A Haven in Townsend

Our Step board in Townsend has been updated for a new term with a brand new theme. Haven is a six week course which helps young people who are struggling with anxiety. Each week a different tool is explored, helping the students to build a tool kit of coping techniques.

The new board immediately sparked the interest of the students, with a number of them stopping to inquire what the Haven was as I was still putting the display up.

Our new display includes some of the lovely feedback we received from the last course. Including one student who said: “It has really helped me find different ways to battle my anxiety and overcome panic attacks. The leaders are so caring and really good at listening.”

We are looking forward to starting the next Haven course at Townsend soon.

Helena :)

A different road to Emmaus

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Step has been given a new space to develop its work in Nicholas Breakspear School. Despite being new, we’ve kept the old name - The Emmaus Centre - because we want young people who come in to go on journeys with Jesus.

The new space is incredible. It is central to the school and attached to the main playground. The room is perfectly sized, allowing for a cafe area, lounge area and also a small prayer and reflective area.

The Emmaus Centre has for several years been a significant part of Step’s work in Nicholas Breakspear. It is open for students to drop in most lunchtimes and is also used to run courses, mentoring and clubs.

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Last Friday a crack team of movers took the contents of Emmaus up the road and set it up in its new location, and by Monday it was opened to the students as a drop-in cafe. Despite the students having to take a different road to Emmaus, they still found it. Since its opening it has also hosted Alpha and our Leadership Foundations course.

Although the room is already open to the students, it is only 70% finished and we need several items to complete it. Can you help us by providing one or some of the following?

  • A large rug to make the room look welcoming

  • Several plants (in pots), ideally low maintenance or realistic looking plastic ones

  • LEGO - the room will have a LEGO feel, so any donations would be very welcome

  • Hand hoover (as lots of food gets dropped on the sofa)

  • Fairy lights

  • LED cool lighting

  • Donations towards a JBL EON ONE PRO Sound system*

*The new Emmaus Centre is attached to the main playground and overflowing from it is a natural development. A speaker system would allow us to run events and even concerts in playgrounds and on sports fields without the need for power cables. We wouldn’t just use it for the Emmaus Centre; it would allow us to start several new initiatives on Step Days and also allow us to run some pop up activities. We have a limited time, short-term opportunity to buy this at a large discount and it would only cost £650.

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Do let us know if you would like to donate one or some of the above, if you have other things you think would fit well in this space, or if you’d like to come and help run the Emmaus Cafe. It would be great to have any items or cash donations in soon so that we can finish the room.

Thank you

Chris

Donuts at St Helen's Church

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Last year, Step ran nine Step Up Days, which included our first ever one at St Helen’s Primary School in Wheathampstead. The day was delivered in partnership with St Helen’s Church, who work regularly in the school. The aim of the day was to help the students with their transition up to secondary school and meet the Step team. The day was a huge success, with positive feedback from students and staff. They even booked a date for 2020 within a couple of days.

The day gave St Helen’s Church an idea to connect with the students once they’d joined Year 7. Once a week, they now host an after-school drop-in just for Year 7s from the village. The first week saw about 40 turn up and a similar number attended the following week. Some of the Step Schools Coordinators are attending these as well to connect with students they met on the Step Up Day and meet new pupils at the schools they coordinate.

The atmosphere was really positive with young people so excited to see students from the other schools. It was a brilliant example of community in action and it bodes well for the future of these young people and the village.

If you are interested in finding out more about this initiative, let us know and we’ll put you in touch with St Helen’s Church.

Thank you Trevor!!!

On Sunday, Trevor Miles, whose wife Anne volunteers with Step and daughter was positively impacted by our work whilst she was at school, took part in the Ride London 100, raising money for Step. Everyone at Step thanks Trevor and also those who sponsored him. Here is a short summary from Trevor about his experience:

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In summary it was brilliant! Closed roads, no traffic, no rain, a great route through the City and West End before heading down to Surrey and those hills! People sitting outside their houses cheering you on and offering water by the roadside. There was also a friendly atmosphere among the participants, many of whom, like me, seemed to be doing it for the first time. I was far enough back to be away from the sharp competitive end of the event but did my fair share of 'reeling-in' those who had gone before me as the day went on. The hill training paid-off as I didn't have too much difficulty with any of the hills, in fact most people seemed to manage them. There was also the 'peleton' effect of being part of a large group that enabled you to go considerably faster than normal, which was quite exhilarating.

