Inside Out: Lenten Reflections on Mission

Dave Flitcroft shares his thoughts on what a loving engagement in God’s world looks like for him.

A poem

Ministry is …
Listening when you’d rather fix the problem,
Searching for joy when it’s easier to say, ‘It’s not fair’.
Helping when you feel like you’re the one who needs the help,
telling God, ‘Use me’, when you’d rather ask to be rescued,
Encouraging, even when you don’t understand God’s reasoning,
Making that phone call or saying hello, even when it feels awkward,
Serving when you doubt you have anything left to give,
Comforting by being the flicker of light in another’s darkness,

I thought these words were particularly apt considering the current situation that we find ourselves in. As Christians we are all ministers in our communities, regardless of whether we wear a clerical collar or not. In times of crisis or hardship people often turn to faith for answers and comfort even if they are not particularly a regular church attender or even think of themselves as a Christian in the strictest sense.

Well, I suppose I had better tell you something about me and what I do. My name is Dave Flitcroft and I live in Moor Row with my lovely wife, Donna and our children, Molly, Isaac and David. We have two Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Opie and Rosemary. David is our youngest and has severe autism, which can be very challenging at times, but can also be an incredible blessing too. It’s like having this little bloke bodding around the place that has no filter whatsoever. He can’t tell lies, doesn’t understand humour or irony and can be very refreshing in a way.

‘David, did you scribble on that wall?’
‘Yes, I did, Daddy’
‘Do you know that’s very naughty?’
‘Yes, I do’
‘You’re not going to do it again are you?’
‘Yes, I am’

Seriously, though, David’s condition has taught Donna and I so much about patience and tolerance and that people see and interpret the world differently and that doesn’t mean that they are wrong.

During my day job I am a Team Leader at Sellafield where I am also the workplace chaplain and a mental health champion. Outside work I am involved in youth ministry, foodshare, the deanery synod and a member of St. James church choir in Whitehaven.

I am a member of the Society of Saint Francis, an Anglican religious community consisting of three orders, the Franciscan friars, poor Clare nuns and the third order. As a third order postulant I conform to living in the world in the spirit of poverty, chastity and obedience. Third order Franciscans can be male or female, lay or ordained, single or married but we all feel called to live our lives in a very distinctive way whilst carrying out the normal professions of life

The past few years have been incredibly busy for me and my family and it’s been a time of huge change but also incredibly formational as I figured out what God’s call on my life actually is. The truth is, I believe that anyone active in ministry whether lay or ordained simply can’t do it without the support of their nearest and dearest. My wife has been incredibly supportive, after all the man she married had a nice job at Sellafield. Then one day I turned round to her and said, ‘I think God wants me to be a vicar’ and she didn’t miss a beat. I think the spouses of ministers are unsung heroes and they have my utmost respect.

So how did all this begin?

Let’s take a trip back to the 1970’s. My brother and I were both raised by my Mam on her own after Dad walked out in 1976. Life was pretty tough back then and being a single parent was a real social stigma, but Mam did her best working as a supply teacher to make ends meet. By today’s standards we would be considered pretty poor, but we got help from our maternal grandparents and we made do with what we had.

Nana and Grandad were both fascinated by the bible and made numerous pilgrimages to the holy land during their lifetimes. When we were baptised, they brought water back from the river Jordan especially for the occasion and when Grandad died, he was buried with a sail from a boat from the sea of Galilee. Grandad was a bit of a biblical scholar and he would spend hours poring over maps and religious texts. He would tell us stories about Jesus, Moses and Jacob and show us the places on his maps. He knew how to spin a good yarn and always wore a tie and a waistcoat even in the height of summer. It was through him that I believe the first seeds of faith were sown.

My brother and I attended a good C of E school and did all the things that Anglican kids did back then. We went to Sunday school, joined cubs and scouts, went to pathfinders and confirmation classes. Our vicar came into school often and we knew him well and church featured prominently in our lives. I have fond memories of those years because after that when I began secondary school things began to go wrong.

Being poor I didn’t have all the latest fashions or expensive shoes, so I was pretty much singled out for bullying from day one at secondary school. The bullying I experienced left a lasting impression on me that made me unable to trust people for many years. It was around this time that we learned that Mam had been hiding a serious drink problem for a long time. She was a great Mam, loving and caring but she was one of those people who struggled with life’s problems. Things that other people would sail through would knock Mam flat on her back and she turned to drink to blot it out.

