Five Day Mission That Changed Lives Forever

In Uncategorized on January 26, 2012 at 9:02 am

The following article appeared in an edition of the Catholic Times on 21/22 January 2012 about a school mission run by Ten Ten at Newman College, Harlesden in December 2011.

Newman College Mission led by Ten Ten

As schools drew to an exhausted end of term last month, and young people were focussing on wish lists, holidays and Christmas parties, something extraordinary was happening in a Catholic secondary boys’ school in a deprived London borough.

The 520 students and their teachers abandoned the school timetable for a week, and spent five days entirely absorbed in a spiritual mission which one Year 10 boy described afterwards as “absolutely the best school week any of us have ever had”.

A few years ago, Newman Catholic College in Brent – formerly Cardinal Hinsley High School – was on special measures and at risk of closure.  In the words of Headmaster, Richard Kolka, the school was “on its knees”. There was “a culture of indiscipline, poor results and an embattled staff trying to do their best for the students under the most difficult of circumstances”.

Today, it still faces many challenges – particularly with poverty and two-thirds of the boys not having English as their first language. Yet Newman College has managed to turn itself round.  The number of students obtaining the highest grades has soared from 18% in 2004 to 70% in 2011, and three successive Ofsted inspections have classified it as a Grade 2 ‘Good’ school with several ‘outstanding’ features.

One of the features regularly classed as ‘outstanding’ is the spiritual, moral, social and cultural ethos of the school.

And it was to support its ongoing spiritual renewal and strengthening that the leadership team decided to bring in the Catholic charity, Ten Ten Theatre, to run a whole-school Mission from 12-16 December – so that every possible aspect of the theme, ‘Living Life to the Full’, could be explored.

Deafblind priest Fr Cyril Axelrod

This was no normal school mission, however, because Ten Ten does not do things by halves.

“The mission was a year in the planning,” said founder Martin O’Brien. “We agreed to take on such an exceptional project as we were so impressed by the enthusiasm of the leadership team. We decided to take the whole school off timetable for a week – which is unheard of – and we put together a team of outstanding speakers, musicians and other significant personalities in the Catholic world, as well as bringing our own plays and workshops which explore life issues.

“Our goal was both to inspire the students to consider how they can live a life as God intended, in all its fullness, and also to leave the school with a legacy for its future growth and development.”

Over the five days, the students, teachers and even some parents attended talks, plays and workshops run by over 30 powerful presenters. Each told their own personal story, making it relevant to the lives, dreams and struggles of teenage boys. Just a few of these included: Dave Payne, founder of CAFE resources, challenging the boys to think how they could be saints in the new millennium; deaf-blind priest Fr Cyril Axelrod relating his recent work in Ethiopia, where people with disabilities are seen as being a burden and excluded from society; former cricketer David Fannon talking about the values inherent in sports and the risks that sportsmen face when under pressure; comic book artist Simone Lia working with younger boys designing a comic book based on the life of a saint. Edwin Fawcett, the up-and-coming young Catholic musician who played a significant role in the Pope’s Hyde Park gathering, led the mission’s music as well as nurturing the skills of the school band and choir.   “The young people of our country get a lot of negative publicity, but – as we experienced at Newman College – the vast majority of them are absolutely great,” said Barry Mizen, who with his wife Margaret had shared with the boys how their faith had helped them to cope with the knife-murder of their 15-year-old son, Jimmy, and led them to start reconciliation work in prisons. “We tend to look everywhere for answers and support when affected by life-changing moments, so to be able to share with the students our faith and the way it sustains us was, we hope, of help to them.”

Ten Ten actor with students from Newman College

In total, Ten Ten involved about 80 people in running the mission, from workshop leaders and speakers to priests and the people working behind the scenes writing material.  Ten Ten’s name is derived from John 10:10 – “I have come that you may have life, life to the full” – and they work to advance the social, moral, spiritual and cultural education of children, young people and young offenders through drama and supporting resources.  During the mission, Ten Ten presented plays, sketches and workshops to the students on current issues: relationships, friendship, social networking and faith.

Throughout the week, in “community groups”, the boys experienced a wide mix of workshops, each falling into the category of social action, personal relationships, prayer, creative arts or sport. They also journeyed through the life of a saint – ranging from St Michael the Archangel to St Charles Luwanga and the Ugandan Martyrs. Each group explored their chosen saint’s qualities, considered how he might respond to contemporary challenges and reflected on how they too can become “saints for the 21st century”.

For many young people, prayer is challenging and often considered boring. The mission tackled this head-on by teaching the boys different approaches to communicating with God, including Ignatian, Carmelite and Augustinian prayer. And with extraordinarily positive results. Ten Ten’s Lizzie Hastings taught them about Lectio Divina, using the parable of the Prodigal Son. “The boys responded brilliantly to having the opportunity to make space for silence and to sit with God’s Word,” she said. “They were calm, respectful, and when I asked them at the end who had felt God’s word speak to them, the majority of the boys raised their hands.”

The same enthusiastic response was given to the reconciliation services, in which over 20 priests were involved. Three-quarters of the College’s students are Catholic and were able to attend Confession, but all the boys were invited to speak to the priests. “I was personally very struck by the boys’ spiritual hunger,” said Fr Richard Nesbitt. “I found the reconciliation services at the end of the week particularly powerful – the depth of the confessions showed how much God had stirred up within their young hearts during the mission.”

Ten Ten also organised sessions just for the teachers, led by Fr Damian Cassidy, a Carmelite Friar who was the mission’s chaplain. He called the week one of the most fulfilling experiences of his ministry to date, whilst one of the teachers described it as “a truly inspirational event” bringing faith to the daily life of the school community.  “It brought us all together – staff, students, cleaners, caretakers, parents – all in a spiritual event to celebrate the mood of Advent.”   But it was the 520 students in that once-failing school for whom the week was the most life-changing. “These five days we have spent with you will truly be in our hearts and not be forgotten; we learnt about God!” said Year 9 student, Fabio Fernandes. “We learnt that God is always there for us and that prayer is not just a fairytale.”

Written by C B Martin

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