“In reaching out to the lost, I think I have found myself”: Review of ‘The Genius of the Poor’ by Thomas Graham

genius-of-the-poor-new-cover-2“Somewhat ironically, my 12-month journey amongst the unlearned and unschooled has taught me more insights and life lessons than all my privileged education had achieved back home.”

In 2012, Londoner Thomas Graham arrived in the Philippines expecting to stay one month. His assignment was to write an investment report on the Philippines, ‘one of the fastest growing economies in Asia’.

Having interviewed various politicians and businessmen, the turning point came when Graham interviewed Tony Meloto, whose work has been credited with transforming 2,500 of the poorest communities in the Philippines.

Graham walked into the interview in his suit and tie, expecting it to last around half an hour.  But this encounter with Tony Meloto changed his life as he learnt more about the movement called Gawad Kalinga (which means ‘to give care’) that Meloto founded.

Challenge

Instead of giving him the straight-forward answers that he wis looking for, Meloto challenges Graham to go out and see the transformed communities himself and to understand the ‘genius’ that is within them. It’s a challenge that Graham accepts and which leads to profound consequences:

‘A few weeks later I make the most drastic decision in my (so far) unremarkable career. Ditching the suit and tie, I decide to extend my stay in the Philippines a few extra months…the well paid job and thirty-fourth floor condo in Makati are things of the past. Instead I am living in Tony Melito’s mosquito-infested lowly basement with half a dozen young sweaty Frenchmen for company.’

He is honest about his motivations:

‘I have not made this decision because I have turned into a selfless ‘do-gooder’ overnight…My prime motivation is more selfish than that. I am envious of the commitment, compassion and courage of the young people I have met…qualities I feel are missing from my own life. They are not just complaining about the inequality in their country but doing something about it.’

Finding true purpose

Essentially, this is a conversion story of how a young man from a privileged background sees something within the poor communities of the Philippines that he wants and needs for himself.

It is not a story of ‘reaching down’ to the poor but of the deep happiness that can be found in finding true purpose and meaning in joining a movement for change. And it’s a movement which is not focused on charity and dependency but on empowerment, dignity and solidarity.

Powerful resources

The book describes how Gawad Kalinga (GK) has been effective because it has harnessed the powerful resources at the heart of Filipino society.   Despite overwhelming material poverty, the communities are rich in other resources, such as faith and family.

The Philippines is one of the most religious countries in the world, and GK emerged from the Catholic organisation Couples for Christ.  Like so many social action organisations, it was faith in God which was the original catalyst. And faith remains a powerful resource for solidarity, hope and change even though GK now works far beyond its Catholic roots.

The challenge for the UK

As I read more and more about the power of these resources to create change, I felt challenged about what this means for the UK.  Belief in God and a commitment to family life are probably weaker than ever in our individualistic society.  And many of our economically poor communities are further disadvantaged by a deep poverty of relationships and of identity.

Despite our relative wealth, we are often poor in other ways. How will the UK build the kind of social capital in its poor communities that has been possible in the Philippines?

The start of another journey…

The story ends with the start of another. Back in the UK, talking with mates in the pub, Graham was frustrated with how difficult it was to convey what he has seen and experienced. So he repeats the challenge that Tony Meloto gave him and urges his friends to come out to see the communities for themselves. This leads him to hit upon the idea of setting up a travel agency to facilitate ‘social tourism’, with the aim to “connect the bewildered rich with the enterprising poor so that both will benefit.”

It’s a fitting end to a moving story. In ditching the suit, tie and professional detachment, Tom Graham discovered a way of changing the world which inspired him. But in doing so, he discovered meaning and purpose for himself.

Buy ‘The Genius of the Poor’ by Thomas Graham

Thomas Graham is based in the Philippines, running a social enterprise he founded called MAD (Make a Difference) Travel which facilitates social tourism in conjunction with GK’s communities. For more information see www.madtravel.org or email Tom at tom@madtravel.org.

Posted in Poverty, Recommended books | Tagged | 6 Comments

‘The longest suicide vote in history’: Why I have left the Labour Party

BRITAIN-EU-BREXIT-POLITICSIn 1983 Michael Foot was leader of the Labour Party at the General Election when the Conservatives, under Margaret Thatcher, won a landslide victory.

