Joyce Forbes photo-story HERE AM I

Joyce Forbes was born in September 1952, in Portland, Jamaica.

Her father was a farmer, her mother was a shopkeeper and a ‘higgler’, taking the farm produce to sell in the local market. Joyce was one of eight children, but the first died young, making Joyce the eldest of the seven.

Joyce is one of the remarkable ‘Windrush Generation’, arriving here in 1965 at the age of 13 to live with her mother’s sister in New Cross. In 1975, Joyce married Frank who had migrated from Jamaica in 1962, also aged 13. Frank and Joyce live in Croydon, in the same house they have lived in for 36 years. They have four children ― the eldest is 45, the youngest is 23 ― and seven grandchildren.

Joyce spent 20 years in nursery nursing, followed by 20 years working in Lambeth, before moving to Southwark and retiring in 2014. She became a magistrate in 1993 and sits in both the adult and family courts.

Joyce was deaconed in 2003 and ordained, in Southwark Cathedral, as a part-time self-supporting [i.e. unpaid] minister in 2004. She has ministered in her Croydon Parish, with St Stephen’s Church at its heart, for the past 15 years; she is now

Assistant Priest there. In 2014 she was made an Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral.

What were you doing 25 years ago?

I was a Lambeth social worker…working in Streatham.

I was living here in Croydon. I had a family of three and one still to come. I had come from Jamaica in 1965, I was 13 when I came. I met my husband when I was 16 at a neighbour’s baptism reception…we had a dance…finished…off we went our separate ways. And then I met him again when I was 19…the same neighbour got married…had a reception…we were both there…it was ordained! We have been together since 1971.

How did ministry come about for you?

There has always been an inner burning in me…to help people…to relate to people…to care for people. At one stage I became a shop steward…looking after people…ensuring justice.

I’ve come from a family where my parents were always in a church. My first experience of church is running after my mum, who was off to church in Jamaica…holding on to her…‘I want to come…I want to come.’ My mum’s life revolved around prayer…praying at night, waking up and praying. I remember going to Sunday school, which was Quaker [a Christian religious society of friends] and the church building was also the local school which I attended. Everything was very religious and Christian orientated: ‘Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain…God is watching you.’ For years I had this vision of God watching me. So that background was always there as a child…God was always there.

Between when I was nine and 12 I was at a school in Kingston in Jamaica…in the evenings we used to have religious education. I used to stay back and they’d have these figures they’d pin on the wall…and that’s how you learned the Bible stories.

And when I arrived here I thought I must find a church…it’s where I feel I need to be…it’s always been part of my life. However, being a priest never really entered into my psyche until many many years later after I’d done my social work and had become a magistrate as well.

My husband and I used to have conversations all the time about the Bible and God…he’s from a Baptist background…I’m from a Quaker background. One evening I was sitting here with him, in this room, and he was talking…and I could see myself in a pulpit and I was preaching. And I thought, how am I going to get from this settee to that pulpit? I didn’t say anything to him…it just came in my head…and I thought that’s weird…maybe I am going to end up in Hyde Park on one of those boxes!

I parked it and I didn’t think about it again until I was pregnant with my last son. During the pregnancy I woke up one day and had this horrendous pain in my back…I could hardly breathe. So I went to the doctor who sent me straight to the hospital. Whilst I was there they said they’d have to send me for an X-ray but, because I’m pregnant, it might make me lose the baby. The doctor said, ‘We have to send you for this X-ray because your life is more important than the baby’s,’ and the nurse said the ambulance would be ready tomorrow.

I had faith in them but I am thinking I don’t want to lose my baby. So I kneeled on the hospital bed and I prayed to God. I’ve been told, ‘Do not bargain with God’, but I did…‘Lord, If you save my baby I will serve you for the rest of my life.’ I knelt on the bed with my back to the door and I prayed. And whilst I was praying I had a tap on my shoulder and I jokingly said, ‘That was quick!’ And the nurse said they wanted me in the other ward, in the maternity wing.

A doctor came to see me…I asked to see my consultant but I was told he was off and wouldn’t be back until the Tuesday, it was a bank holiday weekend…and the doctor told me that I was going for the X-ray tomorrow. And then when I was having supper, brown toast, in the dining room the nurse told me I was wanted in my room…and there was my consultant…and he checked me out, asked me some questions, and said, ‘I think you can go home tomorrow, I think it was just a little bit of pleurisy.’ All this time I had completely forgotten about the prayer.

