Monday, October 26, 2009

I National Godly Play Meeting

Over the recent long bank holiday weekend (9th to 12th October), the first national Godly Play meeting took place in Madrid for teachers who are already committed to this method in Spain. I had recently returned from my travels in Malaysia to coordinate the event.

Fifteen people took part, coming from Barcelona, Galicia, Madrid, Menorca and Tarragona, and representing churches who use Godly Play in English, Spanish and Catalan. Special guest, Ulrike Labuhn joined us from Berlin. Ulrike, a Godly Play trainer in Germany, speaks good Spanish, having lived for a time in Bolivia.

The motto for the gathering was Ultreya!, the old pilgrim's cry of encouragement - Onwards!, and this mutual encouragement was really the object of gathering together.

Our meeting was structured in two main parts: 1) Looking backwards at the lessons learned on the way, regarding Godly Play practice, and 2) Looking forwards to the next stages of the continuing journey, especially as we travel together in terms of establishing common structures aimed at consolidating, extending and supporting Godly Play practice in Spain. As is common in other GP events, the programme was also based on the usual GP cycle: 1) Building the circle ('threshold community') - getting to know one another; 2) Storytelling - telling our own individual and corporate stories, as well as a full GP session; 3) Getting out our work - responding individually and as a group to different proposals, especially those relating to the development of Godly Play in Spain; 4) Feast - times of fellowship between sessions, especially at mealtimes and in the evenings. There were also brief times of collective worship each morning and evening led by different members of the group, as well as a leaving ceremony, in which we symbolically blessed one another and the children we represented, as well as all the children in Spain and beyond whom we also wished to join the Godly Play 'circle'.

Time was made available for the participants to share, often through visual presentations, the development of their own practice of Godly Play in their respective churches and localities, as well as resource materials which they may have made themselves. This gave us better insight into the GP classrooms that are already functioning, or being developed, in Barcelona, Madrid and Tarragona.

Our guest, Ulrike Labuhn, also gave us an overview of the growth of GP in Germany, with particular emphasis on the process of translating and adapting stories from volume 6 of The Complete Guide to Godly Play. Ulrike had already told us the German version of the story of Job in a previous session, which was rather different from the 'official' GP version that is found in the manuals. The developments in Germany were very useful to us as we discussed the future of GP in Spain. One of the main differences at present is the high proportion of professionals (teachers, theologians, therapists...) in the German movement, whereas in Spain the majority of GP practitioners are volunteer Sunday school teachers.

One of the doubts the group raised was the difficulty of going ahead with an organized structure for Godly Play Spain when there was a perceived vacuum of knowledge about GP internationally. This was seen to be part of a much wider problem, as there is so little being translated into Spanish about recent research and study in fields such as the theology of childhood / child theology and the spirituality of children, both of which inform the development of Godly Play and methodology in general. So, time was dedicated at the meeting to offering basic background information about these topics, as well as the international structures of GP, which are also presently in a state of renewal and development.

It was stated very clearly at the meeting that the most important thing for the practitioners was what takes place at ground level (literally) within the circle of children in a real-life Godly Play session. Everything else (e.g. training, resourcing, publications, associations, etc) were there to support such action. The vision was to help make it possible for children anywhere in Spain to join a Godly Play circle, and that this work be of an increasingly deeper understanding and higher quality. To facilitate such growth, we need to create certain structures. However, we certainly did not wish to create another organization simply for the sake of it!

Apart from the sessions on helping us to work towards a structured organization for Godly Play in Spain, there were also two workshop sessions: 1) Raquel García gave a practical demonstration on her work with adolescents, which uses an adaptation of the Play of Life model of psychodrama, developed by the Argentinian pyschiatrist, Dr Carlos Raimundo; and 2) Dr Raúl García gave a talk on the Therapeutic Power of Narratives, followed by a time of questions and answers.

In the final stages of the meeting, the participants reached agreement regarding the next steps to take towards setting up a Godly Play association in Spain. A representative group has been appointed to work on the statutes and aims of such an association, and another to find a place to hold the next meeting in Salou, Tarragona, probably for next autumn. Ulrike and I will work on a plan for accredited training (which was one of the major issues that the group felt was important to address in the short term). It is hoped that the next National GP Meeting will include an accredited training module and also a session in which the new GP Association will be formally created and the first board of directors elected.

