Social action

‘Make the community livable’: Shaftesbury’s legacy of Christian social action

Livability is a Christian organisation which is now focused on providing services and support to people affected by disability. But the organisation also has a rich history of community action and urban mission which should never be forgotten.

The name Livability came into being in 2007 when the disability charity John Grooms merged with the Shaftesbury Society.

And Shaftesbury had started life as The Ragged School Union (RSU) way back in 1844. It was formed to support the growing movement of inner city, Christian-run schools for poor children. The social reformer, the 7th Earl of Shaftesbury, nicknamed ‘the Poor Man’s Earl’, had been a key supporter and its first President.  The RSU was renamed the Shaftesbury Society in 1944.

Urban Action

As a social work student in 1993, I did a 9 week summer placement with Shaftesbury. Reading the booklet they sent me before I joined, I remember being excited about a Christian organisation serious about ‘urban action’ and making a difference to people affected by both poverty and disability.

As well as its professional services, it had a network of Shaftesbury churches which served the spiritual and practical needs of many deprived communities.  At this time, Shaftesbury was probably the most prominent evangelical social action organisation in the country.

My placement was in the John Kirk Centre, a 22-bed ‘direct access’ hostel for homeless young people which was itself on the site of a former ‘ragged school’ in Camberwell. It was a hectic and demanding place to work, but it did exactly what a placement should: taught me what I could never learn in a lecture theatre.

Practical Christianity

After graduating, I later went onto work for the youth homeless charity Centrepoint and managed a similar emergency hostel for young homeless people in Soho. But in 2002, I re-joined Shaftesbury as a Community Work Manager, overseeing church-based social action partnerships.

Shaftesbury’s CEO at that time, Fran Beckett, was a real inspiration because of her passionate commitment to practical Christianity which made a difference.  I joined a great team of enthusiastic activists led by Jill Garner and then Chris Erskine at a time of significant investment in communities. It was a time of exciting growth in Christian social action.

But as an organisation Shaftesbury had begun a significant change. In the 9 year gap since I had completed my placement, the organisation had expanded its disability work, especially through acquiring local authority contracts to run care homes and other complex services. The church-based community action part was still important but its ‘book-value’ was tiny in comparison to the disability services.

Painful decisions

One very significant decision had been made to detach the governance of the Shaftesbury churches from the organisation.  The complexity of running a modern charity as well as being responsible for churches was undoubtedly challenging, but this change proved very painful for many of the churches involved.  The difficulties were compounded by Shaftesbury maintaining ownership of the buildings but being a landlord quite detached from the day to day challenges the churches faced.

Over the years much has been done to mend the breach, with varying degrees of success. But one aspect of the legacy is displayed through the on-going work of many of these churches. They may not bear the name of the organisation but they are the modern embodiment of what the Ragged School Union planted.

These are churches such as Tower Hamlets Community Church, Highway Vineyard Church in Stratford, Kingsley Hall in Dagenham, Latymer Community Church in Ladbroke Grove and The Bear Church which is based at the Shaftesbury Centre in Deptford and Bell Farm Christian Centre in West Drayton.

Check out their websites – they are all communities of Christians serving their local areas with commitment and passion. This is a key part of the legacy of Shaftesbury’s work.

Empowerment

The other legacy of Livability’s church work is seen in the great work achieved more recently to equip the church to support people with dementia and mental health challenges through developing resources such as The Happiness Course and Living Well

These are examples of integrating good practice of care and empowerment within the life of the church.  And again, during a time of change, this work will live on, even if its under another name. You can read about the future of these initiatives on the Livability website here.

Faith and integrity

As well as the local churches, I want to honour the work of Adam Bonner and Corin Pilling who have played significant roles in recent years in maintaining this aspect of Livability’s work and infusing it with faith, energy and integrity.

Maintaining this work during financial turbulence and organisational change is not easy but these two have served the organisation, and its legacy, with distinction.

In their work, they have shown the qualities that Lord Shaftesbury spoke of in 1867:

‘The time is coming when matters will not measured by the talent, or the ability, or by fine clothes, or by power to speak, or by being on platforms, or by listening to those upon platforms; but the time is coming when matters will be measured by those who have the truest faith, the deepest love, and the most sincere acts of obedience to their Lord and Saviour, and most devoted and strong imitation of his blessed example.’

Celebrate 

Livability has an incredible history and, over the course of its 170 year life, its legacy in Christian social action is profound. Community activism is now more embedded in the mainstream of church life in a very different way than it was in previous decades.

These words from Isaiah 58 (The Message version) are particularly apt:

“If you get rid of unfair practices, quit blaming victims, quit gossiping about other people’s sins, if you are generous with the hungry and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
your lives will begin to glow in the darkness…you’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”

Times move on and so do organisations. But let’s remember and celebrate all those whose lives and neighbourhoods were made livable again by the work of the RSU, the Shaftesbury Society and Livability.

Jon Kuhrt worked for Shaftesbury/Livability from 2002 – 2010 and was Director of Community Mission. He is now a government adviser on rough sleeping and specialises in the work of faith groups to address homelessness.

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