I got home…my pregnancy continued…and towards the end of the pregnancy I slipped in the bath. I thought that’s it. An ambulance took me to the hospital…did an X-ray…everything was fine. Come Christmas my son was born and I went to the church that had already baptised two of my children, to get him baptised. But this time the vicar said, ‘Listen, we’ve stopped all that coming and getting baptised. You need to spend some time and show some commitment…you’ve got to come to church for six weeks to show commitment…and then we’ll baptise him.’

I went there every week and they started to pull me into things. After six weeks my son was baptised. I continued to go…I was getting into it…and then I saw a sign saying, ‘Lay Preacher Needed: Training’ and I thought ‘interesting’ and then that image of me preaching came back to me and I thought I’d like to get into lay preaching….if that’s the way in, that’s what I am going to do. So I went to my vicar and said I’d really like to find out more about that but he said, ‘No…I don’t want you to do that…I have another idea for what I think you should be doing, but it’s not time yet…I’ll let you know when it’s time.’ He was so convinced…so I said all right and I left it…and forgot about the lay preaching.

A couple of months down the road he came to me and said, ‘It’s ready now’…and I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he told me about the VGU [Vocational Guidance Unit] in Croydon and said, ‘I think you should go there’…and so I went and listened. They told us all about various roles and the role that spoke to me at the time was the self-supporting role…where you train but you still work. I told my vicar that the role I liked was the self- supporting OLM [Ordained Local Ministry] and he said, ‘Yes…brilliant.’

So that’s how it all came about for me. And then I remembered when I prayed to God, ‘If you save my child, I will serve you for the rest of my life…and you did save my child’s life…so here I am, Lord, I am yours.’

What lies at the core of your faith?

God resonates within me…the way I think…the way I feel. If I think something bad, I ask God to help me. My life resonates around God.

When I read about Jesus…when I talk about the things that he did…how you should treat people, the next person…and the compassion you need to have. Whenever I do something I always believe I am being led…truly led. God is speaking with me all the time.

I try to live a life that has empathy in it, compassion in it, listening to people, not making judgements on people…so a simple life, really.

Which Bible passage resonates with you?

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills— from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in from this time on and for evermore.

It’s the one that speaks to me. If I am feeling stressed…it’s my ‘go to’. If I am going somewhere challenging then it’s in my head and I go in feeling that, no matter what, my strength will come to my aid. I had this psalm at my priesting.

How do you spend your time outside ministry?

I’m a magistrate and have been since 1993…I sit in both the adult and family courts.

I’m on the leadership group of Citizens UK [a group which organises communities to work for the common good]…which I joined in 2014. The North Croydon Area Dean [the Revd Leonard Marsh] was looking for people to join it…I’d just retired from my social work and Citizens offered me a way of using my ministry to minister to the whole community as compared to just my parish. I’m part of the housing group…we’re telling the mayor what it’s like living in Croydon, where people can’t afford affordable housing.

I support all of my kids in different ways…I’m now a grandma to seven…the oldest is 20, the youngest is three. I support people in the church…and say ‘yes’ to things I can manage.

(ii) Your ministry

How do you express the core of your faith in your ministry?

If someone needs me, I’ll go to them. I listen…God listens. I will pray with them. Sometimes people need anointing…I am just there because it’s God that’s doing the anointing. I am a vessel that can reach out to people…and they can see that it’s coming from a good place.

If I am in a stressful situation then I go thinking…God give me courage…show me the way…open this up for me. And I put my trust in God.

 

Someone who has been part of my ministry, right from the beginning, described, for me, my personality with an acrostic. She’s been part of my journey…she knows me really well:

Jesus first…joyful
Others second…oasis of calm in stressful situations
Yourself last…yew tree…evergreen, not losing your outward vista given by God
Caring…concerned with others’ needs…comforter
Encouraging…enabler …empower

Forward-thinking…forbearer and true friend Open-hearted…olive…fruit-healing oil Reliable…reconciler …realistic…resilient…reasonable Benevolent…becalmer …balanced…bold Enthusiastic…enhancer

Sincere…sense of humour…sociable

 

Which part of your ministry gives you the greatest fulfilment?

