Our 2024 conference ‘Aspects of Being Alongside’: report

This year’s annual conference explored different ways that churches and other community groups can effectively ‘be alongside’ those experiencing mental health challenges.

Drawing on the rich experience of our affiliate groups, the gathering enjoyed stimulating presentations from various examples of community-based pastoral support, and lots of opportunities to chat about how these beacons of good practice could help inspire other such projects.

More than 30 supporters of Being Alongside gathered in the wonderful setting of St Peter’s, Battersea, at the heart of the Winstanley Estate.

The day began with an opening address by Dr Larry Culliford – Being Alongside’s new Patron. Larry reflected on his experience as a psychiatrist, in particular in training new practitioners to respond attentively to the needs of their patients. Larry stressed the importance of ‘being’ rather ‘doing’; and of sitting in true company with those who are suffering. He reflected on the role of spirituality as part of the human experience, and the value of meditative practice.

Larry’s address can be heard in full below, ending with a fitting quotation from Thomas Merton on the importance of trusting God on the journey – wherever it leads us.

Listen to Larry’s address below

Next, Canon Andrew Wilson, Vice-Chair of Croydon APCMH, introduced the organisation’s work supporting residents of Croydon and surrounding areas. The group has been active since 1989, offering various drop-in sessions and weekly activities for those experiencing mental health challenges.

Andrew spoke of the need for all such projects to accept their limitations, reflecting that ‘small is beautiful’ – and the value of being realistic about the operating environment of the organisation, while being open to surprises.

At present, Croydon APCMH is offering a Friday group offering a two course hot lunch, a chance to reflect and pray together, and opportunities to get involved in different creative activities. Andrew offered beautiful reflections on the nature of the charity’s ministry in journeying alongside those in need.

Andrew’s address can be heard in full by clicking on the ‘play’ button below. He ends his remarks by quoting Rowan Williams on the value of compassion and understanding between people – and in “sharing common, mutually assured wellbeing, poured out by God and shared”.

Listen to Andrew’s remarks below

After an enjoyable sandwich lunch, attendees reconvened to hear about Being Alongside’s grant scheme, which enables local organisations to apply for seed corn funding for new projects that help those with mental health difficulties. BA Chair Ben Wilson listed the projects which have already secured funding through the scheme, with over £7,000 given away so far to schemes – with beneficiaries spread from Axminster in Devon to Frodsham in Cheshire.

Ben set out how applications are being considered quarterly, with the next round due to be assessed in May 2024. Attendees were encouraged to spread the word about the availability of the grants.

As a further example, BA Treasurer John Vallat spoke about an emerging project in Godalming, Surrey, where a longstanding church-backed community café is now offering a specific slot in the week when those with mental health challenges can drop in and be assured of a safe, warm space and a friendly ear. BA has recently awarded a grant of £1,250 to the Cellar Café to develop and grow this work.

To round off the day, attendees heard about the work of the Battersea Befriending Network (BBN). The organisation’s Chair, Sarah Rackham, introduced the work of the charity, which links up those keen to forge a supportive connection with someone local to them in the south west London borough.

Sarah and some of her fellow trustees described the steps they have undertaken to establish the charity and ensure its proper governance. These administrative efforts are crucial to supporting the forging of safe, sustainable befriending relationships, the team explained. Sarah spoke with great warmth and appreciation of the skills and time her fellow volunteers offered, both as trustees and as befrienders.

The BBN presentation also included a moving insight into the value of befriending relationships, with contributions from David, Nayani and Elsie who are all variously involved in the the charity. David and Nayani talked about how they were matched and the friendship that has grown since; and Elsie spoke about the benefits of BBN’s work both to individual volunteers but also to the wellbeing of the wider community.

It was an eye-opening and inspiring presentation, and attendees at the conference were hugely grateful for the time that each speaker kindly gave to contributing to the day.

Listen to Sarah and the BBN team’s presentation below

Overall the day was a great success, providing an opportunity for those who have been involved both in the national charity and its various affiliates and branches to meet, reconnect, swap experiences and plan for the future.

We look forward to the next such occasion!