Christians in Practice?
Which books do you put by the loo?
For me, there are three different sorts.
First, there are those that offer possibilities to my kids, but which they'll never look at if I recommend them. At the moment that includes Seamus Heaney's Selected Poems and Spinoza in a Nutshell. A particular success in category was Who's Buried Where in England which gave a potted biography of some of the country's greatest doers and thinkers.
Second, are those that offer an 'instant hit': these never get rotated off that little shelf. They are books to flick open at any page to for a few lines of information, inspiration or reflection. One of these is the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, an 18th Birthday present. Originally one volume, it's now collapsed into three of different lengths - but still offers daily challenge and wonder. Alongside it sits Oliver Rackham's History of the Countryside, which works much better in the loo than it sounds as if it should: every paragraph is a fresh insight into the creation of our landscape.
In the final category are a few go-to books which retain lifelong wisdom that somehow always seems fresh.
Henri Nouwen's In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership is one of these. A short, simple read, it's nonetheless deep and challenging. A book to pick me up when I'm feeling stuck, to remind me of what's really important in my life's journey - and to ask 'are you there yet?' The answer, of course, is no - but thank you, Henri, for asking so gently.
I imagine it's a book that most people reading this blog will know. It charts three temptations to the Christian minister/leader: to try to be relevant, popular, and powerful. Don't tell me you haven't been often tempted by at least one of those. Nouwen shows how the devil tempted Jesus with all three, and outlines the alternatives in faithful Christian practice.
It's a nourishing read in itself, but what especially interests me for this blog is how Nouwen ended up writing this book. He has spent over twenty years at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, so he knows how to do theory and formal education. But a mid-ministry crisis led to a profound change - and a move from academia, as Nouwen went to live with people with learning difficulties in the L'Arche community.
Nouwen describes this move as both a calling and as an answer to a prayer for guidance. His experience at L'Arche is transformative. His learning becomes concrete and practical, and his examples are of surprising individual encounters. Despite the preconceptions of a background in academia, he finds he learns much from those with learning disabilities. He learns from their dispositions; from their straightforward spontaneous testimony; and perhaps above all he learns what community really means, as he sees the call to be not to be relevant, popular or powerful reflected in the people around him. These are things that can be understood with the power of abstract thought, but only learnt by experience, whether direct or indirect.
Moving from academia to L'Arche, Nouwen discovers that his ministry in community is not the fruit of his learning. It is simply not that linear. Rather, he can only minister to them because he learns from them; and in fact he learns from the people he ministers to because he ministers to them.
He sees this relationship between ministry and learning emerge in his role in the community, but it also affects who he is in relationship to the wider world. Nouwen continues to give lectures and retreats from time to time, but now, when he does so, he must either seek the blessing of the community to depart from them; or to take members of the community with him. In this short book we see both options unfold.
So, Nouwen's humility continues to call me, and to help to illuminate the work of Christians in Practice. It seems appropriate that his humble wisdom is to be found in the humblest corner of the house. I'm sure he'd approve.
Following the fall of Paris to advancing Nazi forces in 1940, France was partitioned into a northern, occupied zone and a southern ‘free’ zone ruled by the Petain government from Vichy. Many Jews and others fleeing Nazi persecution headed south but there met an increasingly hostile regime taking increasingly deliberate steps to round up Jewish families in internment camps. Some managed to escape, others were smuggled out by aid agencies, and sought either to cross the border into neutral Spain and Switzerland or beyond, or to disappear into the countryside. Gradually, word got around that the Vivarais-Lignon plateau in central France offered one such place of refuge.
Which of its inhabitants first decided to take in the first Jewish refugee and offer them shelter is a matter of some debate, but the cause was quickly taken up by leading local figures who organised a network of neighbours and parishioners to offer shelter. Gradually, word spread that Le Chambon-sur-Lignon and neighbouring villages were good places to hide. Over the course of the war, perhaps a thousand or more Jewish and other refugees arrived there – some temporarily absorbed into the local community, others passing through whilst making their escape. Not every aspect of the story had a happy ending: those rescued constituted only a small proportion of the hundreds of thousands sent from France to the concentration camps, and not all of the personal stories of rescued and rescuers ended happily. However, the role played by the plateau’s population in rescuing refugees from Nazi persecution is nonetheless remarkable, and Le Chambon is one of only two whole village communities to appear in the list of ‘righteous non-Jews’ in the holocaust memorial at Yad Vashem.
