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Author Archives: Val Barron

Radical Hope, after 10 years with Communities Together Durham.

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Almost ten years ago to the day I joined Communities Together Durham (CTD) as a community development worker and today is my last day as I move to another role. On Monday 18th March 2024 I organised two conferences on the theme of Radical Hope as part of the William Temple Foundation’s series of public meetings on this theme ahead of the General Election. The events gathered a wide range of church-based practitioners, activists, other charities, local government reps and the Bishops of Jarrow and the Bishop of Newcastle. Professor Chris Baker shared three dimensions of Radical Hope (rootedness, alternatives, solidarity) which I will intertwine with my reflections of my community development work in the Northeast over the past 10 years.

CTD was established in partnership with the Church Urban Fund whose strap line at the time was ‘Tackling Poverty Together’. Despite all the phenomenal work I witness daily by congregations and church projects we have failed to do this and now our region has child poverty rates the highest country.  Successive governments failed to supported our ‘left behind’ neighbourhoods and critical events like the pandemic and Cost if Living crisis have disproportionately impacted those in low income communities. However, I want to frame this reflection around the notion of radical hope, following the gatherings on the 18th March where Professor Chris Baker talked about three facets of radical hope.


The word radical is derived from its Latin etymology of radix, meaning roots. For Chris, hope is anchored in deep roots that are attached to existential values and beliefs which are clearly both religious and philosophical. This allows for a long-term perspective and therefore more resilient viewpoint to emerge as an antidote to short-term and reactive thinking. For me this long-term perspective has practical implications in that much church social action is trusted in communities. I often tell the story of my first day at Easington Colliery where I was told ‘they come here, do stuff to us and leave’. Many of our churches have for generations been working with their communities, and this provides us with a unique opportunity not available to other agencies and local authorities. For example, the ecumenical project in Easington Colliery has been running for over 10 years, the Place of Welcome in Felling, again over ten years. 


Over the last ten years we have witnessed a shift in social action, which in their own way have been challenging the dominant narrative and putting the individual at the centre. For example, a shift from foodbanks to alternative food provision. Some of this was practical (the emergency 3 tokens did not alleviate long-term chronic poverty) and other was recognising the stigma associated with charitable responses to poverty. More ‘pay as you feel’, food supermarkets, recycling school uniforms. The growth in people exploring social enterprise is another radical pragmatic alternative that my research showed was as much about proving dignity as it was about income generation. The work around the Living Wage is also another pragmatic alterative that I have worked on. Six years ago, the NE had the lowest number of LW employers (30) we now have over 330 including two Living Wage places, Sunderland and Newcastle. ‘Just Change’ has been adopted by Catholic schools and others in the region ensuring that unused free school meal money rolls over with one head teacher estimating that £17,000 was put back into the accounts of free school meal pupils in one year.  While many of the leavers to tackle poverty sit with national government there is much we can do here to ensure that folks have more money in their pockets. The challenge is that these more radical alternatives are not understood or resourced by church or society that still sits predominantly within a charitable model of change.


In many spaces the church is working in solidarity with partners that ten years ago would never have invited us around the table. One example that demonstrates this is Mickeys Place. Eight years ago, they opened their doors for a pop-up BBQ in response to holiday hunger, now they cook meals most days of the week and have a food store. More importantly are the relationships they have with other agencies. Supported by the local authority it is a space where staff from drug and alcohol services, debt and benefit advice agencies, the local housing provider and social prescribers all gather to meet their clients. This is because it is a trusted space by locals and there is a radical solidarity of people coming together to try and make Sulgrave a space to flourish for all.  Research  showed COVID to be a pivotal shift in many relationships between the local church and local authorities.

My new role is a community organiser with Tyne and Wear Citizens, with a focus on faith groups. Broad Based Community Organising is a space of radical solidarity where people come together to work on issues they have in common. In my local church project in Houghton-le-Spring there is a real buzz around organising for the upcoming Mayoral election.  At the event Denise explained that people in her community ‘feel left out of society and don’t matter. Our mission is to give them a voice and include everyone in our fight and explain how they do matter and why. Communities like mine often feel badly done by, however through our church project we are helping people to re-engage with democracy’. However there is a deeper radical solidarity that has come out of organising, they are working with people from all different walks of life and building relationships based around commonality. From students at Durham University to members of the Mosque. In an area of the country where isolated post-industrial communities provide little opportunity to work across difference this radical solidarity is very important. 

I know there are many challenges going forward, one being capacity. However, the institutional anxiety around church growth must not take away from the role the church can play in radical hope. 

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Lenten Tension; Action Vs Contemplation

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This Lent I am feeling the tension between action and contemplation more acutely than ever.

‘Our Lent should awaken a sense of social justice’

As always the words that Oscar Romero wrote in 1980, weeks before his assassination are key to my Lenten practice. This year, a year of elections, working for social justice is more crucial and urgent.

No Time To Wait was published last week by North East Child Poverty Commission, and as the title suggests, there is no time to wait. Over one thirds of babies, children and young people in the region are growing up in poverty and one tenth are living below the deep poverty line. The report’s authors warn that,

 ‘is not only limiting the life chances and outcomes of tens of thousands of children and families across the North East – and their ability to benefit from everything this part of the world has to offer – it is holding the whole of our region back.’

