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A Work in Progress: Walking with Jesus

Incredible Journey

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Today is a big day for me. After nearly 14 years working as a veterinary surgeon, it’s my last day for the foreseeable future in clinical practice. In a few weeks, after some eagerly anticipated family time, both my husband Graham and I start new jobs, in what is a completely new season for our family. I’m going to be working for the Princess Project, swapping dogs and cats for mums and babies. So how did I get here? I was asked to speak at a Ladies’ breakfast last weekend, and I took the opportunity to look back over the last few years and reflect on exactly that. What God has been doing is simply incredible, and I am just thankful that I have been a part of it.

I had my first baby in 2005 (now a very grown up 9 ½- neither she nor my smaller munchkin who is nearly 7 can be called babies anymore!) At the time it struck me how hard it was despite all the support I was lucky enough to have- husband, family, friends, church, house, car. I was surprised even then how little support or preparation there was for parenthood from ‘the state’- and started to think that this was a gap the church community could be filling. State provision has only got less since then, with resources being stretched all the time. At the same time Graham and I were running a weekly activity evening at Trinity Foyer in Maidstone, accommodation for young people aged 16-24 who would otherwise be homeless. I got to know several girls who became pregnant – and discovered that they often had very little or no support once they’d moved out, and could therefore become very isolated.

I had the word ‘Princess’ given to me from a number of different sources. Then I heard the song ‘White Horse’, by Taylor Swift, whose lyrics include

“I’m not a princess, this ain’t a fairytale, I’m not the one you sweep off her feet, lead her up the stairwell; this isn’t Hollywood, this is a small town, here in your rearview mirror disappearing now, and it’s too late for you and your white horse to come around….”

That same week I read a verse that seemed to provide the answers for the disillusioned girl in the song searching for her fairytale hero to sweep her off her feet:

“God is bedrock under my feet, The castle in which I live, My rescuing knight.”

2 Sam 22:2 (The Message).

I felt God was saying that these young mums, often judged, looked down on or just ignored by society at large, are so precious to him. They are his princesses, not in a Barbie sparkly sense but in the sense of being daughters of a heavenly King. I wanted to be able to demonstrate to them that they were loved, by God, and by his church. They often had no hope, no aspirations, no confidence, either as individuals or parents. I wanted to show them that they matter, and that in Jesus they can be whole and healed in every sense- that he is that fairytale hero we all search for.

In 2011 one of the Trinity Foyer project workers phoned me out of the blue wanting me to come and meet an 18 year old girl currently living in their move-on flats who had just found out she was pregnant and had no real peer or family support. This girl, and one other who I was already meeting regularly having met her when she lived at Trinity, were my two original ‘princesses’, and our relationship was the pilot for the Mum2Mum befriending service.

And it all started from there!

At the time, I did not feel at all equipped or confident to step out for God. The confidence I did have was not really rooted in God but in other things, especially my career. At the beginning of 2011 I joined a small veterinary practice in Maidstone (I had been working for a larger practice just outside Canterbury- the Maidstone job was a miraculous provision in itself, but that’s another story…!) I found myself in a practice full of laid back people and clients, the atmosphere less self-important and intense than that which I had been used to.

God began the process then of showing me that I can serve him wherever I may be, and that what I do does not define who I am; my identity is in him. My confidence had taken a massive knock at university- I went from being the top of my class at school, a member of the orchestra, in the swimming team, chair of the debating team- to spending 6 years at Cambridge University feeling totally out of my depth and inadequate. My identity had been so tied up with my achievements- I had always felt like people liked or approved of me because of what I did, the grades I got, not for who I am. I guess I thought that was how God saw it too. But over a period of months I started to realise, and believe, that God loves me for who I am, not what I do. I started to believe that I am one of his princesses too, and to become more and more confident in that identity.

At this point I was completely terrified about speaking in public- even speaking out at a meeting was way out of my comfort zone- I’d get home and wished I’d had the courage to say what I’d wanted to say. Even meeting new people, phoning people up, walking into a strange place were all things I found uncomfortable. But I knew that God had put this passion for mums on my heart, and that just seemed to take over. I came to the realisation one day that if I waited until I felt ready, until all my ducks were in a row, until I had the time, until circumstances were just so, then I would never do anything. And I really didn’t want to go through life without at least trying to find and walk in the purpose God had for me.

That was when I made what for me was a life-changing discovery- that when we step out of our comfort zone into the unknown, God will bless us, and equip us with exactly what we need. In 2011, my younger daughter started at preschool, giving me a few child-free, work-free hours a week to finally start putting some time into what had up to now only been a dream- the Princess Project. We officially launched the Princess Project at a Community Day at St Luke’s church in June 2011.

