Hannah Rich recounts a visit to West Yorkshire where she is reminded of the importance of fun in the work of the church. 01/08/2019
It is the start of the summer holidays and at Holy Nativity church in Mixenden, on the outskirts of Halifax, the first morning of holiday club is underway. The grass in the park is sodden from last night’s thunderstorm, which has put paid to plans to run around outside and play with pavement chalk. In the shadow of the altar, groups of children are stirring handfuls of cereal into bowls of melted chocolate to make Moses baskets that they will later fill with marzipan baby Moses.
Child poverty in Mixenden stands at 39% and some of these children will be counted within the 2.3m in the UK who are living in persistent poverty, according to figures released by the Social Metrics Commission last week. The parish ranks in the 5% most deprived in the country.
The average household budget here barely stretches to the essentials, let alone holiday entertainment. The cost of the three–mile bus journey from the estate to the centre of Halifax is prohibitive for many families, never mind a round of cinema tickets and expensive confectionary.
Back at Holy Nativity, sticky fingers are being washed and one of the volunteers is firing up a shiny red popcorn machine ready for snack time. “If you were to ask me what the best investment we’ve ever made is, I’d say that popcorn machine,” Revd Robb Sutherland, the vicar at Holy Nativity, tells me.
The popcorn machine was bought for the community cinema hosted by the church once a month, offering a cheap night out for local families. It costs the church less than two pounds to make enough popcorn to go round, from scratch in under ten minutes. The neighbouring primary school purchased a candyfloss maker at the same time so that they can swap during community events, such as a recent fun day held in the church grounds.
One of the volunteers talks about their hope that, “because of that atmosphere of being happy in church, the children will have good memories of this place and they’ll want to come back.”
There is something timeless and joyful about the queue of children waiting at the hatch for freshly popped corn to be scooped into paper cones, almost as if it’s a story from a bygone era of childhood. I am reminded of my own grandad’s fondest memory of the role of the church, growing up in a working class household in South London in the 1930s; it organised the annual trip to the seaside. Sometimes the contribution of the church to the wider community in social action is as much about pure fun as it is about providing for people materially or spiritually.
At the other end of the country, Rochester Cathedral this week provoked some consternation by announcing the opening of a crazy golf course in its nave during August. For some, this represented the scandalous desecration of a sacred space, akin to the moneylenders thrown out of the temple by Jesus in the gospels. But the principle behind it — offering families affordable holiday activities in church buildings — is not a million miles away from the vision of life to the full embodied by Mixenden’s popcorn machine.
Like many churches and communities, Holy Nativity doesn’t have the luxury of the space to designate the frivolous from that which is strictly worship. The church building here was originally built to be the church hall. Funds ran out to build the rest and so the worship space is also the community hub, the scout hut, the café and the cinema. Everything happens in the same space, simply because it has to.
The James Oppenheim poem that became the mantra of striking textile workers in Massachusetts back in 1912 calls for “a sharing of life’s glories: bread and roses, bread and roses”. From the tower blocks of Mixenden, you can just about see the textile mills around which Halifax grew as an industrial town. It is fitting then that the summer club here, with its popcorn machine and chocolate crispy cakes, represents a similar vision of social action which offers life in all its fullness; the gift of a summer holiday story to tell, come September, as well as a full belly in the absence of a free school meal. Bread, yes, but roses too.