Meeting people? Fantastic.
Meetings? Usually pretty grim.
It’s a sad fact that, though they're a pretty non-negotiable feature of clergy life, I’m really not much good at Meetings. Even when they involve people I'm genuinely fond of,I tend to come home depleted and depressed. Though I don't understand why this should be so, experience suggests that they inevitably bring out the worst in almost everyone.Views become polarised, attitudes are struck, umbrage taken...and sometimes, very occasionally, a few useful decisions are made. I did wonder whether church meetings were particularly pernicious,- it having been a while since I was last a school governor or PTA rep,- but I'm now able to confirm that its pretty much a universal phenomenon.
On Monday evening, our feminist theology book group was cancelled (all too wiped out or over-committed after Easter) which meant that I could, after all, go to an open meeting organised by the Charlton Kings Parish Council.(Note to friends from the U.S.:despite what Richard Curtis would have us believe in Dibley, this is NOT the same as the Parochial Church council,- it's the voice of local government in smaller communities, while the PCC is supposed to run the church). It's purpose was to discuss "The Problem of Youth in Charlton Kings".
You see, suburban though we are, we do run to a very small shopping precinct in Charlton Kings. It’s the home of Somerfield, the library, the Kings Hall Youth Club, a sweetshop, Indian take away and one of our two chippies. It also boasts a turfed area and a rather attractive stepped water feature, which rejoices in the slightly pretentious name of “Centrepiece”. And a few bench seats, which are just perfect for use in cycling stunts.
Which, of course, is part of the problem.
The precinct is the meeting place for kids in the village,- and a few from further afield.
Mostly they hang around in clumps, eat chips, ride their bikes round in tight circles and paddle in the water feature if it’s turned on…but sometimes things get out of hand, a few do drugs, graffiti is scrawled, shop windows are broken, cars kicked and old ladies alarmed. After a meeting at the local secondary school last September, one or two kids were given something called an “ABC” (acceptable behaviour contract, I’m told) and for a while all seemed to have settled down. But with lighter evenings, it appears that we still have a problem…at least in perception if not in reality.
The Police had contacted the church after someone had made complaints about kids messing around in the church yard….which kind of made me smile nostalgically, as my High School was opposite the cemetery in Hastings, and that was the prime spot for all illicit activities in my teens. To be honest, though, my impression is that many of those living around the centre of the village have reached the stage where simply seeing a gaggle of youngsters together would have them reaching for the phone to summon help. And it’s just not fair.
Hence the meeting.
Besides the parish councillors, and a number of "concerned residents", there were about a dozen representatives from the local groups that exist for young people…the assorted youth clubs, Scouts, Explorers, etc. Unfortunately, nobody appeared from the secondary school, which was a bit of a PR disaster, but Dave, the Youth Worker from the Baptist church, was brave enough to put his head over the parapet. He has been rather a victim of his own success, in that Fusion the Friday night Youth Café he started now regularly attracts far more kids than he has room for. This means dozens of youngsters milling about on the pavement outside....and more potential for alarm and despondency.
For many there, Fusion seemed to be part of the problem…but when some of the youngsters who had congregated outside were persuaded in to present their side of the story it was clear that, together with the youth clubs, it is very much part of the solution.
Those kids were splendid. It must have taken huge courage to walk into a meeting stuffed with people who were intent highlighting their shortcomings, and to speak as honestly as they did …They were prepared to recognise that they might seem intimidating, but pointed out that they got very weary of being cast as the villains at every turn. They spoke of how much they appreciate the secular Youth Club, and how they wished it could run more often...And they were pretty united in their feeling that the problems came from "a few immature boys who just like to look like big men".
Thankfully, some of those gathered for Monday’s meeting recognised this, and there was talk about misconceptions and unfounded suspicions, but there was also an awful lot of ill tempered ranting from people who were old enough to know better, and the whole evening had the aura of a sustained whine which was deeply disheartening.
Towards the end of the proceedings, I was invited to speak and shared a story about my own misconceptions. One evening last winter, I was stopping off at church on my way home in the car, and a shade perturbed when, as I parked about a dozen hoodies emerged from the churchyard and surrounded the car. However, working on the “whistle a happy tune” principle, I got out and asked if I could help them at all…
“Yeah…” one of them said “Are you the one that’s selling the Make Poverty History wristbands?”
A question of perceptions? I rest my case…