I’m agnostic, but I know if it wasn’t for Christians many more homeless people would die on the streets – by Paul Anderson

homeless-and-cold-400I have worked for a variety of homeless charities for over 20 years, so generally not much surprises me when it comes to the reality of poverty and destitution.

However, this week I was out doing a street count in London to assess how many people are actually sleeping on the streets. It’s been a while since I did outreach work like this and it made me reflect on what I saw.  I was particularly struck by three things:

  1. How dangerous and frightening the streets are

I was out deep into the night and at around 2.00 am, it struck me again how dangerous and frightening life on the streets actually is. In the eerie silence of a city stilled, my ears became acutely aware of every noise. Every person wandering around was a cause of suspicion: Why are they there? What are they up to? Where are they going?

It struck me how damaging the impact of such a suspicious and insecure environment is on homeless people. Especially when they end up on the streets for an extended period.

  1. The pain and hurt of homeless people

Everyone of the people we met appeared to be hurting. These are fragile and broken people despite any tough exterior they might portray. Often they end up doing things to survive they might hate themselves for if they could ever allow themselves to reflect.

These invisible people in our society are often mocked and abused by drunken passers-by. Their pain and hurt increased by those who get their kicks from treating others as less than human.

  1. The compassion of people of faith

These first two points might be obvious to many, but my third point is perhaps more controversial.

We had people from the local church as some of the organisers of the street count. From many of the Facebook posts I read, cheap shots at organised religion are increasingly common. If asked, I would describe myself as an agnostic on a spiritual journey. I am not a Christian and do not attend church services (although I sometimes pop in during quite times for some spiritual solace).

Yet I became increasingly appreciative during the cold night of these individuals, motivated by their faith, who give up their time to befriend society’s most excluded people. If it wasn’t for church groups many more homeless people – and especially migrants who do not qualify for benefits – would die of hypothermia each winter.

The State had withdrawn any support for those individuals (even if they have been tax payers).  Therefore the “professional” homelessness agencies, generally funded by Housing Benefit, have been put it in an impossible position where they can’t help migrants for whom work or re-connections back home are not viable options. In some more remote areas church outreach and shelters are the only provision that exist.

Snide commentators

The evening made me think about the contrast between these activists and the snide commentators who deride their work whilst sitting in pubs preparing their gimmicky protests against capitalism. I don’t see anarchist groups banding together to go out and actually help people. They are more likely to be writing long tomes on Facebook railing against injustice. I even hear them talking pompously about how “piecemeal actions” such as night shelters and food banks are pointless in the face of deeper injustices.

I remember some  years ago going to a comedy benefit gig for asylum seekers where a household name left-wing comedian used the occasion to mock Christians in the audience. This is despite Christians being amongst the only people to be practically helping and publicly speaking out in defence of asylum seekers at the time. This seemed as unnecessarily hurtful to me as if he had made jokes on the basis of sexuality or race.

As I was reminded on the streets this week, in the current housing and poverty crisis, the work of churches and other faith groups is vital. Those sitting on the sidelines should quit patronising and sniping at them and respect them for what they do.

Paul Anderson lives in London and works for a homeless charity

Posted in Homelessness, Politics | 1 Comment

We cannot pretend this violence has nothing to do with religion

Jon Kuhrt:

After the terrible events last night in Paris, I thought I would reblog this post from earlier this year as it seemed more relevant than ever.

Originally posted on Resistance & Renewal:

islamic-violenceMy next door neighbour is a devout Muslim and he is the best neighbour that it is possible to have. He recently replaced the fence between our gardens. Not only did he refuse to accept any contribution from us for the cost of the new fence, but while we were away he came round and coated our side of the fence too.

Over the years, I have got to know him and we have talked about our different faiths and what they mean to us.  There is no way that his generosity, kindness and essential decency can be separated from his faith. His beliefs and action are integral to each other.

Religion that leads to violence

In an attempt to stem the flow of anti-Muslim sentiment after atrocities such as 9/11, or the murders of Lee Rigby or the Charlie Hebdo staff, it is common to hear people say ‘this has nothing to do with Islam’…

View original 553 more words

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Christmas Pretox: a pre-emptive strike on festive busyness

Christmas pretox candle‘I want to simplify your lives. When others are telling you to read more, I want to tell you to read less; when others are telling you to do more, I want to tell you to do less. The world does not need more of you; it needs more of God. Your friends do not need more of you; they need more of God. And you don’t need more of you, you need more of God.’ Eugene Petersen, Subversive Spirituality

What is the point of the Christmas Pretox?

