Dear Friends,

                      Usually in these letters I reflect on a theme that applies equally to each of our churches. But this time I'd like to home in on a project hosted by Avenue St Andrew's: the Avenue Centre, helping troubled families with young children, which celebrates its 30th birthday this May. Not that Avenue St Andrew's can claim sole rights in the Avenue Centre! Each of our Group churches has supported it generously, and that's hugely appreciated. But not all of you will know the story of how the Avenue Centre began, and how it has developed over three decades.

Thirty years ago, there were plenty of young single mothers living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation with their families near Avenue St Andrew's. And the rules for B&B in those days were strict: after breakfast, you were shown the door. That led to lots of cold mums and youngsters out on the streets. Members of the church noticed their plight. And instead of saying, 'What a shame! Someone should do something!' they opened the church doors and welcomed the families in.

To start with, that's what it was. A place for mums to rest their weary feet while their children played. But over thirty years the Avenue Centre has developed into so much more. Somewhere supported by the City Council (though with less and less money...), where parents referred by Social Services learn skills essential to the family's wellbeing while their children develop in the care of trained playworkers. A place where parents share hurts and hopes, where they work towards further education, training and jobs, where they learn how to appreciate and manage their children without being driven mad (and that's something I couldn't do - hats off to all parents, especially single ones!). And a place where shepherds fly.

Every Christmas, we gather to hear the story of a single mother and the baby she bore in temporary accommodation, with the help of a knitted Nativity set (thanks, Freemantle!) brought piece by piece out of its box. Some children listen; others have great fun climbing on me or seeing how high a knitted shepherd can be thrown. One year a little boy sang a solo 'Silent Night' - there wasn't a dry eye in the house. And every Easter we gather to give thanks for new life where there seemed to be no hope. Avenue Centre parents know about that.

But the concern that started the Avenue Centre is just one local example of what Christians believe connecting with how we live. The Church Urban Fund has produced a report called 'Christians in Practice'. 78% of people they talked to said involvement in community engagement had helped them grow as a Christian, and 65% that it had helped them understand their faith better. More than two-thirds agreed that they seek to represent Christ through what they do when helping others. And 49% said that they looked for opportunities to tell others about their faith when involved.

What do they mean by community engagement? Something people choose to do in their own time, helping other people or the community, organised by church, charities or groups, or done informally to help neighbours or strangers. And I'd bet everyone reading this article knows about that.

This May will be special for the Avenue Centre. But every May we celebrate Pentecost, a time when a few frightened people were driven by God out of the safety of their building to engage with others in their own languages. This Pentecost, may the Spirit inspire us to make contact with the many communities around each of our churches!
Sarah