Mat Ray is a member of the Community Mission team, when asked about his experience of social action in the community he answered with this:
What happens when an emergent church joins a traditional social action project?
What does my church look like? We are three years old, with a core membership of about 40, gathering between 10 and 20 people on a Sunday night. Everyone is in their 20s and 30s. We include a TV producer, an app designer, artists, internet gurus and marketing experts of all types. And yes, we all ride bikes and most of us have beards!
Robes follows a model that’s used up and down the country; during the cold winter months, churches volunteer to host a group of homeless ‘guests’, for one night a week. Guests receive an evening meal, a safe place to sleep and a good breakfast before they leave for the day. The Robes project also employs advice workers who visit the host churches to help guests navigate the housing and benefits system.
There were many reason for us not to get involved. The most immediate problem was that we don’t have a building – we just rent a church basement for a few hours a week. On top of that were the criticisms often levelled at emergent churches – we are too insular, too unreliable, too small and more concerned with our web presence than our community impact. To top it off, we weren’t sure any of us could cook for 35 people!
The first challenge was a finding a venue, somewhere that would trust us to be open overnight with a slightly unpredictable group of homeless guests. But Robes helped us develop a relationship with the local Anglican parish church They have a large warm crypt and well-equipped kitchen but their congregation of older people and young families meant they just don’t have the volunteers needed to run a night shelter themselves. We soon came to an agreement – they would provide the building and we would do the work.
What about commitment? As a small church, we don’t have a huge capacity for social action projects. But that meant that Robes was our sole focus. Starting in the summer, we regularly discussed our plans in Sunday services. By the time we published a rota on the church Facebook page it quickly filled up. And social media was a great way of finding last-minute volunteers to fill any gaps.
How did we try to run the shelter? From the beginning, we decided that as far as possible, we should treat the guests as we would friends in our own home. We didn’t cook the cheapest, bulkiest food we could think of. We used fresh ingredients, some sourced from a local farm project. We played good music on the stereo and brought in stacks of newspapers, magazines, books and board games. Some nights there was even dancing!
The feedback we received was incredibly positive. Guests told us they looked forward to Friday nights. And one woman who found housing half-way through the project continued to pop in for dinner with her new friends.
For my church, the benefits were huge. As a small community, we made the shelter our priority and about 80% of our active members helped out at least once. As a small, young church, it was a great bonding experience, and we enjoyed realising the capacity we have; we really can do something tangible in our community. It’s also built a strong relationship with another local church – together we achieved something that neither church could have done alone.
The Robes project is now over for the year, and we’re enjoying having our Friday nights back. But at a recent planning meeting, church members unanimously agreed to do it all again next winter.