The Christmas Pretox is a pre-emptive strike on stress and busyness.  To help us slow down and focus on the right things. To give us some soul space. To re-dress the balance of a Christmas season which sees us spend more, eat more, drink more and get stressed more than any other time of year.

Focus on what?

Christmas is a celebration which marks the birth of Jesus Christ, so I have used the book of Luke as a basis for 24 daily readings.  Luke was a doctor, who explains at the start of his book that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning’ and ‘decided to write an orderly account’.

Whatever your personal beliefs about Jesus, I hope that you will find these readings interesting.  Jesus of Nazareth remains a controversial figure but no one can dispute the profound impact that his words and actions have had on the world.  If you are a sceptic, an agnostic or even an atheist, I hope you can find interest in some of the most influential teaching and stories of all time.

The daily readings take you on a journey backwards from Jesus’ life. So they start with the accounts of his resurrection and death and take you through many of the key events and teachings of his short life. It means that the first few readings are a bit heavy as they deal with his arrest and death but don’t let that put you off.  As you go on you’ll cover some of the most famous stories and incidents in his life and in the last few days, you will cover the traditional ‘Christmas stories’ relating to his birth.

How the pretox works

Each day, you are asked to set aside 10-15 minutes each day. Make sure you have a quiet space where you will not be interrupted.  It would be worth setting aside a regular time each day if that is possible.

There really is no rocket science to this –  there are 5 steps and it is very simple:

  1. A time of stilling and silence
  2. A reading from Luke’s gospel
  3. Reflection – on a question related to the reading
  4. A second time of silence
  5. Prayer/Focus for the day ahead

An introduction and 24 daily readings for the Christmas Pretox can be downloaded here on a PDF format. It is recommended that you print it out rather than read on screen.

Please leave a comment or drop me an email – mrjonkuhrt@gmail.com – if you have any questions.  Let the pre-emptive strike begin.

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A step for social justice and equality that EVERYONE could take

living wage small imageThis week a Church of England report was published called ‘Talking Jesus’. One finding of this report, highlighted by The Guardian, is that when Christians talk to others about Jesus, it is more likely to turn them off than attract them.

So how can Christians share their faith in ways that are relevant and do not make people squirm with embarrassment? I believe a key way is through a commitment to social justice.

A community movement

This week has also been Living Wage Week.   The Living Wage is a minimum amount of hourly pay (£8.25 in UK; £9.40 in London) which employers are encouraged to voluntarily commit to and become an accredited Living Wage employer. My workplace, the West London Mission, became accredited last year.

The Living Wage was started by Citizens UK, a brilliant, inclusive movement made up of many community groups who campaign together to bring about social change.  A huge number of churches are involved – so faith is right at the heart of this movement.

Something everyone could do

If you work for a company or organisation, could you suggest to the senior management that your company commit to becoming a Living Wage employer? Whatever your position, everyone could become advocates for this, both within their work places or within the churches or community groups you are part of who also employ people.

The Living Wage is a simple idea which is helping create a fairer and more just society. In practice this often means that those who are paid the least in organisations, often cleaners and domestic staff, get a pay rise.  Over 10,000 families have been lifted out of poverty in London alone as a result. It has proved to be good for business, good for families and good for society.

Creative and confident

Faith and ActionsThe ‘Talking Jesus’ report shows  that followers of Jesus need to be creative and confident about how they show their faith to others.  But fundamental to this is an understanding the relationship between the explicit expressions of faith, where we talk overtly about God and Jesus, and the implicit expressions where our beliefs are channeled in actions.

Most work for social justice is very much in the implicit category. By itself, it is not enough, but it lays a strong foundation for the explicit.  Work for social justice enables people to see the relevance and reality of what we believe. Explicit words about God needs to be clothed in implicit actions which evidence this belief.

Martin Luther King challenged the Christians of his day about an imbalance that we easily fall into:

“How often are our lives characterised by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anaemia of deeds!”

Carriers of good news

The Christian faith cannot be reduced simply to our activism. We are not the good news. Our hope is rooted in what God has done in history, what He is doing now and what He will one day complete.

