Homelessness and the role of the church

This is a short Homily given at a special service at All Saints Fulham on Sunday 29/09/13. The Choral  Evensong included the 3 choirs of All Saints Fulham, St Martin in the Fields and St Luke’s Chelsea, and was organised to raise funds for the work of the Connection at St Martins, West London Churches Homelessness Concern, and Housing Justice

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In this splendid and venerable building, having listened to those prophetic scriptures and, of course, to the wonderful singing of the 3 choirs, it is my privilege to talk to you for a few minutes about Homelessness, and the role of the church.

I pray that these words may encourage, challenge and inspire.

Thanks to Eileen and the clergy team for inviting me to come and speak this evening. I’m not quite on home turf, but when I first came to live in London in my early teens our house was not far away. The street where we lived is now part of what estate agents call Brackenbury Village, but in those days it was just off the good old Goldhawk Road!

Homelessness is a sort of calling for me: a subject that occupies my mind and my working week. I have been personally involved in community action amongst people who are homeless or on the margins since 1990. I started as a volunteer at the West London Day Centre, and then worked in various projects including the Passage day centre, Emmaus, and the Islington Churches Winter Shelter. For the past 10 years I have worked for Housing Justice, the national Christian voice on housing and homelessness. We work at the sharp end, with church shelters and local housing action for example, and also seek to influence the public debate on housing and homelessness. I brought along a few newsletters for those who are interested.

I would like to look with you at some current issues and responses, both at a corporate and at a personal level. But first a quick look at how the church has helped shape our nation historically.

God-fearing people, inspired by the gospel of Jesus, led in the inception of virtually every institution in this country: from schools, to hospitals, to the foundations of our systems of law and government; and to the launch of the NHS and the modern welfare state. Attlee’s Labour Govt. won that historic post war election with a vision of a “New Jerusalem” where human need would be taken care of from cradle to grave; where poverty, ignorance and disease would be banished. And in those days of much deeper austerity than today – and up until the 1980s – we were building at least 200,000 affordable homes every year for ordinary working families.

I’m sure you know all this, but it’s a good starting point because some people, like Raquel Rolnick, the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing , warn that this country is in the process of dismantling this historic and exemplary safety net.

I’m sure there are a range of opinions on this, but I’d like to put it this way, if I may: The state, inspired and encouraged by an ideal of Christian charity, created a universal social safety net, and now the state is in the process of stepping back from this role.

Now you may have me pegged already as a semi un reconstructed Christian leftie.. In which case it may be a surprise that I do partially support this. When the state took on this role it made local self-help initiatives, like savings clubs and mutual societies etc.  mostly redundant. And these were often well run, rooted in the community, efficient and accountable.

Philip Blond analysed this in his book Red Tory, which many of you probably know. David Cameron’s “Big Society” notion, which we don’t hear so much about now (I wonder why?) is found in Blond. He offers a critique BOTH of an overly centralist and all-powerful state AND of the neo liberalist over reliance on the market as the means of managing everything.

A good example of the over centralising state taking powers to itself to which it has no business was the attempt by Westminster Council to criminalise soup runs in 2011. I’m proud to say that Housing Justice played a part in opposing that particular policy, together with the members of our soup run forum. This very bad idea was eventually dropped by Westminster Council.

But the scaling back of the role of the state has now gone so much further than is healthy, especially for poor families unable to make ends meet.  This govt. will be known as presiding over the rise of the food bank, and for cuts to local authority budgets so draconian that in many boroughs they have meant the closure of amenities like libraries and public lavatories. The “bedroom tax” may yet prove to be Cameron’s poll tax, which contributed to the downfall of Margaret Thatcher.

So where is the church corporately in all this, today?

Rightly the church is raising its voice politically. Did people see “Truth and Lies about Poverty” by the Joint Public issues Team? It tackles head on the media myths and misinformation about benefit scroungers etc. and received good media attention earlier this year when it was launched.

Housing Justice is one of the charities involved in the current “Who benefits” campaign, along with Crisis and Save the Children, and many others.

