27 November 2022

An honest take on an innovative mission, mistakes and all

A cooking program in the Klong Toey district of Bangkok was among the initiatives Anji and Ashley Barker’s ministry helped spark. 

By Alan Nichols

06 October 2021

Few Christian leaders write honestly about their mistakes, all the more when they are “missionaries” who put their faith in God’s presence even in the worst times and places.

The Reverend Anji Barker and her husband the Reverend Doctor Ashley Barker took great risks as a young social worker and pastor in the 1980s, starting a new community based Christian ministry in Springvale, Melbourne, under the auspice of the Churches of Christ.

I met them first at a meeting in Springvale when I was investigating frontier ministries in my role as chief executive of the Mission of St. James and St. John, now Anglicare. Years later I visited the pair in Bangkok where they lived in Klong Toey and ran a slum ministry of a very innovative kind. After that they spent 10 years in Winson Green, Birmingham – an area depicted through a television reality show as being the poorest in England – experimenting with new projects for the unemployed, the homeless and prisoners.

This book includes Ms Barker’s memories, and admissions of poor strategies. But it also details a total trust in people who lived in very trying circumstances, and the power of community to bring about personal transformation. Both were drive behind and the outlet for Ms Barker’s dynamic energy.

Describing her work, Ms Barker wrote “I think God is tired of waiting for the church to wake up and lead on tackling issues of injustice”.

The Barkers made many experiments in the community in Klong Toey, which they carried over to Winson Green. For example, they tried creating community over shared meals and recipes. In Thailand, the pair formed a social enterprise incubator called Helping Hands with a local woman called Poo. Through this incubator many new initiatives came about, including an ice cream vendor, a Thai dessert trolley, a roadside coffee shop and an online fresh food delivery service, and a successful cook book and cookery school.

In Birmingham, women from the Flavours of Winson Green Cooking Enterprise developed a catering arm, adding events to their existing cooking school.

In 2015 the Barkers were offered the chance to rent a detached six-bedroom vicarage with a large garden. As it stood the former parish of famous British missionary Leslie Newbigin, they renamed it Newbigin House.

Here, the Barkers created a community centre for the neighbourhood, hosting a wide range of activities in the space. One of the most recognisable was the mobile animal nursery including resident alpacas, goats and hedgehogs, which visited local schools where children had never been near real farm animals. This ministry was featured on Songs of Praise on the BBC. All of these activities were run as part of the Newbigin Community Trust, which provided a place of welcome, inclusion and social cohesion for families within the neighbourhood.

Of this period Ms Barker said they tried all the ideas their neighbours came up with. She said:

For every five things we’ve attempted, maybe three things have failed. But that’s good going in my experience. Ash calls it a seedbed because we created fertile ground to feed local people’s ideas with hope to grow.

For a long time Ms Barker was quiet in public about any connection with LGBTIQ+ people. But she describes how she came to feel this should be a matter of justice and of the church welcoming them, leading to her involvement in the Birmingham Pride March in 2018. Speaking warmly of her partnerships in projects with this community, she says “in truth my LGBT+ friends and co-workers were my allies”.

Filled with stories, the book includes many incidents of people finding faith, of high-risk experiences in slums, of setting up local communities for ministry and of caring for the poor. For people with an interest in cutting edge ministries that are inclusive and diverse, this is the book for you.

Missionary not just a Position by Anji Barker, published by Seedbeds Communications UK, ‘seedbeds.org’; September 2021.

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