The recent victory in the Falklands War undoubtedly helped, but despite the harsh economic policies, massive unemployment and civil unrest of the early 80s, Labour’s opposition simply could not compete with the Conservatives.

Labour were seen by most as too left wing and led by a leader who no one could see as a potential Prime Minister. The Labour election manifesto was later described by Gerald Kaufman, a Labour MP, as ‘the longest suicide note in history.’

Today, Labour is in an even more disastrous situation. Yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader with a larger mandate than this time last year. The grassroots activists and members of Labour clearly want him leading the party.  They hold out a hope, like the Labour Party of the early 80s, that the rightful place for the party is the radical left.

Electoral oblivion

But they are deluded. Labour, despite the half million people who voted, are heading for electoral oblivion at the next election.  They have become the party of protest – of demos, rallies and shouting in the streets.  The myriad of left-wing causes who cluster together in loose alliance at marches and festivals will be delighted by Corbyn’s victory. But in terms of electoral politics, this socialist utopia will not come to anything, except wallowing in terminal debates about its own purity.

The Labour Party does not exist to be a protest movement on the margins of society. It exists to exercise power. To gain election victories to bring about changes in how the country is run.  When it becomes unelectable it is completely failing to do its job.

Impact on real people

I joined the Labour Party in 1993 when I was a student.  At the time I was volunteering in a drop-in centre for homeless people in Hull. It was in places like this that I learnt my politics – seeing the carnage caused by the economic policies of the Tory government and the impact it had on real people. But I had little time for the Marxists and Socialist Workers who shouted loudly on campus within the unrealistic bubble of student politics.

It was from this time that Labour became credible and went on to win three General Elections.   Their blend of social justice and sound economic management resonated with the country.  Of course, there were problems, most notably, the disastrous decision to invade Iraq. But domestically, the Labour years saw huge investment in local communities which made the country a better and more just place.

Reducing homelessness

Take my area of work, homelessness, as an example. Upon election, Labour established a Social Exclusion Unit with the specific target of reducing street homelessness in London by two-thirds. Through significantly increased funding, strong leadership and coordination, this target was achieved.  Numbers of rough sleepers fell to the lowest point in decades. I was on the front line at the time, managing a hostel for young homeless people in Soho. I saw first-hand how good politics changes people’s lives. These were the fruits of a Labour government.

But now, rough sleeping has shot up by over 50% in the last 5 years. Tory politics is again leading to massive increases in homelessness and poverty.  And yet there is no credible opposition to the Tories’ austerity and cuts.  They can do what they want for the foreseeable future.

Labour’s impasse

In the leadership election between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith, I did not even vote as I don’t believe in either of them as leaders of the party.  I therefore don’t feel I can remain a member of a party which cannot even put up a candidate I can believe in.

Corbyn may be a decent person but his refusal to lead the party from anywhere near it’s centre means that Labour will continue to be stuck in an impasse between the elected MPs and the membership.  Only the Tories will benefit from this. He will have to crash and burn at a General Election before Labour can move on.  But in the meantime, I can’t support or promote him as a possible Prime Minister.  So for me, the Party is over.

Hope

This does not mean I am any less committed to social justice. I will remain a member of Christians on the Left and continue to work every day, practically and politically, for a better future for people who are homeless and marginalised.

And I hope that one day I can join, or possibly re-join, a party who can credibly fight for this too.

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Posted in Politics | 22 Comments

We need Sport Relief from corporate injustice – by Andy Turner

Sport reliefSo another Sport Relief has come and gone. An unrelenting mash up of fun, sporting heroics, comedy and conviction, highlighting poverty and raising money.

The banter, unlikely competitions, silly stunts, and comedy sketches are fun. The heroic feats, especially Eddie Izzard’s incredible 27 marathons in 27 days, are inspiring.

The short, beautifully crafted films capture eye-watering poverty with grim commentary that pulls no punches.

On the night, if the extreme silliness and comedy jars with the hard-hitting stories, then on the whole Sport Relief seem to pull it off. The whole venture feels like a great endeavour with a powerful purpose.

Part of the problem

For me the big problem is the absence of any comment on corporate and government policy, affecting the lives of those featured.  There is plenty of charity, but what about justice?

