Vandals test a church's faith

A Bristol congregation, under siege from youths, is determined to turn the other cheek.
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THE FAITH of Christians is being tested to the limit on the Southmead estate in Bristol. Precious little remains of the New Brunswick United Reformed Church, which has been besieged by vandals and arsonists. In the latest, most devastating attack, flames consumed the heart of the building, including the communion table, organ and piano.

Worship at New Brunswick is an arduous business. During one service, the doors of the boiler room were shattered and set on fire, forcing the congregation to evacuate. On another occasion, as the minister was giving the blessing, a brick was hurled through a window which just missed the church secretary. The most recent fire was the third in a few days.

More than most, Christians in Southmead need the courage of their convictions. Five years ago, half a mile away from New Brunswick, Baptists were forced out of the church in which they had worshipped for 60 years. Their cars had been stoned and expensive security gates were rammed by joy-riders. To try to ensure the congregation's safety, evensong was brought forward to 3.30pm. But when the organ was set alight, the Baptists, after three years of persecution, gave up.

New Brunswick was founded in a spirit of hope and renewal after Hitler's bombs wrecked the original church, which stood near the city centre in Brunswick Square. Fifty years later, vandals continued where the Luftwaffe left off. "Some of the old furniture survived the Blitz but not the thugs of Southmead," said lay evangelist Angus Gregson.

Last week, the Reverend Raymond Adams, URC moderator for the south west, called on every church in the province, which stretches from Wiltshire to Cornwall, to pray for New Brunswick. "The scene I witnessed was one of total destruction, except in the thing that matters - the faith and determination of its people," he said. "This small congregation ... will not give in to the negative forces in their community."

The remains of New Brunswick have been barricaded and given security protection. While used to the odd broken window, Mr Adams is shocked by events in Southmead. "I've never experienced anything like it, not in the south west or anywhere else I've worked," he said. "I found the state of the gutted church quite devastating."

Southmead, a redbrick inter-wars estate in north Bristol, suffers most of the problems associated with such developments: vandalism, petty crime and drug dealing. Last year, a group of residents called the Voice of Southmead was formed to put community pressure on drug dealers. Apologists say that critics paint an unduly black picture of life - that only an unruly minority cause the trouble.

"Maybe some children have a grudge against the churches," says lay evangelist Mr Gregson. The youths who pelted the Baptists' cars used to shout: "It's our land; we will get you out." For years, the URC needed someone patrolling outside during services to prevent worshippers' cars from being attacked.

Even before the spate of fires, pounds 7,000 had been put aside to fence off New Brunswick. "We didn't want to be seen to be defending ourselves against the community - it was simply protection," said Mr Adams. After the big blaze, worshippers - their numbers average 25 - were given temporary refuge by the Baptists who are now based in a former snooker hall. But unlike the Baptists, whose isolation made them especially vulnerable, the URC vows to return.

"Our congregation is extremely tough - they breed them like that in Southmead - and do not want to be pushed out," said New Brunswick minister, the Reverend Pat Cemlyn-Jones. A feasibility study will consider the possibility of refurbishing the remains of the church. The cost is estimated at about pounds 200,000 - and in a spirit of international solidarity, a minister from Lippe, Germany, who was visiting on the day of the blaze, has pledged a donation.

The police do not feel that Southmead's problems are worse than on any other large estate. "I'm not aware of any specific malice towards the church. There is no logical explanation for what has occurred," said Sergeant Nick Hunt, who has been stationed there for 18 months.

That may be small comfort to the URC. Yet the congregation of New Brunswick remains resolute: the day after the big blaze, which is still being investigated, a poster went up that read: "Sunday worship as usual - nothing can separate us from the love of God." Mr Adams said: "While they all felt incredibly sad to see the blackened church with all the sacred memories, they weren't going to let get them down. They almost had a Dunkirk spirit."