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Friday, 24 March 2017
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Instant Apostle (17 Mar. 2017)
I have known Paul Keeble for a couple of decades as a colleague in the national urban mission networks and have appreciated his significant contribution to the church and community in inner city Manchester. In his new book Paul reflects on his own journey over 35 years starting out as a student and youth evangelist who joined and put down roots in an urban parish not far from Piccadilly station. His experience of living in a council flat and later in an ordinary terraced street, where with his wife Judith he raised his family, has given him a rich understanding of urban life end of the relationship between church and community. The book is largely biographical and Paul tells a good story which is easy to read. At the same time which is a profound and significant theological reflection on living as a Christian in a context of deprivation and diversity.
At the heart of the author's theological and missiological thinking is a gradual progression from concentrating on mission to the community through a commitment to mission for the community that has led in more recent years to a notion of mission with the community. As a new evangelical incomer to Manchester Paul's priority was communicating the gospel to young people outside the church. As he grew to know his neighbours more closely and observed material and social problems he became more involved and committed to mission activities which served their needs. Every urban church, and many now in suburban and small town settings, has become familiar with projects such as food banks, family projects and money advice services. But long-term every day life in urban settings tends to draw you into low level community politics and community partnerships. In Paul's case it was a community response to gun crime in the locality which was taking a devastating toll among local young people, that led to the recognition that he was involved in the mission of God with the community. It is familiar enough to say that the kingdom of God is wider than the church, yet it often takes Christians a long time to understand the implications of this for their mission practice, and indeed this is often resisted on the basis of a desire to remain pure and holy. It is also an established practice in community development to work alongside and with local residents while the recent emphasis on asset based community development resonates well with the approach.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is living and working in the context of an inner city church and community and especially to the new generation of Christians who are intentionally relocating to urban neighbourhoods and deprived estates with a view to church planting, Christian outreach and community transformation. It should be required reading for Eden Network and Urban Expression teams, new clergy and gap year interns. However, it does surprise me that it is taken 35 years for this book to come to publication and I have a degree of concern that it is still needed. 40 years ago when I and a similar group of young people arrived to work in the church and community in East London we soon found we were talking and writing about similar themes and issues. The debates of that time and the period following the publication of the faith in the city report in 1985, produced a considerable literature which came to similar conclusions about community mission. In some senses it is a tragedy and failure that the church as a whole has not listen to these prophetic voices and if anything has retreated into the mission to and mission for models of Christian outreach.
One criticism I have of the book is that in concentrating on telling his own story Paul has not been able to give an account of religious diversity in the city and therefore does not seem to recognise the distinct contribution of new and emerging congregations, many of which serve ethnic minority communities. In some of these the model can better be described as mission from within the community, and although in many cases they operate in silos and do not adopt incarnational methods they are an important sign of the times. They may indeed be God's answer to our earlier longings to see an indigenous, self sustaining and locally led indigenous urban church. They are also a marker of a rapidly changing ecology of the city and of the church in the context of globalisation. We need a stronger sociological account of these processes if we are to develop appropriate and flexible networks and methods of urban mission and community work in the 21st century.
Pears, M. & Cloke P. (eds), 2016. Mission in Marginal Places: The Theory. Authentic Media Inc.
Mike Pears is another veteran of urban mission in London and Bristol while his co-author Paul Cloke is Professor of geography at Exeter University. The volume of edited essays from mission practitioners covers similar ground to Paul Keeble's book but is written with academic rigour in a less accessible style. But it is well worth the effort of engaging with the arguments for anyone who is concerned for the life of the church and community involvement in marginal places. The editors top and tail each section of the book and frame their concerns in terms of contextualisation, dialogue and presence and the notion of third space and redemptive places. It is rooted at the intersection of urban geography and missiological thinking, and recognises the importance of social justice in an age of austerity and welfare reform, the widespread dissatisfaction with the priorities of the institutionalized church and the failure of its mission among people at the margins of society.
The first chapter by Mike Pears develops an interesting and helpful theology and sociology of place and recognises the rapidly changing, increasingly unequal and exclusionary nature of urban settings such as East London. Stewart Christine's chapter on incarnation and connecting with marginal communities is a theological reflection drawn from experience in Brazil and Manchester and focuses on the experience of children in contemporary cities and in their encounters with Jesus in the Gospels. Sean Murray Williams shares the story of an emerging Christian community as it sought "to identify the contours of the kingdom of God or the profound cry for God's presence in a context of deep and systemic need or injustice". Sharing food together became a profound element in the liturgy of this group. Together these chapters can be summarised has exploration of what it means to participate together in the word becoming flesh in mission in marginal places.
