Our churches, centres, their committees and volunteers, are the beating heart of the SNU and Spiritualist movement. In this new series, we will be visiting and showcasing the wonderful work, excellent achievements and inspiring stories happening across the Union.

For this second instalment, Head of Communications Kyle travelled to Derby, to meet the team responsible for a truly transformative twelve months at the Forester Street Spiritualist Church.

It isn’t difficult to miss the entrance in to Derby Central Spiritualist Church.

A treated wooden gate sits fairly innocuously amidst the concrete, tarmac surroundings of the City’s Forrester Street, with a bustling urban thoroughfare just beyond.

Indeed, were it not for the shiny new signage recently added to the rightmost panel of said gate - complete with both church and SNU logos - it would be perfectly easy to walk past altogether, without realising a vibrant, popular church and community lay just beyond.

Indeed, that’s exactly what used to happen.

“We weren’t even recognised before. There was no signage on the gates to let you know times of services, and the signage that we did have had black duct tape covering the times up, with hand-written marks over it.

“It just looked awful.”

Derby’s current President, Alan Leask (perhaps known to some as Alan Knows, which he serves by as speaker and medium), begins to explain how the church’s recent overhaul has been, quite literally, a front-to-back job.

“As daft as it sounds, things like signage matters. The appearance of the building does matter.

“We have people now who have been out on the street and said to us ‘I finally know what times you’re open!’”

In addition to the logos, times and titles, another message adorns the entrance gate…

Enter as a Stranger, Leave as a Friend.

As it turns out, it isn’t the only place you’ll find this heartwarming credo within Derby Central, but it’s clear during my visit that it’s a message with real meaning and clout here.

With its doors (and gates) decidedly open, though, stepping in to the front garden of Derby Central welcomes you into what feels like an altogether different environ, pretty much immediately.

Even on a drizzly, grey Saturday afternoon, the neatly-maintained courtyard offers a warming feeling of old and new alike. Traditional finishes, from its brickwork to an iron-cast sign that pops out from the one wall, reading ‘Central Spiritualist Church’, go hand-in-hand with potted plants, brilliant blue doorways, and ornaments and plaques donated by members.

“We tell members that they can bring a plant or whatever in,” Vice President Emma Leask explains.

“That it’s their garden, for whatever they want to put in it, and they love that.”

Beneath a stone bird bath, a small ceramic ornament of a little black book sits, adorned with the image of a white dove, and the words ‘In Loving Memory SON’ on one of its open pages. Alan explains the heartwarming story of how it was brought to the garden by a member who had recently returned to the church.

“She’d been told previously that she wasn’t allowed to bring her scooter into the church for health and safety reasons, so for the longest time she just didn’t come.

“But we made it so she could come, with her scooter.

“And when she saw what we’d done to garden, she asked if she could bring a plant in memory of her son. Now, every time she comes in, I guarantee the plant falls over, and she always says ‘Oh, he’s here again, I need you to put my plant back up for me’.

“It’s made such a difference - one soul touching that other soul with goodness and kindness.

“It made a massive difference to that one lady.”

A welcome change, and a change of welcome: Before (left column) and After (right column) pictures show the amazing job done in rejuvenating the front garden and courtyard of Derby Central (images © Derby Central Spiritualist Church, Kyle Pedley). 

The overarching theme that comes to mind, the more I hear of the journey that Derby Central, its new committee and congregation have all been on over the past twelve months, is one of transformation. And not just the incredible transformative work done to the church buildings and its gardens - which is, admittedly, quite remarkable (and more on which later) - but indeed, a transformation of mindset and approach, too.

“It’s upliftment. It’s about empowering, encouraging and inspiring,” Alan suggests.

“And it’s about educating the congregation and the members about exactly what they’re being a member of. It’s not just about taking a membership form or money from them.

“It’s about giving them a sense of belonging - to our religion, and to our church.”