Banner at the 2011 launch

As a result of that I was invited to go along to a conference a month or so later at the Hazlitt Theatre about tackling teenage conception in Maidstone. I arrived at this event, just me and a few leaflets printed from my home PC, and felt completely out of my comfort zone. I forced myself to do that activity that struck fear into my heart- “networking”. I made myself walk up to people I’d never met (some of whom were blatantly wondering why I was there, as it was mostly professionals and everyone else had been paid to attend!) and introduce myself and explain about the project. I found the whole process acutely uncomfortable but came away with a real sense of achievement, and knew that it was the Holy Spirit who had enabled me to get through the day.

Since then God has gradually been setting me free from my fears and insecurities. I’ve had stands at other conferences since that first one, and felt a lot more at home!

Slightly more sophisticated display at a conference in 2012!

I’ve spoken at church services, been a seminar speaker at Detling Summer Conference, even been interviewed on Premier Radio’s Woman to Woman programme. Every time I do it I smile. Every time I stand up to speak and know that I haven’t had countless sleepless nights of terror leading up to it, I am struck by the miracle that God has brought about. It is his way of constantly reminding me that it’s in his strength that it’s all possible, not mine. God has been removing the barriers that were holding me back as I step out towards him, and he is now releasing me to be who I really am; who he has created me to be. I started from a position of saying ‘No, I can’t possibly do that’ to discovering that if I’m relying on God then- yes, I probably can! One verse that I have returned to time and again is Philippians 4:13:

“For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”

Let’s not write ourselves off, and put a ceiling on what we think we’ll be able to do, or rule certain things out without trying them. God loves to show his strength by working through our weakness- we just need to be willing and obedient, and prepared to give things a try.

In 2 Timothy 1:7 Paul writes

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.”

I used to be crippled by that spirit of fear and timidity, but the Holy Spirit is gradually changing me from the inside out.

In May 2012 Graham and I went to the HTB leadership conference at the Royal Albert Hall. We were lucky enough to hear Rick Warren, Christine Caine and Judah Smith (amongst others). For me, the take-home, life-changing message was embarrassingly simple. These men and women of faith, who are quite literally changing the world with the work they are doing, all emphasised how essential it is to be spending time with God, every day. To be reading his word, listening for his voice, kneeling at his feet, growing in intimacy with him. It really impacted me that this was the ‘secret’ of their success. There are no shortcuts. If that is true for them (as it was for Jesus himself!) then how dare I think it was not just as essential for me? If I was too busy for that, then I was too busy, full stop. Since I have recommitted myself to that, my relationship with God has deepened immeasurably, and I find that when I am being filled up by the Holy Spirit I have plenty of energy for all he wants me to be doing.

Something that God has had to teach me repeatedly is patience, and the importance of trusting in His perfect timing. Quite early on I read a tweet from Christine Caine that I found really helpful:

“What satan can’t stop, he will often try to speed up. The timing of God is everything!”

Right from the off there has been the temptation to tear ahead at 1000 miles an hour; time and again God has slowed it down, closed doors, made me wait. The best example of this is my employment. Back in 2012, the trustees agreed that to take the organisation forward, I needed to be working for the Princess Project full time- we needed someone to be accountable, overseeing the day to day running of the organisation, managing the volunteer teams, as well as thinking about the strategic development of the charity. They agreed a salary based on comparable positions. The only thing was…. we didn’t have the money! We applied for various grants and were unsuccessful.

Then I realised that there was another factor in play. My husband needed to be 100% on board with the idea of me jettisoning a well-paid, professional role for a temporary contract with a small organisation with nowhere near enough regular income- and at that time, he wasn’t. I don’t blame him at all for that- a lot of people still think I’ve taken leave of my senses! He is hard-wired to be our provider, he is the one who always deals with our family finances, he is the sensible one who is always having to rein me in and keep my feet on the ground (we make a great team!) And the idea of leaving that stability behind was stressing him out quite a lot. I was in a bit of a quandary as I really felt like this was what God wanted me to do- but at the same time, I knew with absolute certainty that he would not want me to do anything that would cause conflict or difficulty in our marriage.

Praying with a friend, she told me she’d had an image of me swinging tarzan stylee through the jungle (apologies for that mental image)- and that I had to let go of one vine before grabbing the next. It felt like God was saying there had to be an element of trust- we couldn’t wait for it all to be in place before stepping out and letting go of our financial security. But she also said that my green light to go would be Graham’s blessing of the decision. Another good friend suggested that, like Gideon (see Judges 6), I lay down a fleece and asked for a sign. I asked God that when the time was right, Graham would be OK with it- not superficially OK to make me feel better, but really OK.

And God honoured that.

