I was just a child when I first met the hairy, smiling giant. He came to our church and spoke funny and smiled a lot. He played the guitar and sang songs and told stories. And he ate curry. That’s what I remember most about that eccentric, hairy visitor and his friends; sitting around, after the shows, eating curry, talking, laughing, being. I told him I would never leave Chelmsley Wood, that I was a Chelmsley bird, through and through. It stuck. Every time he came back he’d say “All right, Chelmsley bird?”
Over a decade later, I broke my vow and left. Off south I went, to train for ministry. After my first year I was told I needed to undertake a church placement – go and see how someone else does it – someone who’s different from what you’re used to, someone you can learn from. I thought of the hairy, smiling giant.
I thought of the most powerful moments of belonging I’d known as a child and recalled always being invited for a curry after the show.
I thought of the most profound moments of theological reckoning and recalled those stories I’d heard about a rag tag bunch of followers through-out time, getting it wrong, getting it right, and then getting it wrong again.
I thought of the most settling moments of safety and recalled when I went to university and shared a house with a girl who made me feel a little less anxious for some reason, only to realise that it was her familiar broad Bradford accent that put me at ease.
So off I went to Bradford for two weeks to work with The Zephaniah Trust. I saw first-hand the faces of children light up when the team walked into their assembly; I suppose very much the way mine once did. I stuffed envelopes and gave talks and sang and remembered all the actions. I was transported for two blissful weeks back to childhood.
Jesus said “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it”. In my two weeks at Zephaniah I was privileged to watch people living, breathing, singing and imparting to others the beauty and innocence of the kingdom of God through the eyes of a child.
And it was through this that I realised what it was that had attracted me to that Big Friendly Giant* and his friends when I was small. When they came to visit they brought with them the wonder and the magic of Christ and his kingdom. It’s twenty years since those childhood visits now, and many things have changed just in the few years since my two weeks with Zeph Trust, most notably I now have a child of my own. I sincerely hope that I can bring the same sense of wonder to my son when telling him stories about Jesus and his followers. But in case I fail, I’m very, very glad that Zephaniah are still going strong, still inspiring, still lighting up faces and hearts across the country.
(*Not in any way related to or resembling a character from a beloved children’s book about a little girl who finds out how dreams are made…)
Rowena Wilding and the “hairy, smiling giant” have a lot in common; sparky, creative, beautifully opinionated, and with a deep love of curry! No wonder she fit in so well at Zephaniah! This Chelmsley Bird currently works in the third sector in Birmingham, where she is also wife to Andrew and mum to baby Tristan.