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Casa Laura Issue 1 July 2020

How the Front Door Came to Be Open

by Phil Wood

In 1978 Jim Callaghan was Prime Minister. I escaped to the hills. Perhaps 9 weeks of Mull of Kintyre drove me to it! I came with my cello loving friend, Ian Cree, walking the Peak District; coffee and theology in the Buxton tearooms. I’m a pedestrian, so rarely enthuse about roads. But, the high road from Buxton (the A 53) had Wallabies, England’s highest village, Flash and views of the Manifold Valley. It looks as it sounds! A dozen or so miles to Leek past the sharp, gritstone Roaches and down to the old Staffordshire textile town of Leek.

I came back to Leek years later, but in the meantime, life took a few sharp turns. I’ve told this story elsewhere: ‘From Manchester to Mennonites’ in the Nov 2nd, 2004 edition of ‘The Mennonite’. The details of how a northern lad from Bury became a Mennonite takes some explaining, but I owe my introductions to Anabaptism to Alan Kreider, who in the early 1980’s was Director of the London Mennonite Centre. Pacifism, community, social justice and eco-theology – all in an ecumenically-minded Neo-Anabaptist ethos. A meeting over a cup of tea on the Mennonite Centre lawn changed my life and, in the process, shifted my politics leftward. I spent a wonderful and challenging time in three Anabaptist intentional communities.

Of course, I still had to earn a living. It was a privilege to be able to do this with a sense of vocation, in the housing/homelessness field, working in hostels and later with Leeds Nightstop and the Churches National Housing Coalition. CNHC merged with the Catholic Housing Aid Society (CHAS) to form Housing Justice. I went to Leeds to complete an MA in Political Theology but, in many ways, Nightstop was the best education. The project was the first of its kind, created by two local churches pooling their hospitality: emergency accommodation for young homeless people in the homes of volunteer hosts. The BBC made an Everyman Programme about Nightstop, ‘Entertaining Angels, screened in 1991. Three and a half million people watched the documentary and launched what became a national project – now Depaul-Nightstop. Nightstop shaped my understanding of hospitality. In many ways our experience brought us close to Peter Maurin’s ‘personalism’. Entertaining angels in such a simple and direct way, many of our volunteers found themselves radicalised. At the height of Leeds Nightstop, I managed 130 volunteers. A new project, Bradford Nightstop, emerged from our extended network.

What does a busy hostel worker do for relaxation? In my case, walking and birdwatching. I have my grandmother to thank for the birding. She bought me my first bird guide when I was a child, tramping over the Pennines. There was more to it than hills and walking, but after years in the city, I took the chance to revisit my childhood. I came to Leek and purchased a modest two bedroomed terrace on London Street, close to the centre of the town. Leek is an in-between place. Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield to the West. Just north of the town is the Peak District. It gives the town a Janus quality, facing both ways. I love Leek, but I never managed to earn a reliable living there. Following years of Tory cuts, I lost my job in Altrincham, after the demise of our bus connection. Janus again, I thought.

What to do with a house – 14,000 books and no bus route? Years in the housing field had cured me of ever wanting to be a landlord. Using the house as an occasional writing base felt indulgent. The answer, to a prayer and a practicality, came in the form of a conversation with Heather Luna. We met originally by way of the Scottish writer, Alastair MacIntosh. I already knew of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, through a warm relationship between Wood Green Mennonite Church and the London Catholic Worker Community.

With a background in hospitality, intentional community and hosting asylum seekers, Heather’s vision and our ecological common ground (I’m a member of the Green Party), it seemed a natural step to see a community come together in Staffordshire. When I became aware of Heather’s circumstances and her need to lock down safely in the pandemic, I mentioned the Leek house. I’m delighted not to be a landlord. The presence of deeply rooted faith practices in a living community feels like the beginning of something. That’s how the front door came to be open.

Phil Wood is a Mennonite and – at least for half the time – a writer by profession. He lived in an Anabaptist intentional community in Wales, with good friends and assorted goats.

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