The following sermon was preached by Jon Kuhrt at Hinde Street Methodist Church on Sunday 27th January 2013 as the annual ‘Soper Sermon’ to remember the life and ministry of Lord Donald Soper, Superintendent of West London Mission from 1936 to 1978.
Bible Readings: Proverbs 4:20-27; Luke 4:14-21; 1 Corinthians 12:12-26
It’s a great honour to preach this annual sermon which remembers the life and ministry of Lord Soper. I would like to thank Sue and Hinde Street Methodist Church for asking me to speak this morning.
And I know that preaching in your work place can be harder than when you visit somewhere. You can’t embellish the stories so much – people know what is really going on – especially those on the Social Work Committee. Jesus said that a prophet is without honour in his home town, so perhaps this is all the more true just a few paces from his office!
I was very excited to find when I arrived at WLM that I would be using an office that used to be Lord Soper’s. Unlike him, I am a very occasional preacher but I have found out that we do share some things in common. I live in Streatham where Donald Soper was brought up. I have been a member of the Christian Socialist Movement for many years which Donald Soper helped establish and was Chairman of for many years. And, most importantly of course, we were both loved cricket.
But even more importantly – what strikes me most about Soper is the crucible of faith, politics and social action which framed so much of his life and ministry.
It is his utter commitment that the Christian faith had something arresting and dynamic to say about the big issues of the day – about social justice, economics and war. About his belief that as well as speaking up for those on the margins, the church should be active in showing compassion and providing ground-breaking care to those who many ignored.
It is this belief in the connectivity between the faith, politics and social activism that is my passion. A few years ago, I enrolled in a post-graduate course in theology and politics – it was a great course but telling people about it was a sure fire way to start some lively debates. My wife used to be quite relieved if I did not mention it when people came round for dinner!
For me, in my position within WLM overseeing the professional social work, these questions are not simple – but they are vital. How does our faith in God connect to the professional social work we run today? It’s a question we cannot ignore.
An encounter with a homeless man in Waterloo
Shortly before joining WLM, around 3 years ago, I was on the south bank near Waterloo and I got talking with a homeless man called Richard who approached me asking for money. He was in a terrible state. He rolled up his coat sleeves to show me the most terrible abscess on his arms caused by wounds caused by injecting drugs. I urged him to go to St Thomas’ and offered to go with him but he said he did not want to. But he wanted to talk, he told me about his difficult family situation and his descent onto the street.
He kept asking ‘how do I find forgiveness?’ I explained what I believe about God’s offer of forgiveness for all. And he asked me to pray for him, so sitting on a wall, I prayed the Lord’s Prayer. Afterwards he asked me to write it down for him, as he put it ‘so I have the right words to say’. As we ended, he said forlornly ‘I just can’t forgive my family for what they did to me.’
It was just one conversation, many years ago – but I believe that God was speaking to me through Richard. The encounter influenced my decision to look to come back into the homelessness field and to work for a Christian organisation. It struck me that as well as his clear physical and medical needs, there were clear spiritual needs which could not be easily separated. As well as professional social and medical help, Richard was seeking spiritual hope and knowledge of forgiveness – he needed a restoration in a deeper sense. I don’t know what happened to Richard – but I’ll never forget that conversation.
It is a historical fact that many homeless charities have their roots in the church – like Centrepoint, established by another Christian Socialist Rev. Kenneth Leech in the late 60s at St Anne’s Soho. I worked for Centrepoint for 5 years managing hostels for young people, including the one next to St Anne’s. But, like the majority of homeless agencies, they jettisoned their Christian ethos years ago – there is no annual sermon to remember Ken Leech’s work there. It’s part of their history, but little else.
So often, the professional and the spiritual diverge, go down different paths, become disconnected and disintegrated from each other.
So how can we keep the Christian faith at the heart of social work? How do we keep, or guard, the heart of faith in our work?
I want to highlight three important factors – and they all begin with R:
1 The Christian faith needs to be shown to be relevant
Firstly, the Christian faith needs to be shown to be relevant.
