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Three billboards that bring hope  

08 June 2018

A creative campaign has prompted action to tackle social problems, says Chris Baker


LIKE many churches and faith groups in the capital, St Mary’s, Stoke Newington (which I attend regularly), does a huge amount of social and welfare outreach. Our rather battered and frayed “church rooms”, as we euphemistically call them, play host to a weekly foodbank, a winter night shelter, and a migrant advice centre. This is on top of hosting innumerable community groups that need access to affordable public space, of which there is less and less, owing to cuts in council funding.

The already heavy demand on our facilities has grown exponentially in the past two to three years. All areas are packed to overflowing and groan under the weight of the demand. With this increasingly unsustainable situation in mind, we have embarked on an ambitious programme to raise a substantial sum of money to upgrade the premises so that we can continue to meet, but also expand, our provision for the local community.

Part of the fund-raising strategy has been to erect three massive red billboards outside the church, which is blessed to be in a prominent position in the heart of Stoke Newington (News 11 May). The idea is clearly borrowed from the Oscar-winning film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, the plot of which revolves around a grief-stricken mother who hires three billboards outside a small town to bring attention to the fact that her daughter’s brutal murder remains unsolved.

The message on the three billboards outside St Mary’s reads: “6167 homeless in Hackney”; “Shelter and foodbank here”; “Be informed. Get Involved. Donate”. They also display the address of the information and fund-raising page. The messages are designed to be as stark as possible (as in the original film), and to draw attention not only to the welfare work already being done on the church premises, but to encourage a wider sense of knowledge and ownership within the community around a commonly shared problem.

The amount of interest has been phenomenal on several levels. One simply has to watch the reactions as people walk past the billboards and the message slowly sinks in. There has been a strong and positive interest from both local and national media. And, slowly but surely, donations are beginning to come in from strangers and passers-by with no connection to the church, as well as many offers to volunteer.

SEVERAL local factors might explain the success of this campaign. There is a resilient and well-established web of relationships and good will — such as volunteers, businesses that donate food, and a church school that engages with poorer families in the borough; and these provide a solid base from which the message and sentiments of the billboards can be proclaimed.

But it feels as though there is more behind this resonating message than some well-earned and positive PR. The campaign seems to cut through the ongoing miasma of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear which currently dominates our local and national life.

This campaign has to be seen against the backdrop of the resurgence of gun and knife crime in north and east London, which seems, to many, to herald a return to the bad old days of the 1980s. The decline in public services and the so-called welfare safety net has led to the visible return of homelessness, poor mental health, and poverty on our streets.

There is the ongoing spectre of Grenfell Tower, the anxiety of migrants in the light of the Windrush scandal, and current Brexit uncertainties for EU residents, many of whom live in Stoke Newington and attend the church. On top of that, there is a general unease about the future cohesion of Britain as a nation, the future of Europe, and the peace and stability of the wider world.

THE billboards offer a stark invitation to people to take active steps to take back some sort of agency and control, and come together to create a sense of hope and stability. The billboards’ message comes clearly from a religious setting, but its secular resonances help it to come across as an invitation for everyone to be involved and co-create an alternative narrative of hospitality, care, and compassion.

The context in which these billboards are being received, with their direct and stark appeal, feels more politicised than it would have been even five years ago. But this mix of the spiritual, the political, and the local seems to be tapping into a hunger for political change, not so much based on ideology as on an appeal to an ethical and emotional — even spiritual — dimension of our citizenship which has been steadily eroded and undermined by 40 years of “Me first!” politics.

As in the movie, the three billboards point to a dark and disturbing image of the sort of society we have become. They are also, perhaps, the means by which new networks of reconciliation, dialogue, communication, and hope can emerge.

Professor Chris Baker is William Temple Professor of Religion and Public Life at Goldsmiths University of London, and director of the William Temple Foundation. This is an edited version of a blog that was originally published at www.williamtemplefoundation.org.uk.

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