If there was a downside, it was the crashes - there seemed to be more of them than anyone could recall from previous years and this meant waiting in the road while an ambulance or medical team got to the affected rider and sorted them out. Of the 8 hours 11 mins 54 secs I spent on the course, about 1.5 hours was spent standing waiting for these unfortunate mishaps to be sorted out. The photo above was at the Alzheimer's 'after party', as I also raised money for them thanks to my 'out of St Albans' friends and colleagues.

With your very generous support I raised £585 for Step. Additionally I raised about another £335 for the Alzheimer's society. Just Giving say that 20% of donations are made after the event, so if any of you were planning to support, the link is here and the account is still open! https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/trevor-miles3

For anyone who fancies doing it next year, the ballot for places has just opened!

THANK YOU and over and out.

20 years of volunteering to a year of being on staff

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This Friday marks the completion of my first academic year working for Step. So what has changed for me in becoming staff? Firstly, I’ve recently noticed when I look in the mirror there are a few greys in my beard which I’m not sure were there 11 months ago. It has been said that grey is a sign of wisdom. Let’s see if my experience at all resembles this outward change.

I had for over 20 years really enjoyed volunteering with Step (perhaps that’s why I kept coming back for more!). However, during this year I have noticed my outlook on the schools work change significantly.

I can remember as a volunteer waiting outside classrooms for a lesson I was to help with, with an impending sense of “Am I supposed to be here?”, nervously awaiting an invitation from the teacher to come in and set up, not knowing how well the class would engage or whether the teacher would support the content of the lesson. I now feel welcome and naturally at ease in many of the schools we work in.

I have found it so much easier to remember people since being in the same spaces regularly; previously, unless I knew a student through the youthwork in Markyate, I had little chance of building purposeful relationships beyond those precious 60 minutes (or less!). Of course every moment counts but it has been really rewarding to be able to journey with students and year groups, as there has been so much more frequency in being present. Being ‘known’ is a powerful gift we are able to offer the students we come alongside (Psalm 139).

This year for me, actually getting to know the teachers has been so much fun (I was always slightly envious of Chris being able to do this so well). Finding out what makes them tick, their concerns, their stance on faith and other areas of life is something I never felt able to do much before - this was mostly down to the frequency with which I saw most of them, and often either of us was dashing straight off to the next lesson so couldn’t stop to talk, but now even time in the staff room is often so fruitful for relationship-building.

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All-in-all I know my confidence has grown and I have undertaken things which I would not have dreamt of in the previous years, for example leading assemblies and running a Year 7 retreat and Step Up Days in the primary schools. I have felt trusted and responsible and when I look back I feel glad to have had these opportunities and confident to do more next year. I am very grateful for my time so far working in the schools, especially as the timing was so perfect both for me and the role at Step. The support of my colleagues and wonderful team of volunteers has also meant a great deal to me. I look forward with great anticipation to the coming year.

Jez

Step's Year in 191 Balloons!!!

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Yesterday, we had a fantastic time of celebration to thank God for all he has done through Step this academic year. It was also a chance to acknowledge all those who have played a part in Step this year, whether that was staff members, trustees, volunteers or supporters. It was an opportunity to share stories of young lives being changed for the better and people journeying in their faith. 

To illustrate the scope of Step’s work in 2018/19, we constructed a display using balloons - 191 to be precise. Each balloon represented 10 separate activities that we delivered in schools since September - 1910 in total, which is a new record for us. The amount of balloon blowing required certainly demonstrated the growth we have been experiencing this year. 

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As you can see from the photo, the balloons were of 5 different colours to differentiate between the various activities we ran, as shown here. To put it into context, one blue balloon is the equivalent of 300 young people hearing something about what Christians believe in a lesson. As we all gazed at the display, the sheer extent and magnitude of our work suddenly became even more astonishing and made us even more grateful for what God has done through us. These 1910 activities equate to 49 activities with 1,000 students every single week.