Because I am self-supporting I love presiding at the Eucharist on a Sunday. I thoroughly enjoy the fourth Sunday when I preach…and one of the things I really love, and I feel makes a difference, is anointing.

I always wanted to be part of a healing ministry. I said to that to one of my incumbents and so I started to do it. When I first started we had the laying on of hands…we stopped because the people doing it felt it was too rushed…so we did anointing instead. On the fourth Sunday I do anointing…I was so shocked and amazed by the number of people coming for anointing.

Which part of your ministry do you find most challenging?

I can’t think of any! I think it’s maybe because of my role…I am not the all- encompassing minister. If you were to ask me the challenges in social work…I could tell you straightaway!

I never had an opportunity to do a funeral for around 10 years…that was one of my anxieties…but then I did one and it was resolved.

What’s the difference you’d like your ministry to make in your community?

I’d like to get to know my parishioners more. Someone has been coming to church and they die…and guess what…we find that we don’t really know the person. I want to really know the person so that if they die tomorrow I could speak about them without even thinking…not about their business…but about them.

(iii) Women clergy in the Church of England ― your perspectives

Do you believe female clergy have changed the Church of England over the past 25 years? If so, how? Are there any distinctive gifts that women bring to ministry?

By the time I was ordained my church had a woman vicar…so there were the two of us and then we had a woman curate. So from the beginning of my ordination I had women around me. My vicar had some concerns that the congregation would be all female…she had some anxieties on how we looked.

I think it has changed the Church of England.

What women may bring to ministry is the female perspective. Sometimes men and women respond differently to situations. Women tend to deal with things in a more emotional way…they have a sensitive side. Emotions are at the forefront for women whereas for men it may be their heads at the forefront. If someone is sick at home my compulsion is that I have to go and visit them…but that may be just me, in terms of my personality, not about women clergy.

And I have children…so that may be helpful in terms of how I can respond to children as a mother.

Are there any distinctive challenges that women face as clergy?

If you are a woman you may have to prove that you can manage. The word vicar is very male…it has a very male connotation.

I used to have people being surprised that I was priest when I was first ordained…stares at me on the road…people used to come up to me and ask if I was a priest and being amazed. People are not so surprised now.

Dawn French…in Vicar of Dibley…she did an important job in elevating women being priests.

Do you feel your parishioners see you as equal to your male counterparts?

Yes…and not just in my own church because I can go around all the churches in the parish.

There is one church in our Deanery that has voted not to accept the ministry of women. In that church I do not feel equal if I am there…for a meeting or a service. I could preach there if I wanted to but I have decided I won’t preach there because I can’t preside there…and I can’t be seen as an equal there.

I have never had anyone refusing to take Communion from me.

Do you feel male clergy see you as equal?

Yes…all the ones I have encountered. I have never encountered otherwise. My male colleague supports me and embraces and encourages what I do…anything I am going to do, we talk about it.

Do you feel you have to prove yourself?

I have never thought I have had to prove myself. My congregation, from the day I was there…from the day I became an ordinand…they have always been supportive.

What may have made the difference is the type of training I did…which meant that I trained for that church…I had to get a group around me and they participated in my training. So I was one of them…I became one of them…and I stayed one of them. That support has always been there…so that’s why I don’t feel I have to prove myself with them…they accept me for who I am and I accept them for who they are…and we all know each other…they know my quirks.

What advice would you give a woman thinking of entering ministry?

I’d start by asking questions. Why? Why do you want to go into ministry? Are you prepared to give of yourself? Is God with you…because you’ve got to live a life responding to what God is saying to you and asking you? It’s important they have thought why they want to go down this street…what are those voices saying to you…you can always hear voices?

If all that is good, then I’d say…‘Go for it.’

 

Joyce Forbes’ photo-story featured in Here Am I exhibition at Fairfield Halls in Croydon from 20 Jan to 17 April 2020. Honorary Canon of Southwark Cathedral and Magistrate in Croydon.

As told to Jim Grover

Created for the exhibition of photographs, Here Am I, to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Church of England. Commissioned by Bishop Christopher of Southwark Diocese.

Photographs by Jim Grover.

For more information: www.here-am-i.com

 

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