Winding back the clock to just shy of twelve months, Alan and the current committee stepped in with the hopes of saving a church that, at the time, was struggling to get more than a dozen attendees at any of its circles or services.

“When we formed this committee, the immediate things that took our attention were the low numbers and the low membership.

“Nine times out of ten, it's because they've never been asked [to become a member]. We invite people immediately. They don't have to have been coming for weeks and weeks and weeks."

“So our ultimate ethos was about increasing membership, and getting people into the church, whilst standing tall for what we believe in. Actually speaking out, and letting people know what the church is, what it represents, what our movement is, and what our principles are.”

From a purely numbers perspective, the impact of their approach has been nothing short of astonishing. Indeed, later that same weekend, an excited Alan, along with secretary Samantha Barnes, seemed to be in something of a digital race as to who could be the first to inform me that the church had hit the wonderful milestone of one hundred paid members.

No small feat for a church that had been nowhere near this number just a year prior.

When asked how they went about getting such impressive results, the committee explained how it was mostly down to a combination of tireless positivity and clear communication.

“It’s not about putting on any pressure,” Alan emphasises, dashing any notion that it has been in any way a war of attrition.

“Nine times out of ten, it’s because they’ve never been asked.

“They literally haven’t been asked if they’d like to become a member.

“We invite people immediately. They don’t have to have been coming for weeks and weeks and weeks. We give people that first initial meet and greet, and ask them to see how the service goes, or how their open circle goes, and then, if they want, to give us their membership form.”

A sense of pride, and of positivity, shines through in the enthusiasm of each and every committee member I speak to. Terms like ‘community’ and ‘feeling part of something’ ring out regularly, yet never with any sense of artifice or performance.

A team, united: Derby Central's committee, consisting of, from left to right: Alan Leask (President), Barbara Walker, Shirley Bell (Treasurer), Pamela Fletcher, Samantha Barnes (Secretary), Emma Leask (Vice President) (image © Kyle Pedley).

It’s impossible to shake the sense that the membership and congregation of Derby Central has grown in no small way thanks to the infectious, immediate feeling of welcomeness and togetherness amongst its committee.

Indeed, the clear bonds of friendship between the team spilling out to reach those who walk through the doors seems to be very much an active priority, here.

“For me, it’s when members come who don’t see anybody else,” VP Sarah, giving a sincere account of howm for many, the services that Derby Central offers are, as is the case with many Spiritualist Centres, some of their members’ only interactions with the outside world.

“They get to talk to us all, and for some it’s the only place they’ve been all week, and just getting to have that chit-chat with them, it’s lovely.”

It’s a similar story for Pamela Fletcher, whose journey and contributions to the Church were recognised and championed this past year when she was invited to sit on this new committee. Fletcher formerly acted as a regular cleaner for the Church, routinely catching two busses to clean the building, and yet had previously not been a member, let alone part of its committee.

“Everybody is just so friendly, and you really feel a part of it all,” she begins.

But even being asked to sit on the committee wasn’t the end of the journey for her.

“Then I was asked to chair, and I got into chairing, and so I chair now!

“So that has been a big thing for me… it has been a wonderful journey.”

It isn’t just enthusiast volunteers or even the immediate community that this newfound positivity has pulled in, either, as Alan lists off the variety of far-flung towns and cities that some of their new visitors travel from to attend:

“We’ve got people as far out as Inglemoor and Skegness.

“What they’ve done, because they’ve loved coming to the church so much, is that they will have their holidays or visit family in the Derby area, and make it so that they can come to our Wednesday circle, and Sunday service.”

Matlock. Buxton. Burton... the list continues, and the team have plenty of other heartwarming examples and case studies to share, too. A tradesman currently ‘on cloud nine’ after being invited to be a member after years of attending and regularly donating to the church. One lady, who is ‘nearly registered blind’, who not only still routinely comes to church, but often does so half an hour before the doors technically open, for 'a cup of tea, a conversation, and a biscuit.'