Many of the levers to reduce child poverty sit with the UK government and consequently general elections are key moments where civil society organising for change. Here in the North East devolution provides another opportunity to tackling the injustice that is child poverty. Faith groups are often on the front line of responding to poverty and therefore have great insights into the causes and yet, in my experience, we struggle to focus our energy upstream. 

During a recent session with new church leaders in the region, they admitted that they felt unable challenge injustice. They, and their congregations, were amazing at providing pastoral and social activities, responding to need through loving service and activities that evangelise. However, there wasn’t a single of example that would be described as challenging unjust systems. The main reasons given for this was lack of capacity, not knowing what to do, concern about being too political and not feeling that anything would make a difference.

During this election year we must collectively embrace practical, achievable actions that church communities can get involved that will make a difference and are not party political. Here are three that we are working on in the North East.

  1. Finding Radical Hope in a Year of Election? On 18th March we are hosting two events with William Temple Foundation. One in Durham and the other in Newcastle. The events will bring together contemplation and action. 
  2. Mayoral Assembly. The creation of the North East Mayoral Combined Authority has been highlighted as a key opportunity to reduce child poverty in the region. Over the last year members of Tyne and Wear Citizens, which includes many faith-based organisations, have been sharing stories of poverty and the Cost-of-Living Crisis. Ask that have emerged from this process will be put to the candidates at a Mayoral Assembly on 22 April 2024.
  3. Voter registration UK Democracy Fund estimate that  8 million people across the UK may still not be correctly registered to vote, many are living in low-income communities. Faith and community groups are being encouraged to become Voter Registration Champions. The church community project in my parish of Houghton-le-Spring took part in training last week. Staff and volunteers practiced how to have conversations about the importance of voting and how to register. Next month they are holding a week of voter registration in the town.

Here lies the tension this Lent, like many I am overwhelmed and exhausted.

‘The frenzy of the activist neutralises one’s work for peace. It destroys one’s inner capacity of peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of one’s work because it kills the roots of inner wisdom which make work fruitful.”  Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 1968

This Lent all of this action must be balanced with slowing down and contemplation to ensure we can continue to challenge injustice.

Yesterday I stood in front of the North East Suicide Memorial Quilt  on display in Newcastle Anglican Cathedral. The intricate and personal stories sewn into the quilt both desperately sad and yet hopeful. One read ‘There is a light that will never go out’.  How therapeutic the process was for those who had to slow down and contemplate to make the small squares? Did it provide strength to carry on, many who will be fighting for a very personal and painful justice?  

The Church of England’s Lent book by Dr Selina Stone, Tarry a While is a beautiful gift in a search for a completive resource that will enable spiritual self-care. Tarrying, Selina explains, is a particular spiritual practice within many Black churches, especially Pentecostal congregations. It is a collective time of waiting for God. 

‘It is a time of surrender to God, in the hope of personal and communal transformation. It is also a moment of intersession, for bringing our personal needs to God as well as our loving concerns for our neighbour and the world’.

May we all find time to tarry a while this Lent while also awakening our sense of social justice. 

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The Old Oak – An Important Story For Our Times!

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Ken Loach’s latest film set in the North East opened in cinemas in late September and Dr Val Barron was privileged to have a small part in its creation. You can see her wearing a dog-collar in the publicity poster above!

In this interview, she talks about her involvement in the project and some of the key messages of the film about the role of local churches and communities, hopefulness and the courage to take action.

How did your association with The Old Oak start?

Almost 5 years ago, my husband John (a real vicar) and I were introduced to Paul Laverty, Ken Loach’s script writer of almost 30 years. They had previously collaborated on two films in the North East ‘I Daniel Blake’ and ‘Sorry We Missed You’, and Paul was exploring a third film based on Syrian refugees moving into communities in the area. The government had committed to resettling 20,000 Syrian refugees and a number of local authorities in our region signed up including Gateshead, where we were at the time. The socio-economic geography of the region resulted in many families being rehomed in isolated communities with high levels of poverty. People were struggling to cope, and the awful ‘Breaking Point’ posters that were being used in Brexit campaigns didn’t help to make the transition to the North East an easy one.

What was your and John’s role in the early stages of the film’s development?

Paul is a gatherer of stories! He does this by spending time with people, building relationships and sharing stories with one another – as well as drinking copious cups of tea. Our role, as well as sharing our own stories, was to introduce Paul and later Ken, to all the amazing people in our community. 

Working with the local Methodist’s, our church folks ran language classes and meetings where we shared food and fellowship as well as weekly community football sessions in the estate where the refugees had moved. These gatherings brought people together and helped build relationships across the community as well as with our new friends who had come to us as refugees. Paul came and joined in and got to know the stories of local residents and their new neighbours. 

What is your role in the film and how did you feel?

