Yesterday in a church in East London, a cross section of the community gathered to celebrate the 5th anniversary of GrowTH, the Tower Hamlets Churches night shelter for homeless people. The place was packed, literally standing room only. The crowd diverse. Christians, Muslims, those of other faiths and those of none. The marginalised celebrating alongside those with much. All gathered in a church to give thanks to God for a project that has changed the lives of many.
Over these past 5 years GrowTH has offered shelter, hospitality, friendship and the good news of Jesus to over 630 men and women. Of these, around half have been helped into further temporary or more permanent accommodation. This is all the more remarkable because many of the people we help have no recourse to public funds so cannot claim any benefits.
In a borough that has repeatedly been in the headlines for corruption, cronyism and racial division, this is a compelling story of the Church of Jesus in action, working for the benefit of others. Here are five things that have contributed to its success:
1) GrowTH is primarily a gospel centred mission initiative and not a social action project. Whilst even making this distinction may seem odd to some and even theologically incorrect to others, to us as an organisation it is a key part of our story. In setting up GrowTH we wanted to ensure that the spoken and demonstrated Gospel, the good news of Jesus, runs right through the life of the project. We make no secret of the fact that we want people to come to know Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
We have run Alpha and Christianity Explored courses at the shelter and actively encourage guests to attend local Churches. We keep records of those who make a commitment to follow Jesus and who become part of a church. Why? Because projects count what matters – and people encountering Jesus is something we care deeply about.
2) We believe in the power of Christian hospitality. We don’t talk of clients or service users, but call those who stay in the shelter guests. We treat them with dignity and respect and the centre piece of our evenings is a shared table. Eating together reminds all of us, staff, volunteers and guests of what we have in common.
3) We will not side with power against the powerless. We have challenged the local authority where some of its policies and practices have been too narrow, focusing on geographical boundaries and criteria that have effectively excluded many vulnerable people at their times of greatest need. We do seek to complement the local authority’s work, but we are also honest with them about our different priorities.
4) We seek to enable transformation and refuse to help people remain homeless. By only accommodating people for 28 days we place the emphasis on helping people to progress rather than simply returning to the streets once it gets warmer. Our staff and volunteers seek to blend grace and truth to help guests change their circumstances. If people are not looking to help themselves then we may ask them to leave the shelter, as there are others in need who do wish to do so.
5) GrowTH is about the Church working together in gospel work. We have progressed from seven churches running a 3 month shelter to twenty churches running a shelter for seven months. This past year we had over 300 different volunteers, many of whom are former guests, who use their experience and insight to help others.
Confidence in the gospel
Christian social activists need to have confidence in the gospel’s relevance and power. It is legitimate for us to run projects that are purely social action, serving the local community without any sense of evangelism (in fact I serve as a trustee of one of them). The trouble comes when we think of these projects as mission. By making everything mission we are in danger of making nothing mission.
Too often woolly theological notions of the Kingdom of God allow us to neglect any clear presentation of the Christian Gospel. Whilst this may be good work, it is not the kind of integrated mission that helps people find hope in Jesus.
My passion is to see more Christian projects combine a sense of service with a commitment to helping people come to Christ – and GrowTH has given me a glimpse of what is possible.