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Three Billboards Outside St. Mary’s, Stoke Newington

09/05/2018 11:02

Professor Chris Baker on an ingenious Hollywood-inspired fundraising campaign outside his local church.

St Mary’s, Stoke Newington (where I am a regular attender), like a lot of churches and faith communities in the capital, does a huge amount of social and welfare outreach. Our rather battered and frayed ‘church rooms’ as we euphemistically call them, play host to a weekly food bank, a winter night shelter and a migrant advice centre. This is on top of hosting innumerable community groups (Weightwatchers, dancing classes, choir rehearsals) needing access to affordable public space, of which there is less and less due to cuts in council funding. The already heavy demand on our facilities has grown exponentially in the last two to three years. All areas are packed to overflowing and groan under the weight of the demand. With this increasingly unsustainable situation in mind, we have embarked on an ambitious programme to raise a very substantial sum of money to upgrade the premises that will allow us to continue to meet, but also expand, our provision for the local community.

Part of the fund-raising strategy has been to erect three massive red billboards outside the church, which is blessed to be in a very prominent position in the heart of Stoke Newington. The idea is clearly borrowed from the Oscar winning move Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri. If you have not seen the movie, the plot revolves around a grief-stricken mother hiring three billboards outside a small-town to bring attention to the fact that her daughter’s brutal murder remains unsolved. She blames the local police department’s lack of action on a combination of ineptitude and lack of interest. This simple act at the start of the movie exposes the fault lines of division and resentment in a small-town community that lead to violence and retribution, but also, in the end, a measure of reconciliation and forgiveness.

The message on the three billboards outside St Mary’s church read: 6167 homeless in Hackney; Shelter and Foodbank Here; Be informed, Get Involved, Donate, with the address of the information and fund-raising page. The messages are designed to be as stark as possible (as in the original movie) and to draw attention not only to the welfare work already being done on the church premises, but to encourage a wider sense of knowledge and ownership within the local community around a commonly-shared problem. The amount of interest has been phenomenal on several levels. One simply has to watch the reactions as people walk pass the billboards and the message slowly drops. Out come the phones and people take pictures and talk to each other about it in very animated way. People engage you in conversation about it, as I get my haircut or buy food in the local stores. There has been a strong and positive interest from both local and national media. And yes, slowly but surely donations are beginning to come in from strangers and passers-by with no connection to the church, as well as many offers to volunteer.

Now a number of local factors  may explain the success of this campaign. There is a vibrant existing base of volunteers and organisers beyond the church congregation who are involved its social welfare and outreach programmes, perhaps around 100. They will see the message as an endorsement and validation of their commitment, and it will make others want to join in. Local businesses willingly donate food and free resources for the church to use. The local church school has huge engagement with poorer families in the borough, and so is well networked in to the local fabric. In other words there is a resilient and well-established local web of relationships and good will which provided a solid base from which the message and sentiments of the billboards can be proclaimed.

But it feels as though there is more behind this resonating message than some well-earned and positive local PR. The campaign seems to cut through the ongoing miasma of anxiety, uncertainty and fear that currently dominates our local and national life. This campaign has to be seen against the backdrop of the resurgence of gun and knife crime within North and East London, which seems to many to herald a return to the bad old days of 1980s. The decline in public services and the so-called welfare safety net which has led to the visible return of homelessness, poor mental health  and poverty on our streets. There is the ongoing spectre of Grenfell, the anxiety of migrants in the light of the recent Windrush scandal and current Brexit uncertainties for EU residents, many of whom live in Stoke Newington and attend the church. On top of that, there is a general unease about the future cohesion of Britain as a nation, the future of Europe, and the peace and stability of the wider world.

The billboards, it seems to me, offer a stark invitation to local people to take active steps to take back some sort of agency and control, and come together in order to create a sense of hope and stability. It’s a message clearly comes from a religious setting, but its secular resonances help it come across as an invitation for everyone to be involved and co-create an alternative narrative of hospitality, care and compassion.

The context in which these billboards are being received, with their direct and stark appeal, feels more politicised than it would have been even five years ago. But this mix of the spiritual, the political and the local seems to be tapping into a hunger for political change – not so much based on ideology, but on an appeal to an ethical, emotional and even spiritual dimension of our citizenship that has been steadily eroded and undermined by 40 years of ‘me-first’ politics.

The impact on the community is palpable. The impact on our church is also palpable. More and more people, especially young couples and singles in their 20s and 30s have joined the church in recent years. They want to belong to an institution that welcomes their gifts and idealism and provides them with the chance to offer something back to other people, without a price tag or a piece of meaningless and cruel bureaucracy attached to it. As in the movie, the three billboards point to a dark and disturbing image of the sort of society we have become. They are also perhaps, the means by which new networks of reconciliation, dialogue, communication and hope can emerge.

For more information on St Mary’s, or to donate to the church, please visit stmaryscentren16.org


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