Yesterday I was at the annual conference of the homelessness charity, Hope into Action. It was held at the vast Kingsgate Church in Peterborough and over 320 people attended.
I had been invited to lead a seminar on how to ensure work with homeless people is both kind and effective. I’ll share some of that material in a later post. Here, I want to reflect on the conference itself and what it says about the new wave of Christian activism in the UK.
Hope into Action’s work
Hope into Action is only 9 years old and was started by Ed Walker after he returned from Africa working with Tearfund.
It’s model is to find people willing to invest money in residential properties which they turn into supported accommodation for homeless people. Each property is linked to a local church who provide support and community. Hope into Action’s staff provide the professional framework for the whole operation.
These were my reflections on what I experienced:
1. Professional and focused
It was a highly professional and welcoming event which reflects the energy, focus and ambition of the organisation. Hope in Action’s work has been acknowledged by winning The Guardian’s ‘Public Service Award for Housing’ and Homeless Link award for ‘Most Innovative Project’.
Similarly to the endorsements that Christians Against Poverty have received, its significant that their work has been acknowledged from experts within the field and not just within the church community.
2. Confident in its Christian commitment
Hope into Action are bold about their Christian commitment. They are overt about avoiding the tendency for organisations to lose their Christian ethos as they grow and develop. Yes, the day started with prayer and worship, but more significantly, faith was integrated throughout the day in the way staff, volunteers, investors and residents spoke.
There was an underlying confidence in the centrality of the Christian faith. It had not just provided the spark or motivation to start the work but was integral to the whole operation.
3. Strong theological roots
Christian social action needs strong theological roots. It is not enough to simply quote Matthew 25 or the Good Samaritan as a basis for the work.
Yesterday, Joel Edwards spoke about how concepts of human dignity and human rights originate from the belief that everyone is made in the image of God. They have their roots not simply in the ‘horizontal’ relationship between people – but with the ‘vertical’ relationship between people and God. Jesus consistently identified with those who ‘experience indignity’. Helping homeless people into new homes brings dignity and is part of helping them recover and restore the image of God in themselves.
This is rich soil in which to root Christian social action. Like all the best theology, it holds together both the universality and inclusiveness of God’s love along with the specific and distinctive message of Jesus.
4. Honesty about the struggles
In one seminar on addiction, three tenants spoke honestly about their struggles and recovery journeys from drugs, alcohol and gambling addictions. The acceptance they had received had help face up to reality. ‘I was accepted but also I could tell them the truth and I had never found this before. They were helping the real me, not helping a lie.’ Each story was one of grace and truth in action.
One of them had actually been evicted from Hope into Action property but had maintained contact. He said ‘I had made a really uncomfortable bed for myself to lie in and it took becoming homeless again for me to change’.
5. Celebrating the strengths of people
Throughout the event the strengths and skills of their tenants were displayed. One young tenant shared a song he had written about the help he had been given. He had mentioned at the initial interview that his favourite sweets were lemon sherbets and when he moved into the room there was a jar of them waiting for him. These acts of welcome made a big difference.
The day ended with specific awards being given to tenants who had overcome challenges and made particular progress. The sense of empowerment was tangible and joyful. They were not passive recipients of charity but had been helped to take their own steps of recovery towards a better future.
6. Empowering local congregations
Ed Walker spoke about unleashing the financial, social and spiritual power of the church and how their model was dependent on partnering with local congregations. This is quite different to organisations which require more donations to get more paid staff.
Similar to Street Pastors or CAP, their model empowers the local church to be engaged in a way which plays to their strengths. Homelessness is more than house-lessness and a key factor of overcoming homelessness is a supportive community.
7. Investment-focused and business savvy
This is not about just donating to charity but a model of social investment. Hope into Action are challenging people to not store riches up in deposit accounts, ISAs, pensions and second homes, but rather invest for a social return. It is a business-savvy model which creates partners who are engaged via the investment they make.
I felt moved, inspired and challenged by what I experienced yesterday. I think the principles above are hallmarks of the new wave of Christian social action which will increasingly make a difference in communities across the UK.
For more about Hope into Action, check out this brief video: