I confused middle-class culture for Christianity
Natalie Williams on growing up poor - and finding the church.
I grew up in a block of flats in Hastings. There was no central heating, there was one phone on the ground floor, which all the flats shared. And I grew up with free school meals.
I wasn’t particularly aware that we were poorer than other people. I don’t remember feeling any kind of shame or anything associated with it. When I was 3 my brother died. I don’t remember it, but it had a huge impact throughout my childhood. I remember a teacher asking me: “Why don’t you believe in God?” And my answer was: “Because my brother died.” There were loads of reasons I didn’t believe in God, but that had a huge impact.
When I was 15, I started going to church because I liked a boy. When I started to get to know him, I didn’t like him at all, but for some reason I kept going to church! I think I was surprised by how many teenagers were in church and that they had a band.
I wasn’t prepared to become a Christian on the basis of feelings. I read the Bible for two months and I read about other religions and the legitimacy of the resurrection. I didn’t understand half of what I was reading, but the more I looked at Jesus the more I thought he’s someone I would want to follow. I became a Christian at 15, but I would say I came into the kingdom of God kicking and screaming.
At 15 I was troubled and trouble. So, although I became a Christian, I didn’t really believe God loved me. I was suddenly in this very middle-class church where I was aware of how different I was. I’d never been for dinner around people’s houses before. I didn’t know what you were supposed to do. They’d always make me go first because I was a guest, and I didn’t know how much food you were supposed to take so you looked grateful, but not too greedy!
When I was a kid, we’d just go into each other’s homes. I’d often help myself to biscuits, maybe even make myself a squash before I’d even said “hello” and walked into the living room. In church I learned that hospitality is having someone for dinner on a Friday night and expecting them to bring a bottle of wine. Which one of those looks more hospitable? And what does that mean for our youth and children’s groups? I think we’ve become so used to the middle-class way of doing things. There’s a real danger that we see people’s behaviour as ‘not very Godly’, when actually it’s just not very middle class.
Lots of our youth camps are so expensive, even though I get that most of them only just break even. One of the things we do in our church is get the whole youth group throughout the year to collectively do things like cake sales and car washes, which make enough money to subsidise everyone’s ticket to New Day (the camp we do) so no one feels like a charity case.
At 18 I did a gap year as a youth worker in a church. My church had seen three years of progress and discipleship, but I think this other church wondered if I was even a Christian! I only lasted a few months before they sent me home. I think they did it for my good, but for someone whose biggest battle had been “does God actually love me?” I felt massively rejected by God, and went away from him for about six years.
I was working for a newspaper in Beijing when I came back to God. And again, it was a bit of a wrestle. It wasn’t a profound moment. I was sat in a café on my own just after Christmas and was really depressed (I’d been diagnosed years earlier and was on medication), so I was trying to find fulfilment in all these other things and everything from my childhood began to catch up with me. I wrote a prayer to God, saying: “I’m giving you a week to send me a Christian who can help bring me back to you. If you haven’t done that in seven days, I’m going to commit suicide.” On day six a Christian turned up to work with us.
That started my journey back to Jesus and to England. I said to God: “I’ll go anywhere but Hastings” and ended up back there. Then I said: “I’ll go to any church but King’s, because I felt like everyone just knew my shame. But God said: “I want you to go back to that church.” I said: “OK, but I’m not doing youth work”, because that was such a painful thing in my gap year. But God said: “I want you to do youth work.” My whole Christian life has been characterised by wrestling with God!
I now run the communication and social action at King’s and I oversee communications at Jubilee+, an organisation working with churches to help make a difference in the lives of the poorest and society as a whole. We want to do more with youth and children’s workers because we’ve got the best chance of raising people out of poverty by reaching children.
When I was about 10 I wanted to write Mills and Boon trashy romance novels when I grew up. When I was writing The Myth of the Undeserving Poor with Martin Charlesworth, I felt God say: “Look at how I take your ambition, hopes and dreams and make what you end up doing so much richer, deeper and better than you ever imagined.” I was struck by his goodness and kindness to me and even how he’s using some of the most painful parts of my background to heal, raise up or champion others. It’s the fulfilment of Isaiah 61, which says that the poor will become the rebuilders, the restorers and the renewers of long-devastated places.
NATALIE WILLIAMS works for the Christian charity Jubilee+ and has co-authored two books on British poverty and the Church. She also heads up social action at King’s Church Hastings.