A year ago World Wide Message Tribe's organisation Message To Schools began THE EDEN PROJECT where Christians relocate to Manchester's notorious Wythenshawe Estate. Tony Cummings and photographer Ian Homer went there to check out a unique vision in inner city renewal.

The Eden Project 1
The Eden Project 1

Paul Chilvers sits nonchalantly in his kitchen waiting for his pie to heat up. God has been good to Paul. Blessed with intelligence, health and good looks, the 27-year-old bachelor has the kind of job - a research scientist - which usually means a pristine home in the suburbs, flash car and designer furniture. But there's nothing Sunday Supplement about Paul's home.

The paintwork is peeling, the rooms are small and box-like and the corner shop, where Paul bought his pie, has grafitied steel shutters to protect it from the skallies who until recently made this part of Manchester's Wythenshawe Estate a notorious no-go area for the police. In the past Wythenshawe's Haveley Circle was a nightly treat for teenage joy riders. Now the joy riders have gone and bollards keep traffic outside Paul's house to a crawl.

The largest housing estate in Europe, Wythenshawe was in the past a bi-word for every kind of inner city problem - vandalism, drugs, alcoholism, vice, unemployment and virulent crime.

Now that's beginning to change, thanks to the Eden Project, a unique initiative set up by Message To Schools in conjunction with a local Wythenshawe church, the Kings Church. Through the Project, Christians like Paul have turned their backs on the attractions of homes in the suburbs; lock up garages and middle class trappings to relocate to streets where hundreds of homes were previously abandoned because nobody wanted to live there.

Says Paul, as he reaches for the oven glove, "Jesus was a friend of the common people and there's a desperate need in places like this to show people the love and compassion of Jesus. The Eden Project is bringing Christians back into this area. Preaching a message isn't enough. People need to see the message lived out."

The Spring sunshine has brought out the children to Haveley Park playground. The Eden Project's team leader Mark Smethurst is taking time out from a mind-boggling work schedule to cavort on the climbing frames with the kids. Squeals of laughter ring around the park as an excited 10-year-old called Moira swings from the rope Mark is energetically pushing on. Later, sat on the step, close to the bin overflowing with crushed flat beer cans and broken syringe glass, Moira asks me if I'm a Christian. I tell her I am.

"Like Mark?" she asks. I can't quite bring myself to put my coffee cup on the World Wide Message Tribe CDs 'Message To Schools', use as coasters, despite Andy Hawthorne's assurance that they're faulties. I'm here in Message To Schools' headquarters in the leafy industrial town of Cheadle to learn the history and vision of the Eden Project and Andy, founder member of Britain's premier sanctified dance team, is desperately trying to extricate himself from the constantly bleeping telephone.

Time is tight. The next day the Tribe are off to Blackpool to perform in the huge Methodist celebration Easter People and the following Monday, Andy flies to GMA's Dove Awards to pick up an award for the Tribe (as it turns out, two awards). But Andy's not enamoured by the CCM bright lights. "I'm an evangelist, plain and simple. And it's winning souls, not awards, which gets me excited. We're committed for the next two years, one week a year to America. When I'm out there I'm meeting to talk to the head of Warner Bros who wants to talk about a plan to release 'Hypocrite' as a single. That's cool, but maybe it won't come off when he hears we won't tour and PA it. Our commitment is here." Andy makes an extravagant wave of his arm. My eye settles on a pile of flyers advertising the next Planet Life service at the Wythenshawe Forum. I ask Andy to fill me in on the Eden Project's history. "The Tribe were increasingly drawn out to the suburbs, but our heart was really to work in these tough areas like Wythenshawe. We did these two high schools in Wythenshawe and at the end of it we did a concert for both schools - 700 people came along and 100 kids responded at that concert. It was amazing.

What was even more amazing was they all turned up at church on the Sunday. We were working with this little church, one of the few we could find who we felt could follow up these kind of kids from Wythenshawe. That's Kings Church. The church went from 20 to 120 overnight! Suddenly, they had all these rough teenagers. And the few people who came to the church were just looking out like 'What's going on?'. We watched the kids one by one drift away. Out of that 100 I think then are about five or six still going to Kings Church two and a half years later, still going on with God. Their lives have been wonderfully changed. It's great in one way, sure. But the tragic thin of course is the other 95. The scary thing is, are they now saying, 'Oh I've tried Christianity, it didn't work'? It was not that church's fault - how could a church cope with kids coming in with that kind of baggage - that many problems? At that time the girls in the Tribe who were doing the schools work were desperate to get into Wythenshawe.