It’s fair to say I haven’t missed my vocation in life and I didn’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, unlike our community organiser colleague Claire Rodgerson who plays Laura so wonderfully in the film.  On the first day of filming Ken made a point of saying that my role was in the film to represent all the work that churches are doing in their communities to support refugees. That felt important. John reminds me that I do say some of the first words in the film (although it’s off-camera). Maybe, if I had been more comfortable, I would have been less on the cutting room floor – but that’s OK! The first scene was very daunting for us all but right from day one there was a sense of everyone looking out for each other. The most enjoyable was the people involved. It was also a very emotional process. I live in these communities and care deeply about them and the film highlights many of the challenges. On the first day filming I was with some of the Syrian actors and she asked whether people lived in these street as, in her words, ‘it looks like a war zone’.  

Watching a film being made must have been fascinating – what did you learn about it?

I had to pinch myself at times. I was on set for Ken Loach’s last film (probably!). Watching Ken and the team at work was phenomenal. They cared so much about the story and more importantly the people taking part.  Ken knew everyone’s name, including their name in the film and that really made you feel valued. It was really tough at time and so there was a huge amount of trust in him and the team, especially as the majority of the cast were not trained actors. But the overriding thing I took away was the collaborative working. We were all in our own little way helping to shape a story that was important to us for different reasons and I met and made friends with some wonderful people.

What do you see as the message and how do you think it will be received in the North East?

I am sure the film will receive mixed reviews, as Ken’s films always do. The language is tough and uncomfortable at times, however I doubt anyone will watch it and come away unchallenged. The North East has the highest rates of child poverty and a recent study by Shelter found that the region had the highest proportion (31%) of homeless households, including those living in temporary accommodation.  Per capita the North East has the highest percentage of asylum seekers in the United Kingdom. Given these tough facts you might not expect the key message of the film to be hope, but it is. Hope that despite all the challenges in our communities we can come together and build beautiful relationships across difference.

Throughout the whole process Ken and Paul were always asking where the stories of hope were. The second message issolidarity not charity‘. This is an important issue for us to discuss in our churches. The natural response of providing charity may not be the most appropriate. Providing spaces to build relationships and learn each other’s stories, whether through sharing food or playing football, could be the most prophetic ministry.

How does the church come across in the film?

The story of the film was inspired by church projects – the film tells a different story but it remains faithful to the truths that were told in the stories of the projects. Rather than being set in a church, a local pub (‘The Old Oak’) is at the centre of the film which will perhaps enable more people in our communities to readily relate the story to their stories. While there isn’t a local church building featuring in the film, the church’s social action very much shaped this venture. There is a beautiful scene in Durham Cathedral in which the character Yara says:

“It takes strength to build something new, it takes strength to build something beautiful.”

I see churches in the North East, and across the country, somehow finding strength to build things new and beautiful, inspired by their Christian faith to make the world a better place to live. 

The Bishop of Durham, Paul Butler who speaks for the Church of England on refugees, tweeted after the premier:

“The Old Oak made me cry, feel angry, ashamed, disturbed, cry again, but also hope and have a sense of pride in what has and can be done to welcome refugees well. Ken Loach and team have once again produced a superb, timely, film.”

We arranged community showings of ‘I Daniel Blake’ and produce resources to be used alongside these. We will be doing the same again with this film.

Paul Laverty, when talking about the film has quoted St Augustine of Hippo:

“Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” 

My prayer for this film is that people feel anger at the injustice that face many in our communities, not just refugees, and courage to take action.

Dr Val Barron is a William Temple Scholar. Val has worked as a community practitioner in Durham Diocese and she is the lead development worker at Communities Together in Durham. Val is passionate about community organising, social enterprise and working with local churches in challenging social injustice and helping communities to become fairer and more inclusive.

Rev’d John Barron is the Rector at St Michael and All Angels in Houghton le Spring

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Challenging Injustice? Sorry We Are Too Busy Responding to Human Need

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Over the last few months, I have become aware, while working as a community development practitioner in the Durham Diocese, that the wonderful staff and volunteers are increasingly expressing that they are exhausted and angry.

Loughborough University has found that North East now has the highest child poverty rates in the country, with over 50% children growing up in poverty in some communities. Child Poverty rates in the region have risen by almost half, from 26% to 38%, in the space of six years compared to a drop by two percentage points across the country [1]

I was reflecting on this when I came across an old report from the Church Urban Fund that looked the problems facing community organisation in the most deprived areas. It described:

‘Significant issues confronting people living in deprived communities – The most common problems cited by respondents included high levels of unemployment, especially amongst young people; reductions in benefits coupled with rising rent, food costs and bills; increasing levels of homelessness, and rising levels of debt’.[2]

What, however, most shocked me about the report was not the content – but the fact that it was written ten years ago!  The austerity years, the COVID-19 years, and now the current economic crisis. Each wave of crisis has seen congregations and faith-based organisations pick themselves up and do what they can. Food provisions, debt advice, drop-in support, and warm spaces.

The congregations and projects I support are increasingly growing exhausted, not knowing what to do next or where to turn. This exhaustion has been highlighted by a recent article in The Guardian:

“Many of our teams are struggling to cope as demand for our support outstrips our food and financial donations and we are forced to make difficult decisions about how we operate. We are overstretched and exhausted. Many of our organisations are at breaking point.” [3]

However, there is another emotion that I am witnessing: the anger resulting from the recognition that years of responding to human need through loving service has not changed things. Rather, it seems things are now worse than ever before, as highlighted in the child poverty statistics.  