All of this rested on what Caroline Moorhead has called ‘a felicitous combination of people, places and timing’: First, there were individuals and organisations (both within and beyond the area), who spotted the dangers early and were quick to organise escape networks before the true scale of the threat became manifest.
Second, the ready welcome provided by local inhabitants drew on a much longer communal experience of persecution and resistance to outside authorities which made it easier to contemplate offering help (the plateau’s strongly Protestant heritage within a variously Catholic or Secularist France was particularly important here).
Third, rescue networks made full use of the distinctive profile of the local area (notably the presence of a large number of children’s holiday homes to hide refugees, and expanses of remote mountainous woodland into which to escape).
Fourth, there were key local figures who set the tone as rescuers. The most celebrated is Le Chambon’s pastor and convinced pacifist, Andre Trocmé, but there were also many others, by no means all of whom shared Trocmé’s Christian faith, level of education, public office or experience of social welfare work.
Fifth, help sometimes came from the unlikeliest of sources, including some Vichy police who turned a blind eye to the presence of so many new arrivals.
Sixth, rescuers of Jews on the plateau and beyond often shared common characteristics despite their varied backgrounds. In a major research project in the 70s and 80s, holocaust survivor Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner noted rescuers’ frequent capacity for ‘extensive relationships’, and a strong impulse towards compassion and hospitality towards others, learned from parents, congregations or communities who applied this ethic to all people – not just to members of the in-group. This was not always expressed through personal warmth, but was evident through the offer of sanctuary.
What has this remarkable story to do with Christians in Practice, and with understanding the relationship between Christian discipleship and community engagement? First, it reminds us that whilst community engagement frequently has an everyday, persevering character to it, we are also likely to be called into timely, unexpected and out of the ordinary expressions of practical love for others. This is where ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ is unpacked in the parable of the Good Samaritan. Reading Caroline Moorhead’s retelling of the story, Village of Secrets, over the summer has really challenged me personally about how we are responding to the current huge refugee crisis.
Secondly, the story offers much food for thought about how Christian communities might nurture community engaged discipleship today. As in Le Chambon, how can we create space to hear the prophetic voices highlighting the plight of others? How can we draw on our own experiences of being helped to show compassion to others? How can we make the best of the unique resources and circumstances of our local areas? How can church leaders (like Trocmé and others) create a culture in which community engagement and love for neighbour is fundamental? How can we seek out the people of peace outside our congregations (even the uncomfortable bedfellows among them) who can be allies in working for good?
And finally, how can we create communities in which care for others beyond the in-group is just part of the way things are? The existence of tragedy– the bereavements, arrests, the deportations and executions - alongside heroic sacrifice reminds us of the fact that authentic Christian engagement in communities will be messy and painful. For Rowan Williams, writing recently, ‘holiness… is seen as going into the heart of where it’s most difficult for human beings to be human…’ ‘…there is no contrast, no tension, really, between holiness and involvement in the world (Williams, Being Disciples, pp. 48-9). To be frank, this is the sort of thing that makes me want to run a mile, but it’s an inescapable conclusion of Le Chambon’s story, and one that’s going to challenge me for some time to come.
Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants (Penguin, 2015)
Caroline Moorhead, Village of Secrets: Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Vintage, 2015 edn)
Samuel Oliner and Pearl Oliner, The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe (Simon and Schuster, 2002 edn)
Rowan Williams, Being Disciples: Essentials of the Christian Life (SPCK, 2016)
The project's evolved. Here's where we are now.
Early in the project we encouraged church leaders and ministers to sign up to take part in our research. From amongst those of you who got in touch early, some really valuable group interviews and case studies emerged - stories that had the power to refine and reshape the project. If you're one of the indivdiuals or groups that took part - you'll know who you are: thank you.
