Passion for the Inner City

The second edition of our new Passionist magazine is out now. See here: Passio 2

I particularly like the article about “Re-Formed”, two sisters from the black community in Liverpool 8 who have re-bounded from their own experience of prison to work with gangs in inner city Liverpool. I’m proud that by supporting their work, we are able to continue the legacy of Austin Smith CP, the first Passionist I heard of.

Reformed 2018It was back in 1989. I was living in Liverpool 8 and volunteering at a couple of local charities working with people with mental health problems. It was part of a year spent with the Jesuit Volunteer Community 12 month program. I shared a small council flat with three others including Helen who had lived there for three years previously as a student. She had met Austin and also knew Nicholas Postlethwaite CP who had been living on the ‘front-line’ in what the media call Toxteth since 1971. The third Passionist living there was Joe Ward.

I was impressed to hear of these priests who had been living in the area for 18 years by then, who had stood outside their home as the ‘disturbances’ or ‘riots’ had raged outside their door. And who had remained. I can understand now the significance of that presence which is not just about being there, but about being their in the hardest of times. And not leaving. The people of Liverpool 8 and Granby went through the same traumas again in 1987. And the Passionists were still there.

In our evening prayer at 29 Berkeley Street L8, we were reading ‘A City Not Forsaken’ the Jerusalem Community ‘Rule of Life’ . I was inspired by the vision I found there of a contemplative community in the heart of the suffering city. These Passionists seemed to be living this vision less than a mile away.

Somehow I never met Austin, Nicholas or Joe then. But when I went to Seminary to train for the Diocesan priesthood a year later, I found Austin’s books in the Seminary library. I was about to be led on a long and wandering path that has led me to this Passionist life.

See:

For “Passion for the Inner City” : and “Journeying With God: Paradigms of Power and Powerlessness” – both by Austin Smith: See Passion for the Inner City

 

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Priest Protestor

Thanks to Bible Alive for interviewing me and publishing the article below in the March edition of their magazine, and also on their website. It followed other media interest in my continued refusal to pay £515 the courts have wanted from me for 9 years after my participation in a nonviolent witness at the DSEi Arms Fair in Custom House, east London, in 2009. Stories were also published in the Birmingham Mail and the Sunday Mercury here in Birmingham, as well a story about my February court appearance for non-payment on the Archdiocese of Birmingham website. See below for the article. (The court ducked the moral dilemma and gave me another 28 days to pay. Five months later and the bailiffs are threatening to come around again)

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We are familiar with the phrase ‘putting your money where your mouth is’ – Fr Martin Newell is an example of someone putting his faith where his mouth is – we met up with him to talk about his courageous witness in standing up against the scandalous and unjust arms trade.

(Above: with Sr Katrina Alton CSJP, at DSEI Arms Fair 2009. We were then at the London Catholic Worker)

Most Catholic priests who find themselves in prison are there as chaplains. Not Fr Martin Newell, though: he’s been an inmate several times, and is likely to be so again.

Fr Newell, 50, who is based in Birmingham, is what might be called a protest priest: like the Catholic priests and nuns who were arrested in Washington last week after demonstrating in support of US immigrants, he believes his vocation is not only to the religious life, but also to making a stand on issues he believes Christ, if he was on earth today, would have championed.

He’s currently facing legal action over an unpaid fine dating back to an act of civil disobedience at the 2009 London Arms Fair, when he and a religious sister covered a sign near the entrance to the fair in red paint. ‘We did it to symbolise the blood of innocent people,’ says Fr Newell, who was arrested, charged with criminal damage, and later fined £515. He has consistently refused to pay the fine, and was recently recalled to court to explain himself; magistrates have given him another 28 days to pay, although he made clear in court that he will not do so.

If he’s eventually sent to prison, he does at least know what to expect: in 2000-1 he spent six months inside after deliberately damaging a vehicle used in nuclear warhead convoys. ‘We got into the base and used hammers to damage the vehicle,’ he says. ‘It was symbolic, of course, but it also meant the vehicle couldn’t be used for something that is immoral.’ Fr Newell argues that direct action like this is the 21st century’s version of conscientious objection. ‘In traditional wars, governments needed young men to fight,’ he says. ‘But these days they don’t need men to fight, they just need all of us to stay silent, and to pay our taxes.’

His six months were served mostly in Bedford and Belmarsh prisons, and there were some unpleasant experiences. ‘Being admitted to the prison for the first time was terrible: the reception staff wanted to intimidate new inmates, and they were very aggressive,’ he says. ‘It was a horrible start.’ He also felt unsafe at times, and on one occasion had to intervene when a fellow inmate tried to commit suicide. ‘He’d slit his wrists – he survived, that time, but I’ve no idea whether he’s still alive now,’ says Fr Newell.

Being a priest as well as a prisoner made him a figure of some interest inside the prison. ‘I think the officers thought I was someone they could trust, and that I wasn’t likely to make any trouble,’ he says. There were some unusual situations: at one prison, the chaplain was a priest with whom he’d studied at seminary. And on one occasion, says Fr Newell, he was able to celebrate Mass in the prison chapel; at other times, he said the prayers of the Mass alone in his cell.

Born in Walthamstow and raised in South Woodford, Fr Newell first thought about becoming a priest at the age of 14, having been an altar server from the age of seven. After grammar school he studied economics at Southampton University, before doing voluntary work with, amongst others, the Jesuits, before going to Wonersh Seminary. After being ordained in 1997 he spent five years working in parishes in Brentwood diocese, before joining the Passionists in 2001.

