Homelessness Brings Churches Together
Homelessness brings churches togetherIt’s quite difficult for churches to avoid homelessness. First because there are some pretty clear instructions in the Bible about sheltering the homeless poor and welcoming the stranger (try Isaiah 58:6 and Matthew 25:35 for a start). Secondly because homeless people come to church, especially to vicarages, presbyteries and manses. They turn up and ask for help – even sometimes in rural and suburban areas where street homelessness is not a visible problem.
However, homelessness is a complicated and difficult problem to tackle; what starts as handing out a few sandwiches at the presbytery door can quickly morph into a steady stream of hungry, need people. Allowing one rough sleeper to rest in the church porch can become a small encampment that the congregation need to negotiate on their way into services. People are not always easy to help and the support to which they are entitled from local authorities is not always forthcoming. Finding partners and working together is an obvious, practical solution.
One way forward, which Housing Justice promotes and supports, is the setting up of a Church and Community Night Shelter (CCNS). A CCNS is a fairy big operation, even if it only runs through the winter months, and it’s not worth doing unless there are at least ten potential homeless guests. The typical shelter involves seven churches (the largest we know of has more than 29 venues and some shelter circuits include synagogues and mosques), each of which hosts a different night of the week. The homeless guests are provided with a hot dinner, a bed for the night, breakfast and generally welcomed into each host church. There are usually one or two paid staff but most of the work is done by volunteers – last year the ratio of guests to volunteers in a typical shelter was about 1:10.
OK you are thinking, this is a great example of Christian social action and pragmatic working together but what has it got to do with the ecumenical journey? Think about an ecumenical service, like the ones we’ve been holding for the week of prayer for Christian unity. The people who go to those are people who are already committed to ecumenism, but they are rarely the majority in our congregations. The homeless guests, as they move from venue to venue, clearly do not judge us on our liturgical practices or style of music, let alone our beliefs about particular doctrines; they will tell you that your puddings are the best but your room is not as warm as Monday night, or how they like Thursday because you can sleep in the church itself, or Saturday because they have a big screen TV for the football. And the volunteers are rarely all from the same church. Some churches (like mine at the moment) don’t have a suitable hall but do have enthusiastic volunteers who want to help out. Other folk are just not free on their church’s night but can do another one. And others have a lovely building but a small elderly congregation who really could not manage without help. So thanks to my volunteering I now have a working knowledge of the local Methodist and Anglican churches. I am familiar with their kitchens and toilets and I’ve slept in their hall and church. I have friends in their congregations and I recognise and greet Christians from other denominations in the supermarket and at the health centre.
This is the experience of a CCNS project. Through our volunteering and attempts to help homeless people we have learned more about each other and our churches. By eating and talking together we have got to know each other in quite a deep way. We have built community amongst ourselves and our homeless guests, all members together. In making places of welcome for the homeless guests we have been made to feel at home in each other’s churches and have come to really understand that we are all labourers in the one vineyard.
For more information about CCNS projects go to: http://www.housingjustice.org.uk/pages/shelters.html.
Director, Housing Justice (a Body in Association of Churches Together in England)