Jane, 52, was licensed to her new role on September 8 at St John the Evangelist church, Middlesbrough, by the Bishop of Whitby, Paul Ferguson. Thanks to national funding, fourteen ordained or lay specialist ministers are being appointed by the diocese in thirteen locations as part of the church’s strategy to reach those in their 20s to 40s, under-represented in the life of the church.
Having begun work three months ago, Jane is very aware of the immense challenges. Thorntree and Brambles Farm are among the areas of greatest deprivation in the country with Thorntree having the highest level of child poverty in the country at 61%.
But in just two months Jane has begun Sunday afternoon worship at the Brambles Farm community centre (pictured) while at Thorntree she has been elected vice- chair of a new community forum. She has been working alongside local community leaders, set up a local Facebook page and has been involved as a leader at ‘Feast of Fun’, a community project feeding struggling families during the school holidays
She has also been meeting local people on the estates each week through the coffee van ministry (pictured) run by the Vicar of St John the Evangelist, the Revd Terry Leathley.
“That has been such a blessing,” says Jane. “Father Terry takes the van onto the estates three mornings a week and I have met so many people through that including a local man, just out of prison who became a Christian while inside and now wants to get involved.”
An unconventional life
Jane’s background is far from conventional: a single parent, living in a deprived community herself, she was diagnosed with dyslexia and left school with no qualifications. The turning point came at the age of 29 when she came to faith and then, with support for her dyslexia, started studying at Cliff College, Derbyshire, where she gained a degree in Mission and Ministry.
After working in social services with young offenders and families struggling with domestic violence she eventually felt she had to work in a setting where she was allowed to share her faith. “I really just wanted to share my faith and I couldn’t in the job I was in. Someone told me there was a job going in my local church which would be funded for just a year, working on one of the top ten most deprived estates in the country and I really felt called to it.”
That was the start of Jane’s work as an evangelist and community worker. In 2013 Jane she was appointed as a faith development worker for St John the Baptist Owlerton, Sheffield, working on the Winn Gardens Estate, where she was involved in planting a community church and helping many people come to faith. In 2016 she sold her home and went to live on the estate, and in 2017 she was commissioned as a Church Army Evangelist and became ‘Sister’ Jane Emson.
Moving to Middlesbrough
So why did she decide to make the ‘giant step’ to Middlesbrough?
“I just felt I had done all I could do in Sheffield,” says Jane. “I remember praying and asking God if he could just pick me up in a helicopter and plonk me where there is nothing. And that’s when this post came up!”
“I know what it is to have nowt because that’s how I was,” she adds as she talks about the challenges. “St. Thomas Church on Brambles Farm was demolished twelve years ago so my job is to start a new St Thomas Church.
“Already we’ve had a couple of families come along, but the people I meet are not from a church background so in some ways I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and find what it is that will attract them. I’m planning to start a monthly ‘Messy Church’ and I think that is the way in. Hopefully then we can look at doing something weekly.
“But meanwhile it’s about joining in with what’s going on, building relationships and being ‘normal’!”
Bishop Paul Ferguson, who led Jane’s licensing service, says her appointment is very significant. “When Sister Jane Emson CA came to Brambles Farm and Thorntree earlier this year, it signalled an important new mission initiative for these Middlesbrough estates, alongside the continuing ministry of Fr Terry Leathley as parish priest. There are wonderful people in these communities, but the number who are engaged in church life is below average. Many live in circumstances of deprivation. We long for the hope, joy and purpose that come through knowing Jesus to be part of the life of more people here.
“Jane’s arrival also means that we are now able to establish a new partnership between the Diocese of York and Church Army, uniting our respective goals under God of ‘reaching, growing, sustaining’ and enabling ‘everyone everywhere to experience God’s love’.”
It is now planned that Jane will be joined soon by a second evangelist to work alongside her, says Bishop Paul. “We’re looking forward to the appointment of a Pioneer Evangelist to complete the team, with a priority to reach younger adults. I hope that as a whole family of the Diocese of York we will hold our work in these parts of Middlesbrough in our prayers.”