So, there seems to be plenty of work to get on with in the coming months!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Malaysia part 3 - Melaka

Together with George Town (Penang), Melaka (or Malacca) was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Cities in 2008, and my couple of walks around the historic centre showed me how fascinating the place really is. Its cultural and religious diversity revealed in numerous mosques, temples and churches, its traces of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rule, its colourful 'trishaws' (tricycle rickshaws) and meandering canal walks, its smell of delicious Indian and Chinese cooking... all made me wish for more time to wander and to take in more fully all the sights, sounds and smells this old 'gateway to Malaysia' had to offer. However, I only had three days in the city before returning to Madrid in time for the first national Godly Play gathering that I was coordinating at the end of the week (see next post).

In any case, I was not in Melaka primarily for sightseeing. The initial and primary purpose of my visit to Malaysia was to lead a one-hour Godly Play presentation at an international consultation on Bible engagement. In the track which concerned the 'Coming Generations', about 45 leaders from many different Christian agencies around the world met together to discuss ways of encouraging effective Bible engagement with children and young people. This discussion was based on a series of different models of good practice that were presented throughout the first two days of the consultation, and tied into the overall Bible theme for the event: the encounter of the risen Lord with his two disciples on the road to Emmaus (in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 24).

Scripture Union's International Week of Prayer guide summarizes nicely the aims and some of the contents of the track:
'Exploring Scripture Engagement for the 21st Century' was the theme of the 'Hearts Burning' Conference convened by the Forum of International Bible Agencies in Malaysia in October. In the 'Children and Youth Track', experienced practitioners (including several SU staff from different national movements) presented workshops that demonstrated different models of working amongst young people. Each of the models reflected thoughtful hermeneutics, the relational dimension of Scripture engagement and the expectation of response. Thank God for the diversity of experiences shared from around the world: from Godly Play with young people to state-of-the-art multi-media resources, from an interactive Bible Timeline approach to the Bible narrative, to the transformational impact of that narrative upon traumatised children and youth. Please pray that as a result of the Forum, SU around the world will face the challenges of Scripture engagement with today's young people with renewed vision and innovative ideas as the many SU delegates return to their national movements.

The feedback from my own workshop on Godly Play was very encouraging. Here are a few snippets:
  • "Children and young people can 'hear' God without our help."
  • "Really we need to understand more about our children."
  • "It's really Godly play."
  • "Very interesting for children and a very powerful tool."
  • "Rituals and symbols."
  • "Helping children to reflect."
  • "The power of interactive object lessons"
  • "Interesting storytelling method"
Wendy Strachan, the coordinator of the 'Coming Generations' track, and also coordinator of children's ministries for Scripture Union International, made the following comments after the workshop: "Godly Play is something I've read about and warmed to - but never seen in action. Several things struck me in David Pritchard's 'hands-on' presentation:
  • The confidence that children - including very young children - can encounter God in the Bible narrative.
  • The simplicity of inviting children to 'wonder' about the story - without prescribing answers or even requiring a verbal response.
  • The patience and dignity of allowing the children to enter the story - no need for the adult to interpret the text for the child, but simply to encourage them to engage with it.
  • The multi-sensory approach - not just visual.
  • The reverence that accompanied 'God coming near'.

Perhaps the most challenging feedback for the long-term development of Godly Play came from Stanley Chum, General Secretary of the Chinese Bible International Ltd, based in Hong Kong. He wrote the following evaluation on the response poster: "David, that is the best presentation I have ever seen. I personally was in the story and have spiritual insight gained. I wonder how to train storytellers to work to that effectiveness." In a brief conversation the following day, Stanley and I discussed how to begin Godly Play training for Hong Kong and the whole of mainland China!


Photos: Typical sights in Melaka

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Malaysia part 2 - Kuala Lumpur

As soon as my Godly Play workshop was over at the Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary extension centre in Klang Valley, I was placed in the capable hands of the Revd. Sivin Kit, pastor of Bangsar Lutheran Church (BLC), in Kuala Lumpur. Sunny & Rosalind Tan were on their way to Australia to attend their son's graduation, so now I was 'changing' my church affiliation from Baptist to Lutheran!