Downstream of that initial scoping, the shape of the project has indeed changed. We are now looking to engage churches in a different way. We've gone from picking up some of the most committed and cutting edge communities, to working across the board with the widest variety of churches.
That means we now want to learn from a random sample of churches in our two partner dioceses, Lichfield, and Birmingham. We will ask those churches to take part in a one-off congregational survey, and in some cases, to nominate individuals for interview.
Following our early work, we've simplified our congregational questionnaire, and refined our interview template. We're looking to be in touch with those churches that have been sampled early in the New Year.
Catherine Nancekievill reflects on the ongoing challenge to let God in – and love out.
One of the very first steps I took from non-belief to faith in my early twenties was reading the New Testament. I knew a bit about Christianity from school and the occasional church service I had attended. But I really had no idea what any of it meant. I couldn’t tell you the story; I had never actually read the Bible. When I did it was a revelation. I knew that Christians thought we should be nice to each other. But niceness has a limit and the Jesus I met in the Gospels didn’t set limits. There were no limits to his love or to who he sought out to love. This was radical, world changing stuff.
Jump forward a number of years and I have a loving family, a job and a house. I’m also a Christian; that Good News stuck. So that must mean I’m nice. I’ve turned into one of those nice Christians who apologises and prays for forgiveness when I lose my temper, and takes communion to elderly ladies who can’t make it to church. But my niceness has limits. I have boundaries to my loving and mustn’t risk my personal safety even slightly. I have boundaries wrought of my responsibility to be a good parent: providing, nurturing and protecting my young children. I have boundaries when I use my vocation as an excuse: I am doing what you called me to God. It drains my energy and my time, so surely that is enough?
Believe that this product really represents you, and you’ll want to own a piece of that. Is our outreach to communities, our giving, our social action, partially an expression of how we perceive ourselves, reinforcing our self-image?
I know I keep my discipleship in a nice safe bubble by the combination of doing enough ‘good works’ to satisfy my self-image and keeping my loving bounded through self-justification. I do not have to do anything about the homeless because I don’t know what to do, it’s too complicated and possibly dangerous. Anyway, I give money to charities and surely the government should be doing something? So not only do I do nothing, I don’t have to feel anything either, because it’s not my responsibility. In fact, I’d better make sure I don’t feel anything. Don’t let the love slip over the boundary or I’ll start to realise it is an actual human being under that sleeping bag I walked past this morning (it was -2C in Cambridge this morning).
Jesus, though, he didn’t love in that bounded, limited, fearful way. His love exploded out, not just a bigger boundary but no boundary at all. He wasn’t just ‘better’ at loving, he was love.
That radical, limitless love started to nag at me particularly strongly on Saturday mornings. I would take my daughter to her ballet class and walk to and from my favourite café. In doing this I’d pass the same man about four times. He was homeless, begging, and generally in the same spot every week. Gradually, through repetition, he stopped being invisible and I started to really see him. But I was afraid of being rejected, and didn’t know what would help, (like many people, I’ve accepted that giving money directly doesn’t help). One day the pain of walking past him again became greater than my fear. I took a deep breath and stopped and talked. I asked him if I could buy him a sandwich. He said yes, and “could I have a chicken and stuffing sandwich if they have one please?” I walked to Boots. Chicken and stuffing? Not something generic like cheese, but ‘Chicken and stuffing’. I wondered if it was as close as he could get to a roast dinner. I walked back with the sandwich and a bottle of Coke and handed it over, now unsure what to say. He looked up at me, lit up with a smile. He said “thank you, thank you… you’re an angel”. I walked away in tears; the love had escaped the box.
I still walk past often. But every time I see these piles of humanity invisibly living alongside us, it’s like a punch to the stomach.
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t turned into an angel (just ask my husband). I stayed with the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford in November and happened to be in a meeting with a Sister during the 2 minute silence on the 11th November. The bell rang, we stood. I prayed silently, a prayer of thankfulness… a prayer attempting to express sorrow… something trying to remember a list of all the places currently at war… The bell rang and I opened my eyes ready to restart our conversation, to find her with an expression of deep love and deep pain on her face and tears flowing freely. To follow Jesus means finding out how to love deeply and widely, and that comes with feeling joy and pain, deep and wide.
