My name is Charl Young. I am twenty years old and I am the project manager for a community café run by Christians in the middle of a council estate in Reading. I originally come from a piece of middle class suburbia in Birmingham, and so for me the transition to life on an estate was daunting enough, but to be a Christian in this place – well that scared the sh** out of me if I’m being completely honest.
I just thought I would be a complete outcast.
However, in spite of all that, I have always felt a strong attraction to council estates. Why? It’s exactly because they have such an incredibly bad reputation – after all, that is where all the druggies, benefit frauds, single teenage mums and ASBOs live, isn’t it? And with all that sin, could God be of any relevance – He would be wasting his time surely? Well that is what our society and even some Churches would like us to think and in all fairness I have seen all such stereotypes whilst working and living here but that is only a small minority of the people here. For the majority of my time I have seen a lot brighter and a more loving picture. In fact, when I read accounts of Jesus from the gospels, I cannot come to any other conclusion than that He hung out with exactly those people who society looked down upon and He did it under an oppressive regime right on the margins of the Roman Empire…
I reckon that if Jesus was alive today, He would be walking with some of our council estates, hanging out with those who probably even the church wouldn’t be seen dead talking with, and that is why I chose to live and work on this council estate in Reading.
When I speak about God on the estate, their biggest issue isn’t that Christianity is a load of rubbish but more a suspicion of God and his ability to love, e.g. “how can God love paedophiles and not Gays?” This for me insinuates and reveals an acknowledgment of God but a misunderstanding of what Christianity really entails. In my opinion this is one of the greatest mistakes that the Church has made in recent history.
We have made our religion into those who are in, and those who are out; those who abide by the rules, and those who don’t; those who fit the Christian mould, and those who can’t. We, the Church, have somehow portrayed a message of exclusivity….but Jesus wasn’t exclusive! There was no “in and out club” for him, all were “in” and all were welcome – right from the rich tax collector to the outcast leper. So regardless of what we have made our religion to be, Jesus makes it clear: we are to preach the gospel to all nations, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. And that means paedophiles, gays, single mums, drug addicts, the homeless, the benefit frauds, people on the breadline and those who struggle to love themselves, as well as the bank manager, politicians – everyone.
There are so many positives about estates but I think the one that stands out the most to me is the community spirit. People get the chance to know each other really well. In the summer we play rounders in the big field, in the winter we sing carols in the square. However there is no denying that there is a very real and tangible sense of heaviness in the air. Times are hard at the moment; for those trying to get off benefits, job prospects are becoming fewer and fewer and the threat of the government reducing benefits is looming large. Young adults who didn’t get on well in school, perhaps because of a lack of support at home and a reluctance from teachers, linger all day on balconies making money through drug deals and plotting the next loot on a nearby factory. The woman in the nearby flats is still being beaten black and blue by her alcoholic boyfriend and he won’t let her out of his sight day or night; kids are cussing one another and spitting whilst playing football; even the five year old gets into a fight over throwing stones.
So what message does God have to a people who are steadily losing hope of a world where there is love, security, unity and hope for a better future? I think he would say to this community: “I will never leave you nor will I forsake you”. You see, He plans to make the journey with them and He hopes we will too!
You see to me God has absolute relevance in a place like this, where not only is there a deprivation in terms of the physical but also there exists a deprivation of love. A love that overcomes past mistakes, pains, experiences and goes deeper and works towards redemption. God wants restoration of lives and reconciliation of relationships. I believe God wants holistic transformation of the community I work with…. He wants justice in the abusive relationships; He wants people to be freed from addictions; He wants those who have been misunderstood at school to be given a second chance; He wants those who can’t find employment to find their place in society and to provide for their family; He wants the kids to be bought up in a loving family home. In short, He wants every individual to be fulfilled and to have a meaningful place in the community.
God has relevance here because He wants a better future for the community just like everyone else, because He loves this community. God loves these people and he calls the Church, and me as a Christian, to do the same. To work towards a better future, not only by building relationships with people here, and to share the gospel, but also to bring about social transformation through partnership with local authorities, charities and organizations that exist to create sustainable development personally, at home and in employment.
Christianity and Council estates absolutely can mix: I have experienced it firsthand. The vital key towards this alliance is an understanding of God’s love for everyone regardless of their heritage, past mistakes and their current situation.