We are Andrew and Jo Dowsett; together with our children Susannah (16), Noah (14) and Elijah (10) we have lived in Sunderland since November 2013. Andrew is a priest in the Church of England serving a city centre church called Sunderland Minster. Jo works four days a week as PA to the Bishop of Durham.
Sunderland is not well-known as a city – even around the UK people are much more familiar with its close neighbours, Newcastle and Durham. The collective memory of people here focuses on the loss of shipbuilding and coal mining as the main industries. In general, people are lacking in confidence and aspiration. Extended families remain strong, locally based, and close-knit.
Culture change is needed in Sunderland, both within and outside the church. We’re working on it! It feels like we’re making very slow progress, but it is progress. Sometimes, it’s only when we stop to look back that we realise it.
In September we started Food on Friday – through the church notice sheet, and facebook, we invite anybody to join us for a home-cooked meal on a Friday evening. They just have to let us know they’d like to come. Throughout the autumn we kept putting out the invitation, and although a few people came it seemed that they just weren’t that interested. At home we had a conversation about stopping; and then that evening a friend texted to say she would be visiting Sunderland the following weekend, and would like to come for dinner that Friday. And the following morning I went to church and one of the ladies asked to join us too. I realised that God was on the case.
It is too easy to be discouraged sometimes – is sharing a meal with two or three different people every week really significant? I choose to believe that it is, because this is what God has led us to. As a family we tend to the introvert (some more than others) and one of our children has Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of autism. Large groups of people are overwhelming – sometimes one person is overwhelming – so the Lord has shown us how to share our lives in a way that works for our family.
TOM has been fundamental to our ministry. Andrew and I took temporary vows when the Order was inaugurated in 2003 and have been part of various huddles over the years. Without that regular time spent with people who ‘talk our language’ we would really be struggling. At times we have spent twice as long in the car as we have at huddle, just for the life-giving, iron-sharpening-iron encouragement of a couple of hours talking and praying with other members of the Order.
Here in the North East of England we now have a huddle of 7 and try to gather monthly. It is too easy to be discouraged sometimes – and that is why our TOM huddle has been like oxygen to us through lots of transitions.
One of the most useful things I did was to write down who joined us each week. In doing so I realised that the weeks when nobody joined us were much rarer than I thought. It is too easy to be discouraged sometimes.
We regularly have two young men join us. One is the teenage son of a couple from church, and the other an Iranian refugee who lives with them. They are both doing A-Levels, and conversation around the dinner table is often centred on physics and maths as they chat with our children about what they’ve all been up to during the week. Sometimes we get talking about how to handle questioning about your faith by the Home Office.
Opening up your home to anybody who would like to come is risky. Sometimes I want to say no when a difficult person rings to say they’d like to join us. I was dreading an evening with a lady we don’t know very well, and there were some tricky moments – Joan holds some views that I profoundly disagree with – but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. And afterwards, I reflected that we had shared our meal with both a widow and an 18 year old who is effectively an orphan, and knew that this is what we set out to do.