Michelle Swallow is driven to speak up for those around her. Through her church, Life Church Bradford, she has reached out to the community she lives in and grew up in, and she is determined to make a difference. Recently she took things further and became a local councillor, meaning she now has a wider impact. Lucy Olofinjana caught up with her to find out more.
“I grew up in Bradford, and chose to come back here, I love this place. As a church we’re really involved in the local area and focused on reaching out to others with kindness. I got involved in my community through the church, doing things like Christmas hampers and helping with a local food bank.
“As well as working for Christians Against Poverty I decided to run for our local council, and since winning in May 2012 have become involved in a heap of other stuff in the community.
“I had been a member of the Labour Party for a while but I thought there was more I could do and my church had been talking about how we could get more involved in meeting local needs. I would have never put myself forward for this if I didn’t think it was something God was calling me to. For some people they might think of politics as something they have grown up wanting to do. Not me. But it was one of those things that just niggled at me and wouldn’t go away.
“It was a perpendicular learning curve, and it wasn’t easy. In politics you have to be committed, you have to turn up and show people you are authentic, that you are the person you say you are. I had to work hard to make what I was passionate about a reality, it involved lots of knocking on doors and getting to know the community. Through my involvement in the local council I have also made friends with amazing people I would not normally be in the same environment as.
“Politics can be a difficult area to maintain integrity, people talk about a dirty side and there can be – there is an element of unpleasantness when people are up against each other and will criticise no matter what you do. I had to get a thicker skin, and realise that when you’re walking with Jesus close to you the criticism of others doesn’t matter.”
Since becoming a councillor Michelle has seen what a difference can be made: “Anti-social behaviour was an issue, and there is significant poverty in the area. I’ve helped set up a local food bank and worked with the neighbourhood policing team and community groups, but we also wanted to give people some joy about their area.
“I’m passionate about seeing justice and fairness; the sick getting the healthcare they need, seeing better housing and neighbourhoods. Somebody shouldn’t have less opportunity just because of where they were born or brought up. Bradford might have a bad press and be seen as a downtrodden city, but it’s brilliant, full of amazing people who give of themselves. When there was the threat of the English Defence League marching through the city the community came together; it was Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, humanists, and others coming together as family and saying ‘not in our district’.
“As soon as I was elected I had to get to grips with the case work. There was a particular lady who needed her teeth operating on. I didn’t know much about it and had to do some research, I met with her, took on her case and pushed the hospital. After getting nowhere I asked God for help, and eventually the hospital agreed to operate and it felt like a miracle – the blocks had gone. It made such a difference to her. It was an uphill battle but then everything began to fit into place.
“I’d recommend becoming a local councillor. If you look from outside you can be very critical of politics and it’s easy to judge from outside without fully understanding. When you get involved you see some amazing people literally pouring their lives out to serve communities. They don’t go in it for themselves or to cause damage.
“I look at other Christians around and think ‘why are they not all getting involved, putting their hand to the plough?’ I’m an ordinary woman raising my family in the area – I never in a million years thought of myself as political! If more people stepped out in faith we would see God moving in ways never seen before, we’ve not operated in that faith before.
“My church has been amazingly supportive, they have prayed for me and loved me. I was pregnant when standing for election and exhausted. My baby was born with Downs Syndrome and it rocked my world. The church was incredible, standing with me, helping me know that God is creator and my daughter is perfect.
“If you know someone in a public position, who’s leading a charity or a local politician, pray for them. People need prayer and they need Jesus, when you’re putting yourself out there you need to know Jesus is walking with you. I was really encouraged by my church when I stood for election.
“The Christians in Politics group has also been really supportive. When I won the election Colin Bloom (director of Conservative Christian Fellowship) sent me a lovely email even though I am a Labour councillor: that’s the kingdom in action, sharing in that first with party politics second.
“Churches can help more Christians take responsibility and become leaders in public life, working with other churches in their area and organisations like Christians in Politics and the Evangelical Alliance to have events in the district where we join together. Because I work at CAP I am always encouraged, being with Christians from all sorts of different styles, knowing that we can all be part of something bigger than ourselves, which if we don’t engage, we miss out on.”