Now for a restful summer and getting ready for September to see just how many balloons we’ll need next year!

Geoff

Faith in Action

This week, the Year 7s at Beaumont have been getting angry.

Their anger wasn’t towards Step (which was a relief because I wouldn’t fancy our chances against that lot). Their anger was towards the many injustices that exist in our world: poverty, disease, homelessness, pollution, inequality and racism, to name just a few that were mentioned by the students.

The lesson, called Faith in Action, aims to help students understand why a Christian person might be especially motivated by their faith to take action against injustice. The students also have a think about the injustices that bother them most, as different issues affect us in different ways -  and none of us is expected to fix everything!

Year 7s may be some of the youngest people Step works with, but they already have great potential to change things for the better. To help them begin to think about the sort of imprint they’d like to leave on the world, each student drew the outline of their hand onto a piece of card and made a note of the injustices that anger them most. On the rest of the handprint, they wrote down ways that they might use their time, treasure and unique talents to make a difference to people affected by those injustices. 

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of everything that’s not right with the world. But it doesn’t matter if, like the Year 7s, we don’t yet know exactly how we can bring about change. Even the greatest change makers in history didn’t have a detailed 25-year plan when they first set out to make a difference. Greta Thunberg didn’t intend to become an internationally recognised climate activist, addressing parliaments and U.N. conferences and featuring on the cover of Time magazine as a ‘next generation leader’, when she first protested alone outside the Swedish parliament at the age of 15. She simply decided to use her time and skills to take action against an issue that she’s passionate about, one step at a time.

The important thing is for all of us to recognise that we have time, treasure and talent, and with them the power to have an incredible impact on the lives of other people.

Imagine if every young person became aware of that power. What would the future look like?

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“I must not be good enough if I need to be trained”

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Part of my role in Step involves coordinating the training of our paid staff and our volunteers. It’s on my mind now, because July is when we put a programme in place for the following year. But that word, training, really can cause problems. I’m going to have to come up with a new one.

Training is often associated with ‘being back at work’ (said a volunteer) which leads to an almost automatic mental checklist that has ‘waste of my time’ right at the top.

This response is because too often in our paid places of work, training was delivered by one person talking from the front with no interaction - just information delivered.

Often, training has the added mental note ‘I must not be good enough if I need to be trained’ – and again, this is from the old days at work. I remember being given lots of tasks to do when I worked in the city, but I was never trained on any of them - no wonder I found the work a challenge!

Training is a vital part of Step. So, to clarify:

In Step, training is for everyone, all of the time.

It takes all forms. It might be a chat about a lesson and what to expect. It might be a formal requirement such as safeguarding.

Sometimes we invite guests in and sometimes it’s one of our own that leads the training. If we pay for a member of the team to go to external training, the expectation is that they will feed back what they learned.

At a Step training session, you can expect refreshments at the start. The subject matter will be discussed and the attendees ask questions and interact. The subject matter might be serious and will be delivered with care, and with humour where appropriate. But at the end there is time to chat to the team, or to sit with diaries open to book into what is coming up.

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In a year we provide approximately 55 hours of training. We know that when we are trained we feel competent and equipped. It gives us confidence. It is important in Step that everyone has this level of feeling prepared for their role.

If you would like to join our team please do contact Terrie and help me ponder how to change ‘training’ to empowerment.

The future is in the hands of those who explore

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We've had the privilege of going into Marlborough to run an Explore group on Friday lunch times for the past 9 months. It's been a great opportunity and lots of fun.

We began by going through Youth Alpha, which helped students think through the basic building blocks of the Christian faith. Then we spent some weeks studying parts of the gospel of John and seeing just who Jesus is and how people reacted to him, and thinking about our response to him. It was great to see young people interacting with God's word, some for the first time.

To finish the term we've been looking at the Case for Christ by Lee Strobel. We've had multiple people come to these sessions saying Jesus can't have died and risen again, but going away with some of those ideas broken down.

