Christians won't transform communities until they fall in love with them

The UK is a fascinating country. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland consists of four smaller nations: Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Each has its own government with some devolved powers but they are all linked together under one Parliament that has the ultimate control.

I live in Wales. I was born and bred in England but life's circumstances brought me to this rather beautiful country of mountains, lakes, waterfalls and beaches. Wales has its own language, Cymraeg, which is ancient and beautiful. It has its own culture, flag and national anthem. I have felt a bit like Ruth, the Moabitess, who moved to live in her mother-in-law's homeland, Israel. Ruth made a conscious choice to adopt a foreign people as her own and like Ruth I too have adopted a foreign people as my own. Also like Ruth, I feel as if they've adopted me.

Mandy Bayton has fallen in love with Wales.Pixabay

I always believed myself to be quintessentially English, so my plan was one day to go back home. However, the longer I lived in Wales the less I have wanted to return to England's green and pleasant land.

Many Welsh people have the hearts of poets and writers and Cymraeg has some beautiful, descriptive words. One of my favourites is 'hiraeth', but its meaning is somewhat diluted when translated into English. I asked some of my Welsh friends to try and translate it and these are some of the attempts.

'Hiraeth is a deep longing and attachment to one's homeland (like the Jews felt when in exile).'
'It is the home of your heart.'
'An indescribable love for your country.'
'A longing, an almost desperate need, to be at home and for the comfort of loved ones.'
'You can feel hiraeth for your country as a whole or even a street you were brought up on.'
'For the Welsh-speaking people it is a longing also for us to have our rights back, perhaps.'

I work for a charity called The Cinnamon Network. My role is to is to help local churches discover their local community needs and help those same churches work with their communities to try and meet those needs. I try to encourage an appropriate delivery of Christian-led community engagement which can result in church growth and community transformation.

As I travel around Wales as Cinnamon's adviser, I am aware that not only have I adopted the nation, city and community where God has placed me, but I have fallen in love. I have also come to realise how necessary it is for churches to do the same. If, we want to see our communities transformed we need to fall truly, madly and deeply in love with those places and those people.

Hiraeth, this heart-tugging longing for Wales, has permeated my soul and I find myself defending Wales in sporting tournaments, I sing Bread of Heaven (often the hymn of choice sung by Welsh soccer and rugby supporters) at the top of my voice and I ache to learn to speak Cymraeg so I can stand proudly alongside my Welsh brothers and sisters and sing our anthem. I feel as if I belong to Wales and when I drive from England across the Severn Bridge my spirit lifts as I see the sign, Croeso y Cymru (Welcome to Wales), because I read, Welcome Home.

If local churches could learn to experience the heart of hiraeth for the communities in which God has placed them, community transformation would become the norm. One of my deepest hopes is that church communities will adopt their local communities as their own and that the communities we are placed in will no longer see us as alien (most non-church goers have little or no concept or understanding of church).

But we need to stop defining our communities by the needs we see and we need to stop thinking of people as projects, as people apart from us that need us to provide a service for them. They are not apart from us, they are part of us.

Each one of us is created for belonging and connection. As Christians, we believe that ultimately our place of belonging is with Jesus and that the most important connection we can make is to belong to his family. I truly believe connecting with the Son of God is the most fulfilling and heart-satisfying connection we can experience and because of that connection I recognise how important it is for each person to have a sense of belonging.

As we love our communities and they learn to trust us, something very precious can happen – a mutual connection, a mutual sense of belonging to each other and a desire that wants the best for each other can grow and flourish. When this happens, we can then together value and marvel at the 'home for our hearts'.

Mandy Bayton is The Cinnamon Network adviser for Wales and a freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter @mandyebayton