We hear plenty about the big corporates who are sponsoring the events – but we don’t get to hear about changes in their investment policies. Or the impact of mainstreaming their Fairtrade range. Or paying workers a Living Wage.

So the Premier League raised over a £1 million. The accountants, Deloitte report that in 2013-14 the combined revenues of Premier League clubs soared by 29% to over £3.26 billion.  A million seems a bit piffling.

I’d like to hear Sport Relief highlight this absurd inequality. I’d love to hear the Premier League report all its clubs are paying a Living Wage.

Challenging the system

The comedian John Bishop talks about his visit to a rubbish dump in Kenya and the people he met who live around it.  We cheer when we hear that Margaret is now away from the tip and going to school. And her Grandma has started a business. We don’t hear that the rubbish dump is still there, and remains a magnet to the poorest and most vulnerable. The system remains.

It’s ironic to hear pronouncements about UK government matching donations to Sport Relief via Gift Aid, when so many of the projects that will benefit are facing crippling cuts or closure because of government policies introduced targeting cuts to small voluntary organisations. Or that users of the services are victims to cuts targeting the most vulnerable. Or victims of welfare reform. We don’t hear about this. It’s a huge absence.

‘What we need to change’

“We need to show you what you, what we, need to change” says Danny Dyer. The problem is no amount of donations will bring the change he’s calling for. We need system change – and that comes through progressive policies, the ballot box and an ethical, regulated market. It won’t happen after a mini-Luther, and a quick text on a Friday night.

I’m up for Sport Relief, Comic Relief. Here’s to more comedy and creativity and acts of individual generosity – and extraordinary projects that inspire.

But alongside this, we need to hear real stories about unregulated markets – about landlords raising rents and making life intolerable for the poorest. Or the impact of a social ‘safety net’ quietly dismantled and a spike in the numbers of homeless. The human cost of closures, cuts, of policies pursuing profits and privatisation.

And alongside stories of individuals who have had their lives transformed, lets include a Danny Boyle style celebration of systems we need: decent public health, public housing and public education. Systems that benefit large numbers of the poorest and most vulnerable. The systems that bring the kind of justice our world longs for.

Andy Turner lives in Hackney, East London. He has been involved in establishing a wide range of community development initiatives that tackle disadvantage and poverty.

Posted in Politics, Poverty | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Losing their religion: why Christian charities lose their ethos

warning strong currentIt cannot be disputed that Churches are very good at establishing social action projects.

In recent years this is illustrated by the high-profile rise of church-based Food Banks, Night Shelters, debt services and a whole range of street outreach.  Organisations like The Trussell Trust, Street Pastors and Christians Against Poverty have seen their work grow at an incredible rate.

But this is not just a recent phenomena.  Each of my last three employers all represent different aspects of the long tradition of Christian social activism.

In the late 1990s, I worked for five years for the youth homeless charity Centrepoint which was started by the late Rev Kenneth Leech. He was an Anglican priest who opened up his church, St Anne’s Soho, as a night shelter in 1969.

In 2002, I went to work for the Shaftesbury Society (now Livability), a large charity who ran a wide range of disability services and urban community work.  They started life as The Ragged School Union, a movement of Christian activists providing education to poor children who were championed by the anti-child labour activist, MP Lord Shaftesbury.

And for the last six years, I have led the social work of the West London Mission which is part of the Methodist Church.  Since it started in 1887, it has been combating poverty and destitution. Today we employ 70 people in a wide range of services for people affected by homelessness, addiction and personal difficulties.

The biggest challenge

But despite the on-going rise of Christian social activism, my experience tells me that the biggest challenge is how Christian organisations and projects (large or small) maintain their ethos.  I know of so many organisations, both large and small, which were birthed with a strong Christian basis, but have now left it behind.

Sometimes faith becomes faded due to a lack of passion or commitment or departure of a key person: “We used to be more overt about faith but it doesn’t really happen anymore.”

Sometimes it is lost due to fear:  “It would not go down too well with our funders if we were too Christian.”

And sometimes faith just become fossilised. “The vicar still chairs the committee but there is no real connection with the church.”

Rather than something dynamic and creative at its heart of the organisation, often faith becomes little more than a slightly embarrassing footnote in its history.

Why does this happen?

There are many reasons why this ‘dis-integration’ of faith happens.

