At Together for the Common Good we think everyone needs to play their part to strengthen the bonds of social trust. Every one of us is called to make a unique contribution, a "vocational responsibility” to put Common Good principles into practice and to work with others of different opinions, classes and backgrounds. So we are delighted that Steph Neville has given us permission to share her experience - the story of a vocation unfolding in unexpected ways, and the positive impact this is having on everyone involved.
I really believe in the idea of vocation. Not as a prescribed direction we have to find and follow, nor in the narrow sense of a professional vocation, but as the gradual and continual seeking out of God's will for our lives. Contrary to how it is sometimes presented in certain sections of the church, I don't think there is a list of 'vocations' that some people have and others don't ... I believe we all have a vocation – a vocational responsibility to which God calls each of us uniquely.
Vocation is, I think, about discovering those things which make us feel most fully alive. It is the meeting place where our unique talents, gifts and skills, that which brings us joy and satisfaction and the things that do good in the world come together in harmony. If we're really lucky, it is also something that pays the bills!
A number of years ago during a workshop in Taizé, I discovered my vocation to be a teacher. I had already been working as a teaching assistant for a few months, and was due to start another similar post a few months later. But it was there, in the midst of a reflection on Caravaggio's The Calling of Saint Matthew, that I knew teaching was the direction I wanted to go. It is the closest I have come to hearing the voice of God in a very immediate way and is a moment I have not forgotten. A copy of the picture hangs above my desk. Come that autumn, it felt like everything fell into place. A year later I began teacher training, and another year on I began my first teaching job. I knew this was what I wanted to do. When we moved to Birmingham and I was looking for work there was not even a blink of hesitation, I knew that I would teach.
It was this love of, this vocation for, teaching which first took me to the doors of St Chad's Sanctuary. I didn't approach the Sanctuary because of a passion for working with and supporting refugees and asylum seekers. It is hard to recall exactly, but I was, I suspect, deeply ignorant of the related issues. I went because someone had mentioned that they needed English teachers and I thought I could probably help.
Much later, I was faced with a choice – to take on a formal position at St Chad's Sanctuary. It would of course involve teaching: I wouldn't be giving that up entirely, but it was certainly a change of direction, and of priorities. There was much soul-searching. Partly because I was giving up a stable job for one which was distinctly precarious, but also because I was moving away from teaching in the traditional sense. I don't think it changed the realities of my earlier discovery of my vocation to teach: rather, my calling was being extended – a reminder that vocational responsibility is a journey not a destination, and mine was now taking me down a different, exciting road.
I am coming to the end of my third year working at the Sanctuary, and in some ways my role is unrecognisable from how it began. This has not been a static vocation but a journey of discovery and adventure. It has been an honour to have had the freedom to develop new ideas, to bring much of myself, my own passions and gifts (as well as my own failings) to this place that I love. It is a privilege that my vocation has been shaped by so many precious encounters and beautiful relationships.
Family learning didn't exist at all when I first started, and the growth of first the Learn and Play group for parents and pre-schoolers, and then the Little School project for newly arrived children waiting for school has been a source of great joy (and only occasional stress!) We have seen more and more families getting involved, growing from our first family trip with five mums and eight children to our most recent trip with 37 parents and 78 children ... and it has all been truly beautiful!
I have had all sorts of opportunities to try out different creative teaching strategies, not least in the creation of Home, a play which took over much of my life for a term; I have worked with groups of students to produce newsletters celebrating their love of the Sanctuary; I have answered queries, listened to stories across the whole spectrum of human experience, and visited all sorts of places – all in the company of some wonderful people. I have tasted delicious food and watched friendships blossom. I have learned far, far more than I have taught.
Most of all perhaps, I have had the privilege of standing alongside some of the most courageous, resilient and hope-filled people, in a place which has provided a safe space for tears, as well as lots and lots of laughter. In so doing, the vocational responsibility I feel I’m being called to live has unfolded, and I am excited to discover what more may lie ahead.
Steph Neville is a teacher who lives in an intentional ecumenical Christian community based in a Birmingham city centre church. As part of her life there she is committed to a regular routine of prayer, to living together with others, to a ministry of hospitality and to volunteering in the local community. It was this volunteering which took her to St Chad's Sanctuary where she teaches English to Asylum Seekers and Refugees, and which led to her being inspired by the people she met and becoming passionate to help those caught up in the asylum system.