Shaping debate on religion in public life.

Radical Hope, after 10 years with Communities Together Durham.

27 Mar 2024

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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