Now is the time to make our voice heard about the scandal of homelessness

lead London homeI live in Streatham, a residential area in south London and every day I walk the short distance to my local train station to go to work.

Last week, just near the station, I saw a man huddled up, sleeping in the telephone box.  It was bitterly cold and he looked horribly uncomfortable.

I was walking and talking with my next door neighbour at the time – but I broke off from our conversation to go back to see what I could do for this man. He responded well to being woken and he told me about his situation. It was a familiarly tragic story – a loss of job, broken family relationships and various unstable housing situations falling through. He was clearly carrying some form of injury and could barely stand up. I waited with him, talking about the local centres he could use, until an ambulance arrived.

Growing homelessness

It is just one more example of the growing situation we have in London where more and more people are ending up on the streets.  Street homelessness has gone up by more than 50% over the last five years. The current Mayor, Boris Johnson had pledged to eliminate rough sleeping by 2012 but last year 7,581 people slept rough in London – and these are just the official figures.

I am proud to work for the West London Mission who have been helping homeless people for 129 years. Our Day Centre in Marylebone often sees 100 rough sleepers every day. We also coordinate the Westminster Churches Winter Night Shelter where 13 churches and a synagogue all work together to offer accommodation every night of the week between October and May. We also run other more specialist services for men with alcohol addictions and for homeless ex-servicemen.

Speaking out

It is great that so many charities and churches are working to help homeless people come in from the cold. But we can’t just offer more and more help without speaking out about what is causing the problem. As Desmond Tutu said:

‘We should not just be pulling drowning people out of the river. We must go upstream and find out who is pushing them in.’

So this is why West London Mission has joined together with 20 other charities who have come together in the Lead London Home campaign.  With the mayoral elections coming up in May, now is the time to make our voice heard about the scandal of homelessness in London.

There is a clear manifesto which sets out 6 key actions that we are calling the new Mayor to take. And there is a petition so that as many people as possible add their voice to speak up about the scandal of homelessness.

Please consider signing and sharing this post with your friends.

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Concrete faith: A review of ‘Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker’ by Andrew Root

Bonhoeffer as Youth WorkerAt the start of this book, Andrew Root outlines ‘The Bonhoeffer Phenomenon’, the term coined for the divergent Christian tribes who have bestowed hero status on the German theologian.  One consequence is that books on Bonhoeffer are warped by the theological commitment of the authors, whether they be radical, liberal or conservative. Bonhoeffer’s legacy easily falls victim to the tribal propaganda rife in today’s Church.

With this in mind, Root dismisses some of Bonhoeffer’s most popular advocates. Eric Metaxas’ biography is ‘so flawed and earnest to paint Bonhoeffer as a conservative’ that he refuses to refer to it.  Similarly Peter Rollins ‘deeply misreads Bonhoeffer’ due to his dogmatic commitment to his revolutionary interpretation.

The ‘lens’ of youth work

Root does bring his own lens to his study of Bonhoeffer, but it is not one shaped by theological tribalism. Rather it is something more concrete and helpful: Bonhoeffer’s practice of youth work.

Many people will be familiar with Bonhoeffer’s most famous books, The Cost of Discipleship or Life Together or his role in the plot against Hitler and his Letters and Papers from Prison. Fewer have acknowledged the central role that youth work played in his life’s work.

This neglect is in itself significant – because it shows how the Church and its theological establishment continues to patronise and marginalise youth work.  As Root shows, Bonhoeffer never fell into this trap. Despite his deep and intricate theological work and political activism, Bonhoeffer consistently led a wide range of youth groups and wrestled with the practical challenges involved.

Root takes us on an immensely readable journey through the different stages of Bonhoeffer’s life. Each chapter focusing on a different part of this journey and his youth work in different contexts in Berlin and also further afield in Barcelona and New York.

From technological to theological

Root writes in an accessible, yet scholarly way, and never pulls his punches about the problems facing contemporary youth work in North America. His central critique is that much ‘youth ministry was created as a technology’ needed to solve a functional problem of ‘low religious commitment and immoral behaviour.’