But Christians should be carriers and communicators of this good news in ways which speak to people. We don’t do this by talking at people, or by painfully crow-barring Jesus into conversations, or inviting them to cringy events with hidden agendas.

Actions speak loudest

We do it through living lives which illustrate what we believe – producing what the Bible calls fruit. In a world of words and opinions, it is our actions that will speak loudest.  We must always be ready to give an answer when people ask what we believe. But responding openly is far better than trying to give answers to questions people are not even asking.

Many of my closest friends are not church goers – but they are interested in faith and the difference it can make. Along with Food Banks and Night Shelters, the Living Wage movement is a great example of the fruits of faith.  And its is an inclusive movement we can ALL be part of.

So, whatever you believe, why don’t you get moving on a campaign to get your workplace signed up to the Living Wage?  You never know where it may take you.

Living Wage website: Becoming a Living Wage Employer

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Down and Out in Cardiff and London: a George Orwell for the Facebook generation

OrwellToday, George Orwell is remembered as one of the most significant authors of the 20th century, mainly due to the literary and political impact of his most famous books, Animal Farm and 1984.

But when Orwell moved to London in the late 1920s to begin writing he decided to intentionally spend time amongst homeless people.

‘He wanted to learn about the living conditions of the poorest of the poor, and his plan was to go among them disguised as a tramp…It was not enough to view such things from a distance…He needed to see the poor at close quarters, talking directly with them about their lives…’ (Orwell: the Authorised Biography by Michael Shelden)

These experiences would later be turned into the most famous book about homelessness ever written, Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933. It is a fascinating account of the reality of pre-welfare state poverty.

‘The People of the Abyss’

jack LondonHowever, Orwell’s idea was not original.  He was influenced by a book written thirty years before in 1902 called The People of the Abyss by the American novelist Jack London. At a time when Britain was the most powerful country in the world, Jack London decided to deliberately ‘submerge himself’ amongst the poor and homeless.

The People of the Abyss conveys an even bleaker picture than Orwell’s book does. Despite the country’s wealth, the conditions for the vast numbers of unemployed and destitute poor people are appalling:

‘The workhouses have no space left in which to pack the starving crowds who are craving every day and night at their doors for food and shelter. All the charitable institutions have exhausted their means…the Salvation Army are nightly besieged by hosts of the unemployed and hungry for whom neither shelter nor the means of sustenance can be provided.’

Both George Orwell and Jack London made deliberate decisions to leave their relative comfort. Neither was truly down and out – they had a way out of the abyss. They did not glorify or romanticise poverty, but sought to articulate the reality they saw and raise awareness about suffering that easily went unnoticed.

That was then…and this is now

Gordon CrudenGordon Cruden, who is from Fraserburgh in Scotland and works for the Christian charity, Teen Challenge, has made a similar decision. He has decided to sleep rough for a whole month to highlight the reality of homelessness and also to raise money for the Benaiah Centre. This is an addiction recovery centre for women, which allows their children to stay with them as they complete the programme.

Gordon has spent 5 days in London and is now in Cardiff. From there he will move onto Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh.  He is recording his experiences on facebook and is aiming to raise £500,000. He has already raised over £185,000.  From the way that interest is growing, I would not be surprised if he makes it.

I met up with Gordon this week as he ended his time in London and we talked about his experiences.  I was struck by his integrity and commitment. He has no money and no cards and is not using any hostels or shelters which could be used by ‘genuine’ homeless people. He would not even let me buy him a coffee. He doesn’t want his growing on-line following to distort the experience.

Honesty and humanity

Also, via Facebook, he is conveying his time on the streets with honesty and humanity. He is neither romanticising homelessness nor being judgemental about those on the streets. He has experienced many acts of kindness and generosity so far but is honest about the violence, threats and the warping effect that addictions have on people that he has met. His stories further reinforced my views about not giving money to people begging.

Similarly to Jack London and George Orwell, Gordon Cruden’s temporary and deliberate experience of homelessness has a higher purpose.  He is raising awareness of the terrible reality facing people on the streets but he is also raising funds for vital work to free people from addictions and to keep families together.

Related on R&R:

Posted in Homelessness | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Holy rows: why disputes between Church and Government will increase

Church and StateThis weekend saw another avalanche of media coverage about a row between the Church and the government. This time it relates to the refugee crisis. The Bishops have accused the government of dragging its feet and not responding adequately to their offers to help mobilise the churches.

