When 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.
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.
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.