In the day centre for
homeless people run by the West London Mission in Marylebone, the
chaplain helps to facilitate a spirituality group, where
rough-sleepers reflect and discuss the "deep things" of life. What
I most enjoy about it is that it grapples with questions in an
honest and raw way.
Last week, we were
looking at the story in Acts when Peter and John are arrested and
threatened by the Sanhedrin, but reject its demands to keep silent
about the resurrected Jesus. As we discussed the courage of the
Early Church, one of the men declared bluntly: "This is what we
need - not this wishy-washy Christianity. The thing about Jesus was
- he had balls."
Most homeless projects
came out of the Church. The Christian roots of the Salvation Army,
the Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, and the YMCA are
obvious, but fewer people know that charities such as Centrepoint
and Shelter- were also established by committed Christians. Despite
these roots, however, the question how Christian faith and
spirituality is integrated with practical help has long been
For example, famous
writers such as Jack London (The People of the Abyss,
1903) and George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London,
1933) castigated the Salvation Army and others for making homeless
people engage in worship as a condition of receiving help.
Historically, some Christian attempts at offering faith alongside
practical care have, at times, been clumsy and coercive.
This has led to a
counter-reaction, in which any explicit reference to faith has been
treated with suspicion. When combined with external funding
pressures, professional culture, and a lack of theological
confidence, the Christian basis of many homeless charities has
often been allowed to become a footnote to history rather than
something relevant to the work that they do today.
THIS is the focus of a
significant new report by the respected research agency Lemos &
Crane: Lost and Found: Faith and spirituality in the lives of
homeless people, which was launched last week (News, 19 April). It
is the culmination of research that involved conducting in-depth
interviews with 75 homeless people, in partnership with many
agencies, including the Connection at St Martin's and West London
The report's findings are
trenchant: faith and spirituality play a positive part in the lives
of homeless people, and the secular orthodoxy that excludes
questions of faith is out of step with the views of homeless people
themselves. Although it challenges some of the "not-so-sacred cows"
of the modern voluntary sector, this cannot be dismissed as
partisan religious propa- ganda. Its author, Carwyn Gravell, is a
The report explores the
benefits of religious belief for homeless people - the "fruits of
faith". As Gravell states: "For homeless people, religious belief,
practice and doctrine can help them come to terms with a past that
is often characterised by profound emotional and material loss,
enhance and give structure to the present where time hangs heavy
for many, and create a purposeful future built on hope, fellowship
and a sense of purpose." The report gives a thoroughly researched,
independent basis for the genuine human need for what faith
It offers a critique of
the secular orthodoxy that has come to dominate mainstream homeless
services over the past 40 years. Faith has become, it says, "a
dimension of life that is largely ignored within the philosophy of
mainstream service provision, regarded as irrelevant, or as a
private matter best avoided, and even perceived by some in the
sector with suspicion and outright hostility".
Gravell describes how the
rise of "scientific materialism" and the "mechanical world-view"
has transformed a religious approach into a rights-based approach.
His analysis of the way in which atheistic views seek to avoid,
reject, and silence the relevance of faith is fair and precise, and
rings true to my experience.
The report also reviews
the in-depth research with 75 homeless people, where the events of
their past were discussed, as well as the ways in which they deal
with their present situation. The findings provide evidence of the
positive experience of those who attend worship: "Wonderful and
uplifting. . . supportive community." "Felt happy after
These are not the
findings that many secularists would assume: "Only one person
attending a place of worship said they felt as if they were 'having
their brain washed', the standard critique that anti-religionists
would apply to religious communities."
The report concludes with
clear recommendations about how faith and spirituality should
become integrated within the mainstream of services for homeless
people. It suggests that case-workers explore faith with their
users; that they actively link users and residents with churches
and other faith groups; that they have religious resources
available; and that all services should facilitate spirituality
discussion groups, such as the ones at St Martin's and at the West
HAVING worked with
homeless people and churches over the past 20 years, I believe that
Lost and Found is one of the most significant reports for
Christian social action that I have ever read. Plenty of reports
have sought to catalogue the scale of Christian social engagement,
and to articulate its importance. Often, this is cheerleadering for
the Church's work.
This, however, goes
deeper - directly to the needs of those on the margins. It gives
independent evidence of the spiritual hunger of marginalised
people, and the relevance of faith and spirituality in their
situation. And it analyses how care work is malnourished by the
ideology of secularism, which declares these issues out of
It clears away some of
the historic baggage that has blocked the integration of
spirituality with practical care. More than any other issue,
homelessness is not a "stand-alone" problem, but is a cocktail of
many forms of social exclusion and poverty. What this means is that
the findings of Lost and Found are relevant far beyond
Its implications are
relevant to Christian work with older people, those with learning
difficulties, with mental-health problems, and many others. It will
be received like nectar by the many Christians who have clung
faithfully to the often lonely belief that spirituality is
relevant, and that it can be expressed in inclusive and
IT IS fascinating to note
how much the report has angered the National Secular Society. Its
president, Terry Sanderson, said: "This report tries to convince us
that it is not in the business of encouraging proselytising among
the homeless and vulnerable, but you don't have to read too far
between the lines to see that is exactly what it is about." There
is no better example of the blinkered attitudes that the report
criticises than this paranoid response.
Yet, rather than simply
wallow in the affirmation that the report brings, Christians need
to hear its prophetic challenge. I think that Gravell is like the
pagan sailors in the story of Jonah, who have to wake up God's
messenger and challenge him to respond to the crisis that is facing
Lost and Found
calls Christians to wake up to opportunities. It should rouse
Christian social-action projects from their spiritual slumbers. It
challenges Christians to have more confidence to articulate and to
integrate their faith alongside the practical work that they are
Too often, Christians
have leaned back lazily on quotations such as St Francis's oft-used
dictum: "Preach the gospel at all times; use words if necessary."
This can be misapplied as a basis for keeping silent about faith.
Too often, Christians have allowed activism to mask faith rather
than to illustrate it.
Of course, the
integration of faith and spirituality in working with vulnerable
people is not straightforward. But the message of this report is
that Christian organisations need to be clearer about incorporating
faith with practical work. They can be compassionate and full of
conviction, holding together the spiritual and the prac-tical.
In doing so, Christians
do not have to return to being clumsy or coercive. Rather, in
initiatives such as chaplaincy, spirituality groups, and links to
churches, they can be confident and creative, and discover new
bonds between the practical and spiritual. When Christians do this,
nothing is a better witness to God's love in a world of pain. What
God has brought together, no one should split apart. What has been
lost can be found.
Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at the
West London Mission, and blogs at www.resistanceandrenewal.net.