BY HANNAH BARR
YOU ARE LOVED
Outside of my work for Viva I help lead the youth work at my church in Oxford and last month I took some teenagers to the Christian festival, Soul Survivor, which involved camping for five days.
Now, I hate camping. It is not something I consider fun and even if you like camping, I imagine it slightly loses its appeal when you’re camping with around 9,000 teenagers. The state of the toilets still haunts me.
And I was just having a bit of a grumble to God one morning about how much I hate camping when I looked over to my young people just hanging out with each other. And in particular I saw my super cool 17 year-old boy playing a game with my phenomenally energetic 12 year-old girl – they were interacting with each other so wonderfully, and I was watching what my other young people were doing, and the woes and horrors of camping just evaporated.
And all I could say to God was, “God, I just love them so much!” When we love something, we can’t ignore it, we feel compelled to respond. I love the teenagers in my youth group and I know how much they love going to Soul Survivor and so how could I not take them? And actually one of the things they get from being taken is the affirmation that they are loved; that someone would do this for them.
At Doorsteps, Viva’s Oxford-based partner network, we run a project called Find Your Fire which is all about supporting young people who are struggling, who have really low self-esteem and whose future looks desperate. When youth workers come alongside them and mentor them, taking time to invest in them, to show them care and compassion and love, it changes them.
I was chatting to one of my colleagues recently about the difference between the young people at the start of Find Your Fire and at the end of it. These young people stand taller, they have more confidence. At the celebration day one of them was taking me through a list of things they’d done that day and said to me, “I couldn’t have done this without Find Your Fire.”
Now they actively look forward to what the future holds because someone put love in action to come alongside them and help them realise their potential.
And this love in action is twofold: first it’s us as Doorsteps and the practical things we do to show them how much we care. And second, it’s the young people themselves realising that there are people who care for them, who champion them, and who love them.
YOU HAVE HOPE
It would be wonderful if just knowing that we are loved solved everything. At Doorsteps we don’t underestimate the impact of it because we see the effect it has on people. However, what so many of the people we encounter lack is hope.
The catalyst for Doorsteps’ creation was Operation Bullfinch, which was an investigation into child sexual exploitation in Oxford and one of the hostels where girls were being abused was just round the corner from Viva’s head office.
And if you were familiar with the case or have read anything or watched anything on some of the other high-profile grooming scandals, such as in Rochdale and Rotherham, they offer just a small insight into an utterly abhorrent situation where primarily young girls were just subjected to appalling treatment.
I was speaking recently to someone who knew one of the girls who had been groomed and this person had listened to her tell her everything that had happened to her. And when she finished, she asked her, “what was the worst part?” And the girl replied, “hearing the central locking of the car go down.” Because that was the point at which she felt hope was lost.
Those words just floor me every time I remember them. And that point of hope being lost appears again and again in the stories of those who were targeted in these gangs around the country.
Losing hope is the story I hear from young people at the start of Find Your Fire. Losing hope is the story I hear from the families waiting to be matched with a befriender in Doorsteps’ family befriending project. Losing hope is the story I hear from around the county in response to children’s centres being shut down.
And yet, as a Christian I fervently hold to those amazing words in the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’
My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps in any capacity is that they will know that despair is not the end of the story, that there is always hope.
We live in a society that writes people off if they don’t seem to measure up and this attitude just leaves despair in its wake. And yet hope, Christian hope, is inextricably linked with joy and it inspires perseverance.
If I manage to achieve only one thing as Doorsteps Project Manager then I hope it is this: showing people that there is always hope. For just as you are loved, so you always have hope.
YOU ARE NOT ALONE
Love and hope are marvellous and wonderful and not to be underestimated; they are central to the message of God in Christ. But it is not simply enough to tell people this good news – we need to live it.
As Christians, as people who know the love and hope of God, means we cannot but show this same love and hope to others. But how best to go about doing this?
The way Viva works is through networks – around the world, partnerships of churches and other organisations work together for the good of others. The founder of Viva was volunteering in Bolivia in the early 1990s and he found that on a Monday evening there were all these different churches providing food for homeless children but then they weren’t there for the rest of the week, so from Tuesday to Sunday these children starved. Through the simple act of connecting these churches, the children were fed more often.
One of the things that I find in my job is that it is such a comfort to know I am not alone. I work with some great people to deliver these projects, but I know that Doorsteps is not alone in its dream to see children and young people reach their potential.
For the young people taking part in Find Your Fire, for the families who are really struggling and who we are hoping our family befriending scheme will support: they similarly need the comfort to know that they are not alone. And we can and should practically make this real to people.
To be shown that you are not alone is love in action; it sustains people through hope. It shows people they belong. In belonging, we meet again the God who is love, the God who loves so much that he inspires those who love him to look out for the least, the last, and the lost, and to bring them into belonging.
Romans chapter 10 says: ‘Be devoted to one another in love… Be joyful in hope and patient in affliction… Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.’ These are challenging words which if we act on them, live our lives by them, change the lives of those around us for the better.
My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps – the marginalised teenagers, the struggling families – is that they will know that they are loved, that they have hope, and that they are not alone.
This blog post is adapted from a sermon that Hannah gave at Dorchester Abbey in September 2017, referencing the passages, Jeremiah 15: 15-21 and Romans 12: 9-21.