Parish Power

Parish Power began as a sort of modern parable on reading the Signs of the Times:

A personal journey

Kevin is a man who’d been a real success in life. He’d gone to work on a building site straight from school, worked hard, developed a range of skills and made enough money for himself and his family to live comfortably, with cars and holidays taken for granted.   Years passed and he ended up owning his own construction company.  More years passed and he amalgamated with a bigger company, took off his overalls, put on a suit and became a senior manager.  But bad times were only just round the corner.  A slump began in the building trade and soon he was fighting for his job.  He’s now an older man.  He costs more to employ.  He doesn’t climb ladders quite so well.  He can’t carry the same weight of bricks.   He doesn’t bend as flexibly as he used to.  He is heading for the scrap heap.

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Months later, when he’s signing on down at Social Security Kevin notices that there are a lot of people of his age in the same mess that he’s in.   He notices that there are a lot of young people in the same predicament.   The older people have lots of skills but are considered too old to be employable whereas the young people are too unskilled to be offered work.   He puts two and two together.   He realises that if he could put the older, skilled tradesmen together with the younger unskilled men, the older men could have work by passing on their skills and the younger men would become more employable once they’d developed some new skills.  Like a lot of good ideas, it’s simple.

He thinks about his good idea, writes a business plan and takes it around his contacts in the building trade to see if they are interested.  But he gets no joy.  Times are hard and there’s no profit in helping people get off the scrap heap.  What can he do next?  Forget about it?  Give up?  Say his prayers?  Have another drink?  Go to the allotment?  Decorate the living room?  Maybe he does all of the above for a time but his good idea niggles like a burning bush in his mind and he keeps mentioning it to people.  One day he is at a session on Catholic Social Teaching and he hears similar sorts of ideas coming from the church.  He mentions his big idea once again and to his surprise this time he is being listened to.

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Saving energy - working with parishes

A small team of helpers gathered round him and a scheme was hammered out.   Called ‘Parish Power’, it will explore the idea that parishes offer access to hard to reach communities.  It will be positioned in the RC diocese as a sub-group of the Justice & Peace Commission.  It will do two things:

  1. help parishes develop an energy policy that saves money by saving on energy use,
  2. help parishioners to do the same by training volunteers to sign-post people to expert advice.

What is immediately noticeable is that the actual project does not match the lofty ambition of the big idea. It is, however, practical, achievable and church based.  It is a beginning.

The small team that gathered around Kevin was made up of the Justice and Peace fieldworker from the archdiocese, who had been leading the Catholic Social Teaching class, and the administrator of Faiths4Change who have been long term partners in the environmental work of the J&P Commission.  The funding came from CUF, thanks to assistance from the Anglican diocese of Liverpool’s Department of Social Responsibility who have a long standing relationship with the J&P fieldworker.  Access to funding made it possible to bring in a third partner, Energy Projects Plus (EPP) who would provide the expertise on energy prices, insulation and other technical matters.  (EPP were known to F4C.)  The formation of this team, and the access to funding and expertise that it made possible, show the importance of relationships between different bodies who are working in the same area and sharing similar concerns.  These relationships had been built up by mutually respectful conversations.

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This initial work was done in the Kensington Fairfield area of Liverpool. The aspiration of training a group ofparishioners to become ‘energy champions’ proved over-optimistic.  The consensus among the team was that the main block was a lack of self-confidence rather than a lack of time or expertise. It seems that depressed areas produce depressed people.  The most dynamic and fruitful encounters were not in the parish rooms but in the schools, with parents who had been invited in early before they came to collect their children.  Here, the parents shared their own stories, both of successful rebates and of strategies for managing budgets, and were happy to be guided through price comparison web sites to find the cheapest energy.

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Food and well-being – working with schools

Parish Power moved into a second phase on growing food and other plants ... heating was followed by eating.  This involved the same core team with funding provided by Natural Choices, an initiative of Mersey Forest and Liverpool NHS Primary Care Trust and Liverpool City Council as part of the Decade of Health and Well-being.

The project was in the same locations with the same pattern of success.  Work in the schools went well whereas work in the parish went slowly.  The schools produced a variety of outcomes, including lots of hands-on experience of gardening.  African bag gardens and wooden planters were built and delivered to pupils’ homes.  In the parish, many pots of seeds were germinated and an area of garden was reclaimed. 

After this work, Kevin was recruited into EPP to work on one of their projects that had fallen behind schedule.   During this time he opened negotiations with the church in Widnes but found that although there was a lot of support in theory, in practice, church reorganisation was the priority.  What has remained from this time is the presence of energy advisers at Food Banks in Widnes.  He also gave an input on fuel poverty to the J&P Annual Assembly ‘Coping with the Cuts’.

Hubs of Hope

Parish Power’s third stage is to try to develop an integrated approach to well-being.  Well-being is a fashionable term at the moment but it is typically being offered by people who are in receipt of funding.  One of the strengths of the churches is that they are there whether or not there’s funding available. 

This part of the project is being called Hubs of Hope.   It will be a three year project based at St Austin’s, in St Helens, where Kevin carries out his diaconal ministry, emphasising that is part of the work of the parish. 

Some lessons

  • It’s easier to do things for people than to do things with people.
  • It’s easy to be led into places you didn’t mean to go because that’s where the funding leads.
  • Growing people is more difficult and long term than growing plants.
  • The rich relationships that supported the start of the project are needed to support the continuation of the project.
  • Rich relationships such as those that supported the individuals at the start of the project are needed to support the groups who are the stimulus for the project.
  • Groups need the same faithfulness in relationships that individuals need.
  • Push on the doors that open.
  • Catholic Social Teaching needs to get its hands dirty.
Steve Atherton
Justice & Peace Commission
Liverpool Archdiocese

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