"It's that sense of community," committee member Barbara Walker adds, "that's bringing the church forward.

"It's about trying to make the church the best it can be, which, for me, it's there now."

(images © Kyle Pedley)

Clearly leading by example, the sense of friendship and camaraderie between the group is immediate, and undeniable. As Pamela explains:

“I think what makes us a good committee is that we’re all friends. We get on so well together.

Once a month, we go to breakfast together. We’ve got a group that we all message on. I think it’s things like that which make a good committee."

“And we even support each other when we’re doing something outside of church,” treasurer Shirley Bell adds in.

“My son organised a musical get-together, and everybody turned up. Everybody came.

“When one of us goes, normally all of us go!"

Whilst acknowledging that not all churches and committees will be so lucky as they have been with their strong friendships and bonds, Emma makes an astute point of saying how being part of a committee is simply not for everyone, and suggests that having people stay out of duty or obligation, rather than want, can even be detrimental to a church and its congregation:

“If you’re not enjoying it when you’re coming to church, then it’s not worth being on the committee.

“Because it can show in people. We’ve been to some churches and wondered why their committee are doing it, when they look so miserable? People don’t want that when they come to church.

"They want you to be happy and chirpy.”

Alan wholeheartedly agrees:

“Gone are the days when people want to come into a church where it’s not warm, where it has dreary, drab music, and people who don’t really want to be there.

“Even on days where we feel like pulling our hair out, we still put on that smile, and put on that meet and greet. You’re promoting the goodness in your church, and what you’re doing. Be proud to promote it.”

“Sometimes it's best to just give it a go, and if it doesn't work, it doesn't work, and we know not to do it again... but just try it, and, to be fair, nine times out of ten, it actually works."

And on the subject of potential divisions and disagreements within committees, secretary Sam believes that a positive, ‘can do’ attitude will almost always triumph over hostility:

“Not everybody is always going to agree. I can honestly say that all of us here have at some point thought ‘Oh, that isn’t going to work’.

“But sometimes it’s best to just give it a go, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, and we know not to do it again. Some people will spend time just arguing and arguing and arguing.

"But just try it and, to be fair, nine times out of ten, it actually works.

“It’s very much like that old saying - ‘If something scares you, sometimes it might be worth doing.’”

It’s a neat segue into another of the reasons behind Derby Central’s recent re-ignition - a willingness to go beyond expectations, and to not be too stifled by tradition or convention.

The most vivid recent example they all fondly recall, was the most recent Christmas service, which was so well attended that they actually ran out of seats and had to have members of the committee standing for its duration.

Its value, Alan explains, was in its uniqueness, and in listening to the needs and wants of the congregation:

“It was Christmastime, and we asked ourselves ‘What can we do that will be different?’

“We’re a Spiritualist church - we’re about the love and the light, so we held a candlelit service.

“But we went absolutely above and beyond. We decorated the whole of the church, I came out dressed as Santa, and did the whole service dressed as Santa.

“We put on a buffet for everyone, because we wanted to reward the congregation. Because they’ve supported us as much as we’ve supported them.

“It was a phenomenal evening.”

Thinking outside the (festive) Box: Photos from Derby Central's most recent, and extremely well-attended, candlelit Christmas with a difference... (images © Lilulu Photos).

And to excuse a pun, the proof was in the Christmas Pudding, it seems, in every possible sense.

“And when we did that service, not only did members have the love of Christmas, but they also got an understanding that we’re not a Christian church. There was that recognition that we are different, and that we want to be different.

“Why should we just stay with the tradition?

“Members that have been with us, on and off for years, said they’d never experienced a Christmas like that in this church. Ever. They loved it precisely because it was different.

“They also said that, had it have been the traditional Carol service, they wouldn’t have come.”

