…or, ‘coincidence’ as a mark of God’s presence in community
It is nearly six years since a leaflet advertising a United Reformed Church initiative called ‘ArtTalk’ happened to float across my desk at a committee meeting. I shall call it ‘Coincidence’ Number 1. It was the first of number of ‘coincidences’ which help shaped my ministry. Looking back on it, I’m convinced it must have been more than that.
‘Coincidence’ Number 1
ArtTalk was an initiative for local URC congregations wishing to host art exhibitions. Hug Cullompton wasn’t officially a congregation of the URC, we didn’t have a church building and none of us were artists. But a spark of imagination lit up my mind, and within days I was on the phone to the minister behind the project, making enquiries.
In the days that followed I wrestled with how to make such an event take place. I knew God was calling us to this, but I had no idea how to get started. Eventually I decided to go out and have a look to see what venues might be available.
‘Coincidence’ Number 2
As I walked under some scaffolding in the main street, a workman dropped a tool. I picked it up and handed it back. “Is this your building?” I asked. “No, but the owner is inside,” he said. “Pop in if you want to see him.” It had previously been a fabric shop. It was large, light and spacious – perfect for an art gallery. The owner welcomed me. I explained my idea to him and, without hesitation, he said he thought an art exhibition would be an excellent way to publicise his renovation. He needed three months to get it finished, so we set a date.
‘Coincidence’ Number 3
The next day I saw an advertisement for a local exhibition about the Turin Shroud. The woman running it was a local fine art painter. She had recently become a Christian and was hosting the Turin Shroud exhibit alongside her own work. One painting – not quite finished – was of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. It was incredible. “We need some advice,” I said, and explained our idea. “I’ll help you,” she said, “I can even use it to launch my new painting.”
And so the ‘Hug Cullompton Community Gallery’ took shape. Alongside our exhibition we ran a number of workshops and seminars on the theme “connecting art and spirituality”. 48 local artists exhibited, and more than 1,000 people visited. Residents were uplifted by the presence of a gallery in town, and through it a vision emerged for a longer term initiative promoting the arts locally. Eventually it became embodied in the charity Cullompton Arts House.
This type of work is an example of what the missiologist Paul Keeble describes as ‘Mission With‘. Contrasting with ‘Mission To’ (traditional evangelism) and ‘Mission For’ (Christian service), ‘Mission With’ is a simple act of presence. It is a way of living intentionally alongside members of a community, listening to their stories, sharing their aspirations, and showing the difference being a Christian can make. It is a form of mission which demonstrates God’s love and invites conversation without expectation, other than believing God is at work through encounter, and allowing the Holy Spirit to work through it.
Last week this particular piece of mission work came to an end as I finished my term as Chair of Trustees for ‘Cullompton Arts House – but only sort of… because the relationships I have made, the doors that have opened, the conversations I have had and the community transformation which has been inspired through resultant artistic endeavours, still remain.
And much of it will continue to do so long after I have gone…