Last month an email from an area dene explained that at the deanery synod found ‘there is a desire to do more than give, [as] this cannot be accepted as the norm and collectively we would like to campaign but are unsure how to take this forward’.   Our charitable practice doesn’t help us to seek to transform unjust structures of society. As Thia Cooper reminds us:

Charity is only needed when a situation of injustice exists. On its own, charity is not enough; it leaves the person ‘giving’ with the power. It does not ask how to achieve a just system, where no one holds greater economic, political, radical, or other types of power over another human being. (Cooper, 2007: 175) [4]

Last week was Living Wage Week. As the chair of Tyne and Wear Citizens Living Wage Action team, we will be celebrating the first Living Wage City in the region, Sunderland, and our second council, Newcastle.

This year, I have noticed a shift in the narrative around the Living Wage campaign from one of advocacy to deep solidarity.  There is a deeper connection for many of us which has moved us beyond standing alongside as we are all, to varying degrees, look with concern to work out how to make ends meet. I am not playing the ‘we’re all in this together’ card, because that just isn’t true but there is a deeper solidarity.

Joerg Rieger (2017) develop the notion of solidarity into ‘deep solidarity’ when describing a situation where 99% of us who must work for a living, including people who are excluded from the job market, realise that they have this in common. Deep solidarity recognises that the system works for the few rather than for the many, and that nothing will change unless more of the many come together. It also recognises that our different religious traditions can help us imagine and reimagine deep solidarity.

At the heart of worship in Israel is the Exodus from the conditions of slavery in Egypt; this tradition ties together the three Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Interreligious dialogue is a live option not only because of shared traditions but also because deep solidarity helps us deal with our differences. In fact, differences become an asset when the resources of our different traditions are allowed to make their specific contributions to the struggle. (Rieger, 2017: 361) [5]

So tonight, I am off to run listening training for the deanery synod who wanted to move beyond simply giving but weren’t sure how to go about it. We will be practicing how to have conversations with people who are different from ourselves with such an understanding of deep solidarity.


[2] Church Urban Fund (2012) Survival strategies: a survey of the impact of the current economic climate on community organisations in the most deprived areas of England. London: Church Urban Fund. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2020).


[4] Cooper, T. (2020) A Theology of International Development. London: Routledge.

[5] Rieger, J. (2017) ‘Empire, deep solidarity, and the future of liberation theology’, Political theology: the journal of Christian socialism, 18(4), pp. 354-364. doi:10.1080/1462317X.2017.1311060.

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The radicality of Christian social enterprise

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William Temple scholar Val Barron reflects on just how radical Christian social enterprise can be.

One thing I had never expected when I began my research journey was that it would be so exciting. The excitement came when something I had not expected began to emerge from the data. I guess archaeologists feel something similar as artefacts are slowly revealed in the dirt and begin to take form.

The aspect of my data that has particularly surprised me is that the Christian social enterprises in my research are far more radical than I had expected.

From my experience, as a community practitioner in Durham diocese, I was anticipating participants who turned to social enterprise as an alternative funding stream. This was certainly what Adam Dinham had predicted:

‘[J]aded by the never-ending cycle of struggling to find next year’s funding whilst at the same time plan for the long term […] Social Enterprise can seem like an attractive option where it promises a constant stream of income.’

(Faiths and Frontiers, p. 12)

In his book Social Enterprise for Anytown, John Pearce sets out a continuum between a radical approach and a reformist approach. The reformist social enterprise, according to Pearce, serves as an extension to the private and public sector, providing services that these sectors fail to address. They reform their practice, often adopting commercial practices to meet revenue shortages. At the other end of Pearce’s continuum sits a radical social approach. These organisations see social enterprise as an alternative way of doing things,  aiming to challenge injustice, and built upon a radical utopian vision that seeks to fundamentally change the social order.

The social enterprises I have encountered in my own work, while sitting at various points along the radical /reformist continuum, were often seeking to subvert the logic of the free market and change the relationship between money, land and people. They were established by groups of Christians who were passionate about challenging the injustices they experienced in their communities, including low wages, food poverty, food waste, educational marginalisation, and isolation.

Most social enterprises were started by listening to the lived experiences of people in their communities. As one participant told me, ‘we stumbled across social enterprise’; setting up a social enterprise had not been the starting point.

I really should not have been surprised by this finding. The Christian tradition includes many examples of using the market for radical change. Social enterprise, while still a relatively new term, can be recognised in in the historical tradition of church mission and social engagement.

I live four miles from where a group of six, Christian students in the 1970s decided that, rather than flying out aid to Bangladesh, they would import products made in their communities. Thus, Traidcraft was established and went on to become a pioneering business for the Fairtrade movement.

Similarly, the newly ordained Catholic priest Father Arizmendi was sent to Mongragon in 1941 and started door to door collections to raise funds for a technical college for excluded young people. From this act grew a co-operative that has been revered globally, made it the wealthiest region in Spain and raised a steady supply of capital for new co-operative ventures.

