Growing Life in Little Hulton

by Kathleen LaCamera

A version of this article is included in the US published “Amazing Gifts: Stories of Faith, Disability and Inclusion – Alban Institute Press, 2012

A chance meeting at a community support center got British Methodist church worker, Pat Culpan, talking to health improvement worker Paul Foster.  

Paul, employed by the government-funded local health service, was in the process of starting a men’s health group, to support people with both physical and mental disabilities.  Pat, as a church-funded “community cohesion” worker, was looking for opportunities for area Methodist churches to help local people living in one of the most deprived areas of England’s northern city of Salford. Knowing at that very moment a small local Methodist chapel was tittering on the edge of closing its doors, Pat had an idea.   

What grew out of their conversation that day was an innovative partnership in which a church, with a tiny aging membership, offered space to a group of self-declared “misfits” in need of refuge.  Almost three years on, this collaboration between congregation, local government and support group participants has resulted in nothing short of new life in this Salford neighborhood known as Little Hulton. 

Without fail every Friday morning around 10am, members of the men’s health group begin trickling into the Cleggs Lane Methodist church’s main hall.  They range in age from 19-65 and they bring with them physical and mental challenges ranging from epilepsy to depression, addiction to autism. 

Paul’s determination to start the group, and the church’s commitment to support it, came from seeing first-hand how few men in the area, suffering with physical and mental illness actually sought out help or medical treatment. Many ended up isolated, unemployed and spiralling into increasingly debilitating ill-health. According to the local borough’s own statistics, Little Hulton suffers from high levels of crime, unemployment and ranks among the most “health deprived” communities in the UK.

It took three weeks for Paul to get group member, Arnie out of the church’s front doorway into the meeting hall when he first came to the group.  The death of five of his children from a genetic disorder before their 9th birthdays, had plunged Arnie into deep depression. Osteoarthritis in his legs from a lifetime of working outside, lost him his job and further chipped away at his sense of value and self-worth.  

Fellow group member, Craig has spent all of his 29 years suffering with epilepsy. It’s kept him virtually trapped in his home, missing out on education, work and friendships others take for granted. During the second week of the group’s meetings, Craig suffered a seizure which landed him unconscious on the floor.  

25 year-old Gary lives with motor skill disabilities and autism. He barely spoke a word when he first came to the group and couldn’t look a soul in the eye. 

For these men and many others, group has been nothing short of transforming.     

Some Fridays the meetings tackle specific topics that deal directly with health issues within the group: addiction, depression, disabling conditions. Sometimes there’s a group walk. The first of those walks took 2 hour to cover little more than a mile – now members can manage a much as 6 miles. Some are even planning to climb one of Britain’s highest peaks, Mount Snowdon, in the near future. 

Other weeks the meetings are less structured with more time to socialize, play board games and simply enjoy each other’s company.  No matter what, there is always a moment of “table fellowship” when several plates stacked high with hot buttered toast seal the morning ritual. 

Shy, quiet Gary now is “the one” who gets all the toast and tea ready. It not just a task he’s responsible for, it’s a role that gives him a sense of value and belonging. He now smiles and chats easily as he lays out the platters before the waiting group.  Watching Arnie and Craig joking around with Granville (who had a quintuple heart bypass and suffers with asbestoses), Alan (also known as “Sketch” because he is constantly drawing) and Stuart (recovering from depression and alcoholism), it’s easy to forget that isolation, pain and loss have devastated their lives.  

“This group has changed my life,” says Craig.  “It’s got me out of the house and mixing with lots of people and built my confidence.” 

After watching Craig suffer an epileptic episode, group members asked for help organising first aid training. Now when Craig has episodes during meetings or when they are out together on a trip, the men – without fuss or drama - look after him, putting Craig in the recovery position, making sure he is safe and properly looked after until he comes around. 

Without fail, these men say it’s the support and friendship of those who share an understanding of what they’ve been through that keeps them coming back.  That, and a deep down good feeling that comes when they have helped someone else in the group. 

“Ah, I feel fantastic at times when I leave here” says Stuart who has taken on a leadership role in the group. He represents the men’s group at board meetings and has helped make the case for support for the project to area health service decision makers. He confesses that only three years ago - when he had hit rock bottom estranged from children, unemployed, severely depressed and barely able walk to the corner store for a packet of cigarettes – the notion he could actually do something valuable for someone else, was inconceivable.   

“When I’ve been to the group and spoken to someone and it’s helped them, it’s spreading good things back into the community and into the church.  It’s what’s been missing for me.  Three years ago I felt as if I had nothing to offer anyone.  It was there but I didn’t know how to access it.  People here have helped me and I want to pass that on.”  

