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“Does anyone want a game….?”

After a little discussion, a nervous young person steps forward and picks up the bat to face me. I smile, wipe the sweat from my forehead and serve. I spent the next couple of hours in sporting combat with several young people and adults from the church and the local community. I met my match in the Church Pastor’s son-in-law, Claudio, who, it turns out, was a local table tennis champion! It was great to get to know some of the young people and talk to them about their lives and answer their questions about mine and why I had come to visit them.

One of the young people asked me how old I was. Now, my standard response this question is to ask them what they think? This normally results in me feeling quite uplifted as they try and guess my age, perhaps because they do not expect quite such an old fart like me to be engaging with them! This occasion was no different, with the young people concluding that I could be no older than 43. Get in!

The look on their faces when I told them my true age was one of astonishment and for, Claudio, disbelief! It turns out I am the same age to within a couple of days, as Pastor Gavril! I could see that Claudio was struggling to come to terms with how he had only just beaten someone so old!

As I left the church, I reflected on the conversation about my age and the son-in-laws reaction and Andrew told me that part of their disbelief might be due to the life expectancy within the Roma community which, on average, for males, is 10 years less than the equivalent Romanian population! Life expectancy in Romania is five years lower than in England! Sobering. Andrew went on to tell me that infant mortality rates are 2 to 3 times higher than the rest of Europe. Shocking!

Later that day we sat down with Pastor Gavril who wanted to know more about my work in the UK and how we engaged young people from outside the church. I talked about the youth work model which we start by meeting young people where they are at and trying to understand how the world looks from their perspective. The emphasis is on building relationship and responding to their needs, helping them and empowering them to overcome the challenges they face. By looking for opportunities to demonstrate that we care about and value young people, we are able to demonstrate Gods love and compassion for them. This can often be done in a way which sometimes seems counter cultural or unexpected.

I have long been struggling with the challenges faced by the church in how it relates to the world and society. I feel that often, our focus is on “doing church” and attracting people in to our buildings. Whilst this is a perfectly valid way of ministering to people, I am concerned that, for someone to be able to explore the Christian faith, it requires them to figure out where they need to go and to find us. When they do find us we can often seem slightly alien and despite our best attempts at being welcoming, we require them to assimilate into our culture of church, resulting in them feeling that they don’t fit in.

On a recent church weekend away I had chance to reflect on my faith and was able to get some clarity around how, as Christians, we engage with the world around us. It centred around the story about Jesus’s encounter with the Samarian woman at the well who was the first to be told that Jesus is the messiah. He said that “whoever drinks the living water that comes through me, will not thirst”. This got me thinking about the churches in our community being like the well where you can find the water of life. The challenge for the church is in getting more people to realise that they need water! But if they won’t come to the well then our role as Christians is to take the water to them at the point they need it.

As I talked about this with Andrew, who was translating into Romanian for Pastor Gavril, there was a sharp intake of breath from the Pastor followed by a fervent discussion between them in Romanian. Had I said something wrong? Had I offended my hosts or exposed my lack of understanding of the bible?

After a moment Andrew turned to me and with excitement said “it is just like the fire in the garden!” Relieved that I hadn’t put my foot in it, I asked what fire? Andrew continued to tell me how he had been watching TV the day before I arrived, and had become aware of a strange sound, like fast rushing wind or the roar of raging water! It was not coming from the T.V or anywhere in the house, so he went outside, only to discover that his neighbour’s garden was on fire and that it was spreading towards his house!

He rushed to untangle the hose and as he put out the flames nearest his house he saw his elderly neighbour standing looking in horror at the fire just a couple of meters from their own house. The lack of rain over previous weeks had left the vegetation so dry that it was spreading out of control and the neighbour seemed powerless to do anything to stop it!

Andrew quickly found a second section of hose so that it could reach his neighbours garden. He managed to prevent the fire spreading to the house and halt it long enough and allow the fire service to arrive.

In that moment Andrew became the most significant person in his neighbour’s life and his actions showed the compassion and care he had for his neighbour. Of course she was very grateful and regularly leaves some home made produce for him. It has also helped him to be accepted into the local community and enabled him to build relationships. This story also provides the perfect illustration of how we can respond to the needs of others in our community and in this case, of actually getting the water to the right place at the right time! It is about being relevant to the world we are living in. Pastor Gavril then decided that this would form the basis of the sermon for his service on Sunday morning and asked if me and Andrew would do a joint preach, which of course we did.

The idea that we are vessels that God can use to carry the water of life to those who are thirsty, at their point of need has, according to Andrew, been adopted as the strategy for growing the church in Tinca. The table tennis club is now a regular feature of the church's outreach to young people.

It was a humbling experience to visit Romania and uplifting to feel that it had been useful to the people we visited in some small way. I left with better understanding of how our most basic of skills, along with the extraordinary events provide us with opportunities to help others. Don't underestimate the impact you can have by doing something simple for someone else. I could be of great significance to them in making them feel valued and cared for.

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There is always something that needs doing! A bid for funding, supporting a member of the team, meeting with a strategic partner, mentoring a young person, planning a training day recruiting staff and volunteers, planning and delivering a talk or sermon, social media etc etc... It goes on.

