Okay, so this one has dated horribly. Still, if you’re old enough to remember Soul in the City, it might prompt a nostalgic chuckle. We’re now two-thirds of the way through this long-awaited* re-serialisation of the Youthwork magazine classic**. If you’re just joining us, start here.
They had this big youth mission in London this summer. You may have heard about it. 15,000 teenagers, led by this guy Michael Versace, came from all parts of the country to get involved in social action and evangelism in the city for two weeks. The Baptist church down the street took a busload of kids down there. But when I spoke to the vicar here at St Eric’s he told me that ‘funds were being allocated elsewhere’, so we couldn’t go. Still, there’s a fantastic new talking tea urn in the church kitchen, which I suppose is a priority.
So while the roar of success from ‘Charismatics in the Capital’ was audible in the midlands, Tommy, Dave and I were left here in Harley, wondering what we could do to impact the kingdom of God with barely enough money for a penny sweet. That was until Tommy had this bright idea that while Versace and the Baptists cleaned up London, maybe we could do the same thing here. At that moment, Niceness in the Newtown was born.
The three of us – plus anyone else we could rope in – would spend a week of the summer being really really nice to the people of Harley. We would travel the town, showering random strangers with undeserved kindness. We would paint fences, wash cars, and sing happy songs to our downbeat neighbours. That would show them, far more than our words could, how much Jesus loved them.
I spent an afternoon locked in my study (utility room, next to the washing machine) formalising our ideas on the laptop (a circa-1983 BBC Micro donated by one of the old ladies at church). Apart from some nice posters, printed on that old paper with lots of holes down each side, I also came up with a tagline: ‘Taking the I.O.U. out of ‘gracious.’ Which of course makes ‘gracs’.
Shamelessly I modelled our activities on those occurring down south, but with a few subtle and cost-saving differences. For instance, for our morning devotionals, we couldn’t exactly afford to get a Hugh Timms in to lead worship. But all was not lost, for as you know, one of my best friends in the world is Morten Smurf – widely regarded as Norway’s twelfth-most popular worship leader. He’d been emailing me for months to ask if I could get him a gig over here, and while I’m not sure three people constitutes a gig, his rich church was prepared to pay for him to come over anyway.
Besides, by that point – a week before the mission – we’d grown in number. Dave had been down to the Baptist church and discovered a small group of Goths who were refusing to go down to London on account of it being too sunny there. That boosted us to seven. And then Tommy turned up at the church with two small children, whose origins were not clear. So if I had no objection to child labour, that raised us to the heady heights of nine.
Sadly in Youthwork, we are expected to ask certain questions.
‘Tommy,’ I said, more than a little surprised. ‘Who are they?’
‘The Brannigan twins,’ he replied, as if that answer would satisfactorily explain everything.
‘Hello,’ chimed the Brannigan twins, at an unsettling pitch which would not be out of place in a low-budget horror film. ‘We’re the Brannigan twins.’
I believed that we had now firmly established this fact. The BTs were shockingly alike – probably around nine years old, with bowl-cut hair and creepy identical smiles. Only the fact that the one on the left was wearing a shirt and trousers, and the one on the right was wearing a dress, told me that they were a boy and a girl. Either that, or the Brannigans were one strange family.
‘Tommy,’ I began, trying a different angle, ‘why have you brought these lovely children (I really wanted to say evil marionettes) to see me?’
‘They want to help out with the niceness.’
They beamed toothily and in unison, and I thought about calling the Ghostbusters.
‘Ah, that’s wonderful. But they’re too young to help us.’
The Brannigan twins started bawling at this point. And though I’d not thought it possible, it was far more terrifying than when they smiled. I had to do something to stop this blackboard-scratching noise, lest my head would explode:
‘Alright!’ I screamed, silencing the scary puppets at once. ‘If you get me a parental consent form, we’ll find a way for them to help.’ Of course, they’d need to wear masks…
Morten arrived by coach this morning (evidently his church wasn’t as rich as I thought) and is currently sleeping off his two-day journey in the study. On Monday, a moderately-loved Norwegian worship leader, an exiled Swedish youthworker, four Goths, two small children and two relatively normal young people will go into Harley and try to change it for the better.
Since I’ve been here, I’ve not always been certain that I heard God right when he called me to do youth work in England. I mean, as you know, in Swedish that phrase sounds very similar to ‘go and order some fried chicken.’ For a while there I thought I might have misheard him, and that actually he’d just wanted to make sure I ate properly. But this week, all that has changed. I’m starting to feel like God is breathing on what I’m doing here; that this mission to the town is exactly what he’d planned all along.
I’m off to pray now. Then, let the niceness begin.
Bjorn Argen is a volunteer youth worker based in Harley Newtown, in the North Midlands. Not really.