The big interview
Since the 1950s, Providence House (formerly Providence Chapel) has served families of Battersea in London through its youth work. Robert Musgrave joined Providence House on his gap year 38 years ago and is still there. Sheila Marshall caught up with him before he received an MBE, which he was nominated for by a former club member.
SM How does Providence House (PH) approach youth work?
RM When I came here, everyone apart from a few specialists was a Christian. PH was established through the network of our founder, Elizabeth Braund. Volunteers largely came from churches outside Battersea and were often culturally out of their depth with Battersea youngsters.
Since East Shallowford Farm in Devon started — a place to which we take members on trips — I have not maintained that network. At that time, I found it difficult to maintain the youth work without engaging local young people as leaders, to help with discipline and, in a roundabout way, security.
It has been a huge benefit to identify helpers from our young men who show a strong sense of belonging and aptitude for work within their community. Some of these have become youth work staff, recognised by the local authority.
The positive side is having helpers who put back time and effort into their youth club and are hopefully influenced by the ethos of the work. But, without embracing Christ for themselves, they remain an impermanent answer to all our needs.
So, our approach to youth work is open and our Christian input implicit. For example, yesterday after the junior group we told a Bible story.
SM How central are Christian values to the work at Providence House?
RM The people who ran this place in the early 1970s were genuinely evangelical people who wanted to reach people outside the church. An important scriptural value is that this place should be open to everyone.
Over the years some have questioned, ‘How can you let those people in?’ But nobody should ever feel they can’t come in here. In many ways, those who are the most marginalised probably don’t come in. So, in that sense, we’re probably not doing enough.
Secondly, people should feel they belong, have a place and find themselves. That works here and, in different ways, on Shallowford Farm, where people feel at home in ways they don’t in London.
When you belong, you have a stake in and are part of that place — it’s your club; it’s your farm.
SM What do you mean by ‘finding themselves’?
RM Who they are; where they fit in the scheme of things; finding a sense of purpose. So many people are not sure who they are and why we’re here.
I recently took four men, from 18-30+ years old, to Shallowford Farm. One of them is beginning to find his place among us, as he comes away and works on the farm.
Our members represent a mixture of class and heritage. We embrace everybody, and hopefully good will result.
SM How can churches support what you do?
RM A place like PH has to make its face known in Christian places. Our founder, Elizabeth Braund, was known as a writer. So what she was doing attracted support.
We have had volunteers from churches in the past and they haven’t stayed; it can sometimes be difficult for churches to get people involved. It’s probably easier for Christians to work in the community through the church. Churches naturally have a support structure. It’s less easy for something like this, which is more ‘out on a limb’, to have that kind of structure.
You have to have staying power, patience and not feel things are not working if people are not converted within three weeks. It’s important to see people as people and not just objects for evangelism.
From one perspective, the worst thing is to come thinking you know more than they do; there is a lot to learn from people.
SM How have you navigated home and work life?
RM My wife probably should have got the MBE, not me. It hasn’t been easy and in the early years she was more heavily involved here than she can be now.
Our children grew up here. Actually, I probably haven’t done as good a job as I ought to. But, despite that, we’ve got very stable children. One married and they are all doing something useful.
SM What’s sustained you over the years?
RM Funny enough, it’s the sense that the job isn’t finished. Initially, I felt that there was work to do and I couldn’t go because I was involved. But there came a sense that I was meant to be here.
SM What Scriptures helped you?
RM Colossians 4:17 and Ezra 9:8 came at critical periods. In Colossians, Paul tells Archippus, ‘See to it that you complete the work you have received in the Lord’. Ezra talks about God setting a nail in a holy place. It’s about being there and belonging.
There were many times when I didn’t want to come in. But once people fill the building, it’s different, especially when you are interacting with all sorts of people. When you stay in a place for a while, there is a sense that you’re in something together.
It was startling to hear someone say that nobody would have troubled this building in the riots.
SM You recently identified that there was a spiritual cause at the heart of the London riots. Can you explain?
RM As Christians, we believe connecting to Christ is what makes our country strong. The Bible says that God’s law has to be written on our hearts, so it has to come from inside us. Ultimately, somebody in whom Christ has worked should contribute to the stability of a community and its enrichment.
The opportunism and calculated criminality of taking something for nothing during the riots was not dissimilar from some MPs’ excessive claims or the greed of bankers.
Over time, the moral framework of this nation has been dismantled. When you bin Scripture, you are breaking up a foundation. Political and social action are necessary, but the ultimate answer is God changing lives.
SM What role can the Christian community play in bringing this about?
RM In all the downward spiralling of many years, the church has been ineffective. We have to look at ourselves and ask, why are we ineffective and what are we going to do about it?
In an inner city place like PH, you want people to ask: is there something we can do and be involved in where we are?
SM What are the highlights of your Christian journey?
RM People are the highlights and there’s nothing more sustaining than Scripture. I have always found something there that resonates with what’s happening, especially in the Psalms and Gospels.
SM What is the main task ahead for PH?
RM It’s about making what we believe in effective in this new climate; in other words, serving the next generation of PH. Elizabeth Braund is old and I’m not as young as I used to be.
SM What is challenging about today’s climate?
RM When this place began, there was nothing for young people in this area. They were at the heart of this work, irrespective of anybody else.
Today, they’ve got all the home entertainments. The need for having a place like this hasn’t changed, but it’s a lot harder to bring young people in.
You have to have fresh ideas and perhaps get fresh people involved. PH is strategically placed in this area and, with Clapham Junction in this area too, we believe we have a purpose in being here and something to say.