Social projects should be bolder about integrating faith and practical action, argues Jon Kuhrt. Originally published in The Church Times, 21st June, 2013
In the day centre for homeless people that the West London Mission runs in Marylebone, the chaplain helps to facilitate a spirituality group, where rough-sleepers reflect and discuss the “deep things” of life. What I most enjoy about it is the way it grapples with questions in an honest and raw way.
Last week, we were looking at the story in Acts when Peter and John are arrested and threatened by the Sanhedrin, but reject its demands to keep silent about the resurrected Jesus. As we discussed the courage of the early Church, one of the men declared bluntly: “This is what we need — not this wishy-washy Christianity. The thing about Jesus was — he had balls.”
Most homeless projects came out of the Church. The Christian roots of the Salvation Army, the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the YMCA are obvious, but fewer people know that charities such as Centrepoint and Shelter were also established by committed Christians. Despite these roots, however, the question of how Christian faith and spirituality is integrated with practical help has long been controversial.
For example, famous writers such as Jack London (The People of the Abyss, 1902) and George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933) castigated the Salvation Army and others for making homeless people engage in worship as a condition of receiving help. Historically, some Christian attempts at offering faith alongside practical care have, at times, been clumsy and coercive.
This has led to a counter-reaction, in which any explicit reference to faith has been treated with suspicion. When combined with external funding pressures, professional culture, and a lack of theological confidence, the Christian basis of many homeless charities has often been allowed to become a footnote of history rather than something relevant to the work that they do today.
THIS is the focus of a significant new report by the respected research agency Lemos & Crane: Lost and Found: Faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people, which was launched last week (News, 19 April). It is the culmination of research that involved conducting in-depth interviews with 75 homeless people, in partnership with many agencies, including the Connection at St Martin’s and West London Mission.
The report’s findings are trenchant: faith and spirituality play a positive part in the lives of homeless people, and the secular orthodoxy that excludes questions of faith is out of step with the views of homeless people themselves. Although it challenges some of the “not-so sacred cows” of the modern voluntary sector, this cannot be dismissed as partisan religious propaganda. Its author, Carwyn Gravell, is a self-confessed atheist.
The report explores the benefits of religious belief for homeless people — the “fruits of faith”. As Gravell states: “For homeless people, religious belief, practice and doctrine can help them come to terms with a past that is often characterised by profound emotional and material loss, enhance and give structure to the present where time hangs heavy for many, and create a purposeful future built on hope, fellowship and a sense of purpose.” The report gives a thoroughly researched, independent basis for the genuine human need for what faith provides.
It offers a critique of the secular orthodoxy that has come to dominate mainstream homeless services over the past 40 years. Faith has become, it says: “a dimension of life that is largely ignored within the philosophy of mainstream service provision, regarded as irrelevant, or as a private matter best avoided, and even perceived by some in the sector with suspicion and outright hostility”.
Gravell describes how the rise of “scientific materialism” and the “mechanical world-view” has transformed a religious approach into a rights-based approach. His analysis of the way that atheistic views seek to avoid, reject, and silence the relevance of faith is fair, precise, and rings true to my experience.
The report also reviews the in-depth research with 75 homeless people, where the events of their past were discussed, as well as the ways in which they deal with their present situation. The findings provide evidence of the positive experience of those who attend worship: “Wonderful and uplifting . . . supportive community.” “Felt happy after praying.”
These are not the findings that many secularists would assume: “Only one person attending a place of worship said they felt as if they were ‘having their brain washed’, the standard critique that anti-religionists would apply to religious communities.”
The report concludes with clear recommendations about how faith and spirituality should become integrated within the mainstream of services for homeless people. It suggests that case-workers explore faith with their users; that they actively link users and residents with churches and other faith groups; that they have religious resources available; and that all services should facilitate spirituality discussion groups such as the ones at the St Martin’s and at the West London Mission.
HAVING worked with homeless people and churches over the past 20 years, I believe that Lost and Found is one of the most significant reports for Christian social action that I have ever read. Plenty of reports have sought to catalogue the scale of Christian social engagement, and to articulate its importance. Often, this is cheerleadering for the Church’s work.
This, however, goes deeper — directly to the needs of those on the margins. It gives independent evidence of the spiritual hunger of marginalised people, and the relevance of faith and spirituality in their situation. And it analyses how care work is malnourished by the ideology of secularism, which declares these issues out of bounds.
It clears away some of the historic baggage that has blocked the integration of spirituality with practical care. More than any other issue, homelessness is not a “stand-alone” problem, but is a cocktail of many forms of social exclusion and poverty. What this means is that the findings of Lost and Found are relevant far beyond homelessness.
Its implications are relevant to Christian work with older people, those with learning difficulties, with mental-health problems, and many others. It will be received like nectar to the many Christians who have clung faithfully to the often-lonely belief that spirituality is relevant and that it can be expressed in inclusive and non-coercive ways.
IT IS fascinating to note how much the report has angered the National Secular Society. It president, Terry Sanderson, said: “This report tries to convince us that it is not in the business of encouraging proselytising among the homeless and vulnerable, but you don’t have to read too far between the lines to see that is exactly what it is about.” There is no better example of the blinkered attitudes that the report criticises than this paranoid response.
Yet, rather than simply wallow in the affirmation that the report brings, Christians need to hear its prophetic challenge. I think that Gravell is like the pagan sailors in the story of Jonah, who have to wake up God’s messenger and challenge him to respond to the crisis that is facing them all.
Lost and Found calls Christians to wake up to opportunities. It should rouse Christian social-action projects from their spiritual slumbers. It challenges Christians to have more confidence to articulate and to integrate their faith alongside the practical work that they are doing.
Too often, Christians have leaned back lazily on quotations such as St Francis’s oft-used dictum: “Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary.” This can be misapplied as a basis for keeping silent about faith. Too often, Christians have allowed activism to mask faith rather than to illustrate it.
Of course, the integration of faith and spirituality in working with vulnerable people is not straightforward. But the message of this report is that Christian organisations need to be clearer about incorporating faith with practical work. They can be compassionate and full of conviction, holding together the spiritual and the practical.
In doing so, Christians do not have to return being clumsy or coercive. Rather, in initiatives such as chaplaincy, spirituality groups, and links to churches, they can be confident and creative, and discover new bonds between the practical and spiritual. When Christians do this, nothing is a better witness to God’s love in a world of pain. What God has brought together, no one should split apart. What has been lost can be found.