I have found the collision of discipleship in action with growing in faith challenging and thought-provoking. Do we allow our experiences of reaching out in love penetrate our boundaries? Or does serving others sometimes just reinforce the borders?
How can we let God in, and love out?
Lindsey Hall encounters a story of persistence and sacrifice.
Were you part of the human chain formed around Birmingham City Centre in 1998? Do you remember the estimated 50 – 70 thousand people congregating in the city, wearing red, to draw the attention of the G8 leaders to the unsustainable debt being carried by the poorest countries of the world? The Jubilee 2000 campaign by this time had gathered huge momentum, and as a result Britain and the US wiped out a significant amount of unpayable debt.
Click here to ediIt all started with one man and his friend having an idea. I did a bit of investigating about Martin Dent, and then out of the blue a student mentioned him to me. It turned out they had been at the same church and she was recognising that he was man who put his Christianity into practice in an extraordinary way.
Martin Dent often turned up to church dishevelled, even with his pyjamas on under his clothes, and signs of his earlier meal still evident. He was well known for this, and for using every opportunity to talk about a subject close to his heart, debt relief for the world’s poorest countries. It might not have been on the agenda at the PCC meeting, but Martin would introduce it anyway. Although they didn’t always want to hear his reasoning on the subject again, the people at the church knew that Martin was not just all talk. He lived very simply in a small house. He had replaced a large inherited house for two small ones and made the other one available to people in need of a home. There is an extraordinary story about him stopping a riot amongst the Tiv people when he was stationed in Nigeria with the Colonial Service. He was made a chieftain by the Tiv people and maintained his links with Nigeria throughout his life. Gill tells me that he would travel to Nigeria and sent back boxes of African masks and ornaments for the church summer fayre. In his enthusiasm to support both the Tiv people and his own parish, it was often Martin who ended up buying the goods on the day.
As a lecturer in politics at Keele, Dent had a good understanding of economics and international relations, but he refused to let his ideas stay in the classroom. It was his persistence, his contacts and his absolute belief that this was the right thing to do, that this was God’s will, that started the ball that would become Jubilee 2000 rolling.
'What name would you give to your community activity?' It's a simple question. But the answers we're offered are rich and poetic, and reveal the extraordinary holism of Christian action.
In a recent post, we looked at whether the word ‘volunteering’ does justice to Christian community activity.
The question concerns us because we need to choose language that speaks clearly to those completing our research questionnaire. But it’s also of interest to churches and church projects. Knowing what language to use can help in recruiting and supporting people to community work.
In that previous post, Ian Jones looked at some of the literature. But we’ve also tested the question out directly ourselves, through a handful of small discussion groups. Each one brought together five or six people from churches in diverse settings.
In those groups, we wanted to hear what kinds of words people spontaneously used. So, we first asked participants to list together as many things as possible that they do to help others in the community. Then we asked what words they would use to describe or sum up all that activity.
A group puts great thought and reflection into generating that list. At first there is uncertainty and hesitation on the faces around the room. That soon shakes off, as the ideas begin to flow. It’s not an easy process, and a word that suits one person is often not agreed on by all. As the group warms to its task, it will keep going, looking for a more accurate definition.
When we ask the question ‘what words would you use to describe the community work you do?’ the language used by the group begins with a fairly functional approach (‘work’, ‘service’, ‘engagement and encounter’) but will often move from the activity itself towards the dispositions behind it:
At this point, respondents are looking deeper. They seem to be trying to identify the essence of the work, rather than a simple description. When they reach this stage, they are in fact asking themselves another of the questions our research hopes to explore: what are the characteristics of Christian activity in the community?
So, the group might also explore the sense of the fulfilment that has arrived with the work. They use words like:
As the ideas develop, so does the group’s approach. As the first list above shows, groups tend to start with words, then common phrases. After a few minutes, they begin to move away from recognised descriptions, and reach for more poetic language:
Poetic language is a natural human gift and is a sign that ordinary words are not sufficient to describe the thing at hand. Our groups are telling us that whatever it is that we are describing, it has more dimensions that one commonly used word can cover.