I had already been in touch with Pastor Sivin through contacts made via Facebook and Twitter. An inveterate blogger and a prolific user of social networks, Sivin combines Evangelical theology and an 'emerging church' inclination with a strong commitment to and engagement with social issues in Malaysia and beyond. He is widely read and had already researched many of the Godly Play texts and websites, and had in fact tried to implement this method in his church. The Sunday school coordinator, Phoebe Long, and several members of her children's ministry team from Bangsar Lutheran took part in my Godly Play workshop in KL, so there was plenty of evidence to suggest that this particular fellowship wished to move deeper in their understanding and practice of this method. The previous day, Rosalind Tan, the director of the Holistic Child Development Institute in Penang, had commented that Malaysia really needs a working model of Godly Play so that any enquirers can see what it's all about. Maybe, BLC is the place to start.

My visit to Kuala Lumpur coincided with the temporary move of Bangsar Lutheran Church's worship services to the brand new custom built Luther Centre in Petaling Jaya, KL, where I would also be staying overnight in one of their, as yet, unused guest rooms. The following day would be the very first Sunday worship service at the centre, so a special day for the church.

Next morning, at the start of the service, Pastor Sivin Kit informed the congregation that it was World Communion Sunday. He remarked that it was therefore very appropriate that there were guests from different parts of the world. Besides me, the visitors included the pastor and two other members from a partner Lutheran church in Germany, who were on a tour of Malaysia. They were invited to give a visual presentation of their work in Bavaria. Another lady, Sue, was also visiting BLC and said that, like me, she would also be taking part in the international consultation that would be starting that same afternoon in Melaka (see next post).

My own contribution to the service was to share with the congregation a short message from Luke 24 (the story of the walk to Emmaus, which was also the theme for the Melaka consultation) and to demonstrate Godly Play with a group of children from the church, which was probably the most delightful moment in my whole visit to Malaysia. I chose to tell them the parable of The Great Pearl.

It always amazes me how easily and readily children the world over can disconnect from their immediate surroundings and enter wholeheartedly into a story through the power of narrative in approaches such as that used by Godly Play. The children were up on stage before dozens of grownups, a number of whom were busy taking photos and videos of the event. The action was being projected up onto a big screen so that all the congregation could see what was happening down on the floor within the circle of children. They were facing a complete stranger, a Westerner with a funny English accent. And yet...! Amidst all the paraphernalia of cameras, flashes, microphones, etc. and a multitude of adults (not at all to be recommended in a normal Godly Play session!), these children, just like their little brothers and sisters the world over, were able to connect immediately with the story and the subsequent wondering in such an engaging way.

And not only the children! Many of the adults, too, were similarly caught up and engrossed, as a short video clip on YouTube demonstrates. The introductory text on the video clip reads:
No clown suit, no loud music, no excited shouting. David told the children a quiet story about a pearl, and they were rapt. So were the adults. With a couple of exceptions :).
The person who uploaded the clip also added the following note on YouTube: "David's session of Godly Play had the children captivated, with a quiet story of a pearl. Quite a different approach from the 'loud and flashy' paradigm. It seems to be good for adults, too ;)". It's true that what works with children also usually works with grownups - at least those who are willing to connect with the 'child' they carry within themselves.

The comment on the video clip above sums up nicely how so much of today's children's ministry is often based on a fast-paced entertainment paradigm. Although both boys and girls obviously need and enjoy times of boisterous and exuberant upbeat activities, it is surely a very low view of children to suggest that such an approach is essential in order to hold their attention for more than a few minutes. Godly Play allows children to quietly enter into deeper levels of 'play', in which they are actively involved through their imagination and wondering, and to meet a playful God who invites them (and grownups, too!) in a gentle and poignant manner to relate the Bible narratives to their own life situations. This is far more fulfilling than mere entertainment!

After the service, and over lunch in a restaurant in a nearby shopping mall, I was able to answer questions and talk further about the merits of Godly Play with several members of BLC, especially with Phoebe, the coordinator of the children's ministry at the church. Hopefully, this contact will continue in the future as we work together to 'grow' Godly Play in Kuala Lumpur.

