Walking the Alpacas!

Recently I set off on a CMS weekend away in Birmingham as part of my Pioneering course. I reached Newbigin House at approximately 6 pm. It is in Winson Green, on Handsworth New Road and it is an old vicarage  situated fairly near to the prison and the street that featured in the infamous tv programme Benefit Street, which did not do it justice in my opinion. It is run as a community house, where anyone is welcome to come and share a meal and have company by Australians Anji and Ash Barker, who have had much experience of mission work, having worked in slums in Bangkok for many years. As I entered the house a youth group was just ending and it was still hectic with a large volume of people coming and going. 

The house had a very large lounge/dining room which was the hub. As time went on whilst sitting in that room there was a great ebb and flow of people that came and went in and out like a tide. It was overwhelming at first. A pug called Yoda ran around barking and someone had a Gecko on their lap and I asked if could hold it. I was given a coffee by John, who cooks and makes coffee and does hospitality and everyone was very welcoming. I noticed a sign saying “Beware of the Alpacas!” which confused me even more. This became self-explanatory later! It was a very hectic start to the weekend.

Other people gradually began to arrive from our CMS group and we more than filled the room and had dinner perching around where we could stand or sit or find a space on the floor. After dinner we went into the yurt in the garden which they use as a Church and it started to snow. It felt strange to be in a yurt in the middle of Birmingham as you would usually associate it with a more rural setting. Once inside though it was so peaceful and a wonderful prayer space lit by fairly lights. I loved the way we sat in a close circle, chair to chair, all equal as brothers and sisters in Christ. At times the peace and quiet was pierced by the sound of a passing siren and I remembered where we were.

We shared what we hoped to get from the weekend and prayed. Ash shared his story. Then we drove to the convent where we were staying; St Mary’s convent, Hansworth. Others were staying at Newbigin house and in the yurt. The convent wasn’t as I imagined but more like a cosy hotel, and the nuns wore normal clothes. In the morning we had breakfast with them and looked in their chapel. They were so warm and friendly. We drove back to Newbigin house. 

We heard the story of two guys who live there Jay and Christopher and what Newbigin house and Anji and Ash have done for them and I felt very emotional. One had been in the nearby prison two years ago and met Ash as he was prison chaplain so when he came out Ash had a flat ready for him and supported him and helped him work out his gifts. He had a dream of a clothing company and was helped by Anji and Ash to make it a reality. It is www.eeverse.co.uk. The other was a drug addict trying to get rehab and met Ash who supported him and helped with a new vision for a concrete business. If it goes well he can afford to bring his family over from Barbados. His website will be up and running soon too.  They both love God now and have been discipled along the way by Ash and Anji.

Anji then told us about many of the things she runs from the house including her cooking project and how the ladies get rewarded by a volunteer incentive scheme called  Zlto https://zlto.co  which was invented in South Africa and they piloted and helped to launch in the UK, as they aren’t allowed to pay them until they have a visa.  Later we went to a Sikh Gadwara for research. We had to cover our heads with scarves and take off our shoes and sit on the floor. All the ladies had to sit on one side of the room and all the men on the other. It was just ending as we arrived and there was a wedding going on.  It was so bright in there as everything was orange and blue. They offered us lunch and were very hospitable and friendly and kind to us. They said they always make lunch every day and anyone is welcome. I asked the lady what she would do if the food ran out and she said she would make more from scratch. They talked to us about their faith.

Then we went to a mosque for research and talked to them about their faith. It was nice to be able to come together and concentrate on the things that we had in common rather than our differences. I think we could learn a lot about hospitality from both groups.Later I walked the Alpacas: Angel and Muffin which Anji and Ash use to engage local children on the way to and from school. It was fairly bizarre walking them down the street in the middle of Birmingham. In the evening we were invited to a cooking event. Some of the ladies who are asylum seekers cooked a meal and taught us how to. We learnt to make some lovely dishes and it was a lot of fun. 

On Sunday two other residents Lizzie and Gwen told us their stories about what they do there. One likes to help with special needs and takes kids swimming and hires out the local pool and also does advocacy work and the other likes sports and plays football and does youth work in local parks. There are no youth groups or provisions in the area, she said.The weekend was so inspiring as Anji and Ash are showing God’s love to that community in real tangible ways and changing people’s lives. The nearby prison was very imposing and threatening and it was great to think that Newbigin House was there to give hope in that depressing setting. Their multi-generational household really works. It is such a deprived area with neighbouring houses with up to twenty people living there. I noticed there was very little green space in the area and a lot of rubbish everywhere.

It is so hectic at the house that I wondered how they cope. They said they have an upstairs lounge to get away from the madness and always take Mondays off and go off somewhere away from the house to recharge. Some people have described Ash as Rumpelstiltskin; making straw into Gold because he spots the talent and passion in people and is able to bring it out. They are an incredible couple, as are all the members of the household. 

On the way home as we drove home from Winson Green we passed a long shopping street that only had saris and gold jewellery shops and veg shops and there were none of the usual chain shops like boots, WHS etc. It was like a different world to mine. It was a life changing weekend for me. I learnt so much from everyone at Newbigin house about hospitality and fellowship and discipleship.