Big questions and small beginnings at Colchester Institute

Big questions

Colchester Institute provides further education, vocational training and higher education to degree level for people from across the north east Essex area and beyond. This week we were involved at the huge Colchester campus as part of their Equality and Diversity week. We’d been asked to run an activity in one of the public areas for two days that would get students thinking about faith in a way that would be accessible to those with any or no faith. We chose one of the activities from Sanctum, our prayer space for schools, that invites people to think about their big questions – “If God did exist, what would you ask?”

The response of students and staff was magnificent!! The location was ideal, being at an intersection of corridors on a major through route so lots of people passed by, paused and contributed. We were also right next to one of the cafeterias which made it easy to wander among the tables offering question cards and handing out lollies to students and often stopping for a chat about the ultimate questions raised by the activity.

In just two short days there were some great moments. So many conversations started about God, most of which we could hear continuing after we’d moved on. Students who recognised us from our work in schools and wanted to reconnect. Then there was the group of three girls on a musical theatre course – one a Christian, one an agnostic and the other a self-professed atheist who loves talking about faith and the big questions of life. They came back several times. And the brief but meaningful conversation with a girl whose mum and gran had died recently who chatted to one of the team who had just lost her gran.

In the midst of the predictable busyness we found a warm welcome. This is the first time we’ve done anything here and this simple activity created a real buzz of interest. What did we learn?

  • The smallest opportunity is infinitely greater than doing nothing. It would have been easy to have turned it down for a whole variety of reasons to do with scale, or length of time, or connection with a CU or chaplaincy or something. But just one activity for two days punched a big hole in people’s expectations and may well have opened up opportunities for doing more in the future. (More later…)
  • It’s about the people, not just the activity. At short notice an amazing team of people were able to commit to one or other of the two days. They were the right people, in terms of their personality and conversation skills and this made the activity friendly, welcoming and hospitable. As an experiment, for ten minutes when the others were away grabbing some lunch, I stood to one side to observe how people might engage with the activity unprompted by us. Hardly anyone did because there wasn’t a welcome.
  • Go. The best interactions came from going to small groups of people, explaining the activity and offering them a card to fill in. This broke the ice, made the activity easy to understand and encouraged people to respond. Most did, and, without our prompting, also ended up chatting with their friends about their answers.
  • Adapt. Once set up we immediately saw how two changes could massively increase the impact.
    First, we wrote the question on the cards so that we could give them to people other than in front of the activity where the question was displayed on an A2 sized poster. This meant we could take the activity to the people, instead of expecting them to come to us. (See “Go” above!)
    Second, we went out and bought some Chuppa Chup mini lollies to hand out. Another ice breaker and an opportunity to be unconditionally generous. When asked, “Do I have to fill in a card to get a lolly?” we said, “No. You can have a lolly anyway.”
  • Carpe Diem. It’s all about the relationships… On our second/last day a conversation with one member of staff (a Christian) led to a 2 minute meeting with one of the college managers about how we might serve the college further in the future. I now have a contact card for this manager and also contact details for another member of staff who I’ve been advised to get in touch with. I will.
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