Over the time it's been running we've had pretty fluctuating numbers: our lowest being about 5 (including me and Helena) but reaching nearly 20 some weeks. There's a core of around 8 who are pretty reliable and many of whom Helena and I have links with through church, so the Explore group's a good way for us to continue the discipleship going on at church and get alongside our young people with evangelism at school.

Our Explorers have said “Explore is fantastic” and “It’s very good and you learn a lot. I also love the food.” 

There's a good mix of young people, with lots of churches represented and lots of young people who don't go to church at all. This means we usually get good questions and good conversation, although it also means tangents are common!

Going in to Explore has been great this year and I'm sad for the end of term to come but it's been tricky sometimes too. We'd love prayer to get to know the young people better; we don't really get long with them in one short lunch time! We'd also appreciate prayer that they'd engage more each week and for better discipline management, as there are usually one or two that distract the rest. Mostly, please pray that hearts and eternities would be changed.

If you are interested in Explore groups please email Helena via: explore@stepschoolswork.org.uk

Polly Boyles - Children’s and Youth Worker, Holy Trinity Frogmore

GideonsUK and Step

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Mary writes: “Locally we have 20 members of whom about 12 are most active in one role or another. The branch also has about 65 Friends of Gideons who share a common interest in this work of the Lord and support us with their prayers and gifts.

A few members focus on the schools’ work trying to visit the 25 schools in our area each year. Some, however, are becoming closed to us. Once a month we go to all school gates praying that God’s will may be done among both the students and staff for His glory. 

A new and exciting initiative is to partner with like-minded Christian groups. Step has developed a unique opportunity to enter schools and we have been grateful to pass out Youth Testaments (YTs) as the youngsters go into their study sessions. Since volunteering in Step we have passed out 344 YTs to young people who might not have had the chance to receive them. I enjoy volunteering with Step because it’s a laugh and a half. The other key area for us in Mid Herts is to support Young Life with YTs as they work with Christian Unions, a weekly Youth Club and occasional camps.”

Both Step and GideonsUK have thoroughly enjoyed working together to see God’s word being accessed by more young people. We look forward to all that the next academic year will bring.

Do contact us if you would like to find out more about the work of Step or GideonsUK.

Please do also join us on Wednesday 17th July at 7.30 to celebrate the year with a light buffet, worship and stories from the year at Forest Town Church, Lyon Way, AL4 0LB. Please invite others to come, whether that's family, friends, homegroups or anyone else who might be interested in hearing more about the work of Step.

GideonsUK are Christians who share a common passion for the lost by bringing God’s own word to them.

Locally their focus is from the M1 to the A10, taking in the towns of Harpenden, St Albans, Welwyn Garden City, Hatfield, Potters Bar, Hertford, Hoddesdon and Broxbourne. Mary is a member of GideonsUK and has recently started volunteering at Step too. She is a keen competitor and excellent at quickly forming relationships with young people. This year she has been involved in well over 30 activities in schools.

Stepping Up to Secondary

Journeys are part of life. Every day we take countless journeys, big and small, from one point to another. We might also find ourselves on mental, emotional and spiritual journeys as life takes us through new experiences.

Thousands of Year 6 pupils are currently preparing for the next stage of their life’s journey as they think about their upcoming move to secondary school. The transition from Year 6 to Year 7 can be daunting, so we run Step Up Days to support pupils as they take on this new challenge. 

This year we’re running Step Up Days in nine different primary schools and we had the pleasure of delivering the first one at Colney Heath School.

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Exploring our emotions on the Journeys Carousel

During an action-packed day we got to know each other through team games, used the story of Dory from ‘Finding Nemo’ to explore our identities, and talked about the friendship qualities that matter to us most.

Through the Journeys Carousel, the pupils had a chance to work through some of their emotions around moving on; they shared the things that they’ll be sad to leave behind, and looked forward to the exciting things to come (not least the Step activities that many of them will have in their new schools!). 