As the years passed the drinking got worse. When my grandparents died things just spiralled to rock bottom. Mam cut ties with friends and family until we were eventually on our own. I often wonder if there was anything we could have done but we felt utterly powerless as she slid deeper and deeper into the clutches of alcohol.

When I was 16, I felt God’s call on my life. I had been studying Mount St. Bernard’s Abbey at school and I had the strongest feeling that a life of prayer was something I really wanted to explore further. Unfortunately, events worked against me. My brother who was a couple of years older than me turned 18. Straight away he enlisted and joined the army, eager to be away and making a life for himself. I don’t hold that against him because to be fair, life in our house was pretty grim by that point but I knew I had to stay close at hand for Mam. I shelved my plans and pretty much forgot about them.

As the years groaned by, Mam’s drinking got worse and eventually, sadly it claimed her life. It was such a tragic waste. I remember I was incredibly angry with her at the time and I was angry with God too if I’m honest. I felt I had basically put my life on hold for her and she had just thrown her life away. I decided in that moment that I wasn’t going to waste another minute of my life on anyone else. I was going to live my life, my way, at full throttle and to hell with the consequences.

I had a keen interest in motorcycles and that love of two wheels brought me into contact with a notorious gang of bikers. I deeply admired their camaraderie, their brotherhood and devil may care attitude. I asked to join their number and began the lengthy process of being accepted as a member of their club. two years of mopping floors, cleaning bikes, running errands, working behind the bar at the clubhouse and basically being an on-call skivvy. It was hard work, but I did it. The day I sewed the club’s patches onto the back of my cut-off jacket was the proudest moment of my life up until then. The club’s colours were my most prized possession.

The next ten years vanished in a haze of drugs, alcohol, violence and chasing after women who followed the club around. I didn’t care about much else really. People outside the club were just things to be used for my pleasure, entertainment or to fulfil some task I needed doing. I threw myself into the lifestyle 100% and soon I was rising through the ranks to become a senior club officer in charge of keeping the members in line and sorting out issues with other clubs. I had money, power, respect, drugs, women and best of all I was feared. Life was good, or so I thought at the time. I hadn’t exactly stopped believing in God at this time, I just reasoned that if I ignored Him I could pretty much please myself. How utterly blind I was.

I felt utterly untouchable, filled with arrogance and pride and as we all know, pride always comes before a fall. I noticed this sadness deep inside, a feeling of being torn in two that wouldn’t go away no matter what I did. I began self-medicating with more and more drugs to dangerous levels. I became so reckless and out of control that the club decided enough was enough and I was kicked out. I lost my girlfriend, my home, my money, my bike and all the things I held so dear. I literally had the clothes I stood up in. I drifted from place to place until one night in sheer despair I sank down in a shop doorway and prayed. The big, bad biker fell on his knees before God and prayed. I asked God to deliver me and I promised I would never turn my back on Him again.

That was the moment my life changed forever. Within days I had been housed in a hostel and this gave me an address so I could apply for jobs. I secured work in the north of Scotland for six months and that period of solitude surrounded by nature gave me time to reflect. A chance to repent of all the harm I had done and make friends with God once more. I liken this time to my own forty days in the wilderness. I was made anew, reborn as they say.

Now although I had made friends with God once more, it wasn’t until I met my wife, Donna that I began attending church once more. She attended mass at St. Begh’s RC church in Whitehaven and suggested I went along with her. I’ll be honest I was reluctant to go at first, not because it was RC, as I’ve never really worried about denominations. We are all disciples of Christ regardless of our differences. To me church was somewhere that holy people went, people who had led good lives and did good things for others. It wasn’t for me, but Donna convinced me.

Now if you’ve ever attended a Roman Catholic mass then you’ll know that it’s a little bit different from what many of us Anglicans are used to. Of course, there are similarities but the statues, the incense and the bells were all new to me. Despite it feeling a bit strange I came out of church feeling utterly uplifted. I began to attend regularly, and I recall it was around this time that I began to feel God’s call on my life once more. I began to feel this need to draw closer to God in prayer and scripture, to reach out to others with God’s love.

It was all very strange, but it wasn’t until we began attending our local C of E church at St. James’ that things truly clicked into place. It was during the ordination of Alison Riley, who was our curate at the time, that I had what you could call my burning bush moment. Bishop James was talking about vocations during the service, about how God calls really ordinary people to do pretty extraordinary things. It was as though he was talking directly to me. I was sitting in the choir stalls behind the bishop and I looked up. My wife was sat at the back of church and our eyes met and she just smiled knowingly as if to say, ‘He’s talking to you’.

