Saturday, 17 December 2011

5 Days in Harlesden.

This week has been one of surprises for Fr Damian. As previously reported he was part of a team of people, including professional actors and musicians, giving a mission to an inner city Catholic Boy’s School in Harlesden, North London. Newman Catholic College is a community of 520 boys. The number of students has been increasing on a weekly basis. The young men attending the school come from many lands, languages and cultures. Leading them is a small but dedicated staff.

Earlier this year, Ten Ten Theatre Company were approached by the school to lead a week long mission. The whole timetable for the week would be handed over to the mission team for input and workshops. The task of planning began. Actors, Stephen Newbury and Sara Winn would dramatically present to the students issues that they currently face – relationships, friendship, social networking and the consequences of our decisions. Edwin Fawcett, a Catholic Singer-songwriter and musician would summon from the school community a voice to express their worship in song and praise. Fr Damian, of the Aylesford community was asked to be the chaplain and to celebrate the liturgies for the week and give a daily input in the assemblies. (He also joined the actors in one drama -  a never to be repeated experience!) The input given centred on the theme – Living life to the full (John 10:10) In living the fullness of life the boys were asked quite simply “What kind of man do you want to be?”

The structure of each day soon became established. Each day required an early start with the team arriving at the school at 6.45am. Coffee, setting the stage and rehearsing the drama before the boys would begin to arrive (the boys began to arrive earlier each day) Mass at 8.15am then the first assembly of the day at 9.10am. Drama, input from Damian and then a keynote speaker. On Monday, lay evangelist David Payne, Tuesday Mime artist Steve Murray, and on Wednesday Ten Ten’s Lizzie Hastings. The boys were to encounter other speakers during the week. Barry and Margaret Mizen showed humanity at its best as they recounted the events around the murder of their son, Jimmy, two years ago. They begged the boys to make the most of the opportunities set before them and to choose reconciliation and mercy, rather than the paths of violence and revenge. Fr Cyril Axelrod, a deaf and blind redemptorist priest had a room full of 12 year old boys captivated as he communicated his own story to the boys through sign language. Both he and his interpreter, Tom, mesmerised the room with their ballet of hands. Fr Cyril inspired those present with his deep holiness and joy.

Fr Richard Nesbit and Monsignor Keith Balthrop of Westminster diocese led discussions around the choices we can make. Ex professional sportsman David Fannon spoke of how faith inspires him. Deacon and accountant Rev. David Palmer spoke of ethics, business and faith. The days were not just about talking. The students were involved in arts, music and drama projects. Workshops were led by the Catholic Childrens Society, Cafod, Life, Pax Christi, Focolare, Pure in Heart, YCW, and AoS. Cartoonists, film producers, poets, vocal coaches and writers also shared their insights and gifts.

Each evening the core team would gather and review the day with the lead staff of the school and then begin the preparations for the next day. This would often involve writing and rehearsing a new drama for the following morning, and building a new set for the stage. Fr Damian remarked that the spirit of co-operation and teamwork was remarkable, as everyone worked together for the success of the week. Fr Damian found himself facilitating discussions around the content of the plays, contributing ideas for the daily assembly drama, ‘striking’ stage sets and moving chairs and setting up the hall each day. As well as the daily Mass and input that he was involved in.

On Thursday the day took on a new shape. The theme of the day was Reconciliation. In a way, there was a movement from “what kind of man do you want to be?” to “what kind of man are you now?” The day took shape around two services of Reconciliation lasting 100 minutes each. The team was joined by a number of priests used to working with young people. Fr Stefan Park, OSA., preached on the gift of confession. Whilst confession was available the school community was led in reflection by Edwin and the Ten Ten team. It seemed that for a day the school was stilled.

Whilst the soul was being nourished, the body needed an outlet. An inter house football tournament also took place. Thursday was also a time of preparation for the Mass that would end the day on Friday.

Friday morning dawned and the team made their way in the dawning light of the morning to the school for the final time. How would they gather the experience of the week in a celebration of the Eucharist? By involving as many as possible, by reflecting on the leassons learnt, by revisiting some of the stories heard, by creating a time capsule containing memories of the week, and by a final drama that would somehow bring the whole experience together. Joy filled the Church of Our Lady of Willesden as the whole school joined together in thanksgiving and praise.

Returning home, Fr Damian said that the week had been one of the most fulfilling of his ministry to date. Then he went to bed and slept for 12 hours!

Mission Week Prayer

Lord of the universe,
we thank you for the wonders of your creation.
As we celebrate the gift of life during this Mission Week
we ask you to guide our steps in your ways.

May your Spirit inspire us with pure intentions
to do our duties of work
and study according to your holy will.
Bless our efforts as we learn to grow in the values of
faith, hope, love, justice and peace
so that we may live life to the full.
We ask this through Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Amen.

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