That’s right, it’s a dog bowl. I visited Birmingham’s first ever conservation area on Friday - with its beautiful 12th century church and preserved Tudor schoolhouse - and all you get is a bowl of water for dogs. Let me explain…
At a recent Places of Welcome co-ordinators event I met a couple of people from St Edburgha (a.k.a. Yardley Old Church). They host their Place of Welcome outdoors in good weather and attract a number of dog-walkers. So as well as offering the dog-walkers some light refreshment, they thought they’d give their canine companions that opportunity too. Obviously, I immediately started plotting how I could hang out with puppies whilst still on official Church of England – Birmingham business, but more than that, I was drawn to their responsive approach to their locality: “turning the church inside out” is how Sylvia, the co-ordinator, puts it. Which I love, because it sounds a bit anarchic and revolutionary. And it sort of is, really, but in a quiet, thoughtful, gracious way.
It was quite literally inside out on Friday, as a small group of us sit basking in July sunshine outside the Trust School next to St Edburgha. I like outside church, I decide. Not just for the excellent selection of dogs. As the name of the group suggests, it is extremely welcoming. Within no time I am merrily drinking tea, munching on biscuits and chatting away to a random bunch of people I’ve never met before. I know nothing about them, they know nothing about me, and it doesn’t matter. In fact, I’m only made aware of quite how random a group we are afterwards, when I’m chatting to Sylvia.
Yardley Old Church’s Place of Welcome began life as a drop in session for the homeless and alcohol/drug dependent in the area, in conjunction with SIFA Fireside and BCFT. The nature of the partnership with these agencies changed over time, so the folk at St Edburgha decided to open it up to the whole community and make it a Place of Welcome, which it has been since October 2015. On the Friday I visit there’s a couple of people from the church, two guys from the local hostels, a lady from the sheltered accommodation for the elderly and me. Dog-walkers stop to chat, a group of lads hunting for Pokémon drift by, a couple looking for the vicar to arrange a funeral appear. It’s this mixture that Sylvia believes is really important for their Place of Welcome: “It’s good that all these different people are together. So isolated, elderly folk get to meet men from the local hostels, for example, and see that they don’t have two heads! It’s good to meet people whose issues are different to yours. We live and work and exist in this same locality so we’re all learning to respect each other and be family together.”
Newcomers are quickly integrated, as demonstrated by Mark, one of the guys from a local hostel, who initially came along for a break from his chaotic living situation and is now part of the team that helps set up and serve refreshments. “I’m part of the furniture now,” he tells me, “I know most people here are older than me, but I love coming along here on a Friday morning to chat. What else would I be doing? Sitting in the hostel being depressed? These guys make me laugh. And you don’t get community hubs like this in many places anymore.”
Sylvia tells me that John, the other man from the hostels, was sleeping rough when they first met here. With support partly offered by the group, he is now in his own flat and has maintained it consistently for eighteen months. As well as simple tea, biscuits and conversation, this Place of Welcome still maintains partnerships with local agencies that they can signpost local vulnerable folk to, such as Crisis Skylight, or Debt Relief Solutions, who visit once a month. They are also linked to a local foodbank. It’s these key partnerships and the stability of regular support and space to chat that makes the difference, according to Sylvia: “I think we provide some stability for people; we are always here, week in week out. We supported a lady recently who had been badly traumatised by an arson attack. Just knowing there was somewhere she could go and talk to people every week was really important to her. The outlet for people to just come and be listened to cannot be underestimated. Plus tapping into the resource of local agencies who can deal with some of the more complex needs that people may have.”
So, back to the dog bowl. It’s become symbolic, in my mind, of a generous, creative approach to how church can be in the community. Thoughtfully listening and reaching out to the needs of those around you rather than expecting them to come and fit in with you. Sylvia sums it up: “This all began because instead of looking at the homelessness and alcoholism in the area and just going: ‘Tut tut, this is dreadful’ we thought: ‘How do we respond to this as a church?’ It’s about looking at your area and seeing what’s needed here.” Even if what’s needed is sometimes just a bowl of water for thirsty dogs. Simple. Beautiful.
Yardley Old Church hosts a Place of Welcome every Friday morning from 9 a.m. - 11 a.m. at the Trust School, Church Rd, Yardley, B33 8PD