Paul writes: Where does evangelisation begin? I work in my allotment most days although there's not much to do in December. I'd like to introduce you to a few of the allotmenteers I rub shoulders with.
Take George, whose son punched and killed a man in a scuffle a few years ago. George's son went to prison for manslaughter. Or Alex, who gave me a bag of onion bulbs he had left over and asked "Paul, can I ask you something - Why did the priest refuse to baptise my granddaughter? He said it was because her mother didn't go to church, but that can't be right, can it?"
There's Jimmy, a retired policeman whose wife died of cancer two years ago. Terry, a massive hulk of a man, told me there'd been a few glasses of wine drunk and tears shed at home last Sunday when it would have been his son's 35th birthday. His son died six years ago after a drugs overdose at a Rave. And there's Ian, whose adopted daughter is mentally ill and homeless.
Tony, a DIY man with an opinion on everything, who helped me put up my greenhouse: "Do it right first time, then you can forget about it. And remember, don't spend any money - it's just an allotment. By the way, do you need any beetroot? And did you know I was diagnosed with prostate cancer last week?" Carol, who has learning difficulties, picked on and humiliated by some people on her estate.
I love these people. They love and respect nature. Frank in another life - given opportunity - would have been a zoologist. His powers of observation, knowledge and memory are prodigious; a born naturalist who became instead simply the best painter and decorator in the business. They're all passionate about their allotments and families. Practical people, grounded, inventive, they spend hours nosing around each other's plots, always looking for opportunities to share, to have a bit of 'craic', and to help each other out. None of them goes to church, and some show strains of racism, homophobia, etc.
My allotment is a microcosm of our country. These are the ordinary people that the Church needs to befriend, listen to, talk to, comfort. These are the people the Church needs to astonish, lift their spirits, inspire their souls. People who feel shame and shock at a killer son in prison, bewilderment and grief at a son dead from an overdose, longing and loneliness of bereavement, rejection and incomprehension at being refused Baptism, depression and anxiety at the mental torture a teenage daughter is going through.
The Lord sends us to work with them in the vineyard - or allotment. Pope Francis puts it this way in 'Joy of the Gospel': "To be evangelisers of souls, we need to develop a spiritual taste for being close to people's lives."
Please help me to answer a question I ask myself daily: How do we begin to evangelise these beautiful children of God, and show them Emmanuel, "God with us"?
Paul Southgate is the Chair of the National Justice and Peace network (NJPN). He is also a member of the Justice & Peace Co-ordinating Council in Hexham & Newcastle diocese.