They also thought about how the Israelites must have felt excited yet anxious when they left Egypt for the Promised Land. There were even times on that journey when the Israelites were so unsure about what lay ahead that they wanted to return to Egypt.

But we were able to reassure Year 6 that these feelings are perfectly normal on any journey and that God promises us, just as he promised Joshua, that we do not need to be afraid or discouraged because he will be with us wherever we go.

The wonderful Colney Heath pupils gave us a fantastic start to the Step Up Day season. We were especially encouraged by the school’s comments about the day:

The children clearly got a lot out of it and it was really useful. I appreciate the time everyone gave to make it a success and remain so grateful that your presence will be there for them in their new schools.

We’ve since run Step Up Days in four other primary schools and can’t wait to meet the Year 6 pupils in a further four over the next couple of weeks.

If helping children navigate their journey from primary to secondary school is something you’d like to be involved with, do get in touch with Terrie (terrie@stepschoolswork.org.uk) or take a look at our page on volunteering with Step.

Sara

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Step Days: Soul Seeping

I’ve been involved in various Step days over the last year: Retreats at Nicholas Breakspear school, Christianity Days at Verulam, and Step-Up days at various primary schools.

They are all full days and differ in approach and style. From a student’s perspective, the Christianity days are similar to a standard school day, in so far as they have a number of lessons on various topics, whereas the retreat days are very different: often they are off timetable, can dress down and are not located at school. The style of learning is also different and tends to have a mix of ‘thinking’, ‘being’ and ‘doing’. This works well, because some students respond better to some styles of learning than others; for instance, children who find it a challenge to sit still and think, very often rise to the challenge of making something in pottery.

I think one of the reasons why retreats work so well is that they break from their normal routine, and with fewer teachers around, things are slightly more relaxed. But, more than that, the day is a chance to step back and get a different perspective on life; too often we are so focused on the next task, the next lesson, the next exam, that we forget to look up and check that we are travelling in the right direction, or maybe even to stop and think, “Which direction should I be going in?”

Having a whole day to do this helps, as those thoughts have a chance to seep into the soul; and as Step workers/volunteers, it also gives us a chance to build up a rapport with some students, which can lead on to meaningful conversations, which they wouldn’t ordinarily have.

There’s great benefit in taking time out and reflecting on life; allowing God to whisper in to our soul; it’s a blessing for students, for teachers and us.

Graeme

Retreats allow students to take a step back from normal day to day life at school and reflect on important themes in a supportive and fun environment. Almost without exception the students speak highly of their experience - Barry O’Sullivan (Chaplain and RE teacher)

Graeme is a very committed volunteer, engaging in 122 activities in schools so far this academic year (September to May). If you would like to be involved in tip Days or other aspects of Step’s work, please contact Terrie.

The church in action

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As a mother of 4 and foster carer of several teenagers who have recently been through schools in St. Albans, I have a deep concern for young people. The years in secondary school are a crucial time when they are forming values and beliefs which will affect the rest of their lives. I feel that there is so often an over-emphasis on academic achievement at a time when so much else is going on in young people’s lives. Step does so much to address these issues in a Christian context and it is a real joy to be a volunteer.

 I am a recent addition to the team of volunteers, having started in September last year. I have been involved in retreat days, delivering sessions to 6th formers, Grill a Christian, Tough Stuff and Haven Schools. The Tough Stuff course, which is for young people dealing with loss through bereavement and family breakdown, has led to some 1:1 mentoring and Haven Schools is a wonderful opportunity to help young people suffering with anxiety. Engaging with these young people can be simultaneously and equally heart-wrenching and heart-warming as we help them to grapple with difficult issues in their lives and, most of all, offer them real hope – that things won’t always be as bad as perhaps they are at the moment. We don’t have a magic wand to wave but we do know the loving heavenly Father who cares deeply for each one. We can demonstrate that love and when opportunities arise we can speak about it… and all the time we are praying!

Whenever we go into a school we take the lovely presence of Jesus with us through the Holy Spirit. How good that in our wonderful, multi-ethnic society we are welcomed in schools as Christians. I love the diversity of the Step team in terms of the different church backgrounds and age range and it is good to be part of such a happy, caring and committed group of people. Through Step I feel that I see the church in action, powerfully impacting this young generation for good in the face of so much negativity. 