‘This technological approach has begun to feel like a noose around the neck of many youth workers…it feels as if their ministry is always in search of the next big programme, model or idea’.

In contrast, Root claims that Bonhoeffer is the forefather to ‘the theological turn’ in youth work. Rather than trying to solve a functional problem, this approach ‘seeks to share in the concrete and lived experience young people as the very place to share in the act and being of God.’

‘Concrete and lived experiences’

The core reason Bonhoeffer captivates people today is not because he wrote some profound theology.  It is because this theology was ‘concrete and lived’. Like Jesus himself, Bonhoeffer’s faith led him to his death. And it is through this death that power and life has come.

All youth workers and church leaders (and bloggers!) can benefit from Bonhoeffer’s challenge to keep theology real and rooted in the concrete. We need to avoid the constant danger of what he described as ‘phraseology’ which is rife in the Church today.  As Root puts it:

‘Phraseology was the enemy because it was theology cut loose from real life; it was theology that could make no difference or had no concern for the concrete and lived experience of young people.’

Recommended reading

One improvement that Root could have included is a study guide to help youth workers reflect on the themes of this book. Christian books easily live in a world detached and disintegrated from actual application and authors need to do all they can to help readers move beyond the world of words.

But I would highly recommend this book to any Christian youth workers who are looking for a stimulating read.  Even better, I would recommend that all church leaders who have a youth worker buy two copies and commit to reading a chapter each week and reflecting together.

Root’s book is a great addition to the many books written on Bonhoeffer – an inspiring challenge to cut through the abstract and recognise God at work in the concrete and lived experiences of young people.

Buy Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker by Andrew Root (Baker Academic)

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Comforting the disturbed, and disturbing the comfortable

Jesus cheThere are plenty of reasons why Christianity, especially in Western countries, is perceived as a religion of the rich and powerful. Over the last two thousand years, a huge amount of unhelpful cultural and historical baggage has accumulated around Christianity.

The best antidote is to return to the Bible and be reminded of what Jesus actually said and did.

A few years ago, I heard a talk at the Greenbelt festival which encouraged everyone to go through one of the gospel books and do the following:

  1. Note down all the of Jesus’ encounters with individuals and groups that were recorded.
  2. Record whether these encounters were with people who could be considered powerful in terms of wealth, social standing or politics or whether they could be considered on the margins.
  3. Note down whether the encounter with Jesus had a positive or negative outcome.

Jesus’ encounters in the book of Matthew

I went away and did this, using Matthew’s gospel as it contains the longest account of Jesus’ life.  It is obvious to see the pattern that emerges: In the vast majority of cases, Jesus’ encounters with the powerful are negative and his encounters with those on the margins are positive.

Where the outcome fits with this pattern is recorded in green in the last column and where its does not it is marked with red. For two encounters the outcome is not recorded in the gospel so these have been left blank.C the D 1

C the D 2C the D 3What this pattern tells us

The pattern that emerges is strong and clear enough to show us the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ life.

Jesus was compassionate. He comforted the disturbed – bringing hope, healing and joy to people in need.  This example has inspired Christians to do the same – offering care and help to those in need.

We must not simply frame Jesus’ mission in the positive.  For, as this list shows, Jesus also disturbed the comfortable, sharply challenging the rich, religious and complacent. His words and life threatened the self-interest of religious, political and economic status quo to its core.

An upside-down kingdom

Jesus spoke of and lived out an ‘upside-down kingdom’ which turns the selfish and unjust values of the world on its head. Where economic, social or religious systems embody selfishness and injustice, like they did in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus calls us to turn over their tables.

This is the core basis for Christian political engagement today. Jesus challenged the self-interest of the rich and powerful then – and his followers should do the same today.

There is nothing more biblical than a concern for social justice.  It is here, in Jesus’ example, that we can find the best inspiration to challenge and change our unjust world.

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I am a Muslim who believes in Christ’s love for all – by Soraya Deen

PeacemomsI love Christmas. This year we assembled and lit our tree. On Christmas day my Jewish friend came over with her son and we did a gift exchange and had a great brunch. There is no way we forget to celebrate Christmas in our Muslim home.

