L19 Messy Church: James’ happy place

Published 2nd October 2023 by

The McElroy family live in Liverpool, opposite St Mary’s Church, Grassendale, and just round the corner from where the L19 Messy Church meets. When they first moved in, Lisa took two year old James to playgroup – ‘a proper old-fashioned playgroup like the one I went to as a child’ – to give her some time with new born Emily. ‘It was brilliant,’ she says, ‘they were lovely, lovely people, and that’s where I learned about Messy Church’.

So, when James was five, the family started  going to Messy Church: the ‘big, lively L19 Messy Church, led by Jane Leadbetter.’

James is now eleven and about four years ago, he was referred for possible autism. He doesn’t yet have a formal diagnosis but Lisa is fairly certain that’s what it is: ‘From about the age of five onwards, James found being in a church incredibly difficult: the acoustics and the feeling of being trapped made it really, really hard. A normal church service was almost torture for him. That’s a strong word, but that’s how it was and obviously we didn’t want to force anything like that on him.’

But according to Lisa, something remarkable happened at Messy Church:

‘At first, when I took him to Messy Church, he would never leave my side but then he just relaxed because everyone is so accepting and there were none of the usual behavioural expectations: no one demanded that he looked them in the eye. The way that people are with the children just makes them feel comfortable and relaxed, and not always on the lookout for what they should be doing. All this means that behaviour is much better because they can be themselves and they’re not stressed.

‘He absolutely loves Messy Church: the informality, the openness. Sometimes we thought it was just the activities but what happened at his school shows that the whole message has sunk in and we didn’t even realise it was happening.’

What happened at school was equally remarkable, when James greatly impressed his teacher with his design for a poster to illustrate what religion meant to him.

On planet earth is Messy Church

James is supported by a SENCO, a special educational needs coordinator. One day when Lisa picked him up from school, the SENCO pulled her aside and said he’d been ‘magnificent in both RE and science.’

‘He’s fascinated by the solar system,’ explains Lisa. ‘Planets, rockets, satellites, the whole thing. In science, he was able to explain all the little details about the solar system: the difference between a satellite and a moon and an actual satellite and a manmade satellite and all those little intricacies. Then in RE they had to design a poster to show what Christianity meant to them.

‘He drew the solar system and explained how God had created it all and on the earth was Messy Church. The message of his poster was that Messy Church is there for everyone: it was one place where everyone was made to feel welcome and comfortable and whatever your background, your race, your colour, your abilities, your disabilities, everyone was welcomed and cared for. On top of that, he also said that you can’t force people to believe what you believe, you can only show them the love of God.’

Such a large experience

When Messy Church got going again after the pandemic, Lisa was asked if she’d like to volunteer as a helper.

‘Of course I said yes, volunteering in my blood!’ She started volunteering, helping in the kitchen, and then James asked if he could volunteer too. So now he’s part of the kitchen team too, helping with the prep and then at serving time, he goes out and does some of the activities, eats with the other children and listens to the message.

And sister Emily, who is now eight is also keen to help out in the kitchen too. So does Lisa think her children are each benefitting from their involvement in Messy church?

‘Messy Church is not just making them feel part of a community and part of the church,’ she says, ‘it’s teaching them lots of things about giving back and not just taking, and about contributing to your community, and the fact that your community is made up of all sorts of different people from all sorts of different backgrounds. It’s open to everyone whether or not they are a Christian or whether or not they come from this area: so we have a family of Ukrainian refugees who always help manage the fire because they told us in their village, every week, they would all come together in the village around a communal fire and have a communal meal and that Messy Church was like that for them here.

‘What the children get from it is such a large experience and they’re so comfortable there. It’s something I know I can take them to that I don’t have to worry about. You know how they say it takes a village to bring up a child. That’s how it feels. There’s a community of people who will look out for your children and help to teach them so many different things.’

A community of lovely people

It’s not been an easy year for Lisa and her family, but being part of L19 has helped to ease some of the pain and the stress:

‘When I went last December, my dad had just gone into hospital in Derbyshire, so I was in a really bad emotional place and James was saying you don’t need to go. But I said I do. The children were upset about their granddad but they really wanted to go and they were in tears at the thought of not going. So we all went together and it just gave us that breathing space. Some people have holistic therapy; well Messy Church is a bit like that for me. It takes me out of my own troubles and puts me in a community of lovely people. You’re just making food, nourishing all these other people, and they’re nourishing you back. So it the best thing I could have done that day was go to Messy Church, and it really helped. They’re very special people and I just want to say thank you to them: they’ve really helped my children develop and provide that village feel while living in the middle of a city.’

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