Claire

Claire has run 42 activities in school since September.

We are keen to recruit people to help with all areas of the work. If you can make drinks, bake cakes, move chairs, come up with ideas or even laminate, you are needed. If you would like to explore the idea of volunteering with Step, please contact Terrie.

Step Feed Collections Top 50,000 items

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Every morning over the last fortnight, students from Sandringham School have been donating items such as food and toiletries to Feed, Vineyard Church’s foodbank. They didn’t quite manage to beat their own record total but still collected an amazing 1,766 items. Each item makes a huge difference to the lives of individuals in our community so thank you to all those who contributed.

Sandringham were the very first school Step partnered with to organise a collection for Feed. A few students from the Christian Union wanted to put their faith into action and arranged for a 2-day collection, which gathered about 500 items. Several years on and with other schools taking part, we have now collected over 50,000 items (the collections of over 1,000 items, including Verulam’s all-time record, are recorded here). It is so encouraging to see young people caring about people who are struggling in their community.

If your school would like to join in and help us collect the next 50,000 items, please get in touch with us or contact Feed directly.

Let's talk about sex

A recent study from Middlesex University found that 53% of 11 to 16 year olds have seen explicit material online, nearly all of whom (94%) had seen it by 14. Although this statistic doesn’t necessarily shock me, it does sadden me to realise that this means a lot of the young people we come into contact with in schools have already been exposed to this kind of material.

So often our response to these kinds of issues is avoidance - often because we are fearful that by bringing up the issue we may be introducing something new or giving them ideas. However, if we ignore these issues we will find our young people seeking their education from other sources and if they turn to pornography then they will end up with very warped ideas about sex and intimacy.

Over the last week I have had the privilege of speaking to young people about this issue during a series of Relationships and Christians Values lessons in Marlborough Science Academy. We have talked about consent (see the tea and consent video below), the issues with pornography, Christian beliefs about sex and marriage and where to draw the line in relationships.

My hope and prayer for this lesson is for young people to take away positive messages about intimacy so that, even if they don’t choose to have the same line Christians do, they have the ability to reflect and decide where their line is and what they feel comfortable with. My hope is that they make healthy choices in their future that they don’t end up regretting.

If you would like to be involved in lessons like this, please contact our volunteers coordinator Terrie.

Haven or Wilderness?

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Tables moved to the corner, beanbags lugged through the corridors and set out nicely, ten packs of information ready, calm music playing in the background, delicious-looking plates of cookies and cups of orange squash at the ready. Week 1 of the six week-long Haven course on stress and anxiety is about to begin.

It was now 1.45pm (our start time was five minutes ago) and nobody has turned up. In fact we wait half an hour - still nobody. After all the effort that has gone into recruitment and set up, I can’t help asking myself, “Did we do something wrong? What’s happening?”

Over the previous six weeks, we have had conversations with pastoral support, run five recruitment assemblies and had been given the names of six students who signed up (with the potential for more). We’ve had lots of prayer for this course and plenty of conversations about it.

All this but nobody comes! What a disappointment. Has God abandoned us? Are students just flaky? Was this a big waste of time? Should we bother to try it again?

It was hard to reconcile the tangible benefits which we know the Haven course offers, with the complete no-show from the students, especially as some had already taken the leap of faith to sign up to the course. Just beyond our reach we knew there were young people we could help with their anxiety, if only they’d come. We left feeling deflated, but having decided to give it another go the following Thursday.

Two weeks later and here we were again. 1.40pm and we had a comfortable room all set up. Suddenly the sound of an initial wave of tentative students arriving, followed closely by another three, then a couple more, and we soon had our small space filled with nine young people completing their initial questionnaire and preparing to engage with week one’s energetic programme. The rest of the session progressed smoothly, the students participating with enthusiasm.

