This week, we’re chatting with author and former journalist Natalie Williams, who heads up community engagement, social action, and communication at King’s Church 1066 across all their four venues. Natalie is also co-author of The Myth of the Undeserving Poor (2014) and A Church for the Poor (2017).
You have had a fascinating career, including spending a year in China working for a state-owned newspaper. What was that like?
It was really fascinating in many ways – I was there when China joined the WTO and won the bid to host the Olympics in Beijing, but also when September 11 happened, the war in Afghanistan started, and tensions were high between the USA and China because of an incident with an American spy plane earlier that year. It was interesting to see how these events were reported by the Chinese State run press: there were certain things we weren’t allowed to report or were instructed to emphasise or water down. So trying to maintain your journalistic integrity while also doing as you were told was difficult. That made it hard. Also my Chinese colleagues weren’t well trained, so some of the basics were missing. Another thing that made it hard was that ‘foreign experts’, as we were called, were paid at least five times more than our Chinese colleagues, who often worked harder and longer hours.
How did you juggle your faith with working for a state-owned Chinese newspaper?
I had been struggling with my faith before I went to China. I was ‘backslidden’ and really wrestling. I actually came back to God and my faith was rekindled while I was in Beijing, which surprised me.
What took you to China?
For some reason I’d been interested in China since I was a small child. When I was studying postgrad journalism at City Uni in London, they mentioned internships with the China Daily Newspaper Group. I applied (initially for a three-month role) and said to God, “I want to come back to you, and that doesn’t seem likely to happen in China, but if I get this job I’m going so I’ll leave it to you as to what happens!”
You also worked in the political sector here in the UK for a while. What did you do and how different was it?
Before I get into the politics, I’d like to mention that when I returned to the UK and worked as a journalist, I realised that our ‘press’ isn’t really free either. It’s owned by such a small number of people, and what appears in it is dictated by that small number, not to mention the way things that do appear are framed. This came home to me particularly through studying for my Masters degree in Political Communication a few years ago. In terms of politics, after my MA I worked for an outstanding Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC), writing blogs, press releases, speeches and leading on hustings prep. As a Christian, it was a privilege to get to work so closely with the PPC and have some influence in terms of discussing both character and policies.
Today, you work for the church, responsible for social action and community engagement. What does that involve?
Today the comms part of my job involves everything overseeing the website and app to drafting Sunday notices and tweeting. I’m responsible for all media, too. My social action role involves working on the strategy for care for the poor in the church – we run eight projects, and our building is run as a social enterprise, but we’re still working on getting a heart for the most vulnerable into the DNA of the church, with all members growing in mercy, compassion, kindness and generosity. I also work for a national Christian charity called Jubilee+, which helps churches across the country to more effectively support the poorest in their communities. Again I’m responsible for all media and communications, and I get to speak and write on poverty and justice issues, which is a great privilege.
How does your journalistic and communication skills help with this role?
In some very obvious ways, such as writing press releases and understanding the importance of effect communication about vision and events, as well as ‘spotting a story’ and being able to see where something might have wider reach than our local community. (For example, I’ve written recently for the New Statesman and Huffington Postwebsites about the massive increase in foodbank referrals we’ve seen.) But also in less obvious ways, such as having a particular passion for churches to find out what’s going on in their communities, what local decision-makers are concerned about, etc., and taking stats, anecdotes and perceptions from others to help them see the role they can most meaningfully play in their communities.
Would you see this as a calling?
Absolutely. I’m very aware of how God has used and continues to use me, my background, my skills, my experience. I see his hand at work in it all, shaping me, teaching me things, that I now get to equip others with some of what comes naturally to me.
And, what of the future?
I think that journalism needs more Christians and churches need more journalists. Despite the overwhelming amount of information we can get our hands on, it’s harder than ever to get to the truth. We need people working in the media who are full of integrity and committed to truthfulness. But we also need journalists who will teach church leaders, foodbank leaders, debt centre leaders, etc., etc., how to build positive relationships with the press and how to deal with difficult questions.