An agent of reconciliation
As we see the divisions in our communities today, the church is ideally placed to be an agent of reconciliation. Are there examples that can inspire us?
One such example was presented in a July 2015 report called 'Marching towards Justice - Community organising and the Salvation Army' by The Centre for Theology & Community.
The Salvation Army began planting a new corps in Stepney when Lieutenants Nick and Kerry Coke and their one-year-old son moved into a house on the Ocean Estate in 2003.
From the outset, the mission hinged on developing a wide range of relationships in the local community. Operating without a physical building of their own, the emphasis was on establishing relational networks rather than programmes. Whilst remaining distinctively Christian and active in preaching the good news of Jesus, the corps has constantly sought to build relationship with those from every faith and to create spaces where members of the community could deepen their shared life as neighbours together. Over time a corps made up of committed Salvation Army members has emerged from the community, playing a strong role in transformative mission.
Stepney is a vibrant and diverse community, situated in the London borough of Tower Hamlets - the heart of the East End of London. Stepney Corps is the closest corps to where The Salvation Army began, half a mile from William Booth’s Statue on Mile End Road. The religious composition of Stepney is 48.7% Muslim, 23.8% Christian, and 11.8% no religion. 58.5% of the population were born in England and 21.8% were born in Bangladesh. Tower Hamlets as a whole has the lowest percentage of Christians of any local authority in the United Kingdom. Stepney is regarded as having very high levels of social deprivation despite being sandwiched between the two wealthiest districts in the whole country – the financial centres of Canary Wharf and The City of London. The Church Urban Fund identifies the Parish of Stepney as having 43% of children living in poverty, one of the highest rates nationwide. The context is challenging for corps planting and the social interaction between different sections of the community is low.
Listening, relationships and belonging
When Nick and Kerry moved into Stepney they found themselves in a neighbourhood they knew very little about. They made the decision that before they started anything they really needed to learn about the community and this could only be done through listening. They committed themselves to attending community meetings, visiting local groups, volunteering at a local youth club and introducing themselves to schools, mosques and community groups in the locality. They were keen to learn about the context from residents themselves and to work out how God might want to use them there.
The key value at the heart of Stepney Salvation Army, from the beginning to the present, is that of relationship. One of the things that really struck Nick and Kerry about the neighbourhood was the lack of integration between different sections of its diverse community. In the early days when they took their two young children to parent and toddler groups they noticed how people gathered only within their specific ethnic or socio-economic groups. They decided that it was time to become agents for change.
"We felt convicted that relational poverty, like material poverty, is a form of injustice. Without reconciliation this wonderful neighbourhood could never reach its potential and Jesus’ prayer for it to “be on earth as it is heaven” could never be answered. Like the first Salvationists who walked these East End streets we felt it was time to fight injustice and demonstrate an alternative way of living life in this world – one that reflected God’s kingdom."
The work for reconciliation has taken many forms. Sports ministries have been a particularly powerful way of bringing people together through weekly football groups. The Babysong parent and toddler group has been one of the few spaces where real diversity can be found. The corps co-ordinated over a number of years ‘The Deal With It Day,’ a community festival that annually brought over 1000 Stepney residents together to openly discuss the issue of drug misuse in the area, as well as celebrate unity. Kerry ran a friendship group called ‘Opening Doors’ at the primary school her children were attending when each week a group of parents would take it in turns to host the others for food and conversation. Nick built relationships with local mosques meeting with the leaders and organising dialogue events between Christians and Muslims. They also spent significant time with neighbours in homes and encouraged corps members to do the same.
"We discovered over time that we owed our credibility in the community as much to living and sharing the same space and issues as everyone else in Stepney, as to our status as Salvation Army leaders. We weren’t outsiders or ‘do-gooders’ who had arrived to save this community – we were neighbours who were willing to work with others for the common good."
Service and Justice
Through listening and relationship building a number of issues began to rise to the surface – low incomes, long-term unemployment, inadequate housing and lack of safety on the street. The corps decided that it was not enough to treat the symptoms of these challenges through service alone, but they needed to address the root causes. They took public action on a series of issues and been part of some great wins for social justice:
1. Affordable Housing
Rising house prices driven by a buoyant London market have put ‘affordable’ housing out of reach for all but the wealthiest Tower Hamlets residents. Stepney corps has played its part in establishing a community land trust (CLT) in Mile End which delivers permanently and genuinely affordable housing for those living on low incomes and in overcrowded housing in Tower Hamlets, for generations to come.