But it was an ‘epiphany moment’ when he was a student that put him on the road to life as a protester. ‘I was looking for a way of being more radically committed to the option for the poor, and I had this sudden realisation that justice and peace work was what being a Christian was all about,’ he remembers. ‘I realised that, for me, being a Christian would mean living alongside the poor, being with the poor, working for them; and working for the causes I believe Christ would have worked for. I believe Jesus was a pacifist, and I believe that means I should be one as well. And the implications of that are using non-violent means to work for justice; I’m convinced that non-violent action is a legitimate and positive way of standing up for what I believe in.’

As well as the arms trade, Fr Newell has protested against the use of drones in warfare, and he’s currently directing his energy towards stands against climate change. ‘Climate change is the thing that keeps me awake at night,’ he says. ‘To me, it’s the equivalent of protesting against nuclear weapons in the eighties; in fact, it’s worse than nuclear weapons in one sense, which is that the damage is already being done. With nuclear weapons you could argue that it was about preventing them from being dropped: with climate change, the damage is already taking place. We’re currently sending carbon bombs into the air that will detonate in ten or 15 years’ time – and for some reason, we’re nothing like as scared about the implications as we ought to be.’

Now based in a house where he lives alongside asylum seekers, Fr Newell is part of the leadership team for the Passionists in England and Wales. He helps out in parishes, saying Mass and doing baptisms and funerals: but his vocation, he explains, is about hospitality and resistance. ‘This is my parish, this is my community,’ he explains. ‘The thing I often remember is that Christ was arrested, and so were most of his earliest followers. Should we obey God, or should we obey man? Being arrested isn’t the issue here; the issue is, why have you been arrested? Being a Christian is about being a faithful witness to Christ. We’ve got used to a Church that is part of the establishment, but is that right? Should we be on the side of the establishment?’ That, it seems to him, is one of the biggest questions the Church should be asking itself today.

 

A month of Faith and Resistance

It has been a busy month. It was great to be at the launch of the Faith and Resistance Network on July 15th. http://www.faithandresistanceblog.wordpress.com I believe the Gospel based non-violent direct action we are trying to support and promote through the network are a true way of ‘keeping alive the memory of the passion’ of Jesus, as well as a realistic effort to ‘explode the dynamite’ of the Gospel.

F+R Launch cropped

(Above: Faith and Resistance Network launch)

As an example of the kind of the resistance meant, on July 6th – 7th I took part in a protest outside of, and then a blockade of the UAV Engines factory in Shenstone, just to the north of Birmingham. On the 3rd anniversary of Israel's assault on Gaza where over 2,000 civilians, including over 500 children, were killed, activists from around the UK shut down the Israeli death drone factory UAV Engines (Elbit Systems) near Lichfield.

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20170707-uk-protest-shuts-backbone-of-israeli-drone-factory/

The factory is owned by Elbit Systems, the biggest arms Israeli arms company. I’ve been there before for small vigils and other protests in the last three years ago. The factory makes engines for Elbit drones, many of which are sold to the Israeli military, who have used them to bomb Gaza, among other things. Later on I was blocking a gate with a chain wrapped round me, and was one of five arrested. We were taken to Burton police station and held from noon till 2am.

As I see it, we were keeping alive the memory of the passion of Gaza, and entering into the dynamics of the cross. The practice of evangelical non-violent resistance is good news in that it promotes conversion in the sinner, the oppressor, and breaks out of the spiral of violence. 

I’ve also beeen helping to gather Christians to take part in the ‘No Faith In War’ day of vigils and direct action, as part of the Stop the Arms Fair week of action before the DSEi Arms Fair. www.stopthearmsfair.org.uk/events/stop-the-arms-fair-week-of-action/

My faith was and is nourished by being part of the ‘great tradition’ of the Church, as seen in the example of the Saints and mystics. In an effort to return the favour, to share an experience of life among the poor and of a Gospel radicalism that is yeast in the dough, we invited Bishop John Sherrington of Westminster Diocese to visit to the London Catholic Worker: www.indcatholicnews.com/news/33002

These are connections of faith and resistance. That is, with Bishops and parishioners on the one hand, and  Palestine Solidarity activists – secular, atheist, Muslim as well as Christian – on the other. This I believe to be significant, to bridge the gaps in our world, to enable mutual cross fertilisation of traditions and movements. This is akin to where Jesus stood too. He shared the life of the poor, was faithful to yet critical of his tradition, and sought to resist the powers of his time, with zealots, rebels and and prophets among his followers and inspiration.

The Passion of Jesus, the NonViolent Revolutionary

This blog is an attempt to ‘keep alive the memory of the Passion’ of Jesus, as Passionists say. It is an attempt to ‘blow the dynamite of Catholic social teaching’ as Peter Maurin, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, used to say. The Passion of Jesus Christ continues in our world today in the crucified of today, the crucified people and the crucified earth. Our crucified God continues to suffer with them and in them. Jesus the non-violent revolutionary showed us and taught us what it means to love and suffer as God does. 

My hope is that this blog will inspire and challenge. That it will communicate what I’ve been up to and why. That I will be able to share with those who read it my thoughts on what the world, the Gospel and the God of Jesus Christ call us to.