The small acts of listening to people’s stories, and asking how we can build capacity rather than simply respond to need, can lead to massive, radical change. Rather than adopting a reformist approach of simply shifting our ‘charity activities’ to become more income generating, we should re-engage with the radical history of social enterprise.

In their book Getting Beyond Better, Roger Martin and Sally Osburg define the transformative role of social entrepreneurs:

‘Social Entrepreneurs […] can be contrasted with both social service providers and social advocates in that social entrepreneurs both take direct action and seek to transform the existing system. They seek to go beyond better, to bring about a transformed, stable new system that is fundamentally different than the world that preceded it.’

(Getting Beyond Better, pp. 9-10)

Referring to this quotation, a research participant stated:

‘That, for me, is a pretty good definition of the kingdom of God. Jesus’s mission in terms of the kingdom of God is actually trying to transform the current system.’

As we begin to emerge, battered and bruised, from the devastating impact of the pandemic, many of our existing services will either have disappeared or be searching for new ways of functioning. In this void, social enterprises can provide spaces of radical receptivity, rapprochement and hope—if we start by asking the right questions. Hilary Cottam also encourages us to explore radical solutions by asking different questions:

‘The question is not how can we fix these services but rather, as I stand beside you, how can I support you create change. The search is for the root causes: what is causing this problem and how can we address this underlying issue.’

(Radical Help, p. 3)
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A deeper solidarity

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Following Living Wage Week 2020, Val Barron makes the case for a deeper solidarity with all our co-workers.

My research interest in social enterprise stems from the belief that businesses can provide a place for people to feel valued and to flourish—and thus have a place in the Church’s social action. However, as I was reminded at the beginning of my research in an interview with a Christian social entrepreneur, the Church can be reluctant to engage in the world of business:

‘They automatically presume charity—good, business—bad. That is a very common church narrative… Charity is a fabulous thing if it’s done in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose. And the same is true for business: it can be fabulous if it’s done in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose.’

Yet we also know that businesses can be places where employees are exploited and undervalued. The last nine months has only made this exploitation more visible. The number of people earning below the minimum wage has risen fivefold to 2 million since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s probably worth reiterating that fact: 2 million people now earn below the minimum wage.

For the last three years I have been a member of Tyne and Wear Citizens Living Wage Action Team and every year we hold a celebration during Living Wage Week. While the North East is the region with the lowest number of accredited employers nationally, we have seen a rise from 30 to 133 over the last three years. Preparing for this year’s celebrations felt very different, and not just because we held the event online. It has felt more personal, more emotional and closer to home; there is a deeper solidarity.

Earlier this year we heard from a young carer who worked in a local nursing home. Since she was under 18 she only received £4.35 an hour; she had to buy her own uniform; and she often worked twelve-hour shifts. We were told how she regularly worked without appropriate PPE, and fear of losing her job prevented her from complaining or taking time off if she felt poorly. Her experience tallies with the claim that three quarters of care workers in England are paid less that the real living wage; this is a staggering 82% in the North East. During the first lockdown, as we all gathered on doorsteps to applaud our NHS, I struggled to clap knowing the deep injustices suffered by some of our most valuable workers.

Meanwhile, redundancies have hit record rates and unemployment levels continue to rise, with the North East seeing the highest rates of unemployment in the UK at 6.7%. Very few households have not been impacted by the reality or the fear of low pay and insecure work.

Joerg Rieger adopts the term ‘deep solidarity’ to describe the situation where the 99% of us who have to work for a living (including people who are excluded from the job market) realise that they have this in common. Deep solidarity recognises that the system works for the few rather than for the many and that nothing will change unless more of the many come together. Deep solidarity allows us to work for common causes, dealing with our differences constructively, and developing what Angus Ritchie describes as a practice of inclusive populism that welcomes religious and secular perspectives as well as other diverse views.

But what does this have to do with my Christian faith? How does this affect the Church with its inclination to focus on otherworldly or private affairs as opposed to tangible working conditions? Unfortunately, many faith communities are unaware of the ties between religion and the everyday life of working people. But Rieger reminds us that the Abrahamic traditions have their beginnings in the struggle for the liberation of the Hebrew slaves.

Never in my lifetime has there been a more important time for faith communities to re-engage with the fact that they are communities of working people whose tradition is one of liberation, and whose task is to develop a deep solidarity for the common good. John Artherton reminded us that a market economy ‘offers one of the greatest challenges to Christianity just as Christianity in its own turn challenges that context by its refusal to be fully integrated into it’ (Christianity and the Market, p. 21).

Now is our time to re-integrate into the world of business, in deep solidarity with our co-workers to ensure it is a place for all to flourish.

Image: “Ritzy Living Wage Striking Workers” from Wikimedia Commons is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Hunger and COVID-19: stories of two responses

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William Temple Scholar Val Barron offers a frank report on those who are going hungry as a result of the current crisis, and introduces some of the work that is being done in response.