Stephen Cotterill, Bishop of Chelmsford, said:

“The mean-spirited response of the government goes against the spirit of our nation…This is a matter of real urgency. Winter is coming. It seems crazy that the government is not listening.”  

Despite widespread assumptions of its decline, the Church continues to stand up against the government more effectively than any other institution. And we should expect to see more and more disputes between Church and State in the coming years. This is for two main reasons, one political and the other theological:

1) Further public funding cuts and deepening austerity

Virtually everyone agrees that the cuts have only just begun. On top of what has already been slashed, this summer George Osborne instructed all government departments to plan for cuts of between 25-40% over the next 5 years.  Many are predicting that in in the near future, local authorities will be running virtually nothing apart from the most basic elements of adult social care and child protection.

As the state rolls itself back, to cover deficits and promote the ideology of small government, more and more people and communities will be left exposed.  Two of the most obvious indicators, food poverty and homelessness, will increase. As as there’ll be less resources to tackle it, voluntary-run food banks and night shelters will be busier than ever.

An example is the Day Centre for homeless people run by West London Mission (where I work). Every day we see more and more street homeless people (today it was 114) but, mainly due to cuts, we now receive no government funding.  We have to organise events like the sponsored Sleep Out that my wife and daughter did this week,to make up the shortfall.

2) The growth of Christian concerns for social justice

In the last 20 years, there has been a marked increase in the amount of social action run by churches.  It has been the vibrant faith of churches has provided the capacity to grow the network of food banks, night shelters, Street Pastors and Christians Against Poverty’s Debt Centres.

One element in this growth has been the shift in the social awareness of evangelical churches. Significantly, this is the part of the church which is growing.  The surge of activism has been backed up by a wide range of books, courses, initiatives and events which have embedded a biblical theology of social justice. Increasingly, the traditionally personal emphasis of evangelical theology is being fused with a deep commitment to social justice. And this has affected political views.

Before the election last year, a major survey of UK evangelical Christians, showed how different their political views were from the US stereotypes.  It found that the Labour was the party most UK evangelicals would vote for.  And what did they feel was the single most important issue facing the UK? Poverty and inequality.

These views show how the Church is reflecting theologically and politically on its social action. The Church cannot be dismissed as some liberal-leaning think tank. Rather, it is a vast network of people who know what is happening in their communities and feel deeply concerned about what they are seeing.

Beyond ambulance work

Running food banks, drop in centres and night shelters is all about meeting emergency needs.  It is ambulance work. In the past, this kind of charitable work has been applauded by Conservative governments. After all, it doesn’t use government money and represents ‘the Big Society’ in action.

What rattles their cages is when people question why people are poor in the first place.  The words of Brazilian Archbishop, Dom Helder Camara, are still relevant:

‘When I give bread to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask, ‘Why are poor hungry?’ they call me a communist.’

It seems that the government wants Christians to be busy pulling drowning people out of the river. What it doesn’t like is when people start questioning who is pushing them in.

The Church already does a huge amount to help those in crisis. And this is why it has a right and a responsibility to speak out about political and economic decisions which make the situation worse.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 3 Comments

How should we respond to people begging?

A homeless person beggingFor many people living or working in large cities, being asked for money is an everyday experience. It can often cause feelings of distress, guilt and confusion.  What is the best way to respond to someone asking you for money? In 20 years of working with homeless people, it is by far the most common question I have been asked in relation to my work.

It is a sensitive subject.  I want to avoid the polarization which often occurs between what is seen as compassion on one hand and cynicism on the other.  As this article will make clear, I do not agree with giving money to people begging, but I take this view because I don’t believe it actually helps them. I am not advocating harshness but rather a compassionate realism about the nature of the problems which surround those who beg.

‘Give to anyone who asks’?

For many people of faith, their beliefs can add a further layer of complexity to this issue.  After all, Jesus’ said ‘Give to anyone who asks you’ (Luke 6:30).  And Jewish Scriptures state ‘If anyone is poor…do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7).  And the Quran says ‘You shall give the due alms to the relatives, the needy, the poor, and the travelling alien’ (17:26-29).