This all sent me into a bit of a tailspin because the idea of any kind of ministry in the church was not on my radar at all. Then I remembered way back when I felt like I wanted to lead a life of religious service and I knew I had to look into this further. I spoke to Rob our Vicar, and he directed me to see the vocations advisor. I met them several times and over the space of a few meetings we decided I needed to see the director of ordinands at Penrith.

Over the period of the last few years I have come to understand where God wants me to be and through prayer, discernment, study and being involved with several different ministries i have formed a very clear picture of God’s purpose for me. I have felt from very early on in the process that chaplaincy at Sellafield was something God wanted me to do but He has thrown a number of curved balls my way that blindsided me too.

I became involved in youth ministry quite by accident. It was suggested that I might want to help out at Network Youth Church. Alison is the local NYC minister and is very passionate about working with youth, I however had always had somewhat negative images of the younger generation. The notion of spending my Friday nights and weekends with a group of rowdy 11 to 18-year olds made me shudder but I went along anyway. The first night I came home and told my wife I’d made a dreadful mistake but Donna, in her usual fashion, convinced me to stick with it for a few months before making my decision. Working with those young people at Mirehouse is one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

Sharing the gospel with the young people and seeing them come to truly know Christ is the most incredible experience. It re-affirms my own faith and I have truly grown to love those young people. For whatever reason I seem to have a gift for working with youth and they have taken to me for some reason although I suspect they think of me as some mildly eccentric grandad figure or something. It was through working with Alison at Network Youth Church that I got involved with foodshare.

Foodshare is a really simple concept. As part of recycling lives, it takes the excess food that supermarkets regularly dump into landfill and redistributes it to those in the direst need in society. Poverty is all around us and sometimes I think we get the impression that it only really affects third world countries or those living rough on the streets, but poverty is all around us. It’s in our schools, our workplaces on our streets and maybe even in our pews on Sunday morning.

There are many reasons why people live in poverty and it isn’t just unemployment. Lack of education, lack of opportunity, illness both physical and mental, drug and alcohol addiction all contribute to poverty but there is an increasing number of working people in the UK that also live on the breadline every week. The rise of zero-hour contracts often force people into holding down several jobs. We had one family at foodshare where Dad had three jobs, but they still needed the foodbank to make ends meet until pay day.

Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Poverty is not an accident, like slavery and apartheid it is manmade and can be removed by the actions of people’. Wise words indeed. Mother Theresa left her convent and went to live and minister amongst the poorest of the poor in the slums of Calcutta. She devoted her life in the name of Christ to feeding those whom society deemed as untouchables. Saint Francis famously renounced all his worldly goods and, wearing the simple brown habit of a peasant, went and lived amongst the lepers and outcasts he had once despised. Through ministering to them he truly encountered Jesus and what was once bitter was made sweet.

‘Preach the gospel with all of your heart, and when you need to, use words as well’ Those words were attributed to Francis, but he never actually said them. In fact, Saint Francis was very vocal about preaching the gospels and did so diligently throughout his ministry, but I do like the sentiment of that phrase. If we claim to be disciples of Christ, then we need to live like Christ and that means putting ourselves in challenging situations. Situations with people that society might deem as undesirable or untouchable, and yes, it’s messy and unpredictable but these situations truly let you see God at work.

Many of those who used foodshare had the most generous hearts I have ever seen. They would literally give each other the shirts off their backs. They all had their stories and we dealt with drugs and alcohol issues regularly but many of these people lived lives with no structure at all. I’ve been in that situation and it’s a scary place to be.

The setup of foodshare was really simple. People got a bag of food no questions asked, we made sandwiches and tea and coffee, and everyone had a good craic. After the sandwiches we held a time of prayer, hymns and bible study. One of the leaders would choose a passage of scripture and discuss it with the group. At first only a few stayed but over time more and more stopped back. Spending this time sharing God’s love and His word was incredibly precious to us all.

Many of our foodshare people had very difficult lives but slowly they came to see their own value as beloved children of God. Some even began coming into church on a Sunday morning which was fantastic. I believe when one strips away all the materialistic stuff, we think is important, it’s then that you truly encounter God. In that shop doorway, stripped of my goods and arrogance I was totally open to Christ. This stripping away is part of Lent, for me. It’s something that Saint Francis grasped and understood. By denying ourselves we embrace God and I know that in the eyes of those people at foodshare I saw Christ looking right back at me.