It is easy to become focused on what is right in front of you: the most urgent thing which has to be done just to keep things running. Over the last 3 years Oxygen has, like many organisations, had to adapt to the challenges presented by the pandemic and develop new ways of working to meet the needs in front of us. There has been very little time to step back, take stock and reflect on where we are and where we need to go in the future. As a leader of a Christian charity, this also involves taking time to pray and listen to God.

I was very excited then, to be able to take a short sabbatical which was scheduled to start after one of the most important events in our calendar, Oxygen's AGM. It was a fantastic event with many testimonies from young people and volunteers, along with awards for their achievements. It was a real celebration of the impact Oxygen can have on people's lives. It left me feeling very inspired and motivated but also quite tired!

I started my sabbatical knowing that Oxygen was of course in the capable hands of Charlie and the rest of the team, who managed very well, ensuring that our activity programme continued throughout the summer, engaging and supporting young people, particularly those on free school meals.

A sabbatical should include 3 elements: rest; reflection; and some type of training, exploration or research to provide insight and perspective. Initially I found it very difficult to switch from an intense focus on the immediate future, tackling problems and working on the daily challenges of running the charity. I also felt very guilty at saying no to checking emails and not responding to messages, (although there were a couple of urgent things which needed my input which helped!)

I love fixing things ! So, being able to focus some of my time on DIY and catching up on jobs around the house, gave me a great sense of purpose and accomplishment. It also gave me space to think, ponder and reflect on life. I also find that I can get carried away on a practical task, which is a phenomenon associated with DIY, regarded by some people as a form of mindfulness or pursuit of a state of well being which they describe as getting into the “flow”! At the risk of reinforcing a stereotype, it could also be why so many DIY jobs remain unfinished!

I was able to spend some time with my wife and family, going for short walks, coffee and chats. There was the occasional cycle ride to Paris which was one of the most enjoyable rides ever and which raised a few pounds for Oxygen and Man and Boy!

I also had to plan the rest of my sabbatical...

To satisfy the exploration aspect of the sabbatical, I had been invited to help out at a couple of projects in Romania, one of which was a Summer activity programme in Transylvania which I visited along with my eldest son Dan and my daughter Milly. Our input involved planning activities and training sessions which were designed to improve young people's English and their understanding of British culture.

On reflection, what struck me about the situation is that it shouldn't have worked! We had not realised that there would be such a dependence on us to plan the sessions, so we were unprepared, had limited resources and could not speak the language! However, this was countered by the amazing welcome, hospitality and absolute faith in us, from our hosts, that everything would be ok and that we were more than capable of the task!

In fact, the week was made so much easier by the eagerness and excitement of the young people who just wanted to learn about us, our lives and improve themselves in whatever way they could. There was a real mix of personalities and capability amongst the group and it was immensely rewarding to see them challenge themselves and overcome their fears and grow in confidence. It was also good to work alongside Dan and Milly, who came up with some excellent ideas, applied their skills and grew into the role as the week progressed! The feedback from the young people at the end of the week was very humbling with some saying that it was the best week of their lives and very keen to have us go back!

Another bonus of my time in Transylvania was being able to share it with my brother Simon, who not only helped with the holiday club, but had arranged for the two of us to have a couple of days walking in the mountains. We stayed in a mountain lodge for a couple of nights eating local cheeses, breads and cured meats, washed down with a very powerful local drink which I am sure could have cured anything! Out walking, we spotted a family of wild boar and even a bear, which certainly sharpened our awareness of our surroundings! We felt very humbled by the hospitality shown to us by our hosts, Rasvan and Michela and also somewhat relieved at having made it out of the mountains safely!

My planning for the rest of my time in Romania had involved a conversation with James Vaughton of TEN Ministries who organise Christian missions to Europe. I had very low expectations of being able to have an impact and just wanted to visit some projects to gain insight into how God is working in people's lives. I had said that I just wanted to learn and if I could help with something, anything, in a small way then I would, even if it was as simple as just going to play table tennis. I was delighted when Andrew Saxton, a missionary working with the Roma community in Tinca, came back saying that he had been trying to set up an outreach to young people using table tennis!

So from Transylvania I flew to Oradea where I met Andrew and within a few hours, I found myself in a small church hall in Tinca, facing a group of about 20+ young people and some adults, who all seemed to think that I was a British Olympic Table Tennis champion!

Now, I am not too bad at table tennis, having lived in Hong Kong for a short while in my teens, and quite used to using it as a tool for engaging young people! However, I suddenly felt a considerable weight of expectation to perform, and realised just how tired and stiff I was from travelling and how hot and dehydrated I felt in the 38 degree heat! As I picked up the bat and ball I could not help wondering if the mild panic I felt inside was evident to those the other end of the table!? Were they experts at the game and going to be disappointed? Only one way to find out... “Does anyone want a game….?”

Come back to read part 2 next week to find out more about my time in Romania and find out what I learned about myself and how God works in the most bizarre ways…

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After two years without an in-person AGM, we held our AGM for 2022 at St Peter's Church on 30th May! It was a wonderful evening where we were joined by volunteers, young people, parents and supporters. We gave out 12 awards to our young people, volunteers and staff! These included both Jack Petchy Awards as well as the Peter Holmes Award!

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