The Friday meetings quickly spawned a Thursday allotment or gardening group which is open to both men and women.  The land behind the Cleggs Lane Church building was such a mass of weeds, brambles and trash, it was called “the wilderness”. The men’s group spent a number of months painstakingly clearing it and making it ready to grow vegetables and other plants. They also took it upon themselves do some long over-due upkeep on the church exterior and grounds in general. 

“The church has never charged any fees for heat or electricity,” explained Cleggs Lane’s pastor, the Rev. Philip Brooks.  “The men in the group started ministering to our elderly congregation right from the start doing things around the church. 

Those “things” include painting, repairing, helping set up for events and clearing out long neglected corners of the building. They even dug out and hung up Christmas and other seasonal decorations that older congregation members had been unable to manage for some years.   

Brooks calls this a “holistic approach to ministry”.  It’s an investment in partnership with a group that has become part of the church family, rather than just a tenant using church space.  

“The whole experience has opened the church up,” reports Rev. Brooks.  “Others in this very deprived local community have seen what’s going on and said ‘here’s a church that accepts people as they are and doesn’t want anything in return.’ For me this is a model of service mission.” 

But Rev. Brooks would be the first to tell you that it’s been a learning process for all involved that the process wasn’t “completely perfect.” Long-time church members were hesitant about opening their doors to a rather ragtag bunch of guys with a history of debilitating physical and mental illness. And then there was the fact that they didn’t show up on a Sunday mornings.  But over time things changed and church members and group members got to know and invest in each other.  

At this year’s annual Harvest service, the men’s group donated the fresh vegetables they grew on the allotment to decorate the altar.  During the service group members talked about what it has meant to them to grow those vegetables and to be part of the church’s men’s group.  

“It was a great example of the worshipping and practical side of ministry coming together,” says Rev. Brooks. “And if the church had been in a stronger position, if the men hadn’t been in a position of real need, then this wouldn’t have happened.” 

So what might the future hold for this innovative cooperative venture?  

Local doctors have begun referring or “socially prescribing” the group for their patients.  They’ve seen that those taking part have become less drug dependent, more self-confident, and less in need of medications for a variety of conditions. It supports a growing understanding among health care professionals in the UK that social inclusion - people finding their way back into the mainstream of society – is a key to recovery from both physical and mental illness.   

Church worker Pat Culpan, who brought the men’s group and Cleggs Lane church together, has been hard at work getting the church’s newest project off the ground:  a once a week community drop-in café at Cleggs Lane.  Members of the men’s group have trained up in food hygiene and will help run the café, adding to their experience, marketable skills and confidence as they make their way back into the life at the heart, rather than in the margins, of their community.   

Clegg Lane’s student pastor, Alan McGougan, has been so “personally transformed” by the experience of working alongside the men’s group, that he has decided to take on a full-time position with another congregation in Scotland eager to “take the walls of their church out into the community.”

And Paul Foster, having set up and facilitated the men’s group for several years, has moved on to set up a similar project in another north Salford neighborhood. 

Stuart and another group member called Dominic, have been recent guest speakers at a regional gathering of church pastors talking about how the men’s group worked at Cleggs Lane, and how others might create similar partnership in their own parishes. Local radio has also been out to talk to the group about what they are doing and how it has transformed their lives. 

And finally, drawing on the experience at Clegg Lane, Methodists at another small church down the road, have begun working in partnership with the local mental health trust. They are hosting relaxation sessions for church members, trust patients and the general public. The Trust’s staff chaplain, Rev. Kathleen Loughlin, leads the group. She hopes the partnership will both add to the life of a local church with dwindling resources as well as help those struggling with mental health conditions find their way back into the community.     

Looking back at a time when the church members had actually voted to close the doors at Cleggs Lane’s, pastor Philip Brooks marvels at the unexpected road they have travelled together as partners and pilgrims.  Paraphrasing British writer Kester Brewin in his book, The Complex Christ, he says, “this kind of ministry is all about being prepared to risk a relationship where nobody knows where they are going to end up. That’s where God works.”  

Note: Since this article was written, a number additional groups and collaborations have grown out of Cleggs Lane including a community workshop group, a 2 twice weekly community café, an Arts and Crafts group, a Carers Support Group (collaboration with local mental health professionals), Mentoring/volunteer training, food service/volunteer training to name a few.  A new purpose built community center/worship space is scheduled to break bround in 2018.  Watch for more details!)

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