Meeting God in the City Centre

IMG_2825City centre life is full of buzz and activity; it is never dull. Peterborough Parish Church, where I am vicar, is in the heart of the city square and provides the backdrop to so many events, to markets, teenagers hanging about outside McDonalds, buskers and people sitting on benches. People come and go, pass by noticing and not noticing.

As with so many other urban centres we have seen a massive rise in the number of rough sleepers, taking up residence at night in shop doorways and then moving on as the day begins, only to return after hours to bed down again. Some sleep in the church porch. We pick up the cardboard used as a mattress, sometimes sharps from drug taking, and clear away the urine and other signs of bodily functions. Finding God in the city comes in the thick of life, not as an escape from it. In looking at this I want to explore briefly four areas: the city as a meeting place, a trading place, an hospitable place and a vulnerable place.

Human beings are social creatures. We are not made to be alone or for isolation. The Bible starts in a garden and ends in a city. It brings relating to the forefront of our living and as the story progresses so it also brings to the fore tensions and conflicts, love and passion, care and neglect, plotting and cooperating. Meeting others is at the heart of a city centre; it is what the public square is for. So ministering in the city centre is one of encounter and welcome. We become a physical presence where we hope people will be able to say, borrowing George Herbert’s phrase, ‘Love bade me welcome’.

A place of connecting is also at the heart of who we are in our life in Christ. We connect to God and one another as we are well placed to exhibit a ministry of peace proclaiming and making. This reflects God who comes among us in Christ Jesus, connecting and linking earth and heaven. He is, as St Paul put it, the mediator, the one who enables at-one-ment with the Father. And so all the opportunities the public square offers to connect, reconcile, speak peace when there are tensions or moments to stand in solidarity as we share the public platform with those of other faiths and none, these are held and brought deeply into the heart of God.

One of the ways human beings connect and build bridges is through trading. The exchange of goods and services, supplying needs and enrichment of living, through the produce of creativity and skills, these have led to the crossing of frontiers and barriers of land and sea, rivers and hills. The market square is a further expression, even a vehicle and engine of the connecting and reconciling. When nations fall out, when isolationist agendas are propagated it is the traders who bring us to our senses with the drive and incentive to free up the flow of goods sharing the ‘work of our hands’, and with these encounters ideas travel in the conversation.

The city centre is naturally a place for cultural and thought exchanges. With the meeting and trading comes the chance to talk. There are those who come and shout at passers by – usually threats of damnation and how God will judge them! There are those who rant and make lots of noise, drowning out any hope of thought or encounter. But not all. For others a diversity of celebrations and commemorations (and we see a lot of them) is an opportunity to learn and listen, to delight in new insights and share from treasure boxes our greatest hopes and thanksgivings (gold), our prayers (frankincense), our pains and healing (myrrh). Magi still call by. They are an opportunity to listen and speak, for not so much ‘spiritual capital’ as ‘spiritual currency’ of exchange.

Cafes, restaurants and bars abound. People come and relax, making the most of hospitality to share stories and laugh with friends and colleagues. Teenagers eat burgers and chips, chicken wings and bring their joy for life. People sit enjoying the fountains – small children delight in the playful spurts. Last summer I met a couple who were exercising their pet dragon on the grass outside the church while they enjoyed a beer from a bar across the road! In a city day trading turns to night economy and at best God’s goodness is shared, refreshment found and settings are restored. “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest… for he gives sleep to his beloved” (Psalm 127:2). Re-creation is found in the heart of the city, the soul re-found, as trading place becomes hospitable place, and we reflect the hospitality and generosity of God.

Not everyone in the city, though, delights to be there or is there with purpose. Some, as mentioned at the beginning, are there because there is nowhere else to go. They sleep in shop doorways because they have no bed, can’t cope with the environment of the hostel or their complex needs are too much for them to handle. On my way to buy a paper at the beginning of the year I counted 15 rough sleepers in shop doorways around the city square. This is just the tip of a much bigger picture, there are so many more in tents by the river, in bushes and in the outlying streets. The churches have clubbed together to provide a pop up Winter Night Shelter which progresses round a different church or hall each night. A Christian charity of which I am a trustee, working in partnership with the city council, GPs, housing and benefits advisors is offering a pilot scheme for a day centre using a property in the Cathedral Precincts. As soon as it opened the need was clear, as was the commitment to make it work. Outreach workers spend time with those sleeping rough to help them begin that long journey from despair to hope, from abandon to purpose. And it is a long journey to travel from someone being in a place where they just don’t have the energy, the drive to summon the effort to rise up on their own. This does not come with a leaflet or a referral. It comes much more slowly and is helped by being truly present, truly alongside, truly incarnational. A church in the city square doesn’t commute or visit, it is there 24/7. It lives among those who share the space.

Some are there because they are lonely and some are easily led astray or befriended by those who wish them harm, highly vulnerable to be exploited. There are those who cry out without words and who will only open up if they feel safe to do so. Chaplains with time to talk, with an imaginative piece of artwork that opens conversations stand a chance. But not all respond or are easy to reach. We pray for those who are around us, not knowing what the intention of that prayer is beyond their wellbeing, their life being held in and by Christ and God’s peace to bless them. Our prayers open a channel of grace as we intercede, connecting and sending the power of God’s love.

As we encounter the vulnerability of the others we learn about our own vulnerability. A market place of faiths and ideas means Christian presence has no monopoly or right to be heard even from an historic base; our voice has to be earned in the present. It is the compassionate heart that gives this voice credibility, not least with civic leaders. It is a presence 24/7 that abides in this place, not just during office hours or on fleeting visits. When everyone else goes home we are still here and often on the front line. Incarnational ministry means being there, this is our dwelling place, where we point to heaven and earth meeting in the buzz and loneliness, the hurrying and pausing, in the being rooted or having no where else to go.

Presence in the heart of the city is a beacon ministry, much of which we never see. It is one of making connections and facilitating connections, of meeting, hosting and caring, so that the reconciling love of God in Christ may breath out blessing and hope. God is found in the bustle and being present where it bites rather than at a distance or remote location. This ‘touching place’ is where heaven meets earth as it really is and where its need of redemption is clear.

First published in Franciscan, volume 31, number 2, May 2019

About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus' (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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