Although it is usually applied to prayer, I am reminded of the parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, where the judge comments, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice…”

How often do we give up on something because it doesn’t work out the first time? If we had stopped with our apparent lack of success on our first attempt, we may have assumed that it would not be worth trying again. Yet after spending time with those nine students who came the following week, I am convinced that it has all been worth it. Patience paid off and young people are on course to experience the freedom we hoped they would find. Bring on Week 2.

Step Day season has arrived

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The coming of summer not only brings warm weather, sun burn and exciting music - it also delivers Step the gift of hundreds of young people engaging in Step Days. Over the next six weeks, Step will work with around 1,500 young people on Step Days. They could be attending retreat days, community days, Step Up days or Christianity Days. Each day has a different flavour, but all involve large groups of young people spending a whole day with the Step team looking at life through different lenses.

Over the last two days, 110 young people from Nicholas Breakspear School explored the idea of justice. They played games, created sculptures, learnt how to manage stress and anxiety and interacted with 12 ideas on our huge resource called the Justice Mat. The day concluded with a brief reflection on God’s justice and how different it is to ours.

One young person said, “It’s good that Jesus died. I mean it’s not good that he died, but it’s GOOD.” At the time he was making a wooden cross out of lollypop sticks and reflecting on how unjust it was that Jesus, who had committed no sin, had died for our sin. Other students expressed gratitude for all they had and prayed for those that had less. Regarding the taster for the 267 Project anxiety course, Haven, one teacher wrote, “What a lovely taster for what seems like a fantastic course for the students!”

The staff, students and Step team felt it was a great day. Roll on the next 1,390 students!

Please join our Step Day team. We are looking for facilitators, photographers, drinks makers and people to help with set up and pack down. If you’d like to find out more, contact Terrie.

Artificial Intelligence, Humanity and The Problem of Suffering

One of the most regular questions we get asked in schools by students is, 'If God is all-powerful and all-loving, why would he allow suffering in the world?' 

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This week, I have had the privilege of delivering assemblies with every year group at Verulam School, addressing the Christian perspective on evil and suffering. Out of 222 questions the students submitted about the issue in preparation for my assemblies, the majority were asking this very question - sometimes generally and sometimes about more specific types of suffering (see the word art displayed here). 

To help answer this question from a Christian perspective I wanted to reflect on what it means to be human.

With artificial intelligence growing in sophistication and science fiction becoming more and more a reality, in our lifetime we may get to the point where artificial intelligence looks human, thinks like a human, moves like a human, does jobs like a human (and probably to a better standard) - but even if this was the case, would it be alive? Could it ever be human? Or is there something about us that is and will always be different?

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Are we just a machine? Is our DNA simply an algorithm or code like in AI?

Personally, I don’t think AI can ever be human and I firmly believe humans are not just machines. 

The picture in the top right of this slide taken from the assembly depicts Adam, the first human in The Bible. The account of creation says that God created everything, including humans. Genesis 2:7 says God formed Adam from the dust. There is no debate that humans are physical beings, made up of combinations of atoms, elements, DNA etc. but are we more than that?

The Biblical account continues with God breathing life into him. Maybe this breath was consciousness, maybe conscience - a moral compass that helps us know right from wrong, maybe it was the ability to feel emotions such as love and joy, maybe it was the thing, a soul perhaps, that makes us unique, distinct from each other and vastly distinct from any form of artificial intelligence. Maybe it was and is the breath of God that makes us truly human.

I imagine most of you know the Adam and Eve story but in the garden, God gave them everything they needed. It was paradise but in amongst the trees that they could eat from, there was one they couldn’t and the consequences of eating from it were severe. It begs the question: why would God even have that tree there? Why would he allow them to make that mistake? 

But perhaps there is another aspect of our humanity that is revealed here - choice or free will. Part of being human is to grapple on the one hand with the desire to do good, show love and compassion and on the other hand, the desire for power, influence over people and selfish pleasures. 

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Unlike AI, which cannot go against its makers wishes (at least if the algorithms are correct), I believe God created us with that freedom - that freedom to reject him, to go against his wishes and instructions. I believe it is that freedom that stops us just being machines and makes us truly alive.

