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

AllSaints

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!

brushes

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

Glasgow connections

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More photos here

Well I had not consciously included Glasgow as one of my pilgrimage destinations, but in truth it is definitely a place with significance for me. For one thing it is the home town of my father, who I barely knew. And of course I’ve always known this but sort of avoided the fact, and the city. I almost certainly have family here that I’ve never met. Any “Who do you think you are” researchers reading this?

If you’ve been following my progress in this homeless pilgrimage you will recall that I planned to spend some time sleeping on the street at some point. So arriving in Glasgow on Tuesday I was considering this idea.  I even spent more than half an hour sitting in a doorway with my backpack, until I was verbally abused in my quiet reverie by a callow youth. “You’re taking the piss” is what he accused me of. Which as far as I’m aware I was not doing in the least. Merely minding my business and thinking about my options. There you have it: anti homeless prejudice without even bedding down.

It was not this alone that helped me decide, but it did add to my sense of unease about finding somewhere to kip in a city I barely know.

I spent an hour at Glasgow City Mission when it opened at 8.00pm, which was great. Lovely chats with some of the guests there, who were all friendly, helpful and courteous to a fault. Much better company than the aggressive youth of earlier in the evening! And I had a good chat also with Joe, their resettlement worker, I enquired casually about shelters, sort of saying that I could give a donation, and he spotted me for what I was right away: someone who was not strictly homeless, and with resources. And quite rightly he directed me to the tourist hostels, saying that unless I was homeless and with a Glasgow connection –  I did not launch into the family connection story at this point, of course – I was out of luck. Part of me exulted at this.  A good man, responding to a backpacker with courtesy and good advice. So at this point I realised I actually did need to find somewhere to sleep,.

Glasgow was not as crowded as Edinburgh, through which I had passed earlier in the day, and which was exploding with Fringe people and street performances.  But worryingly the first hostel at which I enquired was full, probably – they thought – with people who hadn’t found anywhere to stay in Edinburgh. Thankfully, and this is another example of God’s provision to me, there was room at the Youth Hostel.  Which is great by the way.

So yesterday I did the tourist thing, after a fashion. I’ve taken some photos to upload at some point.  I spent the morning at the Cathedral, which is magnificent. I was particularly moved at the tomb / shrine of Kentigern or St Mungo, which has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, and is the reason that the Cathedral and the city are where they are. The motto on the city’s coat of arms: “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of thy word” is attributed to St Mungo. And of course St Mungo’s is a well-known name in the field of homelessness, having been started by a Glaswegian who was one of Anton Wallich Clifford’s colleagues in the early days of the Simon Community.

I also visited the Necropolis. which is extraordinary. A city for the dead, with accommodation better than for many of the living. A hymn of Victorian grandeur and affluence. The People’s Palace was also well worth a visit, particularly as it devoted significant space to the role of housing in the history of the city – from the prosperity and order of the 18th Century, through the famously overcrowded tenements in the Gorbals, through to a temporary exhibition on the Red Road Estate and its impending demolition.

And I’ve been thinking about Dad and my lost family connections with this place. And yes I have raised a glass of whiskey to him and my Scots roots. He emigrated to South Africa after he and my Mum divorced, and started another family. We met up a couple of times when he came over to this country before he died, but I have practically no childhood recollection of him.

I’ll spend another day here before starting on the West Highland Way, and on to Iona.

Less than two weeks to go..

July 1st is now less than a fortnight away, so I’m starting to feel excited about this thing l’ll be doing. This what is it? This pilgrimage. This retreat. This walkabout. This time on the road and on the street.

Most people I’ve spoken to about the plan have understood what it’s about. In fact a few have said they would like to join me! My Franciscan friend Brother Vaughan has offered to walk the first day with me, out of London. I think I am going to take him up on that. He is also the one who is lending me one of his backpacks. He has 3! He does a lot of walking, including the Camino to Santiago de Compostella.

I’m experimenting with writing this on the blackberry, to find out if it will work while I am out on the road, but it doesn’t work so well. I may have to find the use of  computer at a internet cafe or day centre as I go.

I will post again a bit later as its a bit of a palaver on the blackberry..

On the Road and On the Street

Pilgrimage to Canterbury photos

one of the many fields of rape we walked through this year

one of the many fields of rape we walked through this year

the pub was not open..

the pub was not open..

Introduction: about this blog and about me

I am starting this blog mainly with the aim of documenting some of my thoughts and reflections, with a focus on homelessness and the state of society today.

