An angry Chairman who finds joy in his allotment
Northumbrian Industrial Mission (NIM) oversees the role and work of all chaplains in the North East Region; it is an ecumenical organisation and chaplains come from a range of professional backgrounds. A Management Committee, Executive Group and Team Leader oversee the work of the chaplains. Although our motivation comes from our Christian beliefs and values, our role in the workplace is not that of evangelism. Chaplains are available to everyone – of all faiths and of none. However the work of this ministry helps to inform Christian understanding and action about the effects of economic activity on individuals, and on communities. One of the key objectives of NIM is “to interpret the Christian gospel in language that is meaningful to everyday situations, especially to those who are apart from the worshipping life of the church, indicating a Christian understanding of the purpose for which society exists”
Paul Southgate, Chair of NIM and a keen allotment holder in his AGM address this year drew attention to rising level of poverty in our region and asked the question “Why aren’t we angrier?” He cited the retail giant NEXT’s CEO who announced (May 2014) that he’s sharing his £4m cash bonus among 20,000 employees after their “hard work” in helping to achieve 65% growth in profits (£200 each?). He’ll struggle by on just the £1.1 million! Why aren’t we angrier?
Paul drew attention to the fact that youth unemployment has reached practically epidemic proportions in the North East. This is by far the worst place in the country for 16 – 24 yr olds to find work, he said. Joblessness here tops the 25% mark. Compare this to the national average of 20%, or towns like Cambridge, Bournemouth and Reading where the figure is 13%. Compare these figures with Germany’s average of 8.6% youth unemployment. Yet the North East is the only region in the UK where there is a balance of payments surplus! Why aren’t we angrier?
23% of children in the NE are living in poverty in the 7th richest country in the world. Paul stated it was 34% where he lives, and over 60% in parts of Tees Valley. Of that 23%, 66% are living in working households. Is it taken as read that this is just the way things are? Does it have to be accepted as inevitable? Who says so, and why? That would be defeatism and hopelessness. Why aren’t we angrier?
Paul argued in his address that it is our duty in the North East, and the duty of the Church, to educate our young, to evangelise our young, to employ our young and to encourage leadership among our young. St Augustine of Hippo said “Hope has two beautiful daughters: one is called Anger and the other Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to change the way things are so they don’t remain the same.”
The Christian language of equality, said Paul, begins with “Our Father.” We are all brothers and sisters, equal in grace, dignity and worth. And in a personal aside Paul shared with the meeting stories about his friends whom he rubs shoulders with on his allotment garden. He told the meeting some of their life stories (names changed).
“Take George, whose son got caught up in a scuffle a few years ago, punched a man who fell and hit his head and tragically died. George’s son went to prison for manslaughter.Or Alex, who came across to my plot, gave me a bag of onion bulbs he had left over and
asked “Paul, can I ask you something – Why did the priest refuse to baptise my granddaughter? He said it was because her mother didn’t go to church, but that can’t be right, can it?”
There’s Jimmy, a retired policeman whose wife died of cancer 2 years ago. He starts off his seedlings in pots on his living room windowsill now because, well, there’s just him in the house. Jimmy loves it when his grandbairns come and do a bit of digging in his allotment. Terry, a massive hulk of a man, told me there’d been a few glasses of wine drunk and tears shed at home last Sunday when it would have been his son’s 35th birthday. His son died 6 years ago of a drugs overdose at a rave down south. It helps him to talk about it. Ian, whose adopted daughter has mental problems and is homeless.
Tony, a real DIY man with a very clear philosophy, who helped me put my greenhouse up. “Do it right first time, then you can forget about it. And remember, don’t spend any money – it’s just an allotment. There’s always more than enough to go round. By the way, do you need any beetroot?”
Paul commented on how much he loved these people. They love and respect nature. Frank, in another life, given opportunity, would be a world famous zoologist. His observation, knowledge and memory is incredible – a born naturalist who became instead simply the best painter and decorator in the business. They’re all passionate about their allotments and families. Practical people, earthed, grounded and very inventive, they spend hours talking and listening, nosing around each other’s plots, always looking for opportunities to share, to have a bit of ‘craic’, and to help each other out. As far as I know, none of them goes regularly to church. Or maybe Peter does – his son is a priest.
The allotment, said Paul, is a microcosm of the North East. These are the people, ordinary people and communities that the Church needs to befriend, listen to, talk to, comfort. These are the people the Church needs to astonish, lift their spirits, inspire their souls. People who feel shame and shock at a son in prison, bewilderment and grief at a son dead from an overdose, longing and loneliness in becoming a widower, rejection and incomprehension at being refused baptism, depression and anxiety at the mental torture a teenage daughter is going through.
In Chinese, ‘Honesty’ is the figure of a man standing, physically standing, beside his work. That means honesty: a man stands by his work. That’s what NIM chaplains do – they stand by the man who stands by his work.
I feel very proud to belong to Northumbrian Industrial Mission. May we be honest in our work of being sent into the Lord’s vineyard – or allotment – which is actually God’s work in us. Pope Francis puts it this way in ‘Joy of the Gospel’: “To be evangelisers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people’s lives and to discover that this is itself a source of greater joy. To be Missionary is at once a passion for Jesus and a passion for his people.”
NIM Annual General Meeting 19 May 2014