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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Sunday, December 07, 2003
    Not quite a letter from God

    It was all fields once. They must have built the church for the farmers, gardeners, grocers, and carters who serviced Croxteth Hall. Then, in 1928 work started on a 2,000-home estate in the area. The council moved people out of the city's awful slums to offer them new beginnings in lovely three-bedroomed homes. 'The Boot estate, named after the builder contracted by Liverpool Corporation in the 1920s, offered city slum dwellers some of the best examples of municipal housing in the country, well-designed homes with gardens in crescents and cul-de-sacs,' wrote The Guardian. 'The joke was that you had to have a letter from God to get a house there.'

    If so, it proved to be a dead letter for many. There were few amenities on the estate. The neighbours came from other, unknown parts of town. It cost a lot to travel from there. And as unemployment grew, over 40 per cent of the original tenants left before the estate was ten years old. The concrete houses turned out to be badly-designed: the metal used in construction started rusting almost immediately. By the late 1990s homes were declared beyond restoration.

    Then came promises of a completely new estate, well-designed, high-tech, a free computer for every home. Wide-scale demolition of Boot houses was well underway when the council pulled the plug on its £170m plans for the estate. The Housing chief resigned, uprooted residents screamed betrayal on every forum available. New promises were made. Two months ago planning permission was granted for 200 new homes. 'Boot estate on home straight' announced The Echo on Oct 29. Jack Mahon, chairman of the Boot Tenants and Residents Association, said: "I am the happiest man on Merseyside today - we have waited so long for this."

    The Church of the Good Shepherd is built on land familiar with being in a state of flux. From the rotations of agriculture and hunting which once sustained it to the changes and chances wrought by experiments in urban planning. Today it sits at the edge of an area where it seems every other house is abandoned, where those who have stayed so far feel vulnerable, those who've left feel betrayed. Such places can grow gifted, resolute people determined to help their communities thrive. So it is here, the Church and Community Centre a hub of activity each day, seventy-plus volunteers, hundreds of visitors each week.

    I have had a letter from the bishop, inviting me to take my place there as priest-in-charge. It's not quite the same as a letter from God, but that - and meeting the good folk there - have proved enough to encourage me to accept. I'll be licensed on 22 March next year, two weeks before the church's centenary.