As a Christian, I believe that the overriding imperative is to love our neighbour and to be especially concerned for those in need. But as I have seen over many years, with many hundreds of people, giving money to someone begging is not showing them love. And it certainly does not address their needs.

Points to consider

Firstly, it is important to remember that the issue of homelessness and begging are related but are not the same.  Many of those who beg are not homeless, and majority of homeless people do not beg.

Secondly, the link between begging and alcohol and drug misuse is well-proven.  The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimate that 80% of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction.  Figures from the Metropolitan Police show that between 70 and 80% of those arrested for begging tested positive for Class A drugs.  Most recently, in autumn 2013, every single one of 40 people arrested in Birmingham failed a drug test.

Thirdly, we need to recognize the untruthful manipulation at work in the exchange between someone begging and a potential donor.  Often the scenario presented is designed to place maximum emotional pressure on the hearer to do what is being asked; e.g. that money is needed to pay for a hostel bed, to get a hot meal or travel money to see an ill child. Hostels and shelters for homeless people do not charge per night in this way. In my experience, the vast majority of the other scenarios presented are simply not true.

Fourthly, success in gaining money through begging undermines the positive work going on. I used to manage a hostel in Soho with homeless young people who could make very large sums of money from people leaving the pubs and night clubs around Old Compton Street.  Often they would use the duvets we had given them as props to give the impression that they were currently sleeping rough and we fought a losing battle in drawing these vulnerable young people away from the instant cash they could get from begging.  Despite the stories they told about needing it for food, virtually all of it would be spent on drugs.

Allowing untruthful and manipulative behaviour to succeed in eliciting cash helps nobody. In fact it further imprisons the person in a world of deceit. In Thames Reach’s phrase, it can literally be ‘killing with kindness’.

Talking openly

Some of the best conversations I have had with people begging have been when they are clear that I will not give them money and we can talk openly without the false pretense. I had a long conversation with a man at Clapham Junction after he unsuccessfully begged from me.  At the end of our chat, I explained that I often speak to churches about these issues and asked him if he thought people should ever give to people begging. He replied: ‘Never. I tell you it all goes on heroin and crack.’

As human as possible

One of the primary needs of homeless and vulnerable people is healthy, positive relationships, built on truth and honesty. And whilst we can’t have meaningful relationships with everyone we only meet briefly, we can seek to be as human as possible in all the encounters we have.

People who beg are not intrinsically bad people and we should avoid any language or tone which can appear harsh, cynical or dismissive. None of these approaches will help – most of them already feel bad enough about themselves and their situation.  What we have to do is understand more fully the powerful and warping effect of addiction to drink or drugs has on people.

How should we respond?

So to answer the title of this article, I would recommend the following:

  • When someone begs from you, look them in the eye when you respond and speak as confidently as you can.
  • If you have time, stop and talk with them. Ask them their first name and share yours.
  • If you have the time and money, offer to buy them a cup of tea, or a sandwich or pasty.
  • Do some work to find out what drop-in centres, charities or churches are open for homeless or vulnerable people in the area where you live or work. Knowing what is available allows you to ask the person if they know about these and whether they have used them. At the church where I work we have a list ready to give to people with information about opening times and what is available.
  • If you are worried about the vulnerability of someone sleeping rough then contact Street Link on 0300 500 0914 to inform them. This is a coordinated phone line to help inform the Outreach teams who work on the streets to help homeless people.

All of my experience and reflection on this issue makes me conclude that we should not give cash to people who beg.  But we should never be judgmental or forget to treat them as humans.  It is often easier to give someone a few quid than give 10 minutes of our time. But if we are prepared to talk and to give something of ourselves, you never know what difference it could make.

If you would like to support the homeless organisation I work for, then you might want to sponsor my daughter (and wife) who are joining our annual sleep out this Friday to raise money for the Westminster Winter Night Shelter run by the local churches and synagogue.  Jenna’s sleep out fundraising page.

Posted in Homelessness, Poverty | 22 Comments

A spiritual pilgrimage in the real world: Ken Leech 1939-2015

Ken LeechThe radical priest, theologian and activist, Rev. Ken Leech recently died, aged 76, following a stroke.

Ken founded the youth homeless charity Centrepoint in 1969 and wrote prolifically on the how intimacy with God relates to political action and social justice. I worked for Centrepoint for five years and Ken has been a very significant influence on my work and thinking.

