The Flaxley Road Estate is a place where many struggle with relationships, parenting, addiction, financial problems and a lack of purposeful activity.
People here work hard to make the best of their lives in challenging circumstances. There is no church on the estate, and apart from my work, little Christian witness.
Along with three other Christian families, my family and I felt called to step out from our parish church and establish a new and vibrant Christian community – The Edge Community.
We seek to live out our Christian faith in practical and down-to-earth ways – to engage with ordinary people in their own environment. This was, and is, a real journey into the unknown as none of us knew what this community would look like or what we’d be called to do.
Two years on, The Edge Community now meets weekly, seeking to grow in faith, enjoy time with each other and be guided by God in our outreach to local families. Each step is uncertain and we try hard to let the Spirit blow us along and not to follow our preconceived notions.
Our monthly family-friendly 'Gatherings' are the community's main point of contact locally, since the other members do not live on the estate.
I invite those who seem to be open to God, or at least open to a relationship with The Edge Community and me.
Numbers are usually small – people forget, despite reminders and texts, and small things just get in the way – but we give thanks that a couple of families join us each time. However, there were 42 adults and children at our Christmas event which was a great encouragement!
One time we were reflecting on how God, unlike our society, looks on the inside and loves us for who we really are. After a few games and a Bible story we made front covers for our very own 'I'm OK!' magazines.
With a digital camera and printer we stuck on photos of ourselves with Bible verses that looked like headlines such as: “God made me in my mother's womb … body and soul I am marvellously made” (Psalm 139).
Day by day we are seeking to build God's kingdom in the community, especially through involvement in the school where I take assemblies once or twice a week, lead RE, assist in classrooms, support children with emotional and behavioural difficulties and run a Christian after-school club called JAFFA.
Members of St James' Church have set up a welcoming and caring toddler group which meets twice a week. I run parent support groups that look at parenting and debt issues, and each year we organise a summer holiday club.
My heart's desire is to share God's love with people by practically supporting them and to see lives changed as they open their hearts to God. I am always looking for opportunities to talk about God and this frequently happens when I offer to pray for someone – but listening and loving always come first!
God has given me a servant heart, and sensitivity to people and the brokenness in their lives. The more I spend time with people from the estate, the more I see their potential in Christ.
As they discover God's love and truth and say 'yes' to him, people not only find healing, they are also turned outward in love to others, healing those around them.
This is what excites me. This is why God called me to Church Army 15 years ago, and he continues to guide me, equip me and mould me to be more effective in helping people have a lively faith in Jesus.
My team and I find that the majority of people we work with have little concept of God. Faith just isn’t part of their lives or of the estate’s culture.
We are starting a long way back, slowly building trust and establishing relationships where people can be open with us and to the Gospel. This takes time, patience and perseverance.
Often people have had a very mixed experience of relationships, but many are now sharing more deeply their struggles in life and the shedding of tears is not uncommon.
Through The Edge Community and its loving, relating, sharing and praying, local people are more conscious of God than they have been for years. Many individuals and families have been helped through hard times, and children are hearing week by week of God’s love, truth and plan for their lives.
John and Kyra have come out of addiction, have their children back and have made huge progress in their family life. They are a testimony to their determination, to God's power and much friendship and support. They and their girls are very much a part of all we do.
The Bible is now opened up where it was unheard before and families want one for themselves. Teachers have started attending church; Liz has begun to pray and Jack was in tears at the end of a recent holiday club – he couldn't come to the Sunday service as Granddad was taking him to the beach!
People are also being helped to address money problems: Sharyn looks forward to when she is debt free. Parents are supported in their child-caring: Donna has a new-found confidence that she can be a great mum.
So many broken lives, but where signs of healing and wholeness are seen day by day.
“You make me cry, you do!” said Clare, grateful for all the love and care we are able to give her.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:8 Paul writes: “We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the Gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”
To find out more about Richard’s work visit www.churcharmy.org.uk/richardcooke
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