When we look at the history of WLM – and often use this old minute book to show visitors because it details the discussions of the WLM ‘Rescue Committee’.
But it is also a reminder of the different time we are now in. Christianity’s central role of in society has greatly diminished over the years – the age of Christendom where Christianity was an accepted moral and spiritual authority is fading. Today, the relevance of faith cannot be assumed – it requires an investment of time and energy to show and make clear it relevance.
Passages such as the one we heard from Luke, are a great example of the connection between faith and social work. Jesus was giving his homecoming talk, his first public address, some call it his Nazareth Manifesto, to outline his ministry. And what are his priorities?
- Good news to the poor
- Release to the captives
- Recovery of sight for the blind
- Freeing the oppressed
And unlike many political manifestos today, this one was lived out in the life of Jesus. Throughout his ministry he brought good news to the poor, liberation, healing and freedom. The good news which was preached of, was seen and experienced in the transformation of people’s lives.
And it connects to the work we are doing. Joe was a user of the WLDC, who from there moved to Big House a few years ago. He now lives in his own flat in Hackney – but he came back to speak at an event we held last year. He said this:
‘I came to day centre cold, tired, hungry, lost, depressed, broke and very confused…but from then on I always had a friend, always a meal, a wash, a change of clothes and a place to relax. When I moved into Big House I still had all this but also I got privacy, luxury in a modern apartment, advice and priceless hours of consulting with staff about my problems.
Unemployment, drugs, crime, homelessness – that’s what I brought with me to WLM.
What they gave me was my old smile, my confidence, a place to nurture this, facilities and projects to make this grow. I did A levels, a BSc Honours Degree…I work full time, I pay the rent, and help run a thriving tourist restaurant’.
Joe has experienced help that brought him hope, liberation and transformation. It’s a change which utterly connects to Jesus’ words in the reading.
But, we have to be honest – as well as being relevant faith can also be controversial. Just a few verses after speaking these words, Jesus offends the people of his hometown. He threatened and driven out.
And faith in Christ is still controversial – especially within the culture in which much of social work operates where there is a great deal of mistrust. The work of churches is not always appreciated – especially within the homeless field.
What challenges me most about Donald Soper is his appetite to make faith relevant to the ordinary person. A faith that can be expressed clearly and simply in language people can understand – without being simplistic or trite. Rather than retreat – we need to show a steely and robust conviction about the relevance of our faith and the appetite to integrate within our work.
It is like swimming in a strong current – we do not actively invest in faith then we will be carried along in a secular tide. We do not want to be another homeless charity which used to be Christian.
And in my experience, all our staff, whether Christians or not, are inspired by understanding the roots of the work we do. As Ronnie Stockton, our manager of the Highbury Counselling Centre puts it, ‘West London Mission is in the change business’.
And Jesus was, and still is, in the change business too. He is the root of the transformative work we do and for me faith is more relevant than ever.
2) The importance of relationship and respect
Our Social Work, especially the specialist aspects of it of the kind we do with high-risk offenders at KPH or with people with chronic alcohol dependency, is a complex area. It involves managing potentially dangerous behaviour and demands a high level of professionalism.
This increased need for professionalism can also put additional strains on the relationship between Social Work and the more voluntary culture within churches. I have seen how throughout history, questions like this have arisen before within WLM. Phillip Bagwell writes about an episode in October 1948, when Sheila Townson, the manager of KPH reported to Dr Soper that ‘her girls objected to compulsory attendance at Sunday morning worship and that there had been a ‘minor riot’ on the issue.’ It is interesting that the requirement was not abandoned but that the expectations were clarified.
Well of course we do not demand attendance at church services anymore – I think we would have more riots on our hands if we did! But it has been brilliant to see the way that our Social Work Chaplain, Ruth, has brought her skills in offering opportunities for our residents and users to explore issues of faith and spirituality. She has had a very busy first Christmas. In the hurly-burly of the Day Centre Christmas lunch, she offered a quiet space for people to reflect on the source of the Christmas story and to draw hope and comfort from it. At KPH at Christmas time there were residents keen to talk with her about how hard they had found that period. And at The Haven she organised a lovely Christingle service in conjunction with the residents.