I chose a quote from Ken to use in the ‘About’ section of R&R:

‘Our spiritual pilgrimage is not within an artificial religious world, but within the real world in which coal is mined and lemon meringue pie is made, the world in which companies are taken over and homeless people die in the street, the world in which wars are declared and millions long for peace and for justice.’

Passion and anger

I first came across Ken when I was living on a housing estate in Islington and my friend Corin Pilling lent me some of his books. They were like no Christian books that I had read before – they did not have the theological tidyness I was accustomed to.

Rather they burned with an intense passion and anger about poverty and injustice and the importance of concrete involvement in the struggle against them. It was both disturbing and inspiring.

Personal encouragement

In the coming years, I got to met Ken on a number of occasions as I got involved in the Christian homeless network, UNLEASH. In my mid-twenties, I remember feeling very out of my depth when asked to run a theological seminar on the Bible and homelessness.  Ken was a real encouragement and sent me a load of articles to help me prepare.

He would pop in to see me when I later managed the Centrepoint hostel on Dean Street in Soho which was the site of the original shelter he had established.  In 1999, he spoke at Centrepoint’s 30th birthday, along with the Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Ken’s passionate address wiped the floor with Blair’s safely scripted speech.

When I later moved to the Shaftesbury Society, I took all of our church-based community workers for a tour of Centrepoint’s hostel followed by a seminar on faith and activism with Ken. His clarity that orthodox Christianity must be radical and challenging of the status quo made a deep impression on everyone.

Prophetic challenge

I’ll end with two quotes from Ken, as I think they capture two essential elements of his prophetic challenge – both around the missional, outward role the Church should play but also the inward spiritual challenge for each of us.  As ever, it is the holding together of these elements that lies at the heart of the Christian faith:

‘Hope is a piece of work’

“The Churches in the twenty-first century will be in a crucial position to influence opinion, and to awaken hope. But ‘hope is a piece of work, not a state of mind’. The nurturing of hopeful commitment requires effort, prayer, struggle, and persistence. In their response to poverty and despair, the Churches need to reject the widespread assumption of a general goodwill, the idea that most people – including the government – are on the same side, and that, if only the evidence were presented, all will be well. ‘Faith in the City’ seemed to assume this, and it may therefore be the last document of its kind. I have never believed it, and see it as one of the most fatal naiveties of the liberal tradition…Churches in the next century are likely to become more marginal. They will need to earn the right to be heard by the intrinsic sense of what they say, and by their own integrity and credibility. This could be the salvation of the churches, but we will need to develop new and far stronger forms of solidarity and sustenance.” (The Sky is Red, 1998, p,107)

‘The cultivation of inner stillness’

“One of the most serious dangers confronting those who minister in the inner city is that their lives come to be built on frenzy and compulsive busyness. This usually leads to lack of focus, a tendency to accumulate more and more things, a collapse of reflection, and the cultivation of a personal culture of obligatory tiredness. This personal culture then becomes socially infectious so that one may communicate little to others other than one’s own exhaustion – not a very kind gift to people who may enough problems of their own. The practice of silence and solitude, including the cultivation of inner stillness and inner peace, is a vital component of urban spirituality.” (Through Our Long Exile 2001, p208)

Rev. Kenneth Leech. May he Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.

Posted in Theology & Church | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Faith without deeds: the dis-integration of student Christianity

Just LoveWhen I started at Hull University in 1991, I joined three societies at the ‘freshers fair’.  Firstly, the Cricket Club, secondly, the Christian Union and thirdly, the Student Community Action organisation, which was called HUSSO.

Community action

HUSSO (Hull University Social Services Organisation) was, and remains, an incredible organisation.  Back in those days, it organised over 800 students each week in 35 different projects which served the local community. These included visiting isolated older people, helping children to read in local primary schools, taking blind people to the pub and running activities for disabled children.  Also each term, large events were organised such as tea dances and outings for older people as well as a 6 week summer play-scheme for at risk children.

The project I got involved in was volunteering each week at a drop in centre and night shelter called the Hull Homeless and Rootless Project.

HUSSO was brilliant to be involved in.  As it has done for generations of students in Hull, it gave me experiences which had a big impact on my life and it took me into a very different world from what I was used to.  I was studying social work but HUSSO helped me understand poverty in a far more real way than I ever would in lectures and seminars within the bubble of a university campus.