I was born in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a multi-racial, multi religious and a multi ethnic island. At school we recited from all scriptural texts, (Yes, I even learned the, “Hail Mary …”). From a very early age I was taught and trained to celebrate and respect all faiths. In our home we had a Bible, Quran and many other religious books.

A beloved community

I came to the United States fifteen years ago and a beloved community welcomed me. At that time, it seemed to matter less who you were, people were less fearful and trust was easier to find. Another woman, of a similar age, called Nadyne, befriended me.  She was a Christian – from a family of church goers and Bible readers.

To me, to this day they have been a true witness to their faith in Christ.When I was looking for a place to live, they opened their home to me. When I needed someone to talk with, they counselled me and supported me. When I was hungry they fed me.

Yes, they served me and they loved me. They took me to church, we prayed before a meal, we were curious about each other. We chose not to conform but to reform. Our friendships blossomed, and as a result our families have exchanged many encounters and events from across the world.

NAdyne&Soraya‘Peacemoms’

The friendship between Nadyne and I prompted us to start an initiative called Peacemoms. Over the years we have been friends we have seen escalating conflicts between Christians and Muslims, so our story has become more relevant than ever.

Today, we go into the community and educate mothers and young people to celebrate interfaith dialogue and action. We speak at churches and mosques – and companies. Our message is one of social justice through the means of Communication, Collaboration, and Compassion.

Ava and ImaanToday, Nadyne and I are blessed to have two beautiful daughters (pictured) who are now both 12 years old. They are an authentic product of our testimony because they love one another. Is this not what Jesus commands?  When we make that one effort to get to know each other, our hearts open and we will continue to open the hearts of our children.

‘The only thing that counts…’

Every church I have visited, I have been welcomed and treated with great love. From the West to the East, the church has always been a strong befriender of the lost and the poor. I have seen time and again how deeply committed the Christian community is towards serving and feeding the needy. These stories I share with my own faith community as I empower them to show up and do better.

Today, it is clear that much more needs to be done. I think this is the time to escalate Christ’s love to all. This is the time to remain strong and not let politics and fear stifle our love for one another. The chaos and violence seems to escalate in the Middle East. Perhaps this will all get far worse before it can get any better.

Fear and blind misunderstanding can very easily drive us apart. But there are resources within both faiths which can help us forge mutual understanding and respect. Whatever our faith, we can all be challenged by these words in the Bible:  ‘The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’ (Galatians 5:6)

Soraya Deen is the co-founder of Peacemoms.   Soraya and Nadyne travel widely through their work promoting Muslim-Christian understanding.  Soraya authored the book PEACE MATTERS: Raising Peace Conscious Children. She can be contacted via mail: info@sorayadeen.com

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Fat Cat Tuesday: top bosses have already made more money by today than the typical UK worker will earn in a year

Gold BentleyI work for a charity that helps homeless people in the West End of London. A few weeks ago I walked out of my office and saw this car parked outside – a gold Bentley.  I am used to seeing flash cars in the area – like people sleeping rough, it’s a hallmark of central London life.

But there was something about the brazen, ostentatiousness of this car that got under my skin. Of course, rich people buy nice cars. But this was not just a nice car: it is a car built to show off the wealth of its owner. It is an offensive status symbol parked in a street where many sleep rough.  An increasing number of these homeless people are working but are sleeping rough because they cannot afford the sky-high rents and travel costs in London.

It is a just a symbol of the UK’s gross inequality which seems out of control.

‘Fat Cat Tuesday’

An independent think tank called the High Pay Centre has dubbed today ‘Fat Cat Tuesday’ because it marks a point in the year when, after only 2 days of work, top bosses in the UK will already have earned more than someone on the average wage. The following is taken from the High Pay Centre’s website:

  • FTSE 100 chief executives are paid an average £4.96 million a year. We found that even if CEOs are assumed to work long hours with very few holidays, this is equivalent to hourly pay of more than £1,200 .
  • The typical value of a FTSE 100 CEO’s incentive award has risen by nearly 50% of salary since the previous year, while the annual pay of the average UK worker has increased by just £445, from £27,200 to £27,645.