By this point, we have come a long way. The group has worked its way as close to a definition as it can. What do we notice as people explore the essence of the activity they do?
Well, firstly, there are some things that we’re not hearing. We’re not hearing ideas about the unpaid nature of the work. ‘Sacrifice’ may refer to that, of course, but participants have mostly spoken about the changes to their weekly routine or time available, rather than money. We’re also not hearing many ideas about activity (‘God-given tasks’ more emphasizes ‘God-given’ than the ‘tasks’). Finally, we’re not hearing ideas about the other – the person or people who might benefit from the activity. In particular there’s not talk about needy, vulnerable, or different people.
We are hearing ideas about perception, relationship and transformation. Ideas about perception include ‘looking at everyone completely differently’, ‘you’re no longer the centre of attraction’ and ‘God-given tasks’. Examples of speech about relationship are: ‘being family’; ‘joyful relationship’ and ‘caring’, amongst others. Transformation gathers phrases such as ‘a whole package with God’, ‘all under the umbrella of love’ and ‘living life to the full’. It is notable that God is foregrounded and the individuals – whether the ‘doer’ or the ‘beneficiary’ become united in relationship in a way that is often understood as a sign of God’s transformative grace.
It’s a curious phenomenon that groups seem to move fluidly across ideas of disposition, motivation and outcome. In fact, many of the words or phrases they use could apply equally to their disposition, motivation, or to the outcome of the work. Being family for example, could refer to why or how the task is done, to what the participant feels the work achieves, or how it benefits her.
So in our focus groups, it seems we are capturing an account of the way in which the activity is fully integrated into the individual’s identity and community life. As they arrive at the kind of language that seems to suit them, they are providing a holistic definition of activity in which motivation, character and benefit are all mixed together. In as far as this is true, it echoes a key message from What Helps Disciples Grow, our previous research – that Christians take their faith more seriously than we often notice or realise.
A big thank you to house group members in the Stoke Prior, Wychbold and Upton Warren benefice who helped with the piloting of our Christians in Practice questionnaire last week. We much appreciate the constructive feedback offered on the survey, and the good humour and helpfulness with which this was done.
Other churches, small groups or community projects interested in taking part in the survey can contact us here.
David Primrose is Director of Transforming Communities in the Diocese of Lichfield, and a member of our Reference Group. Here, he writes about some of the key concepts that led him to collaborate on Christians in Practice.
Peter Davies is Professor of Education Policy Research at Birmingham University. He has done innovative work with Ray Land and Jan Meyer on threshold concepts. Threshold concepts are ‘troublesome knowledge”, disturbing comfortable ways of thinking, and ushering in different ways of understanding the world. There is often a transitional state, a liminal phase, before new opportunities emerge. During this process of transformation, disparate aspects of knowledge achieve a measure of integration. The change is irreversible, even if recourse to early forms of understanding may occur when we return to situations reminiscent of our past, are under stress, or are operating at a superficial level. Threshold concepts are ideas central to any academic discipline which, until one ‘gets’ them, constrain understanding and learning. When a person grasps a threshold concept, then disparate areas of knowledge come together, and whole new areas of learning open up. For example, mathematics was my favourite study at school. I remember the excitement when mysteries such as binary counting, irrational numbers and calculus became clear. Once understood, these threshold concepts became embedded in one’s thinking, clashing with and replacing earlier thought patterns. Threshold concepts are a form of proactive knowledge, in that we seek opportunities to apply them in practice.
I had an hour with Peter to think through what the threshold concepts might be for my engagement with Christians in Practice. One suggestion is hope. It is often necessary to indicate the particular meaning given to words which are in common circulation. Hope, here, refers to the belief that life can be better. Hope is based in faith not in facts, enabling us to look beyond our current experience. Hope implies action in that any change in understanding that does not lead to a change in response is illusory. Faith without works is dead. Hope is my first threshold concept.