I kept quiet, didn’t go on about it (quite a feat- I’m a very good nagger!) and one day Graham came back from work and said “Well, if you’re serious about stopping at the vets I suppose I’d better do a spreadsheet and see how it’s all going to work!” Once spreadsheets had been mentioned, I knew he was on board. Just as I’d asked, it was my green light to go. In his own, unique, understated way he was giving me his blessing, and trusting God for our future- a real act of faith for him and I was, and continue to be, so very thankful for his support and belief in me, and the vision that I have for the Princess Project. He really is a faithful man of God and it is very much a shared journey that we are on. I was also so thankful to my Daddy God who had given me the clear sign I had prayed for.

We decided that one way or another I wouldn’t go back to work at the vets after a holiday we had planned for April. Since then, so much has happened. When we stepped out in faith not knowing where the money was coming from, suddenly it started coming in earnest. The Princess Project received £3000 in donations in the first 3 months of this year alone. In February the trustees decided that there was enough money to offer me a 6 month contract starting in April (and actually we now have nearly enough for another 6 months after that!) I start my paid role at the Princess Project on the 27th April, and can’t wait to take things to the next level. I am also so excited at the prospect of bring able to work around my munchkins, not work at weekends, pick them up from school, look after them when they are sick. They, as well as Graham, have enthusiastically embraced the Princess Project, telling people about it, holding ‘tombolas’ at home to raise a few pennies, coming to events with me. It is very much a family enterprise, and if through this whole process they learn that nothing is impossible with God, to pursue their dreams wholeheartedly, and that some things are more important than money, I will be a very happy mummy.

I don’t know what the future holds- I am very excited about it though! Since I have handed in my notice at the vets, things have rather exploded at the Princess Project, with referrals for the Mum2Mum befriending service coming out of our ears, two Parentalk courses planned, and a new arrangement in place whereby we provide all the new mums accessing the Meadow Children’s Centre with a Princess gift basket. We have two more funding applications in the pipeline. One thing I know- God is graciously only revealing a small part of his plan at a time. If you had told me 5 years ago where I would be today I would simply not have believed it (and quite possibly run screaming for the hills).

I am forever grateful for the reminder that God doesn’t call the equipped, he equips the called. We don’t need to be super talented, or super spiritual, or extraordinary in any way. We just need to listen, trust and obey, and then God can use us in ways that surpass our wildest dreams.

Collecting at our local Sainsbury’s (we’re their charity of the year) with my big munchkin and our good friend and Princess Project volunteer Anne this Mother’s Day

Princess Project Ball 2014

Speaking at the Princess Project Butterfly Ball, October 2014

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Keeping the Faith: presentation from Princess Project charity launch February 2014

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This week has been a very memorable one. On Tuesday we held an event to celebrate the Princess Project achieving registered charity status, and for the mayor of Maidstone, Cllr Clive English, to officially open our new office. There was lots of information on display boards around the room explaining what activities we are engaged in, and getting across the facts to those interested in finding out more about what we do. What I wanted to do in my presentation (to an audience made up of supporters, volunteers, and professional partners) was to talk a bit about the why.

Below is a transcript of that talk, but first of all I have a big thank you to make- to Gillan Scott who writes the excellent blog  ‘God and Politics in the UK’.  It is my go-to source for all matters to do with faith, politics and community, as he provides links to all recently published reports, research etc. It’s a great and balanced resource. Do check it out!

 

” In 2005, when I was expecting our first child, my husband and I were leading a team from St Luke’s Church going into Trinity Foyer, accommodation in Maidstone town centre for young people who might otherwise be homeless. Some of the girls resident at Trinity at the time were also pregnant, and the difference between our situations really affected me. Even though I was blessed with an extensive support network- supportive husband, family, friends, church family, house, car- I still found those early days of parenthood difficult. For those without those support structures in place- young single mums in a flat with a baby, without family around, and with friends who were no longer interested in them when they couldn’t go out clubbing any more- frankly I didn’t know how they coped at all. As a Christian I knew that God loved these young women, His precious daughters, so much- and I felt that he wanted me to do something to demonstrate that to them.

The Princess Project officially came into being in June 2011, with a vision to support and encourage mums, especially those parenting in challenging circumstances. The first 2 years brought lots of networking and training;  we made extensive efforts to set firm foundations, establish high quality services and build relationships of trust with other agencies working in the same field. The befriending service and Princess boxes came first, followed by parenting courses, drop-in coffee mornings, and then Totcycle, our baby goods exchange, this time last year. All of this has been achieved by a team of dedicated volunteers, who between them donated an impressive 700 hours of their time last year alone.

Rather than give you a long list of activities that we do, I’d like to tell you a couple of stories.

Ellie‘s befriender met her before she was pregnant, and walked with her through miscarriage, the subsequent birth of a healthy baby daughter, domestic violence, relationship breakdown, financial difficulties and post natal depression. Now Ellie is mum to a healthy, happy 3-year-old who is thriving at nursery and a credit to her mum. Ellie has recently found a part-time job, and is one of the founding trustees of the Princess Project.