Watch this brilliant 3 minute video which unpacks the issue really clearly:

A Christian perspective

The Bible, and especially Jesus, has a huge amount to say about the dangers of greed.  So this is an issue which Christians should care about hugely.  But, especially in contrast to issues of sexuality, it does not seem to feature high on the agenda for many churches.

Ron Sider, wrote the following in his classic book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:

‘Most Christians in the Northern Hemisphere simply do not believe Jesus’ teachings about the deadly danger of possessions. Jesus warned that possessions are highly dangerous – so dangerous, in fact, that it is highly difficult for a rich person to be a Christian at all…Matthew, Mark and Luke all record the terrible warning ‘How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!’ (p.95)

He goes on:

‘We madly multiply sophisticated gadgets, bigger houses, fancier cars, and fashionable clothes – not because such things truly enrich our lives but because we are driven by an obsession for more and more. Covetousness, a striving for more and more material possessions, has become the cardinal vice of modern civilisation.’ (p.98)

This is why initiatives like ‘Fat Cat Tuesday’ are a good idea – because the expose this ‘cardinal vice’ in ways which people can grasp and understand.   Right wing think tanks, such as the Adam Smith Institute, have dismissed it as ‘the hand waving of pub economics’. But, perhaps this is what is needed at a time when what seems to be dominating us is the economics of the champagne bar.

Posted in Politics, Poverty | 7 Comments

Five Helps for the New Year

Michael RamseyI was really struck by reading these ‘Five Helps for the New Year’ shared on Facebook recently by Mark Bryant, the Bishop of Jarrow.

They were written by Michael Ramsey, (right) who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1961-74, for his clergy. They are full of deep spiritual insight and good sense. I want to hold onto them as I enter into 2016 and return to work:

1. Thank God. Often and always. Thank him carefully and wonderingly for your continuing privileges and for every experience of his goodness. Thankfulness is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.

2. Take care about confession of your sins. As time passes the habit of being critical about people and things grows more than each of us realize. …[He then gently commends the practice of sacramental confession].

3. Be ready to accept humiliations. They can hurt terribly but they can help to keep you humble. [Whether trivial or big, accept them he says.] All these can be so many chances to be a little nearer to our Lord. There is nothing to fear, if you are near to the Lord and in his hands.

4. Do not worry about status. There is only one status that Our Lord bids us be concerned with, and that is our proximity to Him. “If a man serve me, let him follow me, and where I am there also shall my servant be”. (John 12:26) That is our status; to be near our Lord wherever He may ask us to go with him.

5. Use your sense of humour. Laugh at things, laugh at the absurdities of life, laugh at yourself.

Through the year people will thank God for you. And let the reason for their thankfulness be not just that you were a person whom they liked or loved but because you made God real to them.

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Honour where it’s due: Neil Jameson, Citizens UK and the difference between profile and genuine influence

Neil-Jameson-Citizens-UK-001I am not a big fan of the Honours system which awards Knighthoods, CBEs, OBEs and MBEs every year. Again this year there has been controversy over political bias in the awards as the director of the Conservative election campaign, Lynton Crosby, was given a knighthood. And as The Times reports, despite only 7% of the country attending private schools, over 50% of the top awards went to people with that background.

Citizens UK

But one name stood out when I looked at the list of who had been awarded gongs this year – and that was Neil Jameson, the Executive Director of Citizens UK who received a CBE ‘for services to community organising and social justice.’

For those of you who don’t know, Citizens UK is a network of different community organising groups across the country. They bring churches, mosques, trade unions and other civil organisations together to create change on public and political issues.

I first came across them about 13 years ago through the work of their first group in East London to fight for better pay for cleaners who worked for the banks in Canary Wharf. These were the first steps in the Living Wage campaign which now has over 2000 companies committed to and which has enabled 10,000 working families to come out of poverty levels in London alone.

Over the years the Citizens UK movement has gone from strength to strength. Their Forums they organise before mayoral and national elections to hold candidates to account for their promises are the best example of democracy in action. They have had huge influence on a whole range of social justice issues and now have networks in South, West and North London and in Nottingham, Cardiff, Leeds, Birmingham and Milton Keynes.