God giving us free will could well be the greatest act of love he could show us in creation and unfortunately the consequence of it was that evil and suffering entered into the world. We now experience a series of broken relationships (between humanity & the world, humanity & God, humanity & each other and humanity & ourselves) which I believe explain every possible example of suffering we could ever face.

God has an ultimate solution, but why does God allow suffering in this life? Maybe it’s to allow us to have the freedom to be truly human.

Geoff

Why volunteer?

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What better way to spend one's time than to share the blessings of the Kingdom with a group of eager listeners?  I have long wanted to find an environment where a constructive exchange about the Kingdom of God can take place - and I have found it by serving with Step.  By assisting in the presentation of Step sessions, I am able to initiate and contribute to discussions about the things of the Kingdom, sometimes seeing a real interest being stirred.  The sincerity and awareness of students impresses me - as does their willingness to engage in meaningful discussion.  Whilst accepting students are obliged to attend and take notice, I have found the challenge of awakening real interest very satisfying. 

I was seeking something worthwhile to do once I retired and felt the Lord ask me to be specific. To this I replied something about explaining the Kingdom to real listeners. At a Step prayer meeting I attended on behalf of my church, I heard Step had more opportunities than resources, then realised I could be a resource. Since volunteering, I have always been impressed by the quality and relevance of teaching material and of the presentation skills of Step staff. What can be more satisfying than to input the next generation with principles of the Kingdom whilst praying the listeners decide to follow Jesus?  

John Hopkinson (volunteer)

This year John has taught over 90 lessons in local secondary schools.

Below are some of the other Step projects John has been involved in leading or creating.

If you would like to find out more about volunteering please contact Terrie to arrange a visit.

Crime, Punishment and Second Chances

You’re a judge in a court of law. In front of you is the accused. He’s a short man, so he’s been given an extra step to stand on. He awkwardly brushes a sycamore seed off his shoulder, but the handcuffs prevent him from reaching the ones in his hair. 

He’s quite possibly the most hated man in town and for good reason; not only is he a tax collector, working on behalf of the occupying forces, but everybody knows that he takes more money than he’s meant to and keeps it for himself. He’s even done it to you. Working for the enemy and stealing from his own people! He’s a treacherous thief in an expensive suit. Now it’s up to you to decide his sentence. 

So what will it be? Community service? A fine? Banishment to a distant land? What would be a just punishment for Zacchaeus’ crime?

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Samuel Ryder’s Year 9 students have been wrestling with similar questions recently. In their Crime and Punishment lessons, they imagined that they were judges presiding over various cases with the power to hand down whatever sentence they felt was appropriate. It raised all sorts of interesting conversations about why we punish people. Is it most important to compensate the victim or to protect the rest of society? Should we help the offender to change, or is justice only served if we go after revenge? What do our answers to these questions reveal about our personal values?

When in doubt, Christians look to Jesus for help. But sometimes the example he sets can prove even more baffling. Many of the Year 9s were surprised by how Jesus treated Zacchaeus, the treacherous thief in an expensive suit, when he spotted him perched in a sycamore tree.

“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”

No community service, fines or banishment - just dinner. 

“Why would Jesus want to have dinner with that terrible guy?” asked one student. “I thought he’d be hanging out with the good, religious people.”

The people at the time were just as confused. But Jesus ate a lot of dinners with those on the margins of society, those who no one else wanted to be around. “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” he explained. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

While we don’t know what Jesus and Zacchaeus talked about over that dinner, we know that it was the turning point of Zacchaeus’ whole life. There and then he decided to pay back everything he’d cheated out of people four times over and give half of everything he owned to the poor. It almost sounds like he paid a fine, but he paid it willingly and as part of an effort to repair the damage he caused and begin a new, better life. He was offered a second chance, by one who knew his name and saw value in him, and he grasped that chance with both hands. Shane Taylor, whose story you can hear about in the video below, is a living example of how transformations like this are still happening 2,000 years later.

So here’s the challenge Year 9 were left with: if change is possible for Zacchaeus and for Shane, is it possible for all of us? And if it’s possible for all of us, should our justice system allow us all a chance for that change to happen?