The day before coronavirus lockdown was announced, I was working in a community supermarket in a small town in County Durham. As well as generating income through the shop and take-away, there are several community shelves aimed at customers who are experiencing food poverty. Schools in the town—like the rest of the country—were shut, and the shelves were full of brown paper bags containing the packed lunches for the 211 children who were entitled to free school meals that day. One mum came in to pick up five packed lunches and we began to chat about the current situation. She shared her concerns about the next few weeks, not only having to homeschool five children on her own, but also finding the money for food; she was already struggling. This was day one. Our context has changed immeasurably since that day, almost four weeks ago, and my challenge as a community development worker is to navigate how to respond; and quickly.

Over the last three weeks I have been engaged in two responses, one charitable, the other community organising; both are equally important in these tumultuous times.

The primary charitable response has been food aid. Informal local networks and charities have stepped up to bridge the gap between public services and community need. Local foodbanks have started to deliver food parcels and churches—unable to hold their drop-ins, lunch clubs, and toddler groups—have shifted focus to distributing food aid. Local social enterprises have shifted their focus from income generation to social impact and have also provided food.

While this work is to be applauded, much of it is not sustainable. Despite the announcement of £100 million in loans, reductions in food donations and the exhaustion of volunteers and staff are both taking their toll. Academics from York University claim that the current situation is magnifying the inequalities in the food system and the fragility of the food aid that is provided by the charity sector (that is being asked to respond to a growing demand with reduced resources). They call for policy change to protect households:

‘Millions of households were in poverty before the pandemic, and millions more will be so unless the government continues to protect household incomes through policy change.’

This is where the networks and processes of a community organising response become so important. The government has proposed a raft of new policies over the last four weeks, but with little time for the usual scrutiny and testing it is important we listen and organise in response to the impact of these.

One of the policies announced on 18th March aimed at providing children entitled to free school meals continued support while schools were closed. While supporting the move,  Tyne and Wear Citizens recognised that the proposals would still see children falling through the net. A process of rapid listening was initiated, using the relationships we had developed in the north east during our Just Change Campaign last year. The findings were distilled down into several ‘asks’, which were checked with institutions and chapters across the country, and again amended.

In his book Inclusive Populism, Angus Ritchie describes broad-based community organising as: ‘an approach to politics rooted in agency and the diverse convictions of citizens experiencing social injustice, from recent migrants to people in long established working-class communities’. Until four weeks ago, the process of listening and bringing diverse groups together for change had been at the core of my organising in Sunderland, but this is a lengthy process and for now we need to respond quickly in an organised way.

The church can be key to listening in communities, even without face-to-face conversations. By simply asking the question ‘what is putting pressure on you and your family?’, we will begin to build up a picture of grassroots issues, some of which we will be able to influence, others that we won’t.

We are also starting to hear about the impact of being furloughed on a minimum wage, employee rights being removed, and issues with the benefit systems. Policy makers, whether locally or centrally, need to be aware of the impact of their decisions on the ground. But by gathering stories and feeding back to local councillors, MPs and other strategic partners we can influence change.

Over the next few weeks and months we need to serve our communities not only through acts of charity but by gathering stories and working with institutions for a just response to this crisis.

More details about the Tyne and Wear Just Change Campaign can be found here.

More blogs on religion and public life…

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Liberty and response-ability in the time of coronavirus by Tina Hearn

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Ordinary people: telling a story of worth and hope

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In this moving piece, Val Barron calls on us to place human value at the heart of ethical business. It is the ordinary people working in social enterprise, she says, who are showing us the way.

Earlier this month I attended a preview of Ken Loach and Paul Laverty’s latest film Sorry We Missed You, which portrays the inhumane gig economy and its impact on a family in Newcastle. It has rightly been described as a ‘brilliant film that will focus minds’ by the Guardian, but as we stood applauding the critically acclaimed duo I was left with an overwhelming feeling of anger and powerlessness. In my role as a community development worker, I regularly hear accounts of people being treated as worthless by employers. You’re not worth a decent contract, you’re not worth holiday or sick pay, you’re not worth a decent wage.

Since seeing the film, however, I have been involved in two events that provided a positive counter-narrative to Sorry We Missed You and re-ignited my sense of hope.

As a member of Tyne and Wear Citizens, Living Wage Week saw us celebrating a small but growing number of living wage employers in the North East. Watching the cleaners, catering staff and porters present the Vice Chancellor of Newcastle University with their plaque was amazing. Over the past eighteen months they had engaged in a process of listening which resulted in the university deciding to accredit. Many staff explained how they had felt invisible and unvalued, but that the process of being listened to and accredited had given them worth. They also talked about the importance of knowing each other’s name.

The issue of names came up again the following week when I held my second impact event for the William Temple Foundation, which saw social enterprise practitioners from around the country gather near Sunderland. Halfway through the day a colleague expressed surprise at the energy in the room: ‘there’s a real buzz here,’ he said, ‘I rarely feel [this] at events and I can’t put my finger on why’.

