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The chapel on the street

Russell Rook

Russell Rook, CEO of Chapel St, spent almost two decades heading up the youth ministry of The Salvation Army, UK and Ireland Territory. ‘I grew up in The Salvation Army and when I left school I took a year out to work for the Army. I said to God, “I’ll give you this year if you give me the rest of my life back to do what I want to do.” I was pretty sure God had signed off on this deal, but my year out turned into 18 years,’ he jokes. Russell dreamed of studying music, but instead got a PhD on how Jesus makes himself present in the culture of the church

Reflecting upon the mission of The Salvation Army, Russell recalls the best explanation he has heard—from his good friend and author Phil Needham: ‘The genius of William Booth was that he moved the chapel onto the street’. ‘True Salvationism happens when we realise that the gospel is a public truth that makes a difference in the real world,’ adds Russell.

But it was one night, when Russell found himself in the back of the UK Minister for School’s chauffeur-driven car, that this idea began morphing into action. ‘A conversation came out about the need for new types of school,’ he recalls. Russell realised that this was an opportunity to do something new, right in the heart of the community.

The idea so gripped Russell that he felt he had to make a radical change in his own life. ‘I came to a tipping point. I realised that I am not ultimately responsible for The Salvation Army, as an institution, but I am responsible for my own Salvationism. So the part of The Salvation Army that is me had to be willing to step out.’

Stepping out

So Russell left his ‘very wonderful and very comfortable’ position within The Salvation Army, and with some fellow travellers began a new project, aptly called ‘Chapel St’. Today, 70 per cent of Chapel St’s business is in running schools. But it is also involved in a broad array of projects including parenting, employment and health. The aim is to be involved in projects that form the heart of community, and as Russell explains, ‘at some stage in their lives, everyone needs schools and healthcare.’

Every project is united by a deep calling to be Christ on the streets. ‘Community is what we were created for. We believe the world was created by community—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit —they are utterly one, and utterly community. And God created us in his image in that we are utterly unique, but we were made to share this planet and be connected in relationship. That’s why life makes sense in community.’ Russell firmly believes that community is a justice issue because, as he explains, ‘the greatest deprivation in deprived areas is the deprivation of community itself’. But Russell adds that this gives churches a profound opportunity: ‘The church is community and welcomes all people from all colours and creeds. That’s a beautiful image of what the Kingdom of God is, where we’re all sitting down together sharing a wonderful feast with the King of Kings.’ God’s heart is on the streets, within the community.

Building a chapel on the street

But Russell is honest that building this Kingdom community has not been an easy road. Initially, Chapel St was set up in partnership with the Minister of Schools, who was then made ‘Minister of Transport’ in a cabinet reshuffle. Less than a month after Russell left his Salvation Army job, the discussion seemed to be over. ‘We didn’t feel called to reform transport,’ he jokes. Then the global financial crisis hit, meaning much less money for public service.

And so, within its first two years, Chapel St was ‘staring into the face of a fairly colossal failure’, recalls Russell. ‘I always said, ‘It doesn’t really matter if it doesn’t work, I’ve got to give it a go.” And that was lovely rhetoric, but when it looked like a reality, I faced some dark nights of the soul.’

But the Chapel St team was determined to turn over every stone before giving up. ‘We didn’t know if anything could be done, so we tried everything and anything.’ And out of the rubble, the mission of Chapel St began to take shape. First, they started a family centre, then they won a bid to deliver a health centre. Then, came an opportunity to work with unemployed youth, because ‘there are over one million young people out of work in the UK’.

And then came the turning point. Chapel St was contacted by a former Salvation Army officer, now working as a school chaplain, asking for help. The local high school was going to be closed, meaning students would have to take two buses to get to the nearest school. But, perhaps more significantly, taking away the school would take away the heart of the community. Chapel St gathered the community together to find a new way of doing school that would meet their needs. They worked with businesses, church leaders, community leaders and others to launch a school based on the ‘Christian ethos of grace, love and fellowship’, funded by central government.

Chapel St continues working with government to transform schools that are struggling. It now runs schools in Manchester, Oxford and London, and has another two schools opening in September this year. By September 2015, Chapel St aims to have grown to 10 schools.

