Looking back over 2016, the first things that come to mind are the most recent: our busy advent/Christmas here at Heath Street. It was a joy to see various charitable events at the church going well: in total over three thousand pounds was raised at the church in December. Chiefly responsible were Elisabeth Kristiansen and Ana Silvera, both back for a second consecutive year, and singing for Shelter and Care4Calais respectively along with Orly Orbach, Heath Street Choir and many others who helped in collecting for Panzi hospital at our annual Christmas fundraising event. For me, getting to know about Panzi hospital has turned out to be one of the year's highlights. The rich and fascinating history of our congregation in the Congo has always intrigued me, and we have tried for some years to support that beautiful and troubled country in one way or another. But while we’ve already made efforts, it has been frustrating that the big umbrella organisations (e.g. Christian Aid, or our own BMS) change the projects they support on so frequent a basis. That makes it hard for an individual person or congregation to become very knowledgable, much less emotionally invested, in any particular project.
As regulars will know, this spring Heini and I participated in a conference in St. Paul’s Bay, Malta, where representatives of European Baptist congregations met to discuss short-term church-to-church visits - more of this below. One unexpected thing that came out of the conference was a tip from some Belgian-Congolese pastors, who answered my Congo queries by unanimously recommending we take a look at what’s going on at Panzi Hospital. Panzi works principally with women who have been the victims of sexual violence in Eastern Congo, and both as pastor and as one of the Heath Street Choir basses, I'm grateful to have had the chance to be involved in a performance of The Messiah which raising £1,700 for that work. I pray that this will only be the beginning of the relationship between the two institutions. The concert in question was something of a rite of passage for the singers, who well and truly won their spurs by singing the Hallelujah chorus for the first time - now we can call ourselves a Proper Choir!
On the subject of the Congo, please continue to keep in your prayers the family of Maria Mbombo, a woman of Congolese origin, but a neighbour of ours, whose life was taken in tragi circumstances earlier this year. Maria's funeral, which took place here at the church, was a memorable experience for me, and I hope it will lead to closer relations with our local Congolese community. The congregation will also have fresh in their minds two of the year's principal events - the death of Marie Isaacs and the baptism of Wilf Merttens.
Besides fundraising events, advent-tide saw the wedding of Anna and Joe, the nearest we’ve had to a traditional white wedding with 'all the trimmings’ at Heath Street in my time. Anna’s family put the church into exquisite Christmas trim, and a beautiful eight-voice choir led by Simone Ibbet-Brown, sang Christmas carols and anthems. And those who have followed the Heath Street war on junk will be pleased to know that it has continued apace this year, with two carloads and one lorryload reacing Regis Road Recycling Centre. The latter was thanks to the staff and parents of New End school, and that’s a cheerful sign of the increasing rapprochement between the church and our local state primary, which of course had its beginnings down in the lower hall of the church.
Looking towards 2017 at Heath Street, several things look exciting. Perhaps the boldest venture is the passiontide arts festival that's coming up in April. Holy Week will be marked at a Heath Street by a week-long celebration of the story of salvation. We’ve done similar things in the past, but this year a new contribution will be made by young Austrian artists coming from or through Beheimgasse Baptistengemeinde, Vienna. Let me know if you can help with accommodation!
We have lots more remarkable events planned, and I’m sure the best are still unplanned. Nevertheless, the most exciting thing about 2017 isn’t the one-off events, but is the prospect of still being here, week in, week out, a small and unremarkable Christian congregation, seeking through our weak words and feeble efforts to proclaim the glorious gospel of the eternal God. May His blessing rest upon each one of us in the coming year. And may God use all our words and deeds, and send His Spirit to bless the continuing work we do, both in the community, and in our ministry of prayer, proclamation and praise!
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