A hostile context.  In our post-Christendom age, when Christianity is no longer the dominant voice, it has been fashionable for the Christian faith to be associated with oppressive behaviour.  Even though this has decreased in recent years, some funders, councils and regulatory bodies can be inherently suspicious about churches.

Practical challenges.  As charities grow, expand and take on more staff they need to take seriously employment law, equal opportunities and a wide range of regulation. It can be harder for the faith to survive alongside such practical demands.  And there can be problems when a visionary founder moves on and a ‘second generation’ of leadership takes over.

Theological weaknesses.  Many activists do not think much about theology at all – ‘doing stuff’ always takes priority.  Also, some will not think that maintaining a Christian ethos really matters.  And often, even the most vocal and vibrant expressions of Christianity struggle to integrate themselves alongside practical work. There can be a shortage of ‘bridging’ skills to connect theology to practical work.

For all these reasons, running a Christian social action project means swimming in a strong current. This will often take us in a secular direction – unless we are committed to swimming against it.

Rather than being faded, fearful and fossilised, how can faith be expressed in ways that are clear, confident and creative?

The West London Mission and the theological think tank, Theos, are running a free training event on this very issue:

‘Doing God’ in Social and Community Work: Confidence, Creativity and Christian ethos

This interactive and practical training day will focus on how to hold onto a Christian ethos in the delivery of their social and community work.  It will be facilitated by Jon Kuhrt, Executive Director, and Ruth Bottoms, Chaplain at the West London Mission. There will also be input from Paul Bickley, the author of the recent Theos Report, The Problem of Proselytism.

‘Doing God’ is for anyone who works and volunteers for, or alongside, a faith-based organisation. It will also be helpful for commissioners within government or those in other funding or regulatory bodies.

Thursday, 14 April 2016 from 9:30am to 4.00pm

Hinde Street Methodist Church, 19 Thayer Street, London W1U 2QJ

To book a place go to our Eventbrite page

Please share this with anyone you know who might be interested!

Posted in Social action | Tagged , | 3 Comments

Love without structures: learning from the collapse of Kid’s Company

Camilla's Kid's CompanyThis week the BBC screened a fascinating documentary, Camila’s Kid’s Company: the Inside Story, on the demise of the famous children’s charity.

What made the programme so compelling was its intimate portrayal of the Chief Executive, Camila Batmanghelidjh.  We see her close-up, as she lived through the collapse of the charity she had founded, in the full glare of the media.

The importance of love

A few years ago I met Camila when we were both on a panel discussing poverty at the National Prayer Breakfast at Parliament.  What most struck me then was her willingness to talk about the importance of love. She spoke in a completely different way to any other ‘charity CEO’ I had heard.

I used to be the Manager of an emergency hostel for homeless young people in Soho, central London. I worked with the most damaged and chaotic homeless young people imaginable, but she challenged me to think differently about the core needs of the young people I worked with.  As she repeats in this documentary:

“Love is not a word that ‘professionals’ are comfortable with”

The documentary captures the way Camila managed to establish a project based on her core convictions: to show the love and acceptance of a family.

Scandal

But as we know now, Kid’s Company is no more.  It closed last summer in a blaze of negative publicity and scandal about financial mismanagement and accusations of dubious practices. Further reports have come out since with strong criticisms of the failure of the Trustees to hold their charismatic CEO to account.

The Kid’s Company story is a parable about the need for organisational structures and good management.  In order to remain safe and sustainable, the good intentions to show love and acceptance need to be framed within structures which provide boundaries and accountability.

‘Mr Double-glazing’

There is a particularly telling part of the programme where Camila goes in to see a new Chief Operating Officer who has been brought in by the trustees to bring some order to the organisation. She stands outside his door telling the camera that she calls him ‘Mr Double-glazing’. This is because he acts like a salesman but also is emotionally detached from the work they do, so its like talking to someone behind a window.

The tragedy is that Camila could not recognise the vital contribution that a good operations manager could have brought. However inspirational or gifted they are, the wisest leaders surround themselves with people with skills they don’t have.

Good process

More than anything Kid’s Company probably needed one or two key people who were able to detach themselves from the emotions involved in the work and ensure some good process.  In an age obsessed with inspirational leaders, we easily forget the basic importance of good management.

