Born into Poverty (Western School)

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My talk given this evening (12/12/18) at the Western Community Primary School Christmas Performance, attended by the parents, families and friends of pupils, along with the Wallsend Corps Salvation Army Band. My theme was suggested by the headteacher and some of my inspiration was drawn from here.

We all know the traditional story of Christmas, of Jesus born in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Mary and Joseph had to leave home, along with many others, and there was nowhere for them to stay or for Mary to have her baby.

There was no beautiful cot, only the animals’ feeding trough to place him in and make him comfortable. The word ‘manger’ comes from the French ‘to eat’ as in ‘Pret A Manger’ (Ready to Eat).

Let’s imagine Jesus was born today, and his parents were homeless and in poverty, maybe as a result of war, famine or economic circumstances. Maybe he would be placed in a cardboard box wrapped up in dirty blankets, and where would his parents find food for him?

If he was born into poverty to homeless parents in this country today, he might be placed in a supermarket trolley (poetic licence, but please come with me). The symbol of food and drink becoming the cot for the Son of God; food and drink which would normally be placed in that trolley being unaffordable for his parents.

Sadly, food and warmth can’t be taken for granted by many families. So it’s important that we help those who are less fortunate today.

It’s wonderful what this school is doing to help such families this Christmas. This is something we do because it’s the right thing to do, whether we’re Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus (for example) or of no faith.

Christmas brings out the best in all of us, as we celebrate a God who sent his Son as a vulnerable baby to be our Saviour and Lord. He brings love, joy and peace to those who welcome him; that’s the Christian message at Christmas.

So thank you for your generosity in helping people and families less fortunate, this is really appreciated. But we have to keep looking out for those in need, both at home and abroad. This is something the Salvation Army does all year round (not just at Christmas) because God reached out to us in Jesus.

The peace of God be in your heart
The grace of God be in your words
The love of God be in your hands
The joy of God be in your soul
and in the song your life sings.

The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face shine on you,
and be gracious to you;
the Lord turn his face towards you
and give you peace;
and the blessing of God almighty,
the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,
be among you and remain with you always. Amen.

This is me (Helen Austin)

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I’m pleased to share this guest post by my online friend Helen Austin. It’s a deeply personal story with an important message. This is my edited version (with permission and approval) of her original post that you can find by clicking here.

The iconic song This Is Me from the film The Greatest Showman performed by Keala Settle has partly inspired this post.

‘I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
‘Cause we don’t want your broken parts
I’ve learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one’ll love you as you are’

My life changed forever 11 years ago, late afternoon, walking past a building site I had walked past SO many times before. It took me on a journey I had no idea about. The journey of being a victim. A rape victim.

I had no idea what to do, how to be, how to move forwards.
I just put one step forwards at a time and somehow managed it.

Looking back there are things I wish I had done differently. I wish I had told people, my friends, especially those in London who had no idea and no idea why I suddenly moved after deciding to settle there. I wish I had told my Mum instead of feeling this fierce sense of protection for her, and not wanting to expose her to my mess. I wish I had found other ways to cope without drinking and self-harming, and trying to die a few times. I wish what had happened hadn’t happened.

But it did, and despite now wishing I had done things differently, I have found peace with the fact that I did the very best I could at the time to survive. In 11 years I’ve learned and I’ve changed, I’ve changed from being a victim to being a survivor.

For years the darkness was present and often overwhelmed, as did the thoughts, the ones in my head that told me I needed to hide, to hide who I was and my feelings, because no one wanted to know or cared, or wanted me, this person in ‘broken parts’.

I spent years being ashamed of both my physical and mental scars. Yet, somehow deep in my soul was this ability to not be totally grounded down to dust.

‘But I won’t let them break me down to dust
I know that there’s a place for us
For we are glorious.’

I was fragmented, with lots and lots of different fragments (hence the name of the anonymous blog I wrote for many years), but I wasn’t dust, and I started to find my ‘place’. A place to be and belong, not as an anonymous person hiding behind my stories.

As me, Helen, the survivor.
As me, Helen.
I am bruised, for sure but I am also who I am meant to be.

I’ve learnt to laugh again, and love again, and find joy in life again. I’ve learnt to let people in, to accept support, to accept I am who I am, and that is who I was and am meant to be, shaped by my experiences but not beholden to them.

This last year, in particular, I have learned to embrace being a rape survivor as part of my story. It isn’t all of who I am, but it is a part of who I am and that cannot be changed. My rapist (and his friend who was there) didn’t beat me, they have not silenced me.

‘I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I’m meant to be, this is me
Look out ’cause here I come
And I’m marching on to the beat I drum
I’m not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me.’

On social media I’m passionate about talking about sexual violence and violence against women. As part of that I sometimes share my story. I know some people think I’m mad and some people wonder ‘Why’ I put myself out there in that way…

Well…

I do it because I am not afraid any more.
I’m also not afraid (and never have been) of what people think of me.
I genuinely don’t care if people don’t want to read what I have to say, as they don’t have to, although I hope they do!

People with voices and the ability to speak out need to be seen and heard. It’s 2018 and despite the successes (?) of online media campaigns such as ‘Me Too’, society still needs to see and hear survivors of sexual violence.

It’s 2018 and stigma still exists. Prosecutions and convictions are abysmally low and victims/survivors are failed every day across the country by local services and police.

So (if we are able) we have to speak out, challenge and bring about change.

I do this so other people know they are not alone. Being a victim of rape, or any sexual violence can leave you feeling incredibly alone and isolated and I spend a lot of time in contact with other survivors who find life hard, supporting them as a friend, and as someone who understands.

So I hope by beating the drum loudly if just one person knows they are not alone, and that someone out there cares, then it is worth it.

I’m thankful for the women who went ahead before me, beating their drums, mentioning, in particular, the rather amazing Jill Saward who was a forefront campaigner on this stuff, and a close friend, who personally taught me so much. We miss you Jill.

So, here are, 2018 and its 11 years on for me…

I am happy (apart from when the health stuff gets bad). I love life and living. I’m loud, bubbly, outspoken, fiery at times, passionate about Jesus; and loving people. I’m not where I ever thought I would be BUT I am where I am meant to be, and it’s a huge privilege to be able to use my experience to support others.

I am Helen, and 11 years later this is me.

Our Common Humanity

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Imagine the thing that is most precious to you, then think how you’d feel if it were twisted and used against you for evil purposes…..That’s how ordinary Muslims feel when Islam is hijacked, distorted and abused by terrorists who want to justify the murder and maiming of innocent people. Muslims not only feel the pain and suffering we all do, they also feel that something sacred has been defiled. If that double-whammy wasn’t enough, there are those who would spread hatred and promote Islamophobia for their own agenda. Let’s celebrate our common humanity and be peacemakers, because that’s what the world needs above all else.