In in my final year I was elected as HUSSO’s Chair, which was a full-time, paid position. I did this for a year after graduating and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

A personal gospel

In contrast, I struggled to feel similarly passionate about the Christian Union (CU). One of the key issues was that there was very little emphasis on the issues I was concerned about. Issues of social justice and poverty did not really feature at all in what was discussed and their relevance to the Christian faith was controversial.  The priorities were providing a supportive community to Christians and personal evangelism.

In my first year, the CU used to sing worship songs on the steps of the Student Union and there were few things I found more cringey than hearing ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ sung out across campus. I remember an initiative called ‘blue hair evangelism’ where members of the CU had their hair sprayed blue and went and sat in the Union bar, waiting for someone to ask them ‘Why is your hair blue?’ This, the theory went, provided a great opportunity to share the message of the gospel.

I continually grappled with the tensions this created for me. I felt guilty for not being more involved in the CU but I never felt comfortable within it’s sub-culture.

Historical origins

When I was elected to run HUSSO full-time, I did some research on its history.  I discovered that it had actually been started at a meeting of the Christian Union in the early 1960s.

I wrote a brief history of the organisation and referenced these origins – and I remember people being surprised, and slightly uncomfortable, with this link because they did not see the contemporary connection.  When I went back a few years later, I saw that the history was still being used but it had been edited – and the reference to the CU had been removed.


This is just one example of the dis-integration that so frequently occurs between faith and action, between churches and the social organisations they found.  I would later work for Centrepoint, one of many homeless organisations started by Christians, but which rapidly grew away from an active connection with the church.  There are countless others examples.

And it is not just an organisational issue. One consequence for me personally was that my faith withered – it dis-integrated itself from the action I was committed to.  I left university with a degree in social work and a CV full of experience but my Christian faith had dried up. It was no one’s fault but my own – but a key factor was the lack of integration between faith and action.  It was only to be later on in my journey when I was able to bridge this gap.


So, for all these reasons, it is really encouraging to see positive developments in student Christian circles since. Sure, there are still the hard-line conservatives their maintain the heresy that Christian faith has nothing to do with social justice and addressing poverty – but much has changed in the last 20 years.  Speak have been doing brilliant work for many years and more recently I have been in contact with a newer group called Just Love.

Last week, I led a seminar on homelessness at one of their training events. I met a great bunch of students, deeply committed to helping homeless people and talking seriously about how they could best make a difference. They were passionate – both about justice and Jesus – and they embodied an integration I never found when I was a student.

What groups like Just Love and Speak show is that faith and social justice belong together. It is important, because whether on campus or in communities, there is no bigger priority than for Christians to show the connection between what we believe and how we put it into action.

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Faith Full Service? Integrating Christian faith alongside high quality social care, 4th November, central London

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  • Date:   Wednesday 4th November 2015, 9.30am – 4.00pm
  • Venue: Hinde Street Methodist Church, London, W1U 2QJ
  • Cost:    £15.00, including lunch
  • For more details and to book a place please go to Eventbrite

In an increasingly secular environment, tensions frequently emerge between a Christian ethos and the delivery of professional social care. This has led some organisations to overtly jettison their faith ethos; others have allowed it to fade more quietly into history. For many organisations this is an area of their work hallmarked by anxiety and a lack of theological and practical confidence.

West London Mission, through its work with homeless and marginalized people, has a long history of grappling with this tension. WLM, part of the Methodist Church, currently employs over 70 people and operates an annual budget of over £2.4 million. As well as charitable donations, it receives statutory funding from the Ministry of Justice and many local authorities. Amidst this professional work, a key priority in recent years has been to re-affirm and strengthen our Christian ethos and give it a more tangible focus.

Run in partnership with Theos, Faith Full Service? will be an engaging and interactive training day focused on how to integrate the Christian faith alongside high quality social care.  Facilitated by WLM’s Executive Director, Jon Kuhrt and Social Work Chaplain Rev’d Ruth Bottoms, it will be based around practical models, resources and experiences which can be used in your context.  Paul Bickley of Theos will also give input regarding their research on proselytism.

Faith Full Service? is for anyone involved in faith-based organisations, as well as church leaders and chaplains. It will also be helpful for commissioners within local and national government or those in other funding or regulatory bodies.

To book a place please go to Eventbrite

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