Wednesday, May 31, 2017

How "Home Fires" Can Challenge Parish Life

Several weeks ago, I eagerly began watching the PBS Masterpiece show, Home Fires. Set in a small English village, Home Fires followed the lives and struggles of the members of the Women's Institute during World War II. While the specific chapter of the WI that the series follows is fictional, the work of the WI is historical and quite fascinating as various women on the home front worked to build community and support.

While there are many engaging aspects to this show, right from the first episode, Home Fires struck me with its relevance. The Great Paxford WI was being run by the prim and proper Joyce Cameron. When conflict erupts concerning the future of the WI, and Joyce and her cronies leave, the remaining women are faced with a decision: Let the Institute dissolve, or find a way to save it. 

Frances Barden takes the lead, and mentions that they could attract new members. She doesn't know how they'll do this, but she thinks that the WI is too important to simply let it fall apart. "War," she says,  "can be very isolating. The Institute would provide women with a sense of community and purpose."

Thanks to her husband's observation about the abundance of blackberries, Frances realizes that the WI can preserve local fruit, so that Great Paxford won't need to have jam imported across wartime waters. Yet, this blackberry jam will not just be a good way for Great Paxford to grow in self-sufficiency; it will be a beacon of change for all women in the area. Frances remarks:

"We never made jam under Joyce Cameron. She thought it was too down-market for her WI. By making it now it would serve as a signal to all the women of Great Paxford who felt excluded by Joyce and her crowd."

The ladies create flyers that announce a blackberry harvest (which will be the restart of the Great Paxford WI), and they pass them out to everyone--including Mr. Farrow, a local farmer. He reads the flyer out loud as his wife scrubs their home's floor, noting to her the mention of "ALL welcome." Frances Barden is determined to break the exclusivity created by Joyce Cameron, and she wants every woman to know that she has a place in the WI. However, Steph isn't convinced. 

"What, baking cakes and arranging flowers? It's not for me," she scoffs to her husband. 
How could a farmer like herself fit in with prim, proper ladies who participate in dainty tasks around town? Steph, with her trousers and work shirts on the farm, did not fit in with the pristine, pressed, and proper image of the WI that she had always seen. 

Do you have a Steph Farrow in your church? How about a Joyce Cameron? 

I love seeing people enthusiastically embrace different roles in parish life. Whether they coordinate social events or clean buildings, these individuals are admirable in their sacrifice, leadership, and stewardship. However, there is a dangerous trap that every person can fall into, particularly when we've been working in one certain role for several years: We can become like Joyce Cameron, and make our outreach or ministry fit one image or cater to only one type of person. We become so set in "our way" of doing things that we become blind to any other methods by which we can accomplish our tasks. We become so focused on one group that we, without intending to, alienate the Steph Farrows in our community. 

Should we, like Joyce Cameron, be unwilling to change our ways? Should we simply keep serving in the method that we feel most comfortable, reaching out to the group of people that we are acquainted with, because it's "our way" of doing things? 

Alternatively, perhaps we could imitate Frances Barden and her companions. We could bring a fresh perspective and a new approach. We could put "ALL Welcome" on advertisements, and really mean it. Furthermore, we could go out and invite those people who are on the fringes, welcoming them into ministries, groups, and outreaches. In Home Fires, Steph does not join in the blackberry harvest, but she stops by later to buy jam. When they greet Steph, the women invite her to their meeting later that day, urging her to come and join them. We should never forget the power of a personal invitation. 

However, the burden of responsibility does not just lay on the shoulders of those in leadership positions. 

Each person who is hanging back in a corner needs to  look beyond preconceived images and prejudices. That man or woman who wants to be involved in new activities needs to see those advertisements that say "ALL Welcome" and show up. Too many times, we see or hear that "ALL" are welcome, but we tell ourselves, "Well, it says that ALL are welcome, but really, the advertisement or invitation is only meant for a certain group of people." 

Taking the step to respond positively to that "ALL Welcome" invitation is no small task. I'm an extrovert, and I love meeting random people,but just showing up to an outreach, event, or group can be terrifying. So I cannot imagine how difficult it is for introverts to jump into action and show up advertised groups or events. 

When faced with this challenge, we can look back to Steph's actions in Home Fires. As the WI begins their first meeting after the blackberry jam sale, Steph comes whirling into the room, asking if the meeting is still happening. When she hears that yes, the meeting is still happening, Steph smiles and tells the ladies,"I'll just get the girls off the trailer." 

Steph had to be willing to look beyond her preconceived image of the WI, and she had to bravely show up. But she didn't show up alone. Instead, she brought other women from the area where she lived. There is safety in numbers, and it's much easier to show up to a scary-looking meeting with a bunch of friends than to creep in alone. Surrounded by her friends and neighbors, shattering her preconceived images of the WI, Steph finds welcome and receptivity as she offers suggestions and ideas for their work. She discovers her place in this once-distant and alienating community of women. 

We can all learn from the examples of the women in this show. Let's honestly ask ourselves if we act like Joyce Cameron, and if we can instead lead like Frances Barden. And let's challenge ourselves to courageously move out of our comfort zones, like Steph Farrow. When we do these things, our church communities will be able to flourish much better than when we hide behind walls of exclusivity or fear. 

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