2. Street Safety
In 2014, institutions in Tower Hamlets Citizens came together to improve street safety. They identified that the street lighting in the borough was only half as bright as that of the wealthier borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Not only that, but many lights, particularly in open spaces were not working at all and police patrols were sporadic and haphazard. The corps attended a local street safety rally, providing musicians. The mayor of Tower Hamlets attended and made firm commitments to improve street safety by fixing broken street lights, to review police patrols and install CCTV cameras in trouble spots, which has since been delivered.
3. Olympic Jobs
In 2012, The Olympic Games came to the East End of London. As part of a delegation, Stepney Salvation Army helped to develop a relationship with the organising committee and secured a number of commitments for an Olympics that would serve the people of the East End. Corps members worked with other community organisations to support hundreds of unemployed local residents into living wage jobs during the Games. Five local church and mosque buildings were turned into job centres where unemployed people could come and directly meet employers. One unemployed Salvation Army Soldier single-handedly facilitated employment for over 100 Stepney residents- including herself.
4. The Living Wage
Like the early-day Salvationists supporting the dock workers and match-makers, this East End corps has continued to fight for London’s lowest paid workers through support for The Living Wage campaign. Nick recalls, "It became increasingly common for us to meet cleaners, carers and catering staff, many working 50-60 hours a week with two or more jobs and still finding it impossible to make ends meet. Most of them were receiving the minimum wage but it simply wasn’t enough to support a family in one of the most expensive cities in the world."
One Sunday morning the congregation gathered outside the building they met in to pray for the community. From the street they could see the towers of Canary Wharf and The City glittering in the sky. These vast symbols of business, wealth and status right on their doorstep highlighted the inequalities in their neighbourhood. Feeling convicted to take action they completed a wage audit in their congregation and discovered a number of people who were on the minimum wage. One Soldier was a cleaner working for a housing association in the shadow of Canary Wharf. As he testified about the difficulties of raising his three children in Stepney on poverty pay, the corps was unanimous that it was time to act.
They began by researching the issue and discovered that the corps member and 30 of his colleagues were on contracts that not only paid the minimum wage but didn’t allow for sick pay or holiday pay. The workers had been trying to raise their voices with their employers but with little success. The corps recognised that it would be unlikely they could force change on their own. What was required was a strong, powerful voice that couldn’t be ignored. Their next step was to talk with other local leaders in the community to see if they could build a consensus for action. Following a leaders meeting, the group immediately took the decision to
meet with the housing association CEO. A few weeks later, two of the cleaners, a Salvation Army officer, a Roman Catholic priest, a leader from the mosque, a union organiser, a university lecturer and a secondary school head teacher had that meeting.
The most poignant moment came when The Salvation Army Soldier looked the CEO in the eye and shared the story of how difficult it was to live on the minimum wage and how his family life could be transformed if he could earn The Living Wage.
The CEO listened respectfully to his employee’s testimony. It was a moment of grace – the ‘upside down kingdom’ in action, where the one considered to be powerless became powerful and a genuine public relationship was built. A week later a letter arrived from the CEO. All 30 of the cleaners were to be given new contracts. Wages would be set at the Living Wage level, and sick pay and holiday pay were included. Amazingly, he went the extra mile and backdated the workers’ pay for a whole year to a Living Wage level!
One of the key challenges for Stepney Salvation Army is the sustainability of a small corps in a very diverse and transitional inner city neighbourhood. Developing leaders and sharing responsibility within the whole corps is vital. Community organising has provided important tools in this regard: helping to establish an alliance
between the corps and local mosques, schools, churches and a nearby university; developing and training leaders within the corps and empowering people to speak for themselves rather than being ‘a voice for the voiceless;’ providing a pragmatic framework for fighting for social justice and identifying how to campaign and win on issues.
For a small corps, Stepney Salvation Army does a remarkable amount, demonstrating that even a small group of people can change the world.
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