You’ll probably want to know about me, so here are a few things:

  • I work for the national Christian housing and homelessness charity Housing Justice.
  • I started in this homelessness field in 1990 volunteering at the West London Day Centre. I have also worked and volunteered for The Passage, Emmaus, Union Chapel, The Simon Community, North London Action for the Homeless, and Caris Islington Churches Winter Shelter.
  • In May 2003 I became Development Worker for UNLEASH, Church Action on Homelessness in London. We were just 2 part time staff, sharing offices with Housing Justice, which itself launched in 2003 when CHAS, the Catholic Housing Aid Society, merged with CNHC, the Churches National Housing Coalition. UNLEASH merged with Housing Justice in 2006. Sorry about the complicated acronyms!
  • I’m a Christian, worshipping with BethnalGreenMissionChurch since we moved to this area in 2009. And we are: me, my wife Francoise and our youngest son Theo. Our two older children, Claire and Cameron, no longer live at home, except Cameron who comes home from Uni (sometimes) during the holidays.
  • Over my 20’s and 30’s I tried out various careers, and did a lot of travelling. I made a living for a time as a busker, in France, Italy and the US. I also lived in two radical communities: The Farm in Tennessee, and a small anarchist commune in Sardinia.
  • These days I still sing and play guitar and sometimes get inspired to write songs. I lead worship at our church, and can occasionally be spotted playing the blues, the folk, and now and again even a bit of Dad Rock.

I suppose the main thing to know for the purposes of this blog is that I have been involved in action on homelessness for about 20 years, the last 10 with Housing Justice.

A personal pilgrimage: On the Road and on the Street

Another reason for starting the blog is that, thanks to Housing Justice, I have an opportunity to take a sabbatical this summer. In July and August I’ll be doing something that has been on my heart for a while: a personal pilgrimage around this country. I’ll be walking and hitch hiking, visiting places that have significance for me, like Whitby where I was born, and places that have significance as centres of the Christian life, like Holy Island and Iona.

I’m also going to spend some time living on the streets, among people who are sleeping rough and using homelessness support services.

Why a pilgrimage? One reason is that I’ve taken part in the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields Pilgrimage to Canterbury since 2007. Each Spring Bank Holiday weekend over a hundred people come together to walk the 74 miles from St Martin-in-the-Fields in Trafalgar Square to Canterbury Cathedral, raising funds for the Connection’s work with homeless people in London. Françoise and I just got back, so it seems a good place to start, especially as I was invited to give a brief reflection at the Thanksgiving Service on Monday night in the Crypt of Canterbury Cathedral.

arriving at Canterbury Cathedral with our banner

arriving at Canterbury Cathedral with our banner

“Some people talk the talk, but we walk the walk, don’t we? And we have the blisters to prove it!

This year was my seventh pilgrimage. I joined in 2007 when I heard about it from Roger Shaljean and his late wife Kath, who came up with the idea. Probably like many of you, the idea of a pilgrimage in support of homeless people made sense.

I first met Roger in 2003 when I started with Housing Justice, the national Christian campaign on housing and homelessness. Among other things we resource church responses to the needs of homeless people, like night shelters. And folks, I probably don’t need to tell you, but the situation is getting worse. However I won’t jump on that soap box here.

What I want to share is something of what this pilgrimage means to me. After seven years it looks like I’m hooked, but why?

Top of the list, for me, is walking with a group of people in companionship, in fellowship. Being part of this community where everyone really matters. As we just heard in the Bible reading (1 Corinthians 12.12-27) we are “One body with many members” and each one is important. Everyone matters. Whatever you do, whatever your “station in life”, and whatever your “status.”

This sense of a supportive community to belong to is something I really value, even something I need. In my own life I have for various reasons had a sense of being an outsider. I know this is partly what drew me to this work, responding to the issue of homelessness in our society.

But companionship, being together in fellowship with a community is vital to all of us, isn’t it? It is no exaggeration to say that we need this to protect ourselves from (hat tip to Xavier and his Shakespeare recitation in Charing yesterday) the “Slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Or, more simple, to help us to resist the alienating effects of “modern life”.

The world, as viewed from where I sit with Housing Justice, is becoming a harder place. But we, together, don’t have to become like that. And we, together, can take this difference into our lives, our families, our work (if we have some to do), and our neighbourhoods.

In this community of pilgrimage we find the love of God and of each other. And we discover that all we need is in each other, and this is our real and lasting treasure.

And every time I see the 2013 blue Pilgrimage T shirt it will remind me of the bluebells in Kingsdown Wood!”