Katy is the single mum of 3 boys living in a deprived area of Maidstone. Her health visitor referred her to the Princess Project as her baby was sleeping in his pushchair at night- his cot had broken and Katy could not afford to replace it. We delivered a cot to her (via Totcycle), along with stairgates to make her flat safer for her two boisterous older boys. As a result of ongoing contact and the relationships she has made with the Princess Project volunteers she has signed up to take part in our next parenting course.

So what’s next for us at the Princess Project? It is an exciting time for us! Our new office is open 3 days a week, meaning local mums can pop in, members of the public can drop off donations for Totcycle, we can hold client, volunteer  and partner meetings on-site, and assemble Princess boxes too…. one of our ‘regular’ mums spent an afternoon here last week helping to wrap presents to go in the Princess boxes, and we are hoping this would be a regular, mutually beneficial activity. We have a parenting course starting here in Parkwood tomorrow, which was fully subscribed the day we started publicizing it.

We also have a lot of fundraising to do this year. I currently manage the project on a part-time, voluntary basis, fitting that in between a part-time job and my own family commitments. As the charity grows, I am finding that there are simply not enough hours in the day to get everything done. The trustees have decided that to allow the Princess Project to grow and develop further, they would like to employ me full-time. This means that we need to raise an additional £24000 annually to cover a salary and other costs associated with employing me. This will mean I can spend more time recruiting and training additional volunteers, promoting the project to other churches and partner agencies, and in the conventional and social media, and, most importantly of all, ensuring we continue to develop and deliver the high quality services for which we are becoming known, to as many mums as we can.

Although we are applying for funding from a variety of sources, our long-term aim is to cover our day-to-day running costs by donations and fundraising, especially regular standing orders from our supporters. This means that the level of service we can offer to our clients will not be affected by variations in external grant funding. If you would be interested in becoming a supporter of the Princess Project, please do contact us.

People often ask us why we do what we do. The motivation of the Princess Project trustees and volunteers is our Christian faith. We believe that God loves us, and that He has called us to love the world around us, our community, as He does. We believe that this love should be demonstrated in practical ways, and not just talked about. And we’re not alone. A study carried out in London last year showed that 35% of all social action community work was being carried out by Christian groups. And that would seem to be the case all over the country. Here in Maidstone, there is so much amazing work being done by faith groups. Street Pastors. Maidstone churches winter shelter for the homeless. Maidstone Christian care and the Food for Thought community food share scheme. Celebrate Maidstone. Countless toddler groups. And that is only the tip of the iceberg.

‘Faith in the Community‘ is another recently published parliamentary report that makes for interesting reading. It examined the level and type of interactions local authorities have with faith groups, and identified many examples of where this partnership is working well, but also many examples of misconceptions on both sides. In the words of North Yorkshire County Council,

“There is a perceived fear (within parts of the public sector, public and media) that faith groups will seek  to use public sector-funded service delivery as a means of increasing the number of followers of that faith group; and/or seek to discriminate between users of public sector-funded service delivery on the basis of the users’ faith or adherence to the beliefs or practices of the faith group, in particular beliefs that are or might appear to be contrary to equality legislation. There is a perceived fear (within faith groups) that local authorities won’t work with and/or don’t value faith groups. Generally, all of these perceptions are false or can be overcome through discussion and better understanding of each other – but they do create barriers.”

We want to work as hard as possible to remove these barriers- to be upfront about what we do- and what we don’t do. All our services are open to everyone, regardless of beliefs, background, colour, sexual orientation. We don’t attach any conditions to the services we provide. However, we don’t think it’s right to never talk about our faith. We would not be being true to ourselves if we did not discuss what motivates us, gives us hope, a sense of self-worth and identity. Only addressing people’s physical and emotional needs and leaving out the spiritual dimension is only looking at part of the whole picture. A report was published in April 2013 looking at faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless men and women, through interviews conducted with more than 70 people. Written by Carwyn Gravell, a self-confessed atheist, the report states that

“Faith has become a dimension of life that is largely ignored within the philosophy of mainstream service provision, regarded as irrelevant, or as a private matter best avoided, and even perceived by some in the sector with suspicion and outright hostility”.

However when the service users themselves were interviewed, a vast majority said that they would welcome the chance to talk about faith and spirituality. For many of them faith had been an important factor in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, or in preventing them reoffending. They spoke of faith bringing hope, fellowship and a sense of purpose. We, too, are working with people with often complex and deep-rooted needs and insecurities, and we think we would be short-changing them if we did not give them the opportunity to explore this aspect of all of our personalities.”

 

More information about The Princess Project can be found on the website, www.princessproject.co.uk.

 

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