Good news from Pembrokeshire
A remarkable thing has happened in Pembrokeshire since the summer. Since 1983, Rev John D Welsby and other members of the Emmanuel Christian Centre in Haverfordwest have been faithfully going out to the local estates twice a year to knock on doors and invite residents to the church's events. Nearly thirty years later, their efforts are starting to reap a wonderful harvest in a place they never expected - among the traveller community.
The church backs onto one housing estate in particular, where travellers have in recent years decided to permanently settle.
For many years now, the travellers have attended the church's annual summer barbecue but something changed this year when the church was invited to host a three night mission in June. God did a work in the hearts of the travellers, and they've been coming ever since.
On the first Sunday after the mission, the regular congregation were admittedly a little shocked to see 40 travellers sitting next to them. But now, after getting to know each other, the travellers are regulars not only at the service, but at the weekly Wednesday night prayer meeting and also form the largest of the church's weekly Bible study groups, called "Life" groups.
John admits the experience has been a "steep learning curve" on all sides – for the congregation, for the travellers, and also for him as a pastor.
"There are huge pastoral issues to be dealt with for everyone involved," he says.
Travelling culture is unique. The life of the family is priority. If one turns up for the Bible study, the whole family comes along. And being a travelling community means they may not always be in attendance each Sunday.
"Travellers travel. That's how it is," explains John. "So some Sundays here I can have all of the families, but other Sundays I may have none.
"That's not because they've fallen out with someone, but because something is happening elsewhere and they have gone to join in with it."
Sometimes it's work in another part of the country that takes all the men away. At other times, it may be a wedding or a funeral and the families will be gone for many weeks at a time.
The converse is also true. A traveller wedding and a traveller funeral have both been held in the months since the mission and both times, travellers came from miles away and stayed for many weeks.
However, it's not only outsiders that had suspicions initially. John admits that the congregation were not sure what to make of the travellers when they first started attending, but initial fears on both sides have melted.
He recalls with humour how one traveller family came to stay at his home and were happy to find that it smelled of "gypsy perfume". When John enquired as to what gypsy perfume was, the wife exclaimed, "Bleach!"
On another occasion, travellers were returning back to London and had come to the prayer meeting to say goodbye. John shares: "They said, 'Will you pray for us? We're going back to London and we're not sure whether we'll be able to find a church that will accept us'. Well, you should have heard the congregation praying for them and the truth was we didn't want them to go."
Now the travellers living on the local estate are an established part of the congregation and when the church held its Christmas carol concert, the travellers made up a third of the congregation. The Sunday before Christmas, all the children of the church took part in the nativity play.
Reverend Welsby is keen to stress that neither he nor the congregation ever refer to them in church as "the travellers", and that the term is only ever used because it is helpful for explaining to outsiders all that has happened.
"Paul says in Galatians that, 'There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free man, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ.' And that's how it is in church. I very rarely talk about 'the travellers' in the church context, because we all love the Lord and we all just want to get on with it."
He adds that it is only the love of Christ and the Gospel that has made this harvest of hearts possible, and he is hoping that other churches will throw open their doors and make everyone in their local community welcome.
"The point of all that we have experienced these last few months is that God was in it and I just feel the love of Christ. We are just people, aren't we, and everyone needs Christ."