Part 2 of The Book is about loving neighbours and corresponds in some sense to Keeble's mission for the community. Andrew Williams writes about embrace and encountering others in a post welfare society and draws significantly on the theology of Miroslav Volf. His context is food banks and similar Christian ministries which have become popular and necessary in austerity Britain. Where secular politics would prefer to deal with marginal people by expulsion, assimilation, domination or abandonment the Christian way to challenge such exclusion is hospitality and embrace. Food banks at their best create this open contact space where the diversity of volunteers of different backgrounds and political persuasions working together builds community and understanding, which potentially could lead to political and ethical transformation. But Williams is aware that such church led welfare approaches are not without problems and could be colluding with policies of exclusion and injustice. Cathy Ross reflects upon hospitality as welcome of the stranger. She advocates sharing table fellowship which involves not only eating and drinking but sharing stories and listening. The Christian discipline of hospitality symbolised above all in the Eucharist she believes is really a spiritual discipline, and that when we practice hospitality as both givers and receivers our worldview begins to change. Paul Cloke's chapter concerns working across religious and secular boundaries and his routed in his understanding of the notion of postsecularity. He examines Richard Niebhur's analysis of the possible relationships between Christ and culture but finds it lacking. He turns to and draws on recent work by Elaine Graham and Chris Baker, which leads him to advocate a Christian approach that goes beyond self-interest and church interest and works towards spaces of post-secularrity where Christian projects and activities relate more openly and generously to local and Civic and political structures.
The third section of the book is more strictly theological. David Purves speaks about cruciformity and the tension between centrifugal and centripetal tendencies in mission. He advocates dialogue and mutuality as central to his approach and the need for the church to be embedded in the culture of marginal communities. Juliet Kilpin, writing out of her experience of urban ministry and work with refugees and asylum seekers, concentrates on the concept of shalom as an alternative narrative to the dominant ones that marginalise and exclude. She illustrates this with the Tale of Two sofas, both seemingly abandoned in the street by lazy poor and antisocial residents, but which could be interpreted in radically different ways. She points to a Jesus whose feet are well grounded, who tells a truthful story, who seeks the welfare of the whole community and radically redefines the use of power. His presence is calming, his style is relational and as such this is the model for our Christian involvement. Stephen Finnamore's final chapter on Hope, prophetic vision and the lie of the Land radically deconstructs the dominant myth of prosperity and consumerism and finds hope in a Bible based anthropology that goes beyond individualism into common ground and social justice.
This volume is a welcome new contribution to the srban mission literature and brings some new voices and themes into important debates. As a volume devoted to the theory it is the first of a promised series infer the volumes reflecting on stories case studies and practice eagerly anticipated by this reviewer.
Reviews by Greg Smith - March 2017
Monday, 13 March 2017
The issue of immigration is deeply personal to me. When I moved to East London in 1975 my very first job involved teaching English as a Second Language to some of the East African Asian refugees heard recently settled in Newham. In a career of 40 years the concerns of refugees asylum seekers and migrants have never been far from my working life. In the 1980s and 1990s as a member and trustee of Evangelical Christians for Racial Justice, and as a church related community worker I became involved in numerous campaigns to support people who were facing difficulties in their immigration status or being threatened with deportation. I attended an immigration tribunal with a house mate from the Ivory Coast who eventually was required to leave the country, and I was involved with others in campaigns to prevent the deportation of Marion Gaima, Viraj Mendes and the Danso family (p 4&5). After judicial review Marian was allowed to stay, while Viraj who had been offered sanctuary in a church in Manchester for several months was forcibly deported to war torn Sri Lanka. The Danso case highlighted the irrationality of a system where a husband from Ghana and a wife from Jamaica who were both deemed to be over-stayers were threatened with deportation to their two separate native countries, while their British born children work faced a possible breakup of their family life. They were offered sanctuary in a small room in the community centre at the end of our road, and given practical support by a wide range of local Christians. Eventually the government saw sense and the family were allowed to stay in the UK. In more recent times our family hosted in our home for nearly two years a mother and daughter who were seeking asylum and accompanied them successfully through the application procedures.
Monday, 20 February 2017
Christian food aid could be excluding those from other religions in need of help
Click the link to read it:
The longer academic version of the research paper is published in Journal of Social Policy and can be accessed here
In summary it finds
Few Muslims going to Christian food banks
During six months in 2015, we spoke to 27 people working to help provide food aid and combat food poverty in Bradford. The people we spoke to were either directly managing a food bank, or held positions of responsibility to try and prevent food poverty, including in local government.
Despite the generosity of many of those involved, we found that some food aid was being dispersed in a way that could potentially be exclusive. In Bradford, faith-based food aid was common, but most faith-based providers were Christian, with very little Muslim provision. Of the 67 community food aid providers, 35 were secular, 24 Christian and seven Muslim. Secular provision is largely run by charities, a minority of which are funded by the local authorities.