“And previously, there probably would have been a sense of having to ‘watch the pennies’, but actually, we took back more than enough to cover the buffet and all of the expenses, and still had a full congregation that went off into the Christmas period full and happy, and with the love of Spirit."

A growing membership, a united and supportive committee both willing and eager to go beyond convention, to listen to their members and visitors, and to proudly offer something different and something new, whilst still promoting and championing the core principles and essence of Modern Spiritualism.

…That just leaves the small matter of Derby Central’s recent lick of paint.

(image © Kyle Pedley)

Of course, to label it so simplistically would be a gross disservice to the wonderful efforts and achievements of the volunteers here. Not just the committee, but the wider network of all who have come together to affect a complete rejuvenation of practically every corner, nook and cranny of the centre.

The central Hall is modern, clean, warm and inviting. That same ‘Enter as a stranger, leave as a friend’ motto pops up again here, too - propped beneath one of the room's expansive, stained glass windows, itself in memory of the late Eva Upton.

The front rostrum is complemented with an impressive arrangement of flowers that themselves feature light-up butterflies within, along with other delicate flourishes. Nearby, the church’s white, self-lit decorative healing tree makes a notable impression - stood as it is both over the church’s healing book and beneath a plaque outlining the Seven Principles - not least of all owing to the numerous hanging name tags and messages from congregants and members.

Elsewhere, in the kitchen, former tiles that had been formerly painted a garish blue have been painstakingly restored, a modern paper towel dispenser installed beside them.

Every nook and cranny: The volunteers at Derby Central hard at working rennovating, refurbishing and repurposing every corner of the Church... (images © Derby Central Spiritualist Church, Kyle Pedley).

Much like the renovated front garden, and indeed much akin to its committee, the Church now feels like a vibrant, positive mix of both tradition and modernity.

But it wasn’t always so.

“It was actually a little bit creepy,” Shirley admits, frankly, of the condition of the church prior to these recent efforts.

“The lights weren’t working properly, the building itself just wasn’t right. I don’t know what the smell was, but when you first came in, it had a funny smell.

“It just didn’t feel comfortable, to come and sit at church.”

What followed was an exhaustive period of redecoration and treatment - taking apart almost every element of Derby Central that was unappealing or not fit for purpose, and giving it a new lease of life.

It was a concerted effort that took a lot of willing, helping hands.

“We even got my husband in painting,” Shirley continues.

“We’ve all been involved, and it is just a completely different church now.

“You can feel that it’s different.”

A quick glance at any of the ‘before and after’ pictures shows the extent to which the hardworking team have truly revitalised the church and its spaces. The overgrown, impenetrable rear garden is now an open, welcoming space that already has the committee excited for the Spring and Summer months ahead, whilst the designated medium’s room has gone from never being used to a light, welcoming, private space for visiting speakers and healers.

New space, new possibilities: Further before (left column) and After (right column) pictures show the absolute transformation of the Church's rear garden from an impenetrable, overgrown mess to a clean, inviting, open new space... (images © Derby Central Spiritualist Church, Kyle Pedley). 

“It was dreadful. Absolutely awful,” Pamela explains, pulling no punches, of the formerly-gloomy back room.

“No windows, no door.

“In fact, when I used to come to clean, I used to hate having to go in there.”

Again, for Alan, the transformation is all part of the process of making all who come to the church - mediums and speakers included - feel both welcome, and valued.

“Mediums are now saying to us that they feel valued to come to the church.

“They feel recognised for their hard work that they’re doing, and it’s so nice that they have that space where they can sit, channel their energies before they come out, and then have somewhere to go back to afterwards.

“Before, they would’ve had to just go off into the kitchen.”

And again, much like the anecdote of the Christmas service with a difference, the hard work and expenditure has more than paid off from a financial perspective, too.

“It just goes to show, and I think speaks for itself, that we’ve managed to do all of this work that we’ve done, all of the expenditure that we’ve spent, to upkeep and improve the building, to make it more inviting and everything else that goes with it, and to give our congregation what they want...