Since the event, I have been reflecting on his words. My hope for the gathering was simply to provide a safe space for ordinary people to share their stories, and then to try to discern together where God was working in their social enterprises. Although none of the participants would describe themselves as experts, they were doing extraordinary things. John Atherton puts it perfectly when he talks about ‘ordinary church’. Ordinary church is ‘the Church as it is, full of ordinary folk doing ordinary things, yet which are so extraordinary, not least because, for example, they produce people who generate higher wellbeing’ (Challenging Religious Studies, 2014, pp. 75-6).

The ‘ordinary people’ gathered near Sunderland are certainly generating higher wellbeing. They include: a young woman who, supported by her church youth worker, ran a social enterprise designing fashion items; a vicar who began by salvaging some old pews and now, years later, has a thriving social enterprise making bespoke furniture and employing and training many marginalised people; and a small group of friends whose passion for minimising food waste and addressing food insecurity led them to start a café where they also train local people.

There was almost an apologetic tone as these amazing stories were unfolding: ‘we didn’t really know what we were doing’; ‘I stumbled into social enterprise’; ‘I’m not sure how we got here’. The experience of setting up their social enterprises had been messy, risky and costly to the individuals involved, working long hours, and often unsure of the next step. These are certainly ordinary people achieving extraordinary things.

All the participants talked about valuing people and things that society often sees as worthless. There is the waste food that is being turned into nutritious meals and the old pews that are being used to create beautiful bespoke pieces. But most importantly it is human worth that is central to all these enterprises. Beginning by simply asking ‘What is your name?’ (Luke 8:30), these enterprises work alongside people for ‘as long as it takes’ to make them feel valued.

The other important theme that emerged was the power of telling a different story. Telling a different story about the people we work with, about our community, or about how businesses are being used to empower people and bring social worth. ‘Charity good; business bad’ is a very common church narrative, but these social enterprises are telling a different story.

At the end of the day I was given an ‘Inspiring Hope’ hat by the young woman who designs fashion items. For me, it summed up exactly why there was such a buzz in the room. The day had inspired hope that, by working together with the amazing people in our communities, we could make a difference. I wear my hat as often as I can, and I love to share the story behind it. We may not all have the story-telling gifts of Loach and Laverty, but through our actions we all have the power to make a difference.

I very much encourage you to take a look at some of the ethical businesses that are empowering people, such as Listen Thread, Grassmarket Community Project, Refuse and Traidcraft.

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Representing the End of the World by Tim Howles

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Blinded by grace?

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William Temple scholar Val Barron reflects on the importance of both giving and receiving in light of a recent event on gift-giving.

I’m blinded by your grace
I’m blinded by your grace, by your grace
I’m blinded by your grace
I’m blinded by your

These words have been playing constantly in our home since Stormzy (the first black solo British artist to headline Glastonbury) told the crowd that they were going to ‘take this to church’ before singing his hit song Blinded by your Grace. Suddenly, my teenage son’s eyes were opened to the possibility that faith could be exciting and interesting; and we have been listening to it ever since.

So, it was with this earworm in mind that I arrived to co-host an event this week with Professor John Barclay, Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at Durham University.

In his recent work Paul and the Gift, Barclay offers a sophisticated analysis of grace (gift) by examining the concepts of gift and gift-giving in the ancient world. Barclay argues that the notion of a free gift (without prior conditions, and with no strings attached) is highly controversial because it demands no response. Instead, he suggests, there is an expectation of reciprocity in God’s gift of Christ: “God’s grace is designed to produce obedience, lives that perform, by heart-inscription, the intent of the Law”. Giving a gift creates a relationship, and therefore there is an expectation of a response. God gives freely, but a response is required—a response that entails our fulfilment and flourishing. Without a response God’s love does not cease but it is not fulfilled.

Paul was fundamentally concerned with creating new communities that crossed ethnic and social boundaries. He expected gifts to flow in all directions, including straightforward exchange between givers and a more general reciprocity. We are not designed to be self-sufficient. The gifts in the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12, Romans 12, Ephesians 4) all have something to contribute—with privilege and dignity attached to being the giver. We are all vulnerable, and we all need others in one respect or another.

The ethos of koinōnia i.e. communion, or participation (Philippians 2.1-5), Barclay reminded us, involves not giving oneself away, but giving up what impedes shared benefit (what is only for oneself) and giving oneself into a shared relationship of co-interest.

At the same event, we also had the pleasure of being joined by Bishop Francis Loyo from South Sudan. Over coffee I enquired how he was finding the conversation. He reminded me of the notion of ubuntu—”I am because we are“—the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. In his home, he said, it was impossible to survive alone; human reciprocity was necessary for survival.

I found myself wondering: could koinōnia or ubuntu be a theological basis for Asset-Based Community Development which seeks to reorient theory and practice from community needs, deficits, and problems to a focus on community skills, strengths, and power (Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993)? Perhaps koinōnia goes even deeper and further than models of Asset-Based Community Development? It seems to involve a gift-partnership where we all share in the giving and receiving rather than simply building on the gifts of ‘others’. As Paul wrote to the Galatians:

Love, serve, correct, welcome one another: the power of being host is distributed; ‘bear one another’s burdens’ (Galatians 6.2)

Furthermore, what does this mean for our church social action, where our giving and service is typically a ‘one-way gift’? How can we build koinōnia or ubuntu communities? Can we enter into gift-communities in which we receive as well as give?