More photos here.

Malaysia part 1 - Penang & Kuala Lumpur

My long journey from Madrid to Malaysia, via Frankfurt & Bangkok, started at 4.30 pm on Wednesday 30th September and finally brought me into Kuala Lumpur international airport at 6 pm local time on Thursday 1st October. (The time in Malaysia is 6 hours ahead of Central European time.) However, the travelling had still not quite ended, as I then had to take an hour-long domestic flight from KL to Penang, eventually arriving at 9.10 pm.

I was greeted at the airport by Dr Sunny Tan, dean of the Malaysia Baptist Theological Seminary (MBTS) in Penang, and by his wife Rosalind, director of the Holistic Child Development (HCD) Institute that is housed on the same MBTS campus. They took me in their car to the other side of the island, approximately another hour's drive. So, by this time very tired after so much travelling, and suffering the effects of jet lag, I was glad to finally get some rest in the guest room that had been prepared for me at the Seminary.

The Baptist Seminary has close links with the growing Child Theology Movement and has hosted several of its international consultations. Sunny Tan is one of the directors of CTM. They informed me that at one of these consultations they had invited Dr Jerome Berryman, the founder of Godly Play, to talk about his work. However, Jerome could not attend due to health problems. So, for about 5 years they had heard a lot about Godly Play but had never had the chance to experience the method personally. Now with my arrival in Malaysia, that opportunity finally arose and for that reasson the welcome was doubly warm!

Warm, too, was the climate with a high level of humidity - so I was very thankful for the air conditioning in my bedroom. I was warned to always keep doors and windows firmly shut because of the mosquitos and monkeys! The Seminary has been built on a steep hillside overlooking the coast, with thick vegetation on the other side. The monkeys come in from the hilly jungle area and are considered to be a nuisance as they steal whatever is within their grasp. I woke up the next morning to see several monkeys swinging on the telephone lines outside my bedroom window.

Later on, Sunny and Rosalind took me to a local Indian terraced restaurant for a very tasty breakfast: lentils and pita bread, washed down with iced lemon tea. After that it was back to the Seminary to start setting up for the 4-hour workshop on the principles and practice of Godly Play, which would take place straight after lunch in the campus refectory. As over 40 people had already booked in to attend the workshop, and last-minute registrations were still coming in via the telephone, we decided that the most adequate space was the Seminary chapel - and even that later proved to be rather cramped!

Eventually, about 45 people attended the workshop. We formed an inner circle on the floor and two other concentric semicircles of chairs. However, I noticed that some of those who sat on the outside ring had difficulty seeing everything as I told the Godly Play story of the Holy Family, and there was less participation during the 'wondering' time from those furthest away. It was also unfortunate that some had come to the workshop with false expectations, thinking that Godly 'play' would be a loadsafun approach and hoping for some tips to take home for party games and camp activities! They must have felt rather disappointed by the slow, soft manner of engaging with Bible stories that Godly Play offers.

Even so, there were good responses from others. The participants were from a broad cross section of church affiliations and contexts: school teachers, Sunday school volunteers, and professionals who worked with mentally and physically challenged children and young people in schools and day centres. Particularly in the second part of the workshop, during the full session of Godly Play, there were lively contributions to the wondering time and good responses to the well-stocked table of art supplies. Some chose to take their work outside to the patio where there was more space. Others returned to the desert bag and the story artefacts. And three of the participants asked me to tell them yet another story.

During our 'feast' time there were numerous questions about the Godly Play method, most of which I had heard before in Spain and other European countries. "Yes, this is wonderful. We have been able to get ready and enter the story, but will it work with children?" "American and European children might be able to settle down to all this slowness and quietness of Godly Play, but Malaysian kids need a much more upbeat approach - after all, it's what they're used to!" I just had to laugh silently inside me, as these were the very same comments that teachers made about Spanish children when I first started Godly Play in Madrid 5 years ago!

Early the next morning, Sunny, Rosalind and I caught the plane back to Kuala Lumpur, and then a taxi to the MBTS extension centre in Klang Valley. The centre was actually an apartment building in a residential area in one of the KL suburbs. A second 4-hour workshop was waiting for me there, too!

