With: a new youth prayer community at the convent

Published on: 10 January 2020

James Fawcett is part of a group of Christians who work with young people that have a “crazy story” about taking over a convent in Norfolk. He shares this exciting new beginning at a venue familiar to many Magazine readers.

I was born in the Norfolk and Norwich and have spent over 20 years of my life in Norfolk, with family roots and history and obviously a deep love for the county.

All over the country, there are these beautiful, historical, prayer-soaked buildings that have housed religious communities for years. One such site, called All Hallows, is in the tiny Norfolk village of Ditchingham. The place has this amazing heritage. For a century and a half, All Hallows has been home to a life of prayer, community and service. The work of the sisters over the last 150 years started work programmes, a school, a hospital and much more. Interestingly, working with young people has always been central to what’s gone on there.

Over the last 15 or so years, due to the dwindling number of the sisters, the site just became too big for them and parts of it have been given away to house a Christian conference centre and a project working with homeless people. What remained was a big, 30-bedroom convent house, the massive chapel and three other detached houses.

And so, the remaining sisters came to an incredibly brave and generous decision – to give the rest of the site away and continue the life of the community together offsite. They launched what was basically a competition, searching for a vision for the future of this site and invited ideas.

We, a group of youth workers, applied with a simple idea, to carry on the work of All Hallows, to reimagine community, prayer and service, with young people at the heart of it. We had to outline our vision, create business plans, risk assessments; all the things we hate about youth work!

Eventually, we ended up in what can only be described as a ‘Dragon’s Den’ style room, pitching our idea to a bishop, two nuns and various other interested parties, missing only the giant stacks of cash by everyone’s seats.

On the way home, we got a phone call saying we’d won. There was screaming, tears were almost shed. And then along came a realisation, this fun project we’ve been doing in our spare time with no real thought that it could amount to anything was about to take over our lives.

Twelve months later, and it has, but in all the right ways. In fact, it’s been quite an odd year. We’ve quit jobs, had endorsements from Archbishops, found priceless bits of church history and abandoned mobility scooters around the site, laughed at jokes with a monk and taken ownership of a tractor known as “Big Red”.

We want to create a space for young people to pray. A space for those who work with and care about young people to pray for and with them. We want to create a community of people committed to living a life of prayer for young people, some of them living in this mad convent we’ve been given, but others dispersed around the country.

We want to create a retreat space that is specifically for and tailored to those who work with young people. We want to create a retreat centre for young people to come away to and pray, to engage in spiritual practices, for digital detoxes, for time with nature, for time with each other, for time with God.

And we want to create a way for young people to continue that journey with Jesus after they leave. That word ‘With’ has become really important to us. It encapsulates a lot of what we’re about. We’re done with doing stuff “to” young people or creating things “for” young people. Everything that happens on-site at All Hallows is going to be done “with” young people. So that’s who we are. We are With. Here’s what we’re going to do:

  • WITH: Community, a body of Christians living on-site and beyond, dedicated to a rule of life and prayer, with a shared commitment to serving young people.
  • WITH: Retreat. A retreat centre facilitated by the community, where young people, and those who work with them, will come for single and multi-day retreats to receive spiritual nourishment, explore their relationship with God in engaging and creative ways, and improve their physical and mental wellbeing, learning new skills and reclaiming old ones that will enable them continue in their life of faith for years to come.
  • WITH: Online. An online reflection of the rule of life in the form of an app, which will connect the physical With Community with a wider digital community, enabling those who have been on retreats or aren’t able to be present at the site to follow the With prayer rhythms remotely.

We have no desire to reinvent the wheel – this whole project is testament to that – we will be looking to work with many others who work with young people in complementary ways across the whole area to create the best possible opportunities for young people.

It will take time. A lot of work needs to be done to the site to make it a safe, welcoming space for young people. We need to figure out the dynamics of the community and rule of life that we’re inviting people into. With these things in mind, we’re welcoming the community on site from September 2020 and opening the doors for young people from January 2021.

Here’s the thing – we want you involved. We’re not an existing youth work charity. We’re just a few mates who know each other through the world of youth ministry, and our vision for With is that it’s reflective of that community. Please:

  • Pray for us – we really need it. Sign-up to our newsletter for the latest prayer points. www.bewith.community
  • Pray with us – we’re looking for people to join our community and pray with us for young people, on-site or beyond. Get in touch at uryyb@orjvgu.pbzzhavgl
  • If you’re excited by the idea of bringing young people on site for a retreat, get in touch now and we can pencil you in!
  • And the awkward bit – we need money. We’ve been hugely blessed to be given this site rent-free, but the place needs quite a bit of love to get it up to scratch. That’s why we’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign. Whatever you, your friends, your parents, your PCCs can give, would be hugely appreciated. www.bewith.community/donate


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