By Hansjoerg Forster
Jan and Gary Palmer have been volunteers with FamilyLife in the United Kingdom for many years, supporting efforts to encourage families towards health and unity in Christ. They both work in IT in their town outside of London, but have a heart for others to know Jesus. Hansjoerg Forster, Agape Europe FamilyLife director, asked them a few questions about their experience serving the Great Commission in Gerrards Cross.
Forster: For years now, you have been committed associate staff with FamilyLife UK. How did you get involved in your local community on top of working with FamilyLife?
Palmers: Gary started meeting with a few guys after work on a Friday six or seven years ago. He had long held the belief that men needed to be in relationship with other men. This was an attempt to help build some of those relationships. When the local pub closed down, it seemed to be a natural development to buy beer from a local brewery and share it in our kitchen. This developed from 2 or 3 men into a wider invite to “Gary’s Bar”, held in the kitchen starting in 2014. The invite was simply to come and drink beer and talk rubbish with other men! There are now around 12 to 15 men who meet every Friday in “Gary’s Bar”. Jan hosts a ladies’ bar at the same time in a different room, this is a weekly catch up for 6-8 over a glass of wine and nibbles that people contribute. Since the lockdown for the Coronavirus, these have both become virtual bars operating over Zoom.
Jan was convicted over a period of time that we were living on a street where we hardly knew anyone. How can we love our neighbours if we don’t even know them? So we agreed before Christmas in 2014 that we would invite everybody in our street (46 houses) to a minced pie and mulled wine party! 14 people came to the first event, most of whom we had never seen before! There seemed to be a hunger for community, so Jan gathered 8 ladies together in February over drinks and desserts. They decided to plan a summer street party and in July 2015 around 60 people came to the first street meet. The Christmas open house and Summer Street Meet have happened annually, peaking with 95 people bringing and sharing food (often from their native part of the world). People are really excited to see the street come together and that a community spirit has developed across the many cultures represented. We now have a shared email list for the whole street which has improved communication.
We picture our home as being a small church for those in our street, offering an open door where people can encounter Jesus and God’s love in action, where they are welcome, where they can be themselves and be heard, where we can in turn share our hearts with them. There have been many occasions where we have supported those in need, celebrated weddings and family events, and sad times too.
With the Coronavirus, Jan has taken on a very proactive role as a hub for communication and making sure needs are discovered and subsequently met through an active WhatsApp Support Group.
Forster: How do you work together in this as a couple?
Palmers: Jan is very much the one with real heart for loving the community, being the idea machine and making things happen. Gary is more orientated around getting into relationships with men generally and discovering Jesus with them together where possible. Jan supports Gary by running the ladies bar which helps to encourage the men to come, knowing they will be segregated of course. Gary is very willing to be directed by Jan when she spots needs, but also in hosting the parties and doing practical tasks for the events. Her latest initiative is to organise a ‘Stay at home Street Meet’ where people will decorate their front drives and picnic there and communicate in planned activities (music, quizzes etc) over Zoom.
Forster: What is the connection between your passion for FamilyLife and your community engagement?
Palmers: Ultimately, in FamilyLife, we know that people’s needs are fundamentally to know Jesus. By helping people in their relationships, we are helping them to know of the love of God, whether through testimony, teaching, or love in action. We feel that focussing on the community is very similar. The greatest need is for all to learn more of Jesus. By bringing people into relationship, and showing them love, our hope is that all will discover His love.
Forster: What changes have you observed in persons you regularly spend time with?
Palmers: There have been many conversations with many of those we see regularly. One of the men did Alpha with Gary. They followed this up working through John’s gospel together using the word 1-2-1 resource, and subsequently he and his wife did Christianity Explored together with us and others in our home. We were able to run a street Alpha course that a number of our neighbors attended. We continue to pray for them and to nurture spiritual conversations.
Forster: Is there something you observe in the life of Christians around you that you want to see change?
Palmers: It often seems that Christians are not sensitive to the people around them. We have to stop them talking to each other as if they are in a club together in front of non-Christians. We have also found that using a worldly setup such as a bar can easily lead to it being a den of iniquity for some of the Christians. So there is a WhatsApp group for the Christian men at the bar so that Gary can bring them into line, but also disciple them and encourage them to pray for those at the bar. The hope is that they will grow as Christians too.
Forster: How do you balance family time and community time?
Palmers: Our time commitment to the community is relatively small. There is plenty of time for family as well. Two of our three children are now married and live away from home, and our youngest has finished university and is in the workplace. Interestingly, they are all community minded too and have started their own initiatives in their communities, sharing the love of Jesus and helping others grow in faith. With the Coronavirus, we have the additional bonus of not travelling to work. This really benefits our time together.
Forster: You seem to be very purpose-driven in what you are doing. How do you stay focused in your community activities?
Palmers: We ultimately believe we are fulfilling our purpose on earth when we love our Lord, and love our neighbour, and make disciples of all nations. That keeps us focussed. We talk about this focus. We pray for the people in our street. We are both very organised people who are used to making things happen too. Gary sets goals every three months alongside two other Christian men who hold him accountable and encourage him. This also helps him focus. Jan is supported by her Spiritual Director and prayer partner who both challenge her and pray for her.
Forster: Thank you for your openness, Jan and Gary. Hearing about the ways you are creating community and sharing Jesus with your neighbourhood is an inspiration. We will be praying for you as you continue to make Jesus known in Gerrards Cross.