Round Oak Steel Works, in Brierley Hill, Dudley closed on 23rd December 1982. At its peak the works had employed over 3000 people. At the closure 1286 jobs were lost. Thirty years later, a BCUIM team member, working with the local Churches Together group, regularly heard people expressing grief over its loss. He organised a service in a local church to commemorate the Steel Works and its place in the community. People travelled from considerable distances, joining others who had remained in Brierley Hill. It was an opportunity to share memories and to pray for the future of the community. Together we were able to celebrate the faithfulness of the God who calls us to move on with him and to face new, sometimes uncomfortable, challenges.
Though there is still a steel distribution terminal on the site, the area around is dominated by the Waterfront office development and by Merry Hill Shopping Centre. The first retail units came to the site in 1985 and the centre itself was built between 1986 and 1989.
This replacement of heavy industry, providing large numbers of jobs, mainly for men, by service sector and retail work, is typical of the recent economic history of the country. “We don’t make things anymore,” we say regretfully and easily slip into nostalgia for the “good old days”.
It is undeniable that there was a strong sense of community based around traditional industries. The steel works began in 1855 and generations found employment there. The churches in the area grew up with the industry, and together they offered something dependable. Work hard and earn to feed the body, whilst the needs of the soul were cared for by the churches.
I grew up in another midlands town in the 1950’s and 60’s. I remember church and Sunday School with their annual round of celebrations, anniversaries and outings. There was a gospel message there, I’m sure, but there was more than a hint of the Victorian “rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate. God made them high and lowly and ordered their estate.”
We will never turn the clock back, neither should we try to. Speakers at the service remembered the sprawl of grim buildings and the molten slag lighting up the night sky. We live in a cleaner world, where the fruits of technological innovation and human creativity worldwide are available to us. To this day the Black Country has the highest proportion of its workforce engaged in high value manufacturing of any area in the country. Most aircraft flying today have a Black Country component somewhere in them.
Community remains important, but where people often travel to work, to shop and for their leisure, effort must be put into developing it. INTU, the owners of the shopping centre, have a progressive Corporate Responsibility programme that is committed to making a difference to their communities. They encourage staff to volunteer for local projects.
The challenge to us is to see where God is at work in the world we live in today, not the world as it was. As those who worship a creative God, we will find much to celebrate in human creativity displayed in the huge range of goods in the shopping centre. But they are not ends in themselves, and the gospel connects human achievement with ultimate meaning. It connects people with the God who loves them, the God who is just as likely to be met in the new and unfamiliar as in the annual round and routine, the God who deals with us in grace rather than requiring us to fulfil duties. There is something of the “Wild Gospel” which Alison Weir writes about in her excellent book. “See I am doing a new thing!” says the Lord, or in the words of the song, “It’s from the old I travel to the new. Keep me travelling along with you.”