Dark Holy Ground was a course run by RESPOND! during the 1980s. Robert Gallagher, one of the 3 course leaders had a gift for listening. He made loads of notes on scraps of paper and so one evening after the course the 3 leaders took them to a pub in Guisborough. Over a few pints they set them in order, with much debate, which must have been loud because after they finished they looked up to find their table surrounded by people fascinated by what they were discussing. I have that booklet somewhere and when I find it I will quote from it on this blog.
I met Robert, to interview him for my only ill-fated article for the Teesside Advertiser. As the participants shared their experiences, the long term unemployed spoke of how they thought their unemployment was their fault. Then by hearing each others stories they discovered that others felt the same way, soon they came to see unemployment as not their fault but something to do with society.
Frequently they spoke of how they had come to see unemployment as the best thing that happened to them, something that has to come from the heart of those who have experienced it. This experience of the power of sharing stories was repeated many times as groups of long-term unemployed formed across the county.
Soon , they came to speak of darkness - how God had a dark face but was still somehow God. The pain and burden of unemployment remained but somehow recognising God in the darkness made a difference. They began to see their estates as dark holy ground.
And then they turned to the psalms and found people who lived 3000 years ago had experienced what they experienced. One particular example was particularly powerful. Psalm 139: 11.12 reads (New RSV):
If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night', even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
They read these verses and someone noticed that at the end it is still dark. The darkness is not dark, the night is as bright as the day but it is still dark; still night. To find common ground with the psalmists in Cleveland's estates was empowering even though the pain remained.
The Christian faith does know joy but to focus on joy to the exclusion of suffering is to deny people's experience of the dark face of God. Many dark places are empowering, the image of light needs to give away to the equally empowering image of darkness. When we acknowledge the pain in people's lives a real transformation begins.
I had two conversations with Robert. During the second he asked how I thought he felt as he listened as a pastor to someone pour out the story of their pain. This was of course a rhetorical question; his answer was 'joy'. I didn't understand. 'Because', he said, 'it is there in the pain that I feel closest to God'.