Citizens UKNeil Jameson has been working for 24 years to facilitate the growth of this work. But this is a different kind of leadership than many of us are used to – if you attend any of the Citizens UK events, you are unlikely to see Neil up the front.

Fundamental to the Citizens’ philosophy is that ordinary people take the high profile roles on stage and behind the microphones. It is not the community organising experts who grow their profile, but those embedded in the communities they are representing take centre stage. This is what gives the movement its credibility, authenticity and power.

Profile or real influence?

I believe that all leaders can learn from Neil Jameson’s approach – especially those within the church because it exposes the gap that often exists between profile and real influence. We make a mistake if we measure leadership by how well known someone is, rather than the concrete change they bring about.

The world of books, websites, blogs, twitter and conferences are important and can be used well. But they are also dangerously seductive as they create a separate, virtual world which is easily disconnected from where real change happens. The quick wins that can lead to a developing your profile competes with the slow, hard work involved in bringing about genuine change. The kind of activism that changes situations is different to the easy ‘clicktivism’ of the social media world.

We need to mind the gaps that emerge between profile and reality. When it widens, it generates shallowness, insecurity, envious criticism of others and addictive behaviour. Being obsessed with Facebook ‘likes’ and retweets is to feed a monster that will never lose its appetite.

Empowering others

A leader’s profile should be anchored to the real, tangible work they have done. And this is where Neil Jameson’s example is inspiring.

He has not invested in his own profile but that of the movement he serves. He has committed himself to create genuine change and empowered hundreds to become leaders for themselves and exert their own influence. It’s an approach captured well by words written in 1924 by the pioneering social theorist, Mary Parker Follett:

“Leadership is not defined by the exercise of power but by the capacity to increase the sense of power among those led. The most essential work of the leader is to create more leaders.”

The work of Citizens UK is making our country a better and fairer place and it’s great to see this acknowledged today. Of course, there is irony with those who fight for social justice accepting honours from the establishment. But, as Saul Alinsky, the founder of modern community organising, said

‘True revolutionaries do not flaunt their radicalism. They cut their hair, put on suits, and infiltrate the system from within.’

Related posts: Our Addiction to Self-Promotion

Posted in Social action | Tagged , | 2 Comments

R&R’s Christmas Quiz: Activists who have changed the world

Time for an R&R Christmas quiz! Can you name these 12 activists who have put their Christian faith into action and helped to change the world:

R&R quiz

How many do you reckon you have got? For the answers and a little bit more about each of them see here

Many of these people are now relatively famous for their achievements. Rather than indulge in hero worship, I think its better to reflect on how their example can inspire and challenge us. How can we put our beliefs into action to make a difference in the world?

If you are interested in a weekend away exploring these kinds of themes then you might be interested in joining this weekend I am leading in February at the beautiful Lee Abbey:

MAKING A DIFFERENCE IN A WORLD OF INJUSTICE

19-21 February 2016, Lee Abbey Devon, UK

Today, the richest 1% of people own more than the rest of world combined. We see refugee crises across the globe and growing homelessness and debt in the UK. How do we confront inequality and injustice and express Christ’s hope and compassion towards the poor? And how can our social activism remain connected to our faith? Join us as we reflect on what it looks like to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God.

For more information and details about booking see the Lee Abbey website

Posted in Social action | 1 Comment

Can you help a homeless person exchange the cold streets for a warm bed this Christmas?

wldc nameDear R&R friends,

Thanks for reading R&R this year.  I continue to be encouraged by the growth of interest and from the comments and messages I receive via this blog.  So far this year over 140,000 different people have visited the site.

As you may know, much of what is written comes from reflection on my work.  I am very proud to lead the West London Mission’s work with homeless and vulnerable people. But times are tough – and we need support.

Rising needs

WLDC

Painting of the West London Day Centre by Jonathan Addis

Rough sleeping continues to rise in central London. Official government figures show that rough sleeping has increased by 55% in the last five years – and this is the just the official figure.