Many people attending the event were involved in activities that were ‘serving their communities’, whether lunch clubs, refugee drop-ins, foodbanks or toddler groups. How could we shape this valuable ministry to ensure relationships were central and everyone was given opportunities to give and receive? Is the best model not a soup-kitchen but a pot-luck supper? Are we wrong to push away the offer, when others want to give? Should we allow them to give, as well as receive? It may or may not be right to accept money, but should we be open to other ways in which people can give?

After an afternoon of discussion, we recognised that there were occasions when a one-way gift was necessary (for example initial work with refugees) but that, once relationships are developed, reciprocity and mutuality should be the focus. We discussed how hard this can be and that we have to be willing to take risks and make ourselves vulnerable. It’s much easier for us just to serve our communities, but are we being truly Christ-like?

For example, Pastor Mike Mather’s account Having Nothing, Possessing Everything is a powerful story of a congregation in Indianapolis that stops providing one-way gifts in the form of food pantries and holiday clubs, and concentrates on connecting people in order to allow the giving and receiving of gifts.

The main question I came away asking was: how does gift exchange work within a social enterprise model?

The local community cafe Refuse uses the notion of gift-partnership. Set up as a social enterprise in response to food waste, they receive gifts of perfectly good food that is destined for landfill and use it in their cafe. Visitors are offered options of how to give, allowing those with varying amounts of time, money, and skills to become part of this growing and diverse community.

Every once in a while, you learn something that causes you to re-evaluate your beliefs, values, and practice. The day was punctuated by a hum of ‘aha’ moments and I drop home singing Blinded by your Grace slightly differently.

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Flexible and audacious hope in a tumultuous world by Chris Baker

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Funeral poverty: we cannot rest content

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Val Barron proposes that we cannot rest content with the spiralling financial burden that afflicts those who have lost loved ones. Funeral poverty is getting out of control.

On Friday afternoon, four days before Christmas, I receive a call from a local vicar who has visited a young mother whose husband has just died. She can’t afford the funeral and, knowing that her income will be greatly reduced in the new year due to benefit changes, she is anxious about building up more debt. My heart sinks: the chance of finding support this close to the Christmas break is limited. The vicar is pulling in favours, negotiating with local funeral directors, waiving fees wherever possible, and being a conduit for small gifts from the community that may help the family. All alongside the immediate pastoral care.

Over one hundred years ago, William Temple wrote that:

‘We see on the one side a considerable number of people enjoying a great many of the good things of life… and we see on the other side a vast amount of real want and destitution, and also a great amount of vice which is largely due to poverty. This is a state of affairs with which the Christian cannot rest content.’

Funeral poverty is precisely one of these issues.

BBC Radio 4 Moneybox recently dedicated a programme to the rising cost of funerals, which now average between £3,000 and £5,000 (equivalent to 40% of annual expenditure for those on the lowest income). According to the Quaker Fair Funeral campaign, the cost of funerals has risen by more than 112% over the last 13 years, increasing at more than four times the rate of inflation. The Radio 4 programme highlighted the lack of regulation within the industry, as well as practices that are surely unacceptable: for example, Sarah described how she struggled to pay for her mother’s funeral and was unable to take possession of her ashes until the account was settled. Disappointingly, however, the programme did not acknowledge the role of church ministry in supporting families during these difficult times, many of whom, in my local experience, work hard to ensure affordable options are found and provide support beyond the funeral.

At the end of the programme there was a brief mention of Scotland’s first not for profit funeral directors Caledonian Creations, who launched in February 2018 with the aim of tackling funeral poverty. Their business model avoids a tiered pricing structure, thus removing the stigma of having to choose the ‘cheapest option’, and allows them to provide a help line and bereavement counselling.

Meanwhile, as part of my research into the role social enterprise can play in church social action, we held a seven-week training course in Durham Diocese. The approach was built around our passions and talents; what did we feel God was calling us to do and how were we, as the local church, uniquely placed to do good. The ability to provide an appropriate funeral, regardless of income, was not only one of the issues that people cared deeply about but was also one that we had the talents and gifts to respond to.

Perhaps the church is well placed to provide a sustainable and caring solution. What would a local social enterprise that provided an affordable funeral look like and what would be important for us as Christians to include in our business plan? How could we ensure that it was shaped by our communities?  We are so busy reacting to immediate needs that our challenge in 2019 is to provide time and space together to consider new approaches and then to take a few risks, to try something new.

In Doing Good Better Paul Bickley suggests that, ‘what is needed is not more but different—new ideas, new approaches new practices. Many of the great social achievements of religious traditions have not been realised by doing the same thing more, but by pioneering and applying a new approach.’

Prof Chris Grover has recently written that austerity can be understood as a form of structural violence that results in poor mental and physical health, and even death. I cannot help wondering about the long-term implications for individuals, families, and communities who have spent Christmas not knowing how they can afford to bury their loved ones.

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We have already Brexited ourselves by Chris Baker

Healing Division and Building up Common Life: Community Organising and the Church of England by Jenny Leigh

Sacred Secularity by Stephen Edwards

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