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