Darren Percival recalls his surprise and pleasure at the BEM
The last Saturday of April was just an ordinary morning. Poppy the dog had been for her walk and I had helped with the Community Litter Pick. When I got home I opened the post to find out that I was to receive the British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to the community.
I was astounded and shocked as all I have done since my arrival in April 2016, and continue to do, is to walk the streets of both of my parishes in Cross Green and Richmond Hill, Leeds, and be a visible presence of Our Lord.
St Hilda’s, Cross Green, a Society Parish, is a community that has always been, and continues to be written off by so many people. As well as being the 17th poorest in the country it is also the poorest in the Diocese of Leeds and, when the pandemic arrived in March 2020 it was particularly badly hit. Families living in back-to-back-houses or flats were confined to their homes, children were off school unless they were vulnerable or their parents or carers were essential workers, people lost their jobs, and many were living in isolation.
St Hilda’s has always maintained a supply of food for when people turn up in need, but we had no established Food Bank. It was only by lobbying the local councillors and our bishop that by the end of the second day we had a food hub operating on three days a week for two hours a day. From then until it closed 14 months later we fed 60-plus people a day.
Each day I walked the streets of the Parish in a cassock, talking to people at their gates or over the wall, to let them know that the Church had not forgotten them.
I livestreamed the Mass and other services from my home until we were allowed back into church, but not many families have access to the internet which is why it was so important for them to see that although the building was closed the Church was still ‘open’ for them.
There were many pastoral conversations sitting on the walls of St Hilda’s, and hearing Confession in the local park and people’s backyards – all socially distanced. Through a local charity, Richmond Hill Elderly Action, and Richmond Hill Academy, we brought old and young together, writing to each other about life in lockdown, and many of those links have continued. As an RAF Air Cadets’ chaplain in West and South Yorkshire I kept in touch with them too through videoed services, activities online, and a keen interest in their general and mental health.
Sadly, the number of funerals I conducted tripled. However, I still maintained meeting families in their gardens or in the park, or arranging chairs behind St Hilda’s. The reality of limited numbers at funerals was brought home to me when my stepfather died in December 2020. I had to watch my mother scribbling down names of people to invite to the funeral. It is something you would never normally do.
It would have been very easy to close our doors, forget about the people, keep away from them and live stream everything, but I’ve been called to get my hands dirty for God, and that I do daily in the parishes. Only an hour before one of the local newspaper interviews about my award I had dealt with a young lad who was going to be made homeless, but by the end of the day he was in accommodation. That same week we had a grown man set upon by youths and children, and robbed for £80.
Cross Green is a community with the highest amount of domestic abuse in Leeds, the worst knife crime record in the city, a lot of poverty, social deprivation and anti-social behaviour. As the Parish Priest of such a community you are not only a Shepherd who can smell the sheep, you are also the voice of the voiceless.
I have taken the church into the heart of all this and we are working with our councillors and head teachers to name and shame such young people as ordinary folk are frightened to. It was Jesus who challenged those in authority to enable the lives of the ordinary folk to be better.
As the parish priest of such a deprived community as Cross Green I am honoured and proud to think that it has been recognised. At the end of the day you don’t do anything for personal recognition or a higher place in heaven. In this Jubilee year, it is very special to be honoured by The Defender of the Faith.
Father Darren Percival, BEM, SSC, is the incumbent of St Hilda’s, Cross Green, and St Saviour’s, Richmond Hill, Leeds.