A beacon of light
John Ellis (pictured right) is from Dun Laoghaire, just south of Dublin. He was ordained in the Church of Ireland and worked for six years in County Antrim and then in south London. But he wanted to specialise in youth work and moved to the East Marsh area of Grimsby in 1972 – to St John and St Stephen’s church – to join the team as a youth pastor.
‘It’s one of the most deprived, left behind communities in the UK,’ he says, ‘in the bottom 3% for deprivation. The old fishing industry has virtually gone and the problems that we have are very typical of this sort of area throughout the country. High on that list is the exploitation of young people by drug dealers and all the issues related to that. They don’t have the best life, really, and employment prospects aren’t great.’
In bleak surroundings, the Shalom youth club, which John founded, has been a beacon of light.
‘We’ve just celebrated our 50th year,’ he says. ‘When we started, all we had was a prefab hut, which doubled as a church hall. We began very simply, with a one-night-a-week club for local young people, and it’s all developed from there. We’ve had nearly 6,000 young people through the place in that time, and we’ve now got a full-time centre which is open seven days a week working with the young people in the community.’
‘In bleak surroundings, the Shalom youth club which John founded, has been a beacon of light.’
From his arrival in 1972 John worked almost exclusively with young people for several years, and then did a spell as the vicar of the parish, for ten years or so. When he retired from that he became the project manager of the youth centre. ‘But I have a fantastic operations manager,’ he says. ‘Michaela Keetley – who does all the hard work.’
Michaela started going to the youth centre when she was five. She left school at 16 without any qualifications but then, with the centre’s support, she was able to study for a diploma in youth and community work.
‘So many young people start with us at five years of age and are with us right up to 18 or 19, and then they still keep coming back years later.’
‘You might have heard of Tommy Turgoose, who starred in the film This is England. Tommy was one of our members. In fact, we introduced him to Shane Meadows, the film producer, and he’s gone on to have a film career.’
John describes the centre as ‘fairly standard’. There’s a sports hall and various activities and music and social spaces. ‘But the key to what we do,’ he says, ‘is building relationships. That’s what it’s all about: relationships. It never ceases to amaze me how just building a positive relationship can be almost magical in its effect. You get young people coming in who won’t relate to anybody. They come in with their faces hidden under hoodies and then slowly, slowly you see them open out and begin to engage, and that’s just wonderful to see and to be part of.’
It’s challenging, too, of course: ‘Because many of the young people are very, very high risk, and high-risk young people are very difficult to get alongside and communicate with.’ John explains: ‘They’re very suspicious of adults, very suspicious of everybody. The highest risk young people won’t have had a single positive adult relationship in their lives. Things might be toxic at home for all sorts of reasons: parents struggling to make ends meet, struggling with addictions and all those things.
‘It never ceases to amaze me how just building a positive relationship can be almost magical in its effect.’
‘They’ll have a very, very loose connection with full time education, hit-and-miss if at all, and practically every relationship they have with an adult is toxic. This means they’re very vulnerable to exploitation, because if these drug dealers show them a bit of attention, support, give them money, they’ll just go for it because it’s so attractive to them to find somebody who’s interested in them, apparently. That’s what exploitation is about.’
There have been many tragedies over the years, including two recent suicides of young men who got caught up in drugs. But there are some signs of hope, including the development of a massive offshore wind farm. ‘That’s brought a lot of hope to the community,’ says John. ‘With the town’s background in seafaring and fishing we’re used to going out in all weathers! And there are all sorts of schemes to regenerate the area and the youth club is closely involved in a number of them.’
John and BRF
John had known of BRF for a long time, and in the past he’d dipped into our Bible reading notes. But when the team was looking for ways to encourage Bible reading, he thought he’d see ‘what BRF was up to’. What he discovered was Holy Habits.
‘The whole work here at the centre is done in the context of Christian mission.’ John explains. ‘We never, as they say, shove religion down people’s throats, but it’s there as an option if young people want to explore. We’ve created a lot of our own materials, particularly for people who aren’t generally comfortable with books, but Holy Habits was exactly what I was looking for. It’s fantastic.
‘We’ve created a lot of our own materials, particularly for people who aren’t generally comfortable with books, but Holy Habits was exactly what I was looking for. It’s fantastic.’
‘We bought a set of the Bible reflections that go with the first holy habit, which gave people 40 days of readings. They were all taken and we’ve had some very positive feedback from those who’ve been using them. Then when they come to the end of that book we’re hoping to encourage them to go on to some of the other notes, so they really get into the habit of daily Bible reading.
I can do that!
‘Then I saw this “local church champion” thing in some of the BRF emails and newsletters and I thought, yes, I can do that. I’ve had a Zoom meeting with BRF already and I think there’s a lot of potential to cooperate with them.’
So if someone was hesitating to volunteer, what would John say to encourage them?
‘In a more prosperous community, people have a can-do attitude. But in our community, people have been told they’re stupid and they can’t do things. So we just encourage people to do stuff, and they’re amazed with what they can do.
‘What they do here is as important for the volunteers’ own development as it is for us. We say to people that ministry is part of discipleship. It’s not an add-on; you’re signing up to do something that makes a difference. And so we encourage people at every level to do something, and it just works.’
‘Ministry is part of discipleship. It’s not an add-on; you’re signing up to do something that makes a difference.’