The West London Mission remains on the frontline of meeting increasing demands with around 100 homeless people coming to our day centre every day.  There, they can have a shower, get a hot breakfast and collect their post. They can also see a nurse for a medical check- up.   Sadly, we regularly have to limit the amount because the building cannot cope with many more than this number.

Less resources

And, to add to the challenges, we now receive no government funding for this work.  In the last financial year, we felt we had to refuse long-standing funding from Westminster City Council because of new conditions they insisted on being attached to the grant. The changes would have meant us having to exclude people we consider vulnerable and in need of our help.  We felt it was important to stand by our values of welcoming anyone in need.

One example…

Just to give you an example of what we do every day.  A few weeks ago, a man called Jonathan (37) came to us after he was evicted when he fell behind with his rent. Unable to immediately find anywhere else affordable he ended up sleeping on night buses in London. When he came to the day centre we were able to book him into our winter night shelter that we run in conjunction with the churches and synagogue in Westminster. Then, we helped him find a studio flat in Brent which he moved into at the end of November.

Every day we see people made vulnerable through mental health issues, addictions, moving to look for work, bereavement, escaping conflict, or redundancy. We provide a place of refuge and work with them to understand their situation and their story and support them into accommodation and employment. Jonathan is just one example: last year we saw 1,621 different people and helped 302 people come off the streets.

Christmas time 

As you can imagine, Christmas-time is one of the hardest times to be homeless. It’s not just the colder, wetter weather, it’s the memories of past Christmases shared with family and friends.

We continue to develop the services we offer. Our Chaplain, Ruth, is based at the Centre and leads the Spirituality Discussion Group every Tuesday. One of the highlights for the group this year was being given a tour of the House of Lord’s, courtesy of the Bishop of Portsmouth.  And this November, we opened a clinic especially for homeless people’s dogs in partnership with Trusty Paws, a charity which coordinates student Vets who volunteer their time to offer services to homeless people’s dogs.

Any help appreciated!

So for all these reasons, we need help, more than ever. We have done a lot of work to reduce costs where we can and are now receiving more and more donations of food which has helped expenditure. But this year we really need supporters to be as generous as possible.

It costs us around £150 to help a homeless person off the streets and back into   accommodation. This includes providing an initial assessment, drawing up an action plan, liaising with specialist agencies, and continued support while assisting the client to move into accommodation.

If you are able to donate please visit our Just Giving Page. Please remember that the Day Centre runs on a tight budget so even a small donation can make a big difference!

Thank you for any help you can give and have a very Happy Christmas!

Jon Kuhrt, West London Mission

PS: The West London Mission doesn’t have a Communications team or a large central office, so if you can share this post via facebook or twitter that would greatly help us!

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged | 2 Comments

We need more silence in our lives

“In modern culture, it almost seems like silence is extinct. We have given noise our consent to fill every moment of life. And it’s not just sonic noise, but even the mental noise that comes from constant entertainment. Through our smartphones, our tablets and our laptops, we always have access to a virtual world that demands our attention. We have created sources of sound and distraction for every situation. As a result, silence has become fantasy, a neverland we choose to not visit. And why bother? To be socially accepted, we must be culturally connected. To be culturally connected, we have to listen to the roar.”

Louis Spivak, Relevant Magazine

Most of what is written on R&R concerns activism – ‘doing stuff’ to make the world a slightly better place. It’s important, but its a mistake to only focus on outward actions – because many of the battles we face are to do with our inward journeys. They go on within us.

There is a lot of noise in our world. And blogs like this add to that noise.

We need to offer resistance to the ways of the world if we are to find renewal. Advent is a great time of year to do this – to slow down and intentionally spend more time in silence and reflection.

Join the Pre-tox

Today marks the start of R&R’s Christmas Pre-tox.  Join us on 24 days of intentional silence, reading and reflection. 15 minutes a day that will be good for your soul.

“All men need enough silence and solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally…for he cannot go on happily for long unless he is in contact with the springs of spiritual life which are hidden in the depths of his own soul.”    Thomas Merton, The Silent Life (1957)

Posted in Social commentary | Tagged , , | 9 Comments