Handling a fight in Peckham, sharing life with prostitutes in Amsterdam’s red light district; next stop the Church of England?
Lucy Cooper (published in Liberti Magazine) talks to Rachel Jordan about building community through churches, while keeping mission in sharp focus.
Passionate about mission and sharing hope with those who don’t yet know Jesus, Dr Rachel Jordan has a clear vision. She recently started a new fulltime role as the Church of England's National Mission and Evangelism Advisor and is part of the leadership team of HOPE. In a context which could be filled with committee meetings and church politics, Rachel is determined to keep her feet firmly on the ground in active mission. “I can’t talk to others about taking risks, facing fears, and building community and stop being actively involved myself”, she says.
A girl of action by nature, Rachel has been shaped by life experiences that have taken her out of her comfort zone. She grew up in a Brethren church and at just 11 years old she led a church (of sorts) without realising it. “People ask, ‘Have you ever planted a church?’ I think leading ‘Our faith’ club in my grandparents’ chicken shed would probably count.” Encouraging others in prayer and Bible reading, mission became a life-style.
“During senior school, I began a girls’ group, trying to disciple my friends who had come to faith. God would put a girl on my heart to pray for and something positive would happen with her.”
At 18, Rachel took her first 'year out' of many. She volunteered to work on a double-decker bus that ran as a mobile youth centre. At 19, Rachel was a staff worker at a hostel for homeless young people in Peckham, run by Oasis. “I was working in ‘murder mile’ and had no experience" she recalls.
“Picture the scene: We had a full-blown fight on our hands – the only members of staff on duty that night were myself and another young woman. We were two young girls running round in Bridget Jones-type fleecy pyjamas trying to control the situation. One guy barricaded in the living room and the other causing havoc, wanting to beat him up. The police arrived and asked ‘Who is in charge?’”
A year later, Rachel felt she was being called to Amsterdam’s red light district. She soon began ministering to people in desperate situations with YWAM (Youth with a Mission). “I loved just being a friend to people who no-one else wanted to be friends with. I would attempt leading worship on a guitar in Dutch at a service mostly attended by drug addicts.”
“The level of sadness and brokenness in that neighbourhood is beyond anything I have ever experienced.
One night I met a lady sobbing in the street at 2am. ‘Are you alright?’ I said. She stared at me and said ‘Why did you ask me that? No one has ever asked me that before.’ All I could do was show her one moment of love, buy a coffee and listen.
“I had an idea that instead of Christians providing a project, why not begin something that helps the community of this broken neighbourhood feel better about themselves and at the same time they can mix with us?
“The prostitutes waited tables, homeless people washed up and gay chefs from local restaurants did the cooking, the start up funding came from a leader of the Dutch equivalent of the Mafia! The supermarket provided day-old food and we operated as a wonderful community. Everyone loved it and we discussed faith while peeling potatoes. It was one of the most exciting things I have ever led and it totally formed my views on mission.”
Even now Rachel spends much of her time in community with a group of people who run different projects to bring about social transformation. For the last year she led a group of women to work in the Marylebone Project, a hostel for homeless women run by Church Army. “We made jewellery with the women, shared life, friendship and faith.” she says.
Due to work commitments one of Rachel’s team now leads this group but Rachel continues to visit and run a film club there; popcorn, chic flicks, friendship and laughter! “The women in the hostel are utterly adorable, to lose them would be like losing part of my heart.” Rachel claims.
Rachel studied Church History and gained inspiration from historic women leaders. She discovered the writings of Catherine Booth, who co-founded the Salvation Army.
“I sat and cried in a library archive when reading ‘The right of women to preach the Gospel’. Why did nobody tell me that this woman sorted this out 150 years ago?”
Rachel went on to do a PHd which looked at women church planters from 1900 to 1959. “People joked: ‘you won’t find many...that’s gonna be short’. But they existed – unreported, amazing ladies, heroines of faith forgotten in old people’s homes.”
These women grew churches from scratch to 50 members by focusing on relationships and serving others. “They would spend their time nursing the dying till 2am as there wasn’t a hospice, explains Rachel. "There was no time to write a sermon, but no-one would complain because they all knew what the lady had been doing with her week: living it out.”
With most of the population writing off church as boring or irrelevant, Rachel is calling on each of us to be involved in reaching out to others creatively.
“Church can become too focused on Sunday services; having the best worship and getting the best preaching. But this ends up being a consumerist approach and can take all our time, instead of serving the wider community or just being with non-Christian people.” “Where is the majority of our energy and resources spent? Is it maintaining our current churches or growing in outreach?”
Rachel is involved in supporting new Fresh Expressions of church. They are formed when Christians build new faith communities anywhere, from skate parks to social justice groups or even crotchet clubs. “Transformation in our communities will happen if we can get over the fear barrier of sharing our faith with others and look at doing things differently - working with other locals.," she says. "It could be a photo exhibition or bringing faith chats into mum and toddler groups. Mission and Church should never be divorced - they are inseparable.”
“I work with the HOPE team, to encourage the whole Church to share their faith through words and actions, because I am a great believer in 'team'. When we think outside of our one-church bubble something happens on a bigger scale. We must put aside traditional barriers and work together to bring the Christian message of hope to all, especially in a time of recession and hardship.”