How generous are we in the way we live our lives? Tracy Spiers talks to three women who give of themselves in order to further the kingdom of God
‘I am doing what God wants me to do’
At just 27, Kate Wharton was ordained as a minister in the Church of England. Last year, she was licensed as Priest-in-Charge of St George’s Church in Everton, Liverpool (known as the ‘Iron Church’) by the Bishop of Warrington.
Brought up in the middle class area of Southport in Merseyside, Kate turned her back on a promising career in speech therapy. She felt God was calling her to work with urban priority inner city areas where crime, unemployment and drug addiction were high.
“While I was doing my degree in Leeds, I moved into a flat on an inner city housing estate which was used as a prayer house connected to the church plant, by the church I was going to. I felt God’s call to be ordained and, after one year of being a speech therapist, I gave up my job, a good salary and the prospect of buying my own house and worked as a church pastoral assistant.
“I thought I’d try it for a year to see if it worked out. I loved it and went to college in Oxford with the view of working with inner cities in mind once I got ordained,” explains Kate, single and now 32.
“I now live in one of the poorest areas in Liverpool where social problems, domestic violence, drink and drug addictions are rife. People see the problems, but I see a fantastic group of people who have not been given the opportunities in life.
“Doctors, the police and others tend to come in to work during the day, then they go home to their nice homes, but as vicar here I get the great opportunity to live in the area. The people here know I could have chosen to live anywhere, but I have chosen to make this my home and community. I have never once experienced a lack of respect because I have chosen to be part of them.
“I have had bricks thrown through my window, people injecting drugs in my garden and I pick up broken glass from smashed beer bottles every day. I regularly get asked, how do I cope living here? Although I have a security light, the battery is constantly worn down because it goes on every time a young person comes into the churchyard so I have to walk home in the dark, but I have never once felt unsafe.
“The church is built on the highest point of Liverpool and has fantastic open views across the whole of the city and the Wirral and Wales. It is such an amazing view. There’s something about the openness and the feeling of not being closed in that makes me feel secure,” explains Kate, who is also a minister for the deaf.
“I love living here. I love this area and it’s the heart God has given me for this area which makes it possible. People here know their lives are in a mess. They don’t need to be told. They are constantly living with debt, illness and addiction, so it gives me a great starting point. I just tell them that Jesus thinks they are fantastic and that there is hope.
“I have the amazing privilege of talking all day long about Jesus because people expect me to. I can take school assemblies, give talks at funerals, join in council residents meetings, talk with community leaders and just be part of this community,” she says.
Kate doesn’t see turning her back on a well-paid job as a sacrifice. Her fruits aren’t financial – they are seeing lives changed or the vision of watching a community claiming back its sense of purpose.
“By the age of 12 the young people here have often lost any ambition, the hope has gone out of them and they can end up without a job or career prospect. I would love to take the hope that is in the five to eight-year-olds and encourage them to keep hold of it and not allow it to be stolen from them. So we try and do something with the young people now through Messy Church, engaging with them and spending time with them.
“The main thing for me is the knowledge that I am doing what God wants me to do and because of that I am in a place of blessing. It is right that I am doing this now while I am young, and knowing I am in his will makes it the best job in the world.”
‘Other people think it’s crazy giving up time for others’
In her early 20s Cherry White from Stroud in Gloucestershire felt specifically that God wanted her to support, care for and get alongside young single mothers. Instead of taking up paid employment, she has sacrificially given up her own family time - and sometimes money - to ensure these women have the chance to become the responsible, self-sufficient and confident parents they want to be. At 64, she is still supporting those in need.
“When I first became a Christian, I started helping in the Sunday school and children’s work, but God told me it was not my place and my ministry would be with women. Over the years that is what I’ve done, working mainly one to one with young single mothers. Many of them have struggled with alcoholism and drug addictions.
“I used to be a befriender of Social Services and helped a young girl of 12 and her three siblings. She now has three children and is divorced, and I am still supporting her,” explains Cherry, who has also worked voluntarily as an accredited Christian counsellor for Listening Post and GLOYFYSH, two Gloucestershire-based projects – one for counselling and one for supporting young homeless people.
“Giving quality time to people is important and sometimes you have to sacrifice a lot, getting up in the night, sitting with them and picking them up off pavements when they are drunk. It does mean being away from your own family or giving up time for yourself because someone else is in need, but at the same time it’s important not to let it rule your life,” she says.
Cherry’s caring heart has also meant she worked tirelessly for many years as a voluntary counsellor for Stroud’s former Pregnancy Care Centre and, together with her husband Nick, a retired pastor, provided a bed and meal for needy youngsters for the national charity Night Stop.
But although her efforts haven’t provided a financial gain, she says there are the rewards of seeing the fruits of her labours.
“I think when you see them getting their lives sorted out and starting to take responsibility for themselves and their children; when they become more independent and less dependent on you and only ask for advice rather than expecting you to fix their problems, then you know it’s time to let them go and make their own decisions,” explains Cherry, who has two grown-up sons and five grandchildren.
“I have been fulfilled in doing what I do, but other people think it’s crazy to give up so much time for others and to sorting out their problems. But I think if it’s what’s in you and you have a caring heart, it’s a gifting and you have to use it. If God’s put it in your heart to care for other people, it’s got to come out,” she says.
“I suppose the reason I do it is because, with a bit of support, care and guidance, I see these women can have a better quality of life. I have noticed over the years that [God] hasn’t brought another young woman along until the one before has become independent. He knows what each of them needs.”
‘We have a lot of love to give, so we do’
Having brought up her own three children, Fay Woodward, 64, from Gloucestershire, didn’t envisage having teenagers living in the house as she approached her 60s. But despite the fact she could be enjoying a quiet household with husband Woody, she invited her teenage grandsons to live with her when their parents hit difficulties. Having invested years with Matthew, she generously took in Steven who is still with her.
“We have always told the kids that we would always be there for them. With the boys, I had a sense ever since they were babies that they would need us later on. When Matthew and Steven were little, they used to stay with us five nights a week because their mum worked nights and my son – their dad – started work at five o’clock in the morning, so they have always had their own bedrooms here anyway.
“It was Woody and I who did the school runs. When the boys’ mum and dad split up, Steven moved in for a year and his brother went to live with his mum. As soon as Steven moved back, Matthew came here and stayed for about three years.
“When Matthew decided he was going, we had six weeks on our own which was great. Then Steven moved in and we have had him here ever since,” says Fay, who has three other grandchildren and works as a night time carer for the elderly.
It means in 42 years, apart from those quiet six weeks, Fay’s house has been occupied by little people. Her children are now in their 40s and the sacrifice she has made for her grandsons has meant that she and Woody have not had much peace or time to themselves.
“I don’t get much time with Woody, which is why we go away on our own whenever we can. I couldn’t support the boys without him. He is amazing. He is so easy going, he has never once complained. He has been a father figure to them, which is what they have needed. And the rewards have been enormous.
“We haven’t had much peace and quiet and often music is blaring. But that is youngsters and they need to be youngsters. Hopefully it keeps me young too!” she adds.
But Fay knows the love and time she has given to her grandsons has been worth it. “It’s given the boys stability in their lives. They know they have unconditional love here. We can encourage them and draw out the positives. Steven is a great footballer and often comes home with ‘man of the match’, and I’m so proud of him. Praise goes a long way with children. It doesn’t take much to give it to them, but it matters.
“I have taken the boys in because I enjoy doing it. You can’t make yourself do something like that. You have got to want to give. It has to come naturally. It’s what we are. Woody and I have a lot of love to give, so we do.”