The church is also finding creative ways to respond to local needs. Many churches are opening debt advice surgeries and some have launched credit unions for example.  I know that this church supports West London Churches Homeless Concern and the Connection at St. Martins, and this is excellent. I’m hoping you might add Housing Justice to your list, actually!

I’m sure also that some of you roll up your sleeves and volunteer in these projects or other local initiatives, offering hospitality and help to people in need. And this is so important. It relates to the point I was making about the proper role of the state. We miss something absolutely vital if we delegate all our agency to the state. Even if we agree, which I hope we do, that the state should provide a basic safety net for all of us and our fellow citizens.

To be involved personally in some way is to share more: of our own lives, in a mutually beneficial journey towards our common humanity. It is sometimes to take a risk. But fundamentally it is to express and to find solidarity and community.

Those of us involved in volunteering will know that we are as much blessed in this as those for whom we give our time and our talents. Why should this be? It is because God is there: “Blessed are the poor”

All the parts of the body are important, as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12: “God put our bodies together in such a way that even the parts that seem the least important are valuable.”

Archbishop Justin Welby recently spoke to the National Housing Federation, encouraging Housing Associations to engage with churches. He said: “The Church’s action is driven by the Christian experience of being overwhelmed by the love of God, given without condition through Jesus Christ. . . And Jesus made a point of going wherever there were people in need – he healed people from his own community and outside it, he healed the grateful and the ungrateful, and he healed the downright hostile. He did whatever he could wherever there was need and he didn’t set conditions. That’s the example that we’re trying to follow.”

I’ll leave you with a challenge if you are still with me.

When we think of homeless people, it is often as people with problems, such as drug or alcohol addiction or poor mental health. But in truth these problems are common in every part of society. We could even, if we chose to, define it in terms of class.

The doctor or lawyer or MP who fills up their shopping trolley with wine and gin every Saturday, or probably orders it on-line nowadays (That’s what I do!) Do they or we have a drink problem? And in every family that I know someone struggles with depression or stress or “eccentricity”. These are all terms to do with mental well-being aren’t they?

I’m not trying to embarrass or attack anyone here.  Just to make the point that the main difference between the homeless people I know is that they live their lives and share their problems out in the open. And most of the people I know who live in houses and have settled lives and incomes don’t share their (our) problems out in the open in the same way. Those walls of our homes which keep us safe and warm can also divide us.

That is a good reason to reach out with our own lives, in the love that God has given us, to our neighbours who have less. Because together we have so much more, even the kingdom of God.

Amen

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Liminal places

So it’s now three weeks since I’ve been back from my pilgrimage / epic prayer walk around the country, and I’m still somewhere fragmented, somewhere in between. Out on the road but also living back in London at the same time. I’m writing the journey up in more detail for a Housing Justice publication, hopefully ready in time for Advent, but here are some reflections on the themes I’m working on.

For people coming new to this blog, it is in reverse chronological order, so a good place to start is probably back at the beginning here, or with the map of the journey here

It is tough on the road!

This is obviously a function of how one lives everyday life but the journey was a tough challenge, both physically and emotionally. While the tasks each day were fairly straightforward they were physically demanding and I do think of myself as quite fit: cycling to work each day, walking regularly, having a reasonably good diet, staying active. But walking 12 miles a day (on average) with a heavy back pack was hard work for this 56 year old! Being on a tight budget and finding food and water and a safe place to sleep each night was also not always easy.

This is in no sense a complaint. I entered into this pilgrimage fully expecting and accepting the hardships. It was the point, after all, to walk and live – to an extent at least – in solidarity with people suffering poverty and homelessness.

Being on my own much of the time, particularly in July, also presented challenges. This was a motivation to pray more, which was good. But I did sometimes feel acutely alone and on the margins – particularly in busy places with large groups of friends or families. Again, I had anticipated this, but the reality of being 2 months away from my wife, family and friends, work colleagues and the comforts of home was sometimes challenging.

God IS an ever present help – see Psalm 46!

While in human terms I often felt on my own, I also felt the presence of God each day. Yes I know this directly contrasts with what I’ve just said in the previous section, so go ahead and shoot me! Life is paradox! I found myself waking and walking and praying with joy, thankfulness and anticipation each day, knowing that God was present, and that I could rely on His promises to protect and provide for my needs. I think this is what is meant by faith. I genuinely approached each day as a gift. In each encounter, each conversation, each step of the way God was present and so it was blessed.

