students, 57 West was planted in 2013 but never fully took off with its original vision. Rather, what began as a group of rough sleepers unexpectedly turning up to a New Year's Day prayer meeting has now developed into a church community made up of those who are homeless, vulnerably housed, often with different addictions and, perhaps most unusual for any church, predominantly 40-60-year-old men.
It is well-known that Southend has one of the highest percentages in the country of people who are homeless. So, in 2017 when 57 West moved from their original venue to a more central place in the town at Clarence Road Baptist Church and created a connection with the town’s Churches winter night shelters the result was a dramatic increase in numbers within in a relatively short space of time. Across the different gatherings that take place throughout the week those connected with the church now number around 270 people.
The main gatherings are through a community café run four days a week and a Saturday church gathering, started in 2014. This Saturday gathering begins at 10.30am with a brunch, time to chat and look at any practical needs people may have before the slightly more formal part of the gathering at 12 noon. This second part of the morning intentionally reflects the different kinds of people who attend, usually with a very interactive approach or with group activities based around a theme or particular book. Weekly communion is shared in this time with a strong focus on the transformation and hope the cross brings. Pam explains that in this context it is even more important to have this focus in communion because of the prevalence of shame already felt by many of the people who attend.
Partnership with other local services has undoubtedly been key as well throughout this church’s life, especially considering the severe need of many who attend but when possible, it is always kept separate from the safe space of the café. This not only helps make the clear distinction of a faith community but also contributes to the strong level of trust crucial in developing good relationships with all those who attend.
Whilst on the one hand it may seem obvious why this approach to church is working in this context when even the idea of this community fitting into a “normal”, established church is almost impossible, on the other hand there are still lessons to be learnt from what is happening here applicable to many other different contexts.
Pam reflects that since 2017 when the church moved into its current venue, the approach has been ‘missionally easy’ because of the clear focus. Whilst explaining that this doesn’t necessarily mean the missional work is itself always straightforward rather the community is clearly defined because there is a strong, clear vision underpinning everything. Something that can arguably be of benefit in every church context.
Along with this strong identity Pam also notes the connection between this pioneering model of church and more traditional churches. 57 West holds good connections with other local churches, particularly through the Southend Area Baptist Network. She sees that there doesn’t have to be the divide so often perceived between the different models of church but instead asks, ‘what are the principles from the more traditional churches that can be taken and applied into the pioneer context’? Recognizing that although some of these may look different in practice, the issues within the ministry are often the same. For example, Pam has appreciated the help shared by other local church leaders regarding pastoral care and its structures in 57’s own context.
Conversely, this church community can also offer much in return to many other churches, especially with the example they set of shared responsibility and the participation of all who attend. Although it may be easy to think that the community café runs as a service, doing things for those in need it is perhaps interesting to note that all those who attend are encouraged to make their own drinks, initiate their own phone calls to services if they require and so on. Pam describes the importance of this approach as actually freeing to those who come. Rather than disempowering people it often gives new levels of responsibility, which in turn can be seen in those who begin a journey of faith at 57.
One such testimony from the church encapsulates this well when a lady turned down an invitation to go along to 57 West as she thought it was only for homeless and she had housing. After feeling a ‘nudge’ to return she started attending regularly but was very shy and nervous, especially about public speaking. Yet this woman was noticed for how she always welcomed others and showed real pastoral care to other people. Rolling forward, the lady was baptised in 2018 and now leads the Friday prayer and lunch group. This transformation in the life of this one individual highlights the encouragement for all to participate right from the beginning of their connection with the church.
Looking back again to when the church was first planted and the flexibility needed to adapt from the original idea to what God actually brought about, it is interesting to reflect that had that all been ignored, 57 West might never have fully got off the ground. Seven years on that same flexibility is still needed as Pam observes the ‘bit of chaos’ incurred with organising the café's 27 volunteers, many of whom are members of the community but that somehow it does still work! In fact, in looking ahead the church can see it is just about at full capacity in its current venue and is already looking at how the community could expand further and into other areas, such as running sign language classes.
We will undoubtedly look forward to hearing more from this church in the future and hopefully be encouraged by Pam’s words that this church is ‘chaos but a lot of fun!’ as we praise God for all He is doing there. .