Right from the beginning of our parenting adventure we have spent at least a week a year in intense Christian community. When we were first married we were leaders of Christian holiday weeks for children from disadvantaged backgrounds run by CPAS, so B & A both had to get used to being around a close knit team and a busy week with outings, meeting new people & noise. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t plain sailing as parents! We often brought someone with us especially to accompany our own kids, but even so there were a fair number of difficult & tense moments most days! There were good things that came from those weeks too, I am still thankful for people from the team who have been people that they both B & A have looked up to, and learnt so much from being around; whose faith and courage have continued to inspire and shape us as a family.
When B & A got closer to the age of the children who joined us for our holiday week it became much more difficult an environment, and so by the time T was born we had reluctantly (yet with relief too) stopped leading the camps and so we started going to one of the large Christian festivals, New New Wine with a few families from church. Now we are still going, and the number of people who we share the week with has grown – some from our curacy church, some from our previous church, some from where we are now & friends of our friends.
We camp in family groups, and lots of those family units extend to include others coming either for the first time, or coming alone, or in need of a little support in some way. In these extended family groups we organise our cooking & washing-up, eat together, share the week closely together. Watching out for each other, being there for each other and including each other. As much as we can we camp around a patch of communal space, where we can spend time as a whole group too, having fun, discussions, learning about and from each other.
During the week we also help our children become part of a small group within one of the age group venues. For us over the years this has been very difficult, struggling with overwhelming anxieties, sensory overload and then the exhaustion that these bring. But in recent years we have become part of the Our Place community at New Wine – a team of volunteers ready to help support integration & inclusion in the different groups, and running a venue especially for children & young people & their carers which has proved to be a place of escape when needed & a community that ‘get it’ and realise just how big the struggles can be taking part in a week like New Wine as a family with additional needs. There we have found sofas, gentle sensory calm down spaces, homemade cake, listening ears, people to pray with, someone ready & willing to do washing in those inevitable emergencies, time and space to process and reflect with each other & God, tissues, hugs, pampering & tlc. Our Place has made it possible for us to keep coming & all keep growing & being challenged in our faith and living. They are a really special team!
Why do it, if it’s so difficult? It would, no doubt be much easier to take the decision that it’s just too far outside what is remotely comfortable and practical for us as a family. I guess these experiences have been so important to us, important enough to tackle the problems for. It has mattered to us such a lot over the years we have been parenting that our children have not just learnt about living a life of faith from us. We want them to have had as many opportunities as possible as they grow up to have spent time with other Christians, heard others teach about faith, watched others living their faith, heard of what God is doing around the country and the world (this year B & A came back to the tent one evening telling us all about having had the opportunity to speak to a pastor in Iraq by live video link, it had made such an impact).
More than that too, it is right at the heart of faith to be drawn into community – drawn into the community of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit firstly and into the community of God’s people. Made in God’s image we are made to be in community; thriving and growing best in community; interdependent. The fact that so much about that is so very tiring and challenging for us as a family is even more reason to be intentional – to put ourselves in places where we really have to practice; to practice giving and accepting help; to practice sharing what we have so we each have what we need; to practice listening, watching and learning from others; to practice using our gifts; to nurture compassion and love as we practice recognising each person as made in the image of God; to nurture that ongoing growth of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives. Yes it’s not always easy, but it is so important. I’m so thankful for those who join our extended family and bear with us in the challenging bits of these weeks each year, and those who camp around us and share the week with us, and for the really wonderful volunteers of Our Place. We come away stronger and that little bit more whole! (Ready to face the next challenge – which for us meant putting up the tent again in the campsite for our family holiday – we are in so much need of practice at community that a bunch of roses was bought as a peace offering once the tent was up!! )