I get knocked down…but I get up again!

Proximity Principle
A photo of abi thomas Abi Thomas
5th June 2024 5 minute read
Emmanuel Baptist Church, Netherton

When I set off for Liverpool to meet a man with terminal cancer earlier this year, I didn’t expect to be coming home singing Chumbawumba. I quickly learnt that when you spend time with church leader Allan Finnegan you laugh a lot! But when I arrived to interview him for the first of our special Hopeful Activists’ Podcast collaborations with Proximity, I found him unblocking a church toilet – a throwback to his former career as a builder!

Allan, who is 57, has been leading Emmanuel Baptist Church in Netherton for 18 years, during which time he has also performed stand-up comedy for Britain’s Got Talent, and more importantly, seen his estate church grow and flourish. More recently Allan has been given a terminal cancer diagnosis after ocular melanoma spread from his eye to his liver. He is facing it with his typical humour.

“I love the fact that God is clearly at work in people’s lives by their stories… and the way they act and react to things, and honestly, for me to be facing leaving in the next few months is actually really good. It’s a good time to go. It’s not the best way to go! But I can think of worse.”

Statistically speaking Netherton is one of the most economically and socially deprived areas in the UK, but for everyone I met during my visit, it was home, and they struggled to say anything bad about it. Take Tal, or Natalia Watkins,

“I absolutely love it, like the kids love it. And I think everyone does try and help each other – like with Allan’s fundraiser … sometimes places can look a bit rough around the edges, but to be a diamond you have to start out from a rock… I think Netherton’s amazing.”

Marie Robinson is the assistant manager of the Community Grocery store, based in the church. She started as a customer in the shop, as her zero hours contract at a holiday park didn’t provide enough hours in the slower months. She told me,” as a customer it is so nice…you get to choose what you want”.  The sense of community shines through, Marie told me, “We’ve had a lady a few weeks ago and she was quite distressed, she came in … and we was like, “do your shopping later have a cup of coffee, have a chat”. We’ve got plenty of time to do that which is something you haven’t got if you go down Aldi or Tesco.” 

As Allan shared with me, I could sense the life and joy in the church community, and beyond, “it makes me proud that, people can come feel at home, people can belong here …I’m really happy when people swear at me, because it means they’re not pretentious… you get what you see. And I love that about this place.” 

When Allan went to college to get some additional training, he was surprised to hear that other churches were shrinking, “they were telling me church is in decline and no one goes anymore. I was just like, “that’s not what’s happening”.”  At his church people were coming to faith, getting involved in church life and community and lives were being transformed. 

But of course, none of this came without its challenges. The church went through a time when the building was set on fire, windows were being smashed and replaced repeatedly, and even the roof tiles were deliberately shattered. But Allan was determined that the church remained strong and present, even though there were many times when he and others have wanted to give up. Inspiration came from an unlikely source, the Chumbawumba song, “I get knocked down, but I get up again.” The church chose it as their theme tune for the 50th anniversary celebrations, as Allan said, “success is to not give in, to just keep turning up, even when everything within you wants to give up. Just turn up. And eventually, if you keep going, you’ll outlast the others. And it’ll get better, it just does!”

Tom Grant moved to the estate 10 years ago with his wife, to be part of an Eden team, and he now heads up Proximity. He sees the need for better support for churches in urban areas, acknowledging that it can be isolating when your experience is very different to the rest of the church. He said, “I know at times where I’ve talked about some of the things I’ve experienced on my estate, even the church that’s a mile up the road, but in a in a more affluent area, they look at you like you’re from a different planet.” He acknowledges that he too, has wanted to give up, “but having some other people around who may have experienced the same thing and who can journey with you in that has been absolutely life giving.”

Bishop Phillip North acknowledged another tension in urban ministry. He is seeing “beautiful new church plants” as well as the formation of leaders from urban areas, but also the disproportionate closure of churches in those areas too. And in a challenging word to the church of England he says, “we’re still … a church that embodies serious inequalities and social injustice within its own structures, which prevent us from getting the best resources to our most needy areas. We’ve made some progress, but there is an awfully long way to go.”

Thriving churches on urban estates are changing lives and bringing hope. As Tal said, “God is, I think, what I’ve been missing most of my life. I’ve had a drug addiction, or drank I’d always tried to replace whatever was missing with certain things. And obviously, none of them things worked. I always felt like I had something missing. And then I found God and I felt complete. I could see a massive change in the kids and myself and I was constantly walking around with a smile on my face. And everyone’s like, why are you so happy? What have you taken? I’m like, nothing, it’s just God is amazing. Go and find him, open that door, he’s waiting for you.”

Those of us, like Tal, who are following Jesus on urban estates and in the inner-city, need all the support and encouragement we can get. We hope you’ll find in these resources from Proximity that there are many cheering us on and when, inevitably, we do get knocked down, we get back up again, and see more lives and communities thriving in our urban areas. 

To listen to the interview in full click here.

Written by

Abi Thomas

Abi Thomas lives in Bradford and is part of St John’s Bowling Church. She loves hospitality, making people laugh and custard in all its forms. Abi spends her time making The Hopeful Activist’s Podcast, being a carer, leading a youth group and cooking, including at Pete’s Place, a community food project.

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