My second suggestion may be contentious. An asset-based approach to community development is, for me, transformative. I have come to that conclusion over several years, whilst my colleague, James, seems to have had that understanding for most of his adult life. There is a pressure to “do good” to those less well-of than oneself. This approach, even with the refinement of robust needs-analysis, perpetuates a power imbalance between those who are labelled strong or weak, healthy or sick, competent or feckless, and donors or recipients. An asset-based approach has opened up, for me, a whole range of new understanding regarding agency, personhood, dignity and empowerment.
Threshold concepts can challenge contemporary culture. We are obsessed with independence, which condemns people to isolation and loneliness. Interdependence is my third threshold concept, the recognition that we come to life as we live with others. “I am not who I think I am, I’m not who you think I am, I am who I think you think I am.” Humanity flourishes in community, and so much of my work sees each person within multiple networks of relationships.
Charity which begins at home can end there. Pro-social behaviour can be reduced to ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. There is a gospel imperative to overcome all limits upon God’s love. A universal inclusivity is my fourth threshold concept that forbids closure on the overflowing of grace. My connectedness is not just with everyone everywhere, it is extends to generations to come. It is with not just all of humanity, but with the whole of creation.
I would add one more threshold concept that underpins my practice. Vulnerability is a state imbued with fear. Yet it is only when we are able to inhabit that state of vulnerability, that we discover the potential for transformation. The story of Jesus epitomises life through death, strength through weakness, redemption through betrayal.
I am aware, within myself, of primitive thinking that pre-dates such understandings of hope, asset-based community development, interdependence, inclusivity and vulnerability. I can still revert to instinctive responses of despair, needs-analyses, independence, limitations and defensiveness. My personal and professional commitment is to maintain this set of threshold concepts, and to behave in accordance with this understanding.
Simon Foster had his arm twisted to sign up as a Christian Aid door-to-door collector, but he's now been doing it for nearly two decades.
Has it been part of his growth in faith? He thinks so... and here he tells some of that story.
You’re in your mid-twenties: knocking on doors and asking people for money holds no appeal. Nor does saying you’re a Christian. You only take part because it’s a virtually unavoidable part of your church’s collective life. Still, the actual task is quite straightforward: deliver the little red envelopes in your allocated street, then turn up again a couple of days later to collect them in. It’s not pleasant, but it’s doable, and it’ll soon be over.
You learn that people don’t actually think you’re beyond the pale for being a Christian – or at least, they don’t say so. Maybe representing your emerging faith is possible after all.
You’re not really supposed to take your kids with you, but when you have twins there’s not always any choice. Yours are four years old, and break the ice wherever they go. They don’t speed you up though: people want to talk – and especially they want to talk about their own children or grandchildren. You are given as many sweets as sealed envelopes.
You learn that people are just longing to strike up connections.
Wouldn’t it be nice if your street raised the most? The conversation at the door usually goes like this:
‘Hi, it’s the annual Christian Aid collection. I dropped an envelope through the door a couple of days ago.’
‘Did you? I haven’t seen it.’
‘Would you like one now, to make a donation?’
At this point the answer is usually ‘No’, but this year one guy about your age invites you in while he writes a £500 cheque. Even without his gift, your street raises the most that year, and from then on, you love it a little bit more for that. You enjoy being able to say to someone from Uffham Street – ‘your road is the most generous in the town’ and often you see them look at where they live with fresh respect.
You learn that people want to believe in their neighbourhood – and also, that it is worth the trouble to knock a few doors.
You do the same street as usual, but knocking at one door brings not a stranger but Mrs Price, your youngest son’s new nursery teacher. As you walk back down the path half an hour later, you are learning that this is not just an anonymous suburb, but a connected community; you are calling not simply at houses, but at homes.
Even after a decade, it’s hard to shake off the feeling that you’re a nuisance. For every rich conversation, there are ten polite chats, twenty brush-offs and thirty unopened doors. You hold on to the one, rich conversation, but the rest make up the bulk of your experience. Then one year, after you have done a different street from usual, a friend of a friend, Ally, comes up to you in the street and asks where you were this year – she had been looking out for you. You learn that you mean something to some of the people in Uffham Street – and that they mean something to you.