“We’ve done all of that, and still, at the end of this financial year, we haven’t lost a penny - we’re still in profit.”

Sam is quick to add in another impressive spot of Derby Central Trivia:

“We’ve actually got more in the pot now than when we started, twelve months ago.”

An afternoon spent in the company of this hardworking and inspiring committee, in their newly transformed church, is one that bubbles away with positivity and vibrant possibility.

The time flies by, indeed with many more examples and thoughtful contributions than could ever all be included in a single piece such as this but, perhaps most importantly, amidst all the acnedcotes and successes, there's no sense of complacency or privilege. Indeed, there’s no sense that the achievements here could not be replicated by other churches.

"Stand tall and be proud of the moment. Inspire people - and I can't stress that enough - but ask them questions, too."

When asked about what other committees and churches could take from their journey, Alan is frank, matter-of-fact, yet encouraging and inspiring, in his own inimitable fashion:

“Stand tall, and stand proud, but share your difficulties with your congregation as well.

“Look at who’s in the congregation, look at who is coming forward, and look at what they can offer. How are you inspiring the younger generation, and particularly how are you inspiring them to get involved and come on to the committee?”

And of course, there’s the importance of innovation and original thinking, too:

“Think outside the box. Yes, you’ve got the rulebook, and yes, of course you must abide by the rules, the constitution, the Charity Commission and everything that goes with it, but when you are sat round that table, when you are looking at your congregation, you have to ask - ‘how does our church run within our community?’

“‘How are we going to impact this church and this congregation? What can we give to make it a better place?

“Stand tall and be proud of the movement. Inspire people - and I can’t stress that enough - but ask them questions, too.

“I make a point of asking members after a service - ‘Are you leaving church feeling uplifted and happy? What is it you just got from that service?’

“You ask that question, and it’s phenomenal the answers you get.

“Some of them may just be there for a cup of tea and biscuits, or because they’ve not seen anybody that week. Another person might say, yes, the communication and confirmation from Spirit, and the messages or healing that they receive.

“It could be just the energy. The atmosphere. The social interaction.

“You don’t realise the full impact it can have on people until you actually stop to listen to them.”

A well-earned weekend to remember: Within hours of our visit, Derby celebrated two fantastic achievements, being awarded 'Church of the Year' at the East Midlands DC AGM, and hitting the incredible milestone of 100 members. (images © Derby Central Spiritualist Church). 

Taking the time to stop and listen to the wisdom and the experiences of the journey that Derby Central have been on over the past twelve months, and the fantastic results they’ve achieved from doing so, has been a heartwarming mix of practicality, genuine friendship, and a real affirmation of what churches can aspire towards in a post-pandemic, 'cost of living' society, with the right mindset and attitude.

Talks of future events - including everything from Easter Egg bingo to a ‘Dog Day’ - sees me leaving utterly confident that the ascent this lovely church and its inspiring committee have been on will only continue.

And indeed, this is affirmed as such when, later that very same evening, I receive another excited email informing me that they have, mere hours after my visit, received the Florence Ward OSNU Award for ‘Church of the Year’ at the East Midlands District Council AGM.

Setting a wonderful example of Spiritualism and fellowship in action, it was a true pleasure to visit Derby Central, and the example of light, love and possibility they are setting.

And, going right back to that introductory mantra on their entrance gates, I think it’s fair to say that it is very evidently true…

I arrived as a stranger, and most definitely left feeling like a friend.

- Article by Kyle Pedley
first published 24th March 2023

You can learn more about Derby Central Spiritualist Church by visiting its Public Facebook Group.

With thanks to the committee and team at Fenton for their excellent work, and for sharing their time and stories with us.

We want to hear all about your own church and committee stories, projects and achievements, too!

Get in touch by emailing Kyle Pedley, Head of Communications, at [email protected].