In the late 1980s Jo Hassan moved to Cheshire for economic reasons and made Crewe her home. Her Christian faith would be tested over subsequent years, but community spirit and one of the churches built by the Grand Junction Railway Company would ensure that her desire to engage with people would never diminish…

a Jo Hassan 6x6, September 09 s“We came from Surrey originally. We couldn’t afford housing down there, so our quest to buy a house drove us up north. My Husband, Andy, changed his job and we were advised that Warrington was good for employment and cheaper housing. But it just didn’t work out and we absolutely hated it. There was no community spirit. So we came to Crewe, initially because of West Street Baptist Church. That was our thinking: find a church and then somewhere to live nearby. Crewe was perfect, and we moved into a five-bedroom, tumbledown house on Heathfield Avenue. It was a real challenge, with so much to do. It had been flats for years and we wanted to restore it to its Victorian glory. What startled us was that we had so many neighbours knocking on the door bringing cakes, casseroles and welcome presents. This was a local community embracing a new family. It was wonderful and we knew then that we’d remain in the town.”

With a young, growing family it was also essential that local support groups were on hand. Jo found these on her doorstep in the High Town area and she soon became active around the community herself. “I went along to the mother and toddler group at both the Methodist and Baptist churches, then the playgroups on Delamere Street and at Victoria School, and eventually got involved with Beechwood Primary School. Everything was just right and we felt as though we belonged. It was such a strong community spirit, more than we had experienced anywhere else. We wanted to give something back so we started going to a house group that brought around 25 people together. It was the only group of its kind in the centre of Crewe, with members from Samuel Street, Richard Moon and Broad Streets. There were some who needed help, support and encouragement, others who just enjoying meeting and chatting. It was a way of people working together and sharing common beliefs.”

c Carey Willetts and Jo's girls s

The warmth of the church congregation and a desire to do more for the community saw Jo and Andy become heavily involved at West Street Baptist Church. “Within a year we had joined one of the leadership teams. We ran activities around the Derby Docks, there was a youth group for the 14-18-age range, and the 5-Minus mother and toddler group expanded. Andy also began playing in a newly formed local football team. We were also baptised to show our commitment to Crewe and the church. Things then moved to the streets of Crewe as we started to share love with people not involved with church. There was a mixed reception, but we expected that. Many of the children from church were involved, and people were impressed that they wanted to share their faith. This extended to practical experiences, like gardening, painting and decorating at older people’s homes. There was a lot going on and we saw a massive increase in the number of young people involved with the church and what we were doing.”

b Beechwood School Sports Day 1993 - with Mrs Purcell (Reception) and Mr Toop (Head) s

Then things suddenly changed. The drive to involve teenagers wasn’t what some of the congregation wanted, and it became apparent that not everyone was comfortable with the new kids’ lifestyles. Maybe some people were confused about what we were trying to achieve. Also, the fact that these youngsters had been involved in drugs and petty crime didn’t go down well. The demographic of the overall group had changed and this, to some, wasn’t acceptable. There was a threat to the safe, middle class values that dominated the church. I loved to see the kids express themselves, be radical and opinionated, but this was obviously a threat to some of the other church members.”

Jo, Andy and others held firm but it was obvious that some of the senior members had made a decision – without them. “The leadership told us to back off. They made it very uncomfortable for everyone. The kids involved were distraught and it led to some damage being done to cars and property. It was out of our control and it broke my heart. It was such an upheaval that we decided to move – from the church and the area. We found a house in the north of Crewe but our ties with church disappeared. We entered a wilderness period, and although we had spells attending other churches it didn’t feel the same. There were plans to start something in Leighton, a simple meeting place, but it never happened. Our daughters began ballet lessons at Jackie Capper’s, eventually joining Beth Portman’s Masquerade. Our son started playing football on Sundays, resulting in Andy training to be a FA football coach and managing one of the teams at the Eric Swan sports ground in Wistaston. But it was a frustrating time as we still wanted to be involved spiritually in some way.”

A few years later a chance meeting via an Internet faith forum opened new doors. “A guy called Tim Prevett was keen to involve people at St Andrews and Christ Church. We tried it and soon got involved in Crewe issues again, which felt so good. Years earlier we had made a commitment; we promised ourselves to the town to show our gratitude to those who welcomed us when we arrived. It would have been easy to allow petty differences to drive us away but we always felt that our faith was stronger than that. We just needed a way to express it once again.”

That new outlet came with the introduction of two innovative ideas that would deliver a Christian message to those who felt disenfranchised with old-school church. “We got involved with Sofachurch because it was so relevant to modern-day faith. It offered an informal setting, sofas and coffee, watching films and discussing life’s issues. It was aimed at linking people who can’t easily relate to traditional church. The focus was on what it is like to have a relationship with God within contemporary society. It was the perfect environment that allowed people to express themselves. A natural progression was to do similar in a day-to-day venue; so another initiative called Cafechurch was launched at Tesco’s Costa Coffee. Same idea, but even more accessible, somewhere to sit and chat after shopping.”

d cafechurch - Andy & Jo, Feb 09 s

With a renewed faith, a more formal link was established with one of Crewe’s oldest churches. It would be the start of fresh challenges. “Some of the Sofachurch group had links with Christ Church and the more we thought about it we decided that this central location was perfect to move things forward. We’re not out to preach but I think it’s important that people realise there is someone to talk with, somewhere to think, interact and maybe form friendships. That’s what the Christian faith should be about. Historically, Christ Church was always pivotal to the Crewe community that grew up around the early railway works. These days there are few houses nearby, but there are offices and shops. It could be a spiritual drop-in centre, without being too formal. It needs to be open across the week without any of the traditional barriers. Gone are the days when people would willingly turn up on a Sunday, dressed in their best suits and wearing hats. We don’t want to enforce Christianity, but we do want to listen and to make people feel welcome. I think that churches and Christians can be seen to have forgotten how to engage with people. We want to change that…”

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Jo’s story first appeared in the Crewe And Its People book that was published in 2009.

A second volume of Crewe stories will be available in the shops from late 2016. For details about the book, publication date and where you can buy a copy, please subscribe to the monthly newsletter HERE

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