This would have been a podcast, but it was just too long for my one-minute limit. So:
Alone, I’d driven up to Lancashire – to join the birthday celebrations and all-round celebration of the life of my old friend John – a most wry, energetic and sporting man in his 50s. Of the 60 or so people at John’s party, I was in a minority of one for not being tied to any of the work-related, LGBT or tennis networks that made up the rest of the gathering. Such a minority of oneness had come as a surprise, and it cast me as some kind of (comfortable) social novelty - I was free to float, chat, entertain and be entertained as people variously caught my eye as interesting, attractive or simply ‘game’ - Shane the social butterfly (rather than impartial observer). Past midnight, with the gathering winding down and wending away, I noticed a couple – a man and a woman of around 50 years of age – looking very relaxed and sober, as others about them flitted and unsteadily faltered away. I approached the couple, querying how they knew John.
The connection proved to be loose and work-related. Teasingly, Jim and Nina made quiet passing reference to ‘our church, in Blackpool’. These two tiny details were enough to make me want to know more. Later, as I learned that birthday boy John did not know Jim or Nina very well, he explained that he’d never had the chance to interrogate them in the way that I had. Amused at this perception of my approach to getting-to-know-you, I explained to John what I’d learned – and so unfolded the reason that I would remember these far from mild people.
In 1998, Jim – ‘in business’ (I didn’t ask which) - had read a newspaper account of the death of a professional footballer, Justin Fashanu – a 37 year old gay man who had committed suicide. There was the suggestion that Justin had been unable to find the support that he needed from either family, friends or his church. In Jim’s words, ‘There was just something about that article – that story – that really moved me; to this day, I’ve kept the cutting of it in my wallet’. For Jim – who’d been brought up in a football-mad family, feeling so moved proved to be a calling to action. Aided by his wife, Nina – a nurse by profession, Jim resolved to return to church and to do all that he could to ensure that there would be no other stories such as Justin’s. This return to church was not going to be so straightforward though, for this was not to be about finding a church that would simply provide a small quiet corner for those unfortunate gay people, this was going to have to begin from ground zero – from learning of what it would mean and require to provide a free and accessible spiritual and worshipful space for gay people and the broader LGBT community. Two slight problems, however: one - neither Jim nor Nina had any experience in running a church, and two – and not so insignificantly – at that time, this couple knew no gay people. There followed a year of visits, friendship-building and learning from the MCC – the Metropolitan Community Church (of Manchester), and from this, the first gigantic steps in ultimately making their home a space for others. Moving from the sedate, northern tip of Blackpool, to a more central – noisier, busier, grittier - location, Jim and Nina would give ministry from their own home. And so, Liberty Church Blackpool was born - and it grew, and the rest is a history that continues to be built – on foundations that I find to be hugely admirable.
As I have mulled over what I heard from Jim and Nina, I have come to feel that the particular impact of their story and their life changes lies in the fact that they were provoked into social action. So, I ask myself, were their depths of feeling and responsiveness things that we might all be capable of? If I wanted to, I could refer to ‘God’s calling’ or some such – but I’ll not do that – at this time, I don’t need to as I try to make sense of their actions – actions that were compassionate, humanistic reactions unfolded through the structuring and language of the church.
As Jim and Nina said goodbye and left the party, I turned to John and asked of a third person – a man in his 30s - who had joined them as they exited. At this, John chuckled, ‘Ah yes, Billy’s from their church. I asked him earlier if he’d had a good evening, to which he practically knocked me off my feet - told me that this was the best party that he’d ever been to - to which I thought ‘Wow!’, then he added that it was also the first that he’d been to sober – I think Nina and Jim have been helping him with that’. This felt like a neat epithet to go with the people – the life-changers - who I would remember, and who I’d spent the latter part of the evening talking to… or interrogating, you might say.