This coming week is my last at the West London Mission (WLM) after 8½ years leading their work with people affected by homelessness, poverty and trauma.
It has been a deeply rewarding job. I have worked alongside many brilliant people and WLM has travelled a long way. In term of this blog, it has been a unique place from which to reflect on faith, social justice and transformation.
A key reason I applied for the role 9 years ago was because WLM was a Christian organisation. Often, professional and spiritual approaches diverge down different paths and become disconnected from each other. I intentionally wanted to work in a space where specialist social care overlaps and converges with the Christian faith.
Working in this space is demanding because it requires managing an interface between worlds that have different perspectives, language and cultures. There is baggage to contend with – everyone has a story about bad religious experiences – and both sides are sensitive about the perceived power that the other side has. Conflicts arise and need dealing with.
But, despite these challenges, it is also an exciting space to be in. The social care world is far less secular than it was 20 years ago and there are rich opportunities for a missional engagement with contemporary culture. I find it far more interesting than operating within a church-bubble or within an echo-chamber of people with similar views.
These are 3 reflections that I wanted to share about the role of faith in our work:
1. Faith should never be the elephant in the room
Often in organisations with a religious basis, especially those who employ staff with a wide range of beliefs, faith can become a subject that people are reluctant to talk about.
It is understandable – faith is a sensitive subject which evokes strong feelings. But this is exactly why the issues needs talking through.
At WLM we have had important sessions at staff conferences where we talked honestly about the kind of faith we wanted to see – and the kind of faith we didn’t want to see. Whether people are firm believers or atheists, everyone benefits when an organisation is clear about what the Christian ethos means and what the expectations are.
We have helped develop The Charter for Christian Homeless Agencies which helps make expectations clear. And we have run regular sessions for staff called ‘Thinking Things Through’ which directly address the relevance of the Christian ethos to our frontline work.
2. The importance of faith and spirituality to people affected by homelessness
In 2013, an important report was published by the research agency, Lemos and Crane called Lost and Found: faith and spirituality in the lives of homeless people (my review is here). It concluded that the ‘secular orthodoxy’ of many charities was out of kilter with the importance that many homeless people attach to faith and spirituality.
A key factor was that the author, Carwyn Gravel, was himself an atheist. This was no Christian propaganda but a well-researched and honest report. The Secular Society disapproved of it but for us it provided external, independent evidence of what we believed to be true.
And a key aspect of WLM’s journey has been to employ a Chaplain who has revolutionised how we offer spiritual services to those we work with. She has put our ethos into action – not just in the implicit ways of being kind and available – but in the explicit ways of articulating God’s love in ways which connect with those we work with.
I have seen many examples of how people affected by homelessness and addictions have found personal hope in the Christian faith. The Recovery Course is an exciting example of the combination of explicit Christian beliefs with the wisdom from the 12 Step movement. In many ways, social care is increasingly a post-secular space, with far more openness to faith and spirituality than 20 years ago.
3. The Church has unique resources to create change
The last 8 years have given me countless more examples of the unique contribution that churches bring.
In 2011 I was part of a group who started a church-based Night Shelter in Westminster – at first there were just 4 churches involved. Now we have 13 churches (plus a mosque and a synagogue) partnering and the shelter runs for 8 months of the year. Last year the scheme helped more than 60 people into accommodation.
And this Night Shelter is just example of over 100 similar schemes up and down the country. As well as being the inspiration for older organisations like WLM, faith has continually been the motivating factor for new initiatives which tackle poverty and homelessness.
The Church should therefore be confident in its message and in what it has to offer. Housing Justice is the national network for Christian homelessness initiatives. They offer support in both practical action and in political advocacy about the underlying causes of poverty and homelessness.
My new role
My new role is as a Specialist Advisor with the government’s Rough Sleeper Initiative team. The government have committed themselves to to a target to reduce rough sleeping by 50% by 2022 and my role focuses specifically on the partnerships with faith and community groups.
Churches and faith groups have an incredibly important role. Just as at WLM, my aim will be to build strong bridges which help maximise the impact that faith has to end the tragic reality of rough sleeping and homelessness.