A Christian Ethos

In developing a Christian ethos for education, Russell observed that communities are often isolated from their local school, explaining, ‘It’s become a place for professionals and policy makers, but if you’re the local church or even a parent, you don’t necessarily feel that you should be involved.’

Instead, Chapel St schools welcome the community to become part of the school. Each school is developed in consultation with its community, and reflects differing community needs. The schools are typically smaller, and every child and family has a ‘coach’ that works with them to develop academic and personal goals. ‘A Christian ethos school shares hospitality and learning with people of all and no faiths and allows the whole community to come together and work towards a common good. We see our schools as the “feast” that everyone is allowed to partake of and contribute to.’

This impacts the everyday workings of the school: teachers sit with students during lunch so they can interact with them on a personal level. Students take part in community projects as part of their learning. And teachers regularly visit students in their home, so they can get to know the parents.

This has opened up remarkable opportunities for community connection. Russell gives a stunning example: ‘If you speak to any teacher, they’ll tell you that a huge amount of things that affect a child’s education is outside the school. For example, a mum of one of our students was having some terrible challenges that led to a period of difficult depression. Our teachers did a home visit and noticed that she was having difficulty managing the home.

‘So our church partners were able to rally people together and within one week totally refurbished the house, top to bottom, with new floors, bathroom, kitchen, and furniture, and turned it into something quite wonderful. This had a huge impact on the child’s education, but was totally outside the scope of what a teacher can do.’

Myths and miracles

The concept of Chapel St’s ‘Christian ethos’ schools is almost a contradiction to what is commonly thought of as a ‘Christian school’: their schools are open to everyone and they don’t have a traditionally ‘evangelical’ agenda in their curriculum.

‘Any expression of Christianity that is coercive is inauthentic,’ explains Russell. ‘God has made us free and if he’s not going to take that freedom away from us, than neither should we. So we’re not trying to manipulate children into being Christians.’ Instead, they model true Christianity through a Christian ethos of ‘grace, love and fellowship’, which informs everything from student interactions to teacher assessments. ‘It’s not so much about what we teach, as how we teach it,’ sums up Russell.

Their schools use the traditional ‘Prayer of the Grace’: May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now and evermore. Amen. This reflects the communal nature of God, and as a prayer opens up the faith discussion, explains Russell. It is also a blessing, ‘and we hope that people will experience the blessing of grace, love and fellowship in their lives.’ And like all miracles, the results speak for themselves. Within just two terms of taking over a failing school, academic results are measuring at ‘above expectations’—a dramatic turn around.

Creating community

This model of school is a radical departure from the Western-world educational goal of creating ‘independent, autonomous adults’. As part Feature | 07 of his role, Russell works at the UK Houses of Parliament once a week, where he has observed that society’s wealthiest and most powerful have the best networks of interdependence. ‘The success of the people I see around me has nothing to do with their autonomy,’ he points out. ‘If you go down through the social demography you’ll find that the most independent people are actually the most disadvantaged. They don’t have networks that can offer them jobs—the most deprived communities are also the most deprived of community.’

So, in its connections between education, health and family, Chapel St aims to readdress this deprivation of community. Sometimes the solutions are in the simplest of connections. In one community where Chapel St has a health centre, there is a high prevalence of teenage pregnancies. On the other hand, at the local church there were mums who had given up their careers but felt they had something more to give. Chapel St approached the church, and the vicar’s wife came up with a beautifully simple solution, now called ‘Mum+Mum’.

‘This trains up mums and matches them with other mums as mentors. We get referrals from midwifery services, and there is often a magical meeting of mums, where suddenly they’ve got someone to take them to local playgroups,’ explains Russell. ‘It’s been exciting to see how something with very little resource—just people, really—can make a massive difference in people’s lives.’

This is a brilliantly simple example of why Chapel St exists: to build community and in doing so, welcoming everyone to the feast that is the Christian life.

JUST ACTION 2014 - in Our Backyard

Russell Rook will be the keynote speaker Just Action 2014, to be held in four main centres in August.