The hitch hiking element of the journey is the perfect metaphor. The task was really about letting go. To trust that, in spite of my powerlessness in the situation, and that I had almost nothing to offer, somehow someone would stop for me. And they did! Each time somebody stopped for me it felt like an answer to prayer, particularly the first time, on the way from Oxford to Chippenham. The first person who stopped for me, after I’d been standing with my thumb out for less than three minutes, had spotted the pilgrim’s scallop shell on my pack. As I got into the car he told me that his mother in law was the Oxford Diocesan Pilgrimage Advisor!

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Jeremy, who I met on the way to Iona, sketched this lovely scallop shell for me on his I-pad!

Family and Home

As I write and explore further the stories and experiences of this journey I know I will discover more of its meaning myself. It is not all planned out in detail.

One theme that has emerged through conversations with people along the way, and since I’ve been back, and to an extent in this blog, is my own story, which I’ve somehow never been very good at articulating. Having opened up a little about my own family, and how we have been affected by mental illness and depression, I’ve had some very kind and supportive responses from many people that know me in the context of my work. I’m not totally comfortable with the idea of writing as therapy, and feel I should reassure everyone that this is not going to be in the sensationalist or breast beating end of the literary or tabloid journalism spectrum! But you probably knew that already.

I’m holding on to some of that sense of the heart breaking beauty which is often seemingly just outside the scope of our vision in everyday life. The idea of the “thin place” or the liminal, in between places, which I am very drawn to. This is a more precarious and uncomfortable place which I believe God calls us towards. It is also more truly where we find ourselves in inter-dependence, and therefore pushed in solidarity towards one other and with those who live in poverty.

That we are all, in some sense, “aliens and strangers” in this world seems obvious to me. We cannot truly be “at home” in this world because we have an eternal home. By the way I can’t even begin to understand the view held by some Christians that this gives human kind licence to allow this beautiful planet on which we live to be despoiled. Exactly the opposite actually.

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Here’s a good quote about the liminal from the Franciscan theologian Richard Rohr:

…a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be but where the biblical God is always leading them. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are finally out of the way. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 

As quoted on the website called Liminal Space

Pilgrim Blues / R.I.P. Dugald

This is a difficult post to write, but here it is before life moves on.

Coming to an end of two months of forward motion. Each day, each stage of the journey had its momentum and its goals, including all the mundane but necessary tasks of daily living: how and where to wash, eat, where I was going to sleep and so on. The basic stuff of survival. Also the rich flow of people, conversations, places. The real  and wonderful sense of God’s closeness, provision and protection. It’s not that these things stop when you get home again, but a shift of gear is inevitable.

What I needed more than anything when I got back to London early last Saturday morning was rest. It had only been four days since I had climbed Ben Nevis, after all! But that initial pause for breath became a few days of torpor, and a bout of the blues. I had things in the diary: the anti bedroom tax sleep out at Islington Town Hall; Church on the Sunday; Folk in the Cellar at the Constitution in Camden on the Monday. People to call and catch up with. All of this went west and I mostly vegged out. I also rediscovered the simple ease of being in a “machine for living in”, as Corbusier called the home, where to make a cup of tea you need only put the kettle on.

In a previous post I referred briefly to my own experiences of poor mental health, and I continue occasionally to be vulnerable to the undertow of depression. I even found myself questioning if and how I would manage to re-engage with family and domestic life, and the world of work. Knowing that Françoise was due back from Brittany yesterday was a help.

In that same post I spoke of Betty and Dugald and their kind hospitality to me at their home in Wetherby, and of his struggle with clinical depression. Well it is with great sadness that I have to report that Dugald died on 8th August.

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So this post goes out with love and prayers to Betty and Dugald, their family and friends. And it also goes out in solidarity with all who experience or have experienced this most debilitating and frequently life threatening illness.

Stephen Fry has courageously opened up about his own struggles with mental ill-health. So it seems right to end with his lovely sign off from QI, “Be extremely kind to one other”