This time, the group was much smaller numerically - just 15 participants. It was a more relaxed session and we had a break for lunch. The group, although small, still represented a diverse mix of church denominations. A few from a local Lutheran fellowship had already begun to use Godly Play with their own children at church. They had bought several volumes of the Complete Guide to Godly Play and had made their own materials, such as clay 'people of God' figures. However, this was the first time that they had ever experienced Godly Play for themselves or received any training in the method.

The feedback following the 2nd workshop was on the whole much more positive and several participants were already asking for further ongoing training. This will obviously pose a challenge to them and to Godly Play trainers internationally.

My time in Kuala Lumpur had not yet finished, but I will resume that experience in the 2nd post of this Malaysian blog.

Many photographs were taken of the session in Penang. They can be found here

Monday, October 19, 2009

C of E Diocese in Europe Pastoral Conference

I am now enjoying a short break in my 'Godly Play' travelling. So it seems to be a convenient moment to update my blogs with news of recent activities.

The first one took place from 21st to 25th September, near Cologne, Germany. The event was the Church of England Diocese in Europe Pastoral Conference.

Over 140 Anglican clergy, from Scandinavia to the Canary Islands, Moscow to Morocco, met at Kardinal Schulte Haus, a large conference centre near Cologne that had previously been a Roman Catholic Seminary and had been commandeered during the war as a Gestapo Headquarters, in order to discuss the main conference theme: Entertaining Angels - Hospitality as Mission. The keynote speakers were Fr. Timothy Radcliffe OP, a well-known author and speaker, and a former Master of the Dominicans, and Professor Brian Thorne, a psychotherapist and lay theologian, who is also Emeritus Professor of Counselling at the University of East Anglia, founder of the Norwich Centre for Counselling Studies, and an expert in mediation and person-centred counselling. The Bible studies were given by Professor Musa Dube, a female African biblical scholar, who is also Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Botswana. The programme also included 10 workshops on topics such as liturgy, reconciliation, welcoming different cultures, expatriate ministry, ecumenical ministry, interfaith dialogue, leading Bible study in a multicultural context, ministry with the marginalized, and environmental and ecology concerns in ministry. Many of these workshops were repeated throughout the conference.

It is only the second time that all licensed C of E priests and deacons have been able to meet in the European diocese’s 29 year history. So what was a non-Conformist like me doing in a place like that and in such distinguished company?!

In their wisdom, the conference organising committee, chaired by the Suffragan Bishop for the diocese, the Right Reverend David Hamid, had seen fit to include in the programme a workshop on Godly Play, as an imaginative approach to welcoming children and engaging them in Bible stories. At a late stage in the conference preparations, the person who was due to lead the Godly Play workshop had to withdraw and I thus received a rather urgent telephone call from another member of the organising committee, the Revd. Ian Hutchinson Cervantes, Chaplain of St George's Church in Madrid, whom I knew well through the Godly Play training I had delivered over the past 5 years to the Sunday school team at that church. I was asked if I wouldn't mind standing in and leading a 90-minute Godly Play introduction to be repeated on three consecutive days throughout the conference. I accepted the invitation with rather mixed feelings but, as so often in the past, always willing to rise up to a challenge!

Some of the delegates at the conference were already familiar with Godly Play, and a few were even using the method at their English-speaking, mainly expatriate churches in Continental Europe. Of those who had no prior knowledge of Godly Play, a total of 22 clergy attended my three workshop sessions, which consisted of the usual hands-on experience of hearing a story, wondering about its meaning for them personally, and responding to it creatively and playfully through art materials and by other means.

The story of The Great Family, which includes how Abraham "entertained angels unaware", seemed to fit in well with the conference theme. Another story I chose was the Parable of the Great Pearl.

There was lively discussion and plenty of questions as a result of the workshop and a number of clergy said that they were seriously considering requesting training in this approach for their Sunday school staff at their churches in several European cities and towns.

A week after the event, I received the following thankyou note from the Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese in Europe:
Dear David
Many thanks for your leadership at our clergy conference last week. I have received very positive feedback from the workshops. I hope you enjoyed your days with us, as we enjoyed your presence.
With my prayers and blessings,
† David Hamid
More photos of the conference are available here and here.