For example, most secular and Christian organisations were unable to cater for cultural diets, and did not provide halal meals.
A manager of a Christian food bank told us that faith-based food aid could be considered an opportunity for preaching to or praying with clients, at times with the objective of religious conversion:
The other thing which some people find difficult but which we do offer, we make it clear that we are a group of churches running it and that we are a Christian organisation. We believe in the power of prayer and we offer to pray with people.
This raises some important questions for those of us working or volunteering in food projects in multi-faith areas such as Lancashire. However as the authors state they have only been studying the situation in one city on the wrong side of the Pennines and Bradford is a particularly unusual city with a high degree of residential segregation between predominantly poor white and poor almost exclusively Pakistani Muslim neighbourhoods.
The authors hint at some factors which might explain the pattern of provision and take up of charitable food provision though some of them need to be questioned and analysed in greater depth before accepting the suggestion that there is systematic, albeit unintentional, exclusion of minority faith people in need of food.
Culturally and Religiously restricted diets halal food :
It's probably true some food banks and open kitchens haven't even thought about this, probably on the basis they think there is no demand, but it should be fairly easy to ensure there is a choice of vegetarian food which is usually acceptable in most of the faith communities.
Geographical distribution of services...
Providing free food is usually a very localised service, but it does often depend on the location of available and suitable premises. Inevitably there is a postcode lottery in food provision, depending on where relatively thriving churches, temples, mosques and community sectors are to be found.. and whether the people who manage them have a vision for setting up and sustaining a food project. The critique here should be addressed to politicians who have over recent years dismantled many aspects of the welfare state, made receipt of benefits highly conditional, and been content to scrounge off churches and charities to plug the holes of provision for destitute and vulnerable people.
What proportion of Pakistani Muslims in Bradford are in need of food aid?
The researchers tentatively suggest "some ethnic minority groups, despite often being in a low socio-economic position, have better health outcomes than expected due to support within their social networks . Lower levels of food insecurity among Pakistani Muslims would be in keeping with this." It does seem plausible that a high proportion of white people who attend food banks are isolated individuals, suffering from what CUF calls in its web of poverty, poverty of relationships. However, there is no evidence presented, (and it would be very difficult to gather it) as to whether this is the case. It is also plausible as the researchers point out that help is found through the existence of alternative, hidden forms of food assistance among the Pakistani Muslim community surrounding mosques. Or it may be that family and biradari networks are sufficient to make sure no one goes hungry for long.
The shame factor
One concept that is totally missing from the research paper is that of "shame". In every faith and ethnic group it is not easy to admit that you cannot feed yourself and your household. Visiting a food bank which inevitably is a public act, and often needs formal referral interviews is emotionally difficult for most people. In a close community where everybody knows everybody else's business it is doubly so. And since most Muslim communities, and Pakistani ones in particular have highly developed notions of izzat (honour) and shame that redound on the whole family it is likely to be extremely difficult to ask for help with food. It is also conceivable that many would prefer to ask the council or a Christian food provider before risking an approach to their local neighbourhood mosque.
The religious ethos...
In my view the researchers comments on the religious ethos of food provision is not based on a high level of religious literacy or close observation of everyday interaction in multi-faith communities. It is the case that some Christian churches, and indeed mosques and other faith based organisations, may be clumsy and insensitive in expressing their beliefs and may indeed have inappropriate priorities about the call to conversion. The reality however is that when asked about faith and values, people of faith cannot be expected to keep silent. Personal experience over many years in East London and Lancashire suggests that few people of minority faith are offended by the articulation of Christian belief, and vice versa. Indeed many expect and prefer people to be up front about faith rather than rely on a cold secular an bureaucratic organisation. Indeed many Muslims are happy to attend church schools, children's clubs and family activities such as Messy Church. It may of course be different in some highly segregated and polarised cities such as Bradford, and at highly politicised moments, such as the Iraq war and the current post-Brexit. However it would be wrong to assume that religious ethos in itself is a driver of religious discrimination in service delivery.
I am interested to receive feedback from people in the Together Lancashire and wider Together Network as to whether the picture painted for Bradford rings true for your work.
My impression of food project work in Lancashire towns suggests a different story. There are a number of Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and secular food provider services, and many of these work happily together in providing help to anyone in need. The varied geography and demography of the county means that some local providers may rarely if ever expect to see a Muslim, while others have a mixed clientele.
However, it is really important that we all keep examining ourselves to make sure our services are high quality and open to all, and that if we ever talk about our faith, or offer to pray with or for our service users, we do that in a sensitive way which respects their integrity and personal religious views.
Please do respond.. and lets have a discussion about the best way forward.