The sustaining of charitable work involves good planning, clear communication and strong financial systems.  Good process and proper governance are not ends in themselves but are ‘just structures’ which should serve and sustain the front line work.

These kind of organisational structures play the same role that our bones do in our bodies. They give shape and structure to the whole body and protect the vital organs.  The heart and lungs are dependent on the protection that the rib cage gives.  Like bones, organisational structures provide a framework around which everything can function safely.

Learning

Everyone involved in charities, churches and youth work can learn lessons from what happened to Kid’s Company. Churches are particularly vulnerable to similar problems because of the value they put on the charismatic power of their leader and the cultural tendency to avoid asking hard questions.

But it seems clear that within Kid’s Company the emotional demands of the work continually over rid the necessity of any meaningful self-critique. The fault always lay outside – with the media or the government.

Rather than pay any attention to the structural weaknesses of her organisation, Camila believed that the hemorrhaging of funds could simply be filled by more and more fundraising. But however skilled she was at persuading the likes of Coldplay, JK Rowling and David Cameron to donate funds, it was not enough to save the great work they did.

Watch BBC’s Camila’s Kid’s Company: the Inside Story

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Being a voice for the voiceless in politics – by Alison Hill

PlatoThe last few months have seen some huge political decisions being made: whether to extend airstrikes against ISIS, the response to the refugee crisis, the UK’s commitments in the UN Climate Change Talks, or the reaction to the flooding seen over the Christmas period.

These are political decisions which impact the lives of millions of people, both here in the UK and around the world. Is this enough of a reason for Christians to get involved in politics?

Exercising power

Christians shouldn’t be seeking power for the sake of power. But we should think from another angle: who our politicians are exercising this power for? 

From this perspective, we should see politics as an opportunity for making a difference.

Many today, Christians included, are obsessed with standing up for their own rights and for the rights of people like them. The idea of standing up for someone else challenges the self-interest that so many associate with politics.

Speaking up for the voiceless

In Proverbs 31:8, it says:

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.”

Many are left voiceless in our society: those who are poor, weak and vulnerable. Those who have been let down by the system.

And we have to remember that the UK’s actions have a profound impact on those in other parts of the world. Whenever our government makes decisions about international aid, whether or not to intervene in corrupt regimes, as well as on environmental issues, it is directly impacting the voiceless around the world.

The Church has done much to help the victims of injustice, both locally and globally, through initiatives such as foodbanks and night-shelters, as well as through relief and development work. These are practical expressions of the command to love our neighbours as ourselves.

Preventing the problems

However, it is not enough simply to try and patch up the problems in our society. We must also help to prevent these problems developing in the first place. Desmond Tutu once said:

“As Christians, we need to not just be pulling the drowning bodies out of the river. We need to be going upstream to find out who is pushing them in.”

This is often harder and more laborious. We will forsake the feel-good factor of seeing transformation first-hand, but it is vital work. We are able to have much more of an impact on preventing problems in our society from occurring if we are involved in the political process.  We can be involved and go beyond just shouting from the sidelines.

Biblical examples 

There is so much political figures in the Bible – people such as Joseph, Daniel, Esther and Obadiah who brought about change from the inside. Joseph’s political role allowed him to save the Egyptian people, and his own family, from famine.  Esther used her influence with Xerxes to save the Jewish people from genocide.

Following their example, Christians have been inspired to be a voice for the voiceless in the realm of politics. William Wilberforce was motivated by his Christian faith to work tirelessly for the abolition of the slave trade.

Getting involved

There are many ways in which we can join in. We can pray for those in power to govern wisely, we can write to our MP about issues which concern us, and we ourselves can get involved in the political system, by joining a party and seeking to work for change from within. The Christians in Politics website is a good place to start.

Politics is not the ultimate panacea to injustice in our society, and there is an important role for those on the outside of mainstream politics to campaign for change.  But being involved in the system is still one of the more strategic ways of making a difference in the lives of the voiceless in our society.

It is through politics that laws can be changed, policy can be reworked, voices can be heard. Let us speak out for the voiceless from within the political system and help make a difference in a world so scarred by injustice.

Alison Hill has just completed an internship with Christians in Politics. This article was first published in the Church of England Newspaper

Posted in Politics | Tagged , | 5 Comments

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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