It’s a rainy Friday, and you’re trying to mop up those who didn’t answer earlier in the week. A woman opens a door and gives you a mouthful: ‘You already called, and I said no; and in any case what the hell do you think you’re doing bugging people on a Friday night? Never call again – not this year, not next year, never.’
You feel bad for calling twice, and the rudeness hurts; but you start to wonder what other things that day must have contributed to her outburst. You go home, find the nicest card, and write her a message, apologising for calling twice and wishing her the best. You put your name at the bottom, so she knows you’re a real person and really mean it. It might make a difference. In fact, you hope it will make a difference, and as you drop the card through, you reflect that you are slowly, slowly, learning that ‘faith, hope and love’ are to be lived, not just believed.
You meet in a local church for an event unconnected to Christian Aid, about community building. Everyone at the table introduces themselves, including Judy – ‘from Uffham Street’. You tell her you do Christian Aid along that street, and when you find out which section she lives on, you ask whether she knows Judy who’s trying to get work as a childminder. ‘Yes, well, that’s me,’ she says. ‘Oh!’, you cry, ‘any luck? I’ve been praying for you every day since May.’ You’ve both forgotten each other’s faces, but she’s delighted that you have been carrying her story with you for so long.
Pam, at number 3, invites you in. She’s a member of the church, and usually takes her donation there herself. But this time things are different. In the corner of the room is Ted. He’s in his mid-sixties, and Pam tells you he’s recently developed dementia. He does not engage with you. Pam takes you through to the garden: it’s a wonderful surprise – a bigger space than seems possible in this urban street; enchanted by acers, pools, sculpture and shape. As she talks you round it, you realise that the garden is a work of art representing their life story; thinking of Ted inside, you feel a tiny fragment of the pain that Pam must experience each day.
You realise that simply knocking on a person’s door holds the possibility of relationship and friendship – especially at moments where they might need it.
Number 11 is an odd house – garden with nice plants, a new porch, but a slightly shut up feeling about it. You knock not expecting anything, and are about to turn about when a woman slightly younger than you thrusts her head out of a window. ‘Can you come back on Friday? I haven’t been paid yet.’ She says she’s a single mother, so you remind her that giving is optional, but she insists you return.
Such a request has to be respected. You turn up on Friday. ‘I saw your face through the curtain,’ she said ‘and you looked different from the people who normally come round.’ You talk as long as you can. She’s needs to talk: she’s coping admirably, but it’s plainly a battle. You walk away with a mixture of feelings, and wonder whether you could get Pam to connect with her – they’re only a few houses away.
You learn that being a Christian is always being ready to receive another’s story. And you learn that you, a stranger, are getting to know this street better than it knows itself.
Five or six gather each morning at your church for Morning Prayer. Today, you’re among them, and you are asked to lead the prayers. Each morning’s intercessions cycle through the streets of the district. By pure chance today’s prayers include Uffham Street. You find yourself praying for the people you know – for Mrs Price, Ally, Pam, Judy, and others – many of them men - you can only describe. It is a privilege to draw your care for them into the prayer of the church. You feel for the first time that your eighteen years of connection to that street is now connected in turn to the life of the church.
You decide that it’s time to finish doing Christian Aid. Each year you collect fewer envelopes and less money. When you started, door-to-door charity collections were a rarity; now each fortnight seems to bring a fresh wave of fundraising professionals.
Yet, as you come to this decision you also realise that you love this one street and its community, perhaps like no-one else does; as an outsider, a little bit as God loves it – and that you want it to be enriched in the future. You begin to imagine how you can offer something to it even without asking it for money? Perhaps you can talk to Ally or Pam? Perhaps the Sheltered Housing has a common room that could be used? Perhaps the street has a residents association? It’s not your street – except that now, in a way, it is.
You learn that you have another home in this town – Uffham Street - one God has brought you to.
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I have been involved with Birmingham Churches Winter Night Shelter for the last 5 years or so. It is an amazing project that enables several hundred volunteers from churches and communities around the city to open their buildings and offer welcome and shelter to people who would otherwise be sleeping rough.