And it’s why initiatives like the Westminster Churches Winter Shelter, where seven churches in this borough provide shelter to homeless people one night a week – are so significant. Because it is a partnership between the professionalism of the Day Centre team and the voluntary spirit of the churches, including of course Hinde Street.
Behind all of these is the importance of relationship building – the careful art of ensuring that we walk the correct line of ensuring professional standards without cutting ourselves away from the incredible generosity of volunteers.
It connects to the other passage we had read from 1 Corinthians 12, where Paul describes the church in Corinth as body with many parts. Paul was urging unity among the Christians in the face of division and argument. As he wrote in verse 14 ‘the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body, that would not make it any less a part of the body.’
So it is with WLM – one body with different parts with different roles. I think it’s brilliant that someone can get professional support at the day centre but also come along for the social aspects of the Wednesday Club. Both are vital – as Paul wrote ‘if the whole body were an eye where would the sense of hearing be?’ We need both.
So ‘relationship’ is vital for maintaining faith at the heart. A respectful relationship where professionals value the church and the church value what the professional social work brings. It does not mean that we blindly agree on everything – our perspectives and approaches will be different and there will be times when we need robust debates. But, a relationship of respect will enable this kind of dialogue to happen and for us to remain committed to each other in our different approaches.
So, I believe that faith needs to be made relevant, it needs to have good relationship. Lastly, faith can provide many resources to the Social Work.
I often remind staff and other external bodies that the only reason WLM owns the properties that we do is because of the sacrificial generosity of previous generations. And the careful stewardship of property and assets is a key reason why WLM is in a relatively secure position during the current funding crises. It is one example of the resources that faith has brought to our work.
But there is so much more – the prayer support, the continued financial support from the Friends of WLM, the volunteer hours given to committees, the time given to volunteer at the services. When The Haven moved last year and there was a problem with getting the place ready it was great that people from the church came and helped. And it’s the same with the Action Days we have held at the services.
I talked about WLM as a body earlier – and of course one of the most important organs in any body is the heart. The heart pumping life and nutrients around the body – every part is dependent on what the heart does. In the Proverbs reading, we heard ‘Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flows the springs of life’.
The Christian faith is the heart of WLM – and we need to ‘keep it with all vigilance’ – to guard it, protect it, nurture it so that it can continue to provide the ‘springs of life’ – bringing resources to the rest of the body.
Hearts can be vulnerable – they need looking after to stay healthy. Arteries can become blocked limiting it effectiveness, the heart becomes weak and is unable to provide the body with what it needs.
So this is why we need to guard our heart of faith so it can remain our well-spring. This is of course a social and collective commitment – but it also a personal too. Personal in our own hearts.
After all, it was Wesley’s heart that was strangely warmed – it was not just that his intellect was stimulated or his social conscience was stirred. It was his inner core which experienced a transformation by God’s grace. In turn, this change helped transform our whole country. As US social activist Jim Wallis says ‘Authentic faith is always personal – but never private’. The life-changing, transformative, gospel is the best resource the church has.
I love working for the West London Mission. I feel deeply privileged to have a job which brings together professional working with homeless and marginalised people and the Christian faith. This is not a straight-forward combination – every day brings different challenges but it’s an integration which I passionately believe in. If we get it right, the social work nourishes and deepens the work of the church, and the church nourishes and deepens the Social Work.
I end with my favourite Donald Soper quote which I have on my wall in my office
‘Goodwill on fire – goodwill lit by the love of God and its glow maintained by fellowship with Jesus. I know of no better description of the Christian life.’
Not just good will – a good will lit by the love of God and maintained through fellowship with Jesus. WLM is one body – it includes both church and social work. I pray we will always guard the heart of faith that will sustain this body.