Paul and Elaine Little from Bath’s clear sense of calling has seen them give up their jobs and move their family to Scotland.
Paul Little hadn’t given much thought to his personal calling until one evening, about 14 years ago, when everything changed. Paul was on his way back home after work when he came across a man on the side of Bath’s busy London Road who had slit his wrists. He immediately went to his aid, and despite the man trying to fight him off, Paul managed to save his life.
“Two things struck me that night,” Paul recalls. “The fact that thousands of cars passed by and not one person reported the suicide attempt and the fact that this guy didn’t want to be helped. That had a real impact on me. Here was someone who felt like they didn’t have any hope and, on top of that, nobody seemed to care.”
Paul couldn’t shake this from his mind. He felt like he was being challenged by God until he reached the point where he needed to do respond to that situation, the lack of hope that so many people feel.
After talking it through with wife Elaine, Paul discussed his feelings firstly with his vicar and then a diocesan adviser. “He mentioned Church Army,” says Paul, “a lay ministry connected to the Church of England, and when he described it, I just knew it was ‘me’.” Elaine gave it some thought and discovered that Church Army appealed to her too.
So in 1998 Paul and Elaine shut down their construction business, sold their house and moved to Sheffield with their three young sons to retrain as Church Army officers. (Their fourth son was born while they were training.) There was no road map setting out what they hoped to achieve. “We started from the position – whatever God asks us to do and wherever he asks us to go, Lord we’ll go.”
They spent the next three years in Sheffield while Paul trained as a Church Army evangelist and Elaine trained as a counsellor.
When Paul’s course ended in 2001, an opportunity arose for him to complete a placement in a Christian outdoor pursuits centre in the Scottish Borders, and so the whole family moved up to the small rural town of Newcastleton. Paul’s brief was to be an evangelist to the 9,000 annual visitors but it soon became clear to him that his future job would be very different.
“God had called me here but it was to be for another reason,” Paul explains. “This started to take shape after I ran a course for young offenders. The course worked because the young people had something to do on a Friday which appealed to their sense of adventure and helped them develop skills at the same time.”
Paul’s work with young offenders took off and evolved into Grafted, a project for people struggling with drug and alcohol dependency. It started life as an experimental, last-ditch programme for young people who were basically ‘pre-prison status’.
“Alcohol is a huge problem up there, as well as drugs,” explains Elaine. “These young people had serious heroine, cocaine, cannabis and alcohol addictions, as well as mental health problems, and most other organisations had given up on them.”
“This was my call,” says Paul. “I’d been called to help give hope to those without hope.”
Grafted grew and grew. By 2006 the project was in a position to employ more staff, including Elaine as a counsellor.
The project runs five days a week and provides a safe and supportive environment with opportunities to talk to others who have been able to overcome their own addictions and hear their stories. There is also a discussion group for those wanting to talk about issues of faith and the bigger questions of life. People attending drop-ins are encouraged to get involved in outdoor activities that help promote a more active lifestyle, such as hill walking, canoeing and archery. The team also offers help and support; accompanying people to appointments or to court, or by generally showing kindness and understanding when needed.
Enlisting volunteers from local churches to help run Grafted drop-ins has been integral to its success.
“We established drop-in centres in three of the border towns and we needed local volunteers to help us run these,” says Elaine. “So we’d go and talk to the churches in each area, often churches that weren’t all that missional in their outlook, but we’d go and share our vision about giving hope to those without hope.
“Most of the time people didn’t think they had it in them to help,” Elaine continues. “But we’d say, just come along and see. Pray about it. Come along with an open mind. And they did. In the end we were working with 24 volunteers from local churches, mainly retired people. God was very gracious and the volunteers were amazing with such servant hearts. The way they were able to connect with these young people was just phenomenal.”
“It’s all simple stuff,” Paul says. “Part of it was de-spiritualising the whole Christian ministry thing; trying to take it off its pedestal. People think they need to know the bible inside out but instead it’s about sharing what you know and giving what you can.”
While Paul and Elaine were working with the Grafted project, they also started running Alpha courses in their village.
“There was a local church but they weren’t doing anything around discipleship,” says Paul. “They were ‘doing’ Sundays but not really much else. So we began to run discipleship courses and people came. Some were church people and some weren’t. Many began to rediscover something of their faith that perhaps they’d felt they lost, while others discovered the Christian faith for the first time.”
Paul grows increasingly animated as he talks. “A larger and larger group began to form who didn’t want to disperse. So it wasn’t a case of running a course and then ending it. We were running a course, and then another course, and then another. And then we started to run out of courses! The numbers were growing all the time. We got to the point when I had to go and see the Bishop and say, I think we’ve got a church on our hands!”
I suggest that this must have been an amazing feeling, to see a church grow from nothing.
Paul grins. “The course at college I found most difficult and didn’t get good grades at was church planning! We didn’t go there to ‘church plan’; it was never on our agenda. Jesus said, ‘Go make disciples’ and that’s what we did. Once you make disciples and people find truth and faith and connect with Christ and each other in that context, then that becomes church. We didn’t start with the finished project. We didn’t start with the barn,” Paul laughs. “We started with the harvest.”
Admittedly things always seem much more linear in hindsight and Paul admits this himself. “Ultimately we were just doing what we were good at – gathering people. Eventually that became Refresh, which you might describe as a fresh expression of church. And which is still going strong and is still growing.”
Although Refresh became a firm part of the community in Newcastleton, some were resistant because they felt it ‘betrayed’ the local Presbyterian church by not meeting on Sundays.
“We didn’t meet on Sundays on purpose, at least for the first few years,” says Elaine. “We met when people were available. It’s useless to run stuff that no-one can come to because they’re at rugby or wherever. So we ran when people could attend.”
For Paul and Elaine it was vital for Refresh to be missional. This for them was the difference between being church and simply doing church.
Paul describes their vision of Refresh as a lifeboat as opposed to a cruise ship. “That doesn’t suit everybody,” admits Paul. “Some people would rather cruise and enjoy the ride, particularly as ours was an old lifeboat with oars! There were no passengers, everyone had to work. That might seem harsh but that’s what the church should be like. When you read the New Testament, you see it was costly to be part of church and if you had something, you had to share it with your neighbour. It was part of your faith.”
Over a period of six or seven years, Refresh grew significantly. By 2012, Paul and Elaine were working with 70 to 80 people in the community, people coming to Refresh specifically to engage with Christian teaching of some kind. That’s around ten per cent of the local community involved in regular discipleship.
First published in the April 2013 edition of Manna Magazine. Interview by Vanesther Rees.