Whenever we were in another school they'd say, 'Can we go and meet these kids at lunch time?' God gave us a real heart for all these kids who had heard from God. We started talking about what could we do? It was clear that the biggest problem was that 80 per cent of the Christians live in the suburbs, alongside 20 per cent of the people, and 80 per cent of the people live in the urban areas, alongside 20 per cent of the Christians. We wanted to challenge people to move in. I met with a friend of mine, Frank Green, who has been my confidant, and pastor, I suppose. He leads another church in Manchester. We started talking about what we could do, and got this idea to challenge Christians to move into the inner city, starting in Wythenshawe. Basically, we talked about going to Kings Church and saying, 'How do you feel about us taking on your youth work? That would give you 30 youth workers and access to equipment for the church. We will do everything you could possibly need to do youth work. We'd give you a full time team of four people who will be linked into your fellowship if you'll pastor them, care for them and look after them.' That was the vision, to basically plant a youth group. It's not youth church - it's a youth group at a local church.

It was never the Tribe's plan to plant a church. We're evangelists. We can't cope with all this storing. That's what churches are good at (or should be!). Kings Church were up for the idea. At that point (and we felt it was of God) they were just going through the process of linking into Covenant Ministries - becoming a Covenant Community Church. That gave us lots more resources and the big Covenant church in Manchester has really helped us with a load of the administration and procedures. So the Eden project has been a partnership and Wythenshawe is the first one. The first couple to move in are David and Collette. She used to dance with the Tribe. David is a volunteer Eden worker, but he has another job (as most of them do).

So now, 18 months on, already God's done a wonderful thing and we have about 25 or 26 people living in Wythenshawe as Eden workers, a full time team of four and we're connecting with hundreds of Wythenshawe kids. We have seen the youth group in Kings Church grow from about 10-20 and about (I don't know exactly because figures are changing all the time) 10 kids who are going to Get God, and maybe 150 kids who are going to the Christian Unions in the schools. It's growing. And it's just in its early days. But on the back of this, what's exciting is Kings Church kicked off, because we put all that life in there. 25 people with all the gifting and moving people in all the time, and they just bring with them their skills, their communication skills. The worship just rocks at Kings Church and there's now 100 people going on a Sunday morning. The initial plan was to have weekly Eden meetings at Wythenshawe Forum but now that's been scaled back to one a month.

The Eden Project  2
The Eden Project 2

It wasn't that we couldn't cope with it; it was just the kids. We had these 25-30 who were dead keen and wanted to be taught the Bible, and another 150 who were just mad and wanted to head butt the workers. Like all of these things, you have to be open to develop it as you go along, and we decided to do one big monthly thing, and do loads of detached work on the streets, meeting the kids where they're at.

So these kids still come along every month, and last Sunday we had about eight or nine hundred in Wythenshawe Forum - Wythenshawe kids but also people come from all around. The idea is that Wythenshawe kids can see it's not just these nutters that have moved onto their estate and love Jesus but it's actually a lot of people that are into Jesus. There're these discipleship groups starting in the homes, really early days, but we are holding on to the most phenomenal promises. I'm convinced that there's gonna be hundreds of Wythenshawe kids come to Christ over these next few years, as these workers get bedded in and we move more in. We think we'll probably be up to about 40 in Wythenshawe. Now we've just started working with the next place for Eden which is Salford and that's going to be linked into a church called Mount Chapel. It's a kind of renewed Brethren church and they've got a worship band called Heat, who are just great lads out of Salford University, who have basically just gone in before we even had the idea for Eden, just went to the university, lived in the heart of the inner city, and never left. So there's about 15-20 people now ready to move in, a few are already there. So Eden Salford is like two years on, because they've been doing it on the ground. We're just looking to kind of bless what they've been doing. Then we're looking possibly at a place called Hattersley, which is another big estate (NE Manchester), inner city overspill. That is us really for the year 2000 - we can cope with that. Everyone will take up a full time team and we buy all this equipment - a lot of money. Every Eden Project has to find probably something like £80k in the first year - wages, admin costs, all the equipment and then there's the ongoing costs. So there's our thing - three, and that's where we're going for the year 2000. But the exciting thing is that other youth organisations are looking towards Manchester. I've been talking to some key people who have a similar heart to us and they are looking at areas of Manchester. Our vision is to have at least 10 Eden Projects all working in partnership together over the next three years. And that's where we want to be. I don't want anyone to slip through the net when we do this massive evangelism in Manchester."