Once I started, the words just came. There was no anger. I kept my voice really calm and I actually felt calm. If you’ve got faith, it does give you the words.
Earlier this year the leadership team and congregation at St Andrew’s Hartcliffe had to deal with two major break-ins in quick succession, resulting in significant damage and upheaval to the church. Churchwarden Geraldine Ruskin reflects on how brilliantly the church and wider community rallied together, and how privileged she felt to be invited to work with one of the perpetrators after their arrest through a process of restorative justice.
There were two break-ins at the church in two days. I thought the first one was bad enough. Everything was tipped over and there was a hole in the church office roof where they’d got in. Nothing was stolen; we think they were just searching that first time.
The second time was truly horrendous. The church was literally turned upside down. Choir pews all over the place. Furniture smashed. Windows broken. Both altars tipped over.
I wasn’t angry though. Anger never came into it. You imagine that’s how you’d feel. And I will get angry over things, I’m no saint. I just looked at it all and it sort of took my breath away. I just thought, “Oh no! What have they done?”
This was a Friday. We couldn’t do anything that day because the police and scenes of crime officers had to do their jobs. They were all fantastic, really respectful of where they were, whether they had faith or not.
But the next day we were up at that church for eight hours sorting it out. You’d never believe, this area, the community, it’s fantastic. It really is. Yes, I know the two people who were caught for the break-in came from the community but they are the minority.
Everyone worked so hard. We were adamant our Sunday service would go ahead. And if the building wasn’t ready, were talking about holding church out on the forecourt.
But on the Sunday morning, if you didn’t know what had happened, you’d never have known. Other than the font being on its side with a big chip out of it, but other than that the church looked untouched.
It was absolutely fantastic to see. It was faith in action. All these people coming together.
I believe that if hadn’t been for our faith, we wouldn’t have done as well as we did. There was no anger. We had two ladies that broke down in tears and both of them are normally people who take things in their stride. They’d been working really hard and at one point they were shaking and sobbing their heart out. There was lots of love and prayers there.
Two young men were arrested. The police found a finger print.
My husband Nick and I were invited to a ‘restorative justice’ meeting. It’s something they’re trying to encourage to try and break the cycle. The idea is that if the criminal meets the victim and hears what affect their crime has had, it might make them think twice about reoffending. Although I don’t feel much like a victim – it was the whole church really that was the victim.
So they asked if I’d take part in this, and I totally believe in restorative justice. If I can help stop someone heading for a life in and out of prison, well it’s worth a try.
Both lads were supposed to attend the meeting, but only one came in the end. He was 19. His mother came with him.
You meet on neutral ground, so we met in a place in Knowle. And you have a little chat before they arrive and all the rules are laid down.
He had his say first. He talked about what they’d been up to, why he did it. They’d been drinking cider and I think they smoked some pot. It was typical ‘I don’t want to be here’ body language, leaning forward, his baseball cap on so you couldn’t really see his face, knees apart and talking down to his feet.
His poor mum was in tears. She’d had no idea what was going on. This was his first offence.
I got the chance to speak next. I was so worried about what I was going to say. But once I started, the words just came. There was no anger. I kept my voice really calm and I actually felt calm. I told him how devastated I was when I walked into the church and how much it hurt us. If you’ve got faith, it does give you the words. God was guiding me.
I really felt like I was being listened to. His body language gradually changed. He found it hard to look me in the eye but later on, by the end of the session, he was sat up straight and was looking at us. He seemed to realise we weren’t there to hang him.
He told us he was really sorry and it was clear to see he meant it. Initially I hadn’t planned to go to court for the sentencing, because it would look like I was gloating. But I told him I did want to come now to support him. Nick and I wanted to be there for him.
They both pled guilty. They were given 180 hours community service each, two years’ supervision and a one year prison term suspended for a couple of years.
I believe that if he goes wrong again, he’ll remember this time, what happened, and he will eventually turn his life around. I came away thinking that we did reach him and that there’s hope.
As my husband Nick says, our faith is worth nothing if it means we can’t reach out to people. It’s no good saying you’re a Christian if you’re not going to put it into practice.
Geraldine Ruskin is Churchwarden at St Andrew’s Hartcliffe in Bristol.