This is the front page article in the Baptist Times written by Mark Woods about a project called Tree of Life. I am the artist in residence of this project over the next 12 months…
It’s mission, but not as we know it, writes Mark Woods A BAPTIST church in Birmingham is determined not to let its horizons be bounded by tumbledown premises and an uncertain future. Chelmsley Wood Baptist Church’s building needs £600,000 spending on it after the local council pulled out of a community refurbishment project, and the small congregation is faced with closing it and selling the land. The community is in the 10 per cent of the country’s most deprived wards, with all the associated problems. But rather than going into survival mode, the congregation has embarked on an imaginative venture which minister Neil Roberts (pictured, right) stresses is ‘not about getting people to come to church – it’s about helping them explore God’. Last week it launched Tree of Life, an art, storytelling, pilgrimage and spirituality project which Neil hopes will reconnect the church with people who’d never given it a thought – though they’re open to the idea of God and spiritual things. Tree of Life is based on Proverbs 3:18, which says ‘Wisdom is a tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold on her will be blessed.’ Over the coming year the church will work with BUGB vice-president Chris Duffett as its community artist and storyteller Ruth Moore, among others. Chris will work with local people to produce sculpture and painting, and there will be workshops in schools and with adults, linking in with a local secular storytelling event. Later in the year there will be community outings, or ‘trips for the spiritual tourist’, one to a Well Dressing and another to a cathedral. The church has a tent so it can be represented at community events, and it will be offering workshops on meditation and prayer. ‘The church has succeeded in making the most fantastic life changing news either into some weird specialist interest group or some dull non-event,’ Neil says. ‘Tree of Life isn’t a evangelism project, there are no rallies and no surreptitious attempts to get people to go to church on Sunday. ‘It is about offering people genuine spiritual experiences in the real world, and about growing spirituality within the community, giving people opportunities and skills to seek out and find God. I want us to get spirituality back into community life. ‘I’m attracted to the monastic model, where you have a high-profile community of faith, and people aren’t part of it but they know it’s there. So all of us become the community’s ministers.’ And Chris’s approach is to engage people rather than confront them. ‘I’m not trying to convert people,’ he says. ‘It’s great if people get it, I’d love it if people can have what I have. But if we go out with that intention, people will smell a rat. ‘It has to start a lot further back. This is about ploughing, and making sense of the spiritual experiences people already have. We want to use the language people are familiar with.’ Among other things, Chris will spent a day on local buses talking to people and creating pictures for them. He’ll also be involving people in creating ‘land art’ out of objects ranging from rocks to piles of leaves. ‘This is a new thing for me, and I’m enjoying it,’ he says. ‘This is art from the heart.’ Tree of Life is supported by the Heart of England Baptist Association for two years, and Neil hopes to secure longer-term funding. ‘We’ll carry on with the fundraising for the building and look to God to provide,’ Neil says. ‘More importantly, we want to follow him, we want to see him transform our broken estate, and we know that he will give us what we need. He’s planted the Tree of Life here, we know he won’t let it die.’
The Tree of Life web site can be found here.