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Faith in Practice

At the art of the community

Hannah Kowszun

Four years ago Ally Clarke left a full time job at a gallery to become artist in residence for a youth and community centre in Peckham, looking to find a different way of doing life, financially and spiritually. 

For seven years I was employed in an art gallery in London and loved being surrounded by incredible works of art, and inspirational clients and colleagues. During the latter years of employment there, however special the working environment, I knew I wanted to have more time to be doing my own artwork. I made a decision to leave and find work part time - I longed for more freedom and wanted to step into a more spacious sense of living and being.

Making that change required me to leave my home with a mortgage, take on tenants and move into a house-share situation. Looking back, I realize that even as I bought my flat, which is tiny but very unique and beautiful, I didn't have a sense that this would be the place I was to settle, of which I was a steward rather than a place I would enjoy. Although a significant aspect of this move was financial, I also wanted to prevent the possibility of becoming stale and unhelpfully habitual in the way I lived. I was keen to live in a new context where I would be exposed to different approaches to life and have my thinking challenged.

In this new phase of my life I needed to find a studio where I could create and develop my art practice. I made enquiries and my then vicar suggested investigating a local youth centre, the Bradfield Club in Peckham. It had been established 100 years ago as a place that inner-city youth could go to have fun, do sports and engage in other character-building, life-enhancing activities.

The club did have a spare room, which at that point was stuffed with old gym equipment, but the managers were happy for me to make use of it. We explored the possibility of an appropriate reciprocal arrangement and I have been happily involved in some of the youth activities there, helping out with art projects at the drop-in sessions. I took on the room, cleared it out, made it habitable and have since then been involved in Bradfield Club life.

The Bradfield Club's ambition is to 'Empower young people in Peckham to live life in all its fullness'. My heart in inhabiting this place is to be obedient and joyful in creating artwork, and also in and through this work be in prayer for the Club and the neighbourhood, which is situated right at the core of tough, urban Peckham. It is a genuine privilege to work alongside others who are living out their calling as youth workers, managers, caretakers and administrators. There is an understanding that together our presence and work are part of the message of a faithful God who loves the world, transforms life and longs to see more of his creation encounter his love and experience life in all its fullness, personally and in the community.

In being with the youth at the club, my inclination is to live and laugh and listen, rather than 'preach' in any way. I deeply value and enjoy a sense of relationship with people I wouldn't have a connection with otherwise. Many of the guys don't have secure families or good role models, and live with a real sense of fear and threat as they go about their daily lives. The club aims to provide a space that is safe, supportive and fun and where the conversation is caring, considerate and encouraging.

I spend two days a week working at the Bradfield Club on various art projects and the other three days a week I work at Sony Pictures in an administrative role within the facilities team. It is a corporate environment but I love (and am often privately amused by) the contrast in these two working environments. My team consists of a wonderfully diverse and exceptionally kind group of people, and interestingly this working environment has proved to be a one where I feel very much myself - unconfined.

About six years ago I first visited a Benedictine community and I have returned back time and again. I particularly love being in this prayer-filled context, standing on the soil that has been the home of people of faith since the 11th century and finding myself in the blessing of that heritage. It is refreshing to be in a place where the questions 'What church do you go to?' or 'Why are you here?' are unasked. It's a privilege to know that there's a complete trusting by the sisters of their guests into the hands of God, and that he will minister to everyone in love and wisdom. My personal background had more of an active evangelistic focus and I have since found myself very moved by this more silent ministry.

I'm currently investigating the possibility of becoming an oblate: someone who intends to live out their life in devotion to God. They are a member of the community but realise this in the context of 'ordinary' life outside the monastery walls, in the spirit of St Benedict. I'm drawn to a framework whereby my worship and knowledge of God are central and other life decisions and activities find their place within that. God as my true centre is the cry of my heart and I don't want anything to distract me from that path while enjoying the richness and diversity he has created for me to explore.

Ally Clarke was talking to Hannah Kowszun. You can see her artwork online here




Hannah Kowszun.