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Forging community now

04 October 2013

Christian-based street associations are working to form stronger relationships between neighbours, says David Primrose

IN THE West Midlands, we have been transforming communities, street by street. Parish churches are providing the seedbed for an initiative that systematically reintroduces neighbourliness.

Evangelism is not the primary aim of such community work, but it does create the context for evangelism to be effective. Relationships are vital to this; so, when Christians commit themselves to fostering the common good in their locality, opportunities to share the gospel occur naturally. Unless, however, we act intentionally to build such relationships, communities will continue to fragment.

Now is the time for the hard work that the community theologian Ann Morisy refers to as "civic discipleship", rejoicing in diversity and exercising the radical friendship advocated by the disability theologian Professor John Swinton, in his book Raging with Compassion (Eerdmans, 2007).

In first-century Palestine, in each small community, there was the presumption that one actually did care for one's neighbour. It was for those without family bonds - the widow, the orphan, and the stranger - that special provision was to be made. Jesus's radical challenge to this "charity-begins-and-ends-at-home" was to reinterpret the love of neighbour as a compassionate generosity that went beyond the normal bounds of self-serving community solidarity.

NOW, economic mobility, family breakdown, and individualistic materialism have led to the destruction of communities of place as the foundation for civic life. They have largely given way to communities of association and choice.

Outside the immediate family, the primary social networks are based on activities such as taking children to school or attending a place of work, and the membership of sports and leisure groups. Even the parish church, which used to express a theology of place, now looks more like a community of shared interests and commitments. Many congregations fail to recognise that their experience of friendliness can coexist with what others encounter as exclusivity.

Yet, within any neighbourhood of 50 or so houses, there will be a rich diversity of age, ethnicity, and lifestyle. Meanwhile, networks that link together people of similar backgrounds are more likely to function beyond the immediate locality. For the aspiration of community care to become a reality, such exclusive clustering of like-minded individuals from across a wide geographical area must be challenged.

POLITICAL initiatives such as Care in the Community, the Big Society, and Localism attempt to relocate responsibility to the local level. Approaches based on fear, whether of crime or "the other", are counter-productive. Approaches based on need can be degrading and unsustainable.

What works is an approach based on community-centred trust, where loving one's neighbour releases individual and communal assets. In Jesus's teaching on neighbourliness, while the priest and the Levite kept their distance, the Samaritan, drawing close to the robbers' victim, used his resources to help. When open relationships are formed, mutual aid evolves spontaneously.

Lichfield diocese has identified the Christian-based Street Associations initiative as a way of addressing local relational poverty. Since 2011, Martin and Gina Graham have established 32 street associations in and around Birmingham, enabling groups of 50-100 adjacent houses to reform community.

With support from the Grahams, one home hosts a meeting, and all the neighbours are invited. Using a structured approach, a core group forms, and ideas for social activities emerge. New relationships have bridged generations and cultures. The inclusion of neighbours who might be vulnerable or isolated has occurred as a natural consequence. The street has celebrated together.

THE results are impressive. From the answers within an initial survey of 100 members from ten established street associations, 94 per cent said that some people in their street felt less lonely or isolated, and 44 per cent found this to be true for themselves. Almost everyone said that their street was friendlier. Residents got to know, on average, 16 new neighbours.

Of those joining the core planning groups, 53 per cent had never been part of an organising committee before, and 69 per cent said that their confidence had increased. For 88 per cent, there was an increase in racial harmony, and for 98 per cent an increase in intergenerational cohesion. Some 55 per cent were aware of an increase in the amount of practical help offered to neighbours.

The diocese was in contact with officers from Walsall and Staffordshire Councils with responsibility for community cohesion. They recognised the potential of this initiative. A partnership with Staffordshire Community Council accessed public-health funding, while Walsall Housing Group contributed funds through its multifaith forum.

The diocese has provided introductions to churches and supportive partners in the voluntary sector. In the spring, eight new street associations were formed in Staffordshire. More are planned. Picnics, a pub quiz, walks, and family barbecues have been organised, and trips to an open-air cinema and a beer festival. Through such activities, relationships develop, and people become aware of ways in which they can support one another.

While both secular agencies and churches readily applaud the initiative, it is from churches that individuals volunteer to help start a street association. The parish system contributes a residual understanding of a theology of place, where the cure of souls embraces all who live in a locality.

Within neighbourhoods, an infrastructure of supportive relationships can be developed. Rebuilding community, street by street, is embracing diversity and releasing potential within each neighbourhood.

The Revd David Primrose is Director of Transforming Communities for the diocese of Lichfield.

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