In our first year I somehow found myself coordinating the pilot project. Time was short but we found some funding and bought airbeds and bedding, and received training from Housing Justice. We were excited, nervous, and ready to welcome guests. We even had some referrals, so on the first week we opened up as a Winter Night Shelter - and no one came!
We learnt a lot in that first week and after some changes and some more relationship building the shelter soon began to fill up. It was great to see volunteers getting involved, from different churches from different denominations and traditions, most of whom had never been involved in this sort of activity before.
I was pleased to have been part of enabling it but the bit that really took me by surprise was how much, in such a short time, I came to care about our guests, and how much the interaction I had with them impacted my own journey of faith and discipleship.
The shelter begins about 7pm when the guests arrive by minibus from the pickup point. Usually beds are already laid out and so they pick a bed, settle in and then everyone, volunteers and guests, sit down to eat together. After the meal, guests and volunteers alike play chess and card games, watch films, read the newspaper, and do the washing up. There is always a good amount of conversation and laughter. It feels like a jumbled up community of people hanging out together and making space for one another to relax and be themselves, at its best you can’t really tell who is a guest and who is a volunteer.
Our guests are people with hopes and dreams and skills and interests just like me, but for whom the label “homeless” is one more barrier they have to cross. Once when I asked if we could take a few photos, one guest quietly explained to our shelter coordinator why he’d rather not be in the pictures. He was worried that they would make their way onto the internet and he didn’t want this time of his life to follow him around for the rest of it. He longed to marry one day, and had dreams filled with happiness and possibility: even though he didn’t even have a roof over his head he still had hope for the future.
Sadly this is not the case for all of our guests and for some their situations seem nothing short of hopeless. There is one guest in particular who I got to know in the first couple of years whose story is not one of radical transformation but of decline. His circumstances and increasing substance abuse means that he is now considered too high risk to be referred into our shelter, and even though I haven’t seen him for more than 3 years, I have not forgotten him. When we met him he was initially quite anxious and very wary of us, but he still came back to the shelter, and amidst the chaotic mixture of anxiety, bravado, half truths and suspicion with which he related to us there was also a lovely young man; resilient, compassionate, and resourceful – although his resourcefulness was not always put to good use! There were moments when he went out of his way to help, offering items of clothing to others he felt needed them more; times when he was genuinely grateful that churches had bothered to do something like this for “people like us”.
I pray for him regularly, the outreach teams tell me that he’s still around and that things haven’t really changed much for him. I pray for him and also for others like him; I pray that they might find freedom, restoration and peace. I pray that change may happen, I believe that it can, I hope that it will, and yet I know it may not. It is one of the prayers I most wrestle with God about, questioning Him and searching for answers, usually finding I offer it back to Him with my questions unanswered, but believing that God loves each one of them and cares for them far more than I ever could.
I was reminded recently of the words spoken by both Jesus and John the Baptist in Mathew’s gospel, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is near” (Mtt 3:2 , 4:17). I am no biblical scholar but I am told that the greek word metanoeō which in most English versions of the bible is translated as “repent”, does not really accurately do justice to the meaning of the word. Apparently metanoeō is better translated as a change in thought and action, or to “see differently”. It is a shift in how we see, and feel and understand and behave. So in fact what both Jesus and John the Baptist were saying was probably something more like “See differently, for the Kingdom of God is near”.
Being part of the shelter and participating in the temporary community it creates, means that I can no longer see homelessness as an abstract problem that affects our city; now homelessness is the lived experience of people I’ve spent time with and got to know, and they aren’t “homeless people”, they are real people. People who I have eaten meals with, played cards and pool with, discussed the news with, laughed with and had meaningful conversations with; people who have hopes, dreams and gifts, and have friends and family that they care about.
My faith tells me that each of them is made in the image of God, and so perhaps when Christ calls us to feed the hungry and welcome the stranger it is not just for their benefit but for ours. When we seek to genuinely engage with another person, particularly when that person’s life experience is so completely different to our own, something mutually transformative takes place. My experience of the night shelter leads me to believe that when we really take time to “be with” rather than just “doing for” then we are changed by that encounter, and that somehow the Kingdom of God is nearer and we begin to “see differently”.