Story 78 - Pioneering on a Self Build Development
Revd. Helen Baker
Helen Baker is a Pioneer Minister who, since November 2018, started working out of Orchard Baptist Church Bicester as a community minister on a new housing development on the edge of Bicester town. The development of Graven Hill is unique, currently being the only self-build development in the UK (those of you Grand Designs fans may remember a feature on their programme following the first self-builders on the development in 2016 called ‘The Street’). Now standing at around 300 occupied homes, the development is set to continue to grow to 1900 homes over 10 years, including a primary school, a pre-school nursery and a community centre as well as shops, cafes and a local pub.
Orchard Baptist, on behalf of the Churches in Bicester have taken on the responsibility for outreach on this rapidly growing new community and followed a clear calling to appoint and support the placement of a community minister to live and minister within the development. Helen stresses the importance of Orchard Baptist’s step of faith to appoint her, including her stipend and manse which, like all the houses on the new development had to be built from scratch. She also notes how this commissioning also came with a clear recognition of the pioneering nature of her role, with little prescription or agenda, which considering the uniqueness of her context she says has been paramount.
Written by Suzie Abramian in conversation with Helen Baker - 05/02/2021
Considering that Helen and her family reserved their plot of land in October 2018 and were only able to move from Great Missenden into their Polish, flat-packed, timber framed house in March 2020, an obvious first question is how was it possible to begin this ministry without actually living on site? Helen describes this time as crucial for being what she says, ‘a community listener,’ building relationships with key stakeholders in the emerging community such as town councillors, planners in the development, crucially with the new residents as they appeared and by listening to God, as Helen says, ‘to discern what God is doing and join in with it’.
Within this period of listening, Helen observed certain tensions starting to arise between the private self-builders and those in the social housing accommodation on the development which makes up 30% of the dwellings. Whilst a strong community was developing between the self-builders, establishing a good community within themselves with regular meetings, Helen observed that there were those in the social housing moving in without any of those community benefits, coupled with the obvious differences in their housing styles and locations and even at times treatment from the developers. Discerning early on that this was going to be a source of tension within the new development, Helen describes the hope for her emerging role, ‘to be a bridge between the communities and close up the gap before it became enculturated’.
Still in its early days Helen observes how once she moved in, there had been the hope to focus on these relationships when the Coronavirus pandemic hit. Whilst some of the normal routes for relationship building have been blocked Helen shares how there have still been opportunities, such as by holding the first public event at Easter including an Easter Egg hunt, being an advocate on issues of injustice for some in the social housing association, walking around the development in her distinctive yellow coat(!) in order to be easily recognisable for chats, and most of all by joining in with the community online through Facebook.
Reflecting on the uniqueness of her context and why she believes a traditional church planting mindset would not have worked, Helen observes a commonality amongst many of the self-builders of independence and particularly of secularism, describing some as ‘hard-core anti-faith.’ Consequently, Helen describes her ministry as very incarnation and relationship based but nevertheless remains open to the possibilities of a worshipping community developing in time. Likewise, she thinks it will look different again to any traditional preconceptions, focusing on a gathering around food and in people’s homes.
For those who may be embarking on a similar missional adventure, especially into new build developments Helen says the importance of physically living within a new community gives you a ‘insight into the nuance and depths of experience that I suspect you don’t get from not living there.’ She also encourages people to move in as early as they can ‘but not to be in a rush to achieve because the listening is so much more fruitful than the doing in the early days.’
(Image top left: www.gravenhill.co.uk)