Social justice has become very cool in the last decade, you might have noticed. One of the consequences is that plenty people have cottoned on to the concept, and felt a little lost when trying to put it into practice.
I was at a big Christian mega-conference about 18 months ago and I came across a guy my age trying to explain the difficulty to Christian leaders from other European countries. “The thing is, because we have the welfare state in England, it’s hard to know how you can help.”
It’s fair to say I was outraged, dumbfounded. Spitting teeth is the phrase that comes to mind.
The welfare state is wonderful. But they’ve hardly got things nailed. And it’s not a comprehensive solution any way.
But anyway, my subject for today is actually not all those people (Christian or otherwise) asking ‘how do we get going?” (If you’re asking that question then you should watch this fab video from my mate Jon who has a very practical suggestion). Instead I want to tell you about a couple of churches I’ve been inspired by who started out (ahead of the game, you might say) with a passion for serving the local community right at their core, so it’s never been something they’ve had to work out how to add on.
And strangely both these churches have ‘corner’ in the title.
A couple of years ago I went to Cornerstone Church in Swansea and met Julian and Sarah Richards. They had pioneered a project called ‘The Gap’, having realised that loads of local kids played truant and never managed to transition out of their broken education into work. It was a brilliant scheme, but my favourite part of the film we made about them was when Sarah talked about when they started the church.
It was 1991 and there were seven young people who felt called to start a church in Swansea. They had no building, no services, no money. But they didn’t wait for any of those things; they just started looking for ways to serve the local community. They volunteered at local schools, they set competitions for the local kids for Mothers’ Day and got local businesses to give them prizes. They looked for ways to love the local people and build relationships with them, to work for the good of the area. And it was rough – they had no income, they couldn’t always afford to eat. But right at the core of who they were and still are as a church community is an orientation towards the local people, and an urgency about expressing God’s love towards them.
I met a brilliant old lady there called Blodwyn who’d found Cornerstone when she’d spotted an advert at the post office offering “IT for the Terrified”. She joined classes and experienced a welcome and sense of belonging she’d never known before, and became a believer and part of the congregation. “My life has completely changed,” she said. [pause] “For the better!”
Then a couple of weeks ago I heard a similar story. I was at a church in Runcorn called Hope Corner (love that name) – a tiny converted shop in the run-down end of the town – which runs a programme for kids excluded from mainstream education. I met some of the kids who attend who love it – because they are listened to and supported and encouraged. At this new “school” they find stability and space that’s often hard to find elsewhere. Darrell, one of the leaders of the project (he became a Christian in prison and came out determined to help local kids chose a different life), says that their first priority is simply to love the kids.
I interviewed the main pastor of the church and he told me that the church and the ‘projects’ are indivisible. They only exist because of one another. They started out wanting to help meet some of the needs in the area, to offer concrete love and support where it was needed, and they have been thoughtful and consistent in how they’ve done it – so much so that they’ve won over a lot of the local community (there’s an enormous waiting list for their kids club), and plenty of funding for their projects too. “We are what we need to be for Runcorn,” says Mark. And for them that means school and kids work and youth work and a lot of prayer every morning, as much as it means cramming in on a Sunday morning to worship and study the Bible.