Bringing two worlds together

Community Organising, Urban Leadership School l

profile-CaitlinThe Buxton Leadership Programme was launched by CTC to bring the world of Westminister closer to that of daily life some of the UK’s poorest neighbourhoods – and to equip a new generation of Christian leaders to engage in public life in these very different contexts.

Caitlin Burbridge, Sarah Santhosham and Selina Stone are on the inaugural programme – and Caitlin blogs here about the experience…

‘Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity’ (Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate).

Pope Benedict’s assertion well encapsulates for me the purpose of the Buxton Leadership Programme; that by growing to understand God’s desire for the development of all peoples, and learning more about the obstacles to this reality, we might help the evolution of a new authentic, just and loving politics in which Christians can bear witness to ‘truth’. The experience has raised for me a number of important questions: about investing in young people around issues that capture their imaginations,and the need for the church to contribute to a more full bodied politics which does understand the potential ‘authentic development of every person and of all humanity’.   


This year’s Buxton participants – (l to r) Selina Stone, Cailtin Burbridge & Sarah Santhosham

St Peter’s is a surprising community…

Church based community organizing is not always glossy, but it’s certainly inspiring. Coming into a different church has the potential to be challenging; you have to find your place, build new relationships, prove that you are willing to learn, while being enthusiastic and imaginative. Preparing to begin my placement at St Peter’s Bethnal Green did bring with it a number of these concerns. How would I build the trust and respect of those who have been committed to this congregation and area for so long, while also needing to get on and get a job done. Would coming here as a church-based community organiser mean  trying to change an existing culture that people are committed to?

Actually, my experience of St Peter’s has been quite different. This is not a church as you might expect. In character it is energetic, humble, thoughtful, and enterprising. Providing an open welcome is in the DNA of this community, and this has ramifications for how it does ‘mission’. It is a church which does seek to listen to its congregation members and understand their ‘self interest’ which makes doing ‘politics’ a natural process. There is an apprehension but also an openness to doing ‘politics’ and this seems to be an appropriate place to start. This slightly cautious optimism does pave the way for a thoughtful activism. However, because community organizing is unfamiliar territory for many, there is a need to be intentional about listening, and this often requires hard work. As a practice, the strategy at the heart of St Peter’s (Worship God, Make Friends, and Change the World), is coherent with the strategy of Community Organiser; to listen to ‘truth’ (real stories of people in the congregation), to build an alliance of these people, and to develop them as leaders to change the world. The challenge is how to bring these two strategies into harmony so that their compatibility is evident.

What did CitySafe look like when I arrived?

My job at St Peter’s was to develop the CitySafe campaign, which already has a strong infrastructure in the parish. Shops along the Hackney Road have committed to being ‘CitySafe havens’ which offer sanctuary when anyone is in danger. Members of the church and young people from the wider area have been involved in establishing these havens, as well as doing safety audits to identify the most dangerous areas. My role is to deepen the roots of the campaign, to ensure that every young person knows what the City Safe campaign is and where the havens are – as well as strengthening existing relationships, and developing new relationships, with members of the police.

It has been a positive start. Schools are eager to be involved, and the imaginations of young people are captured by the issue. During a recent exercise I did with 120 year 11 students, it was striking to see that they really wanted to engage in the issue. Many of them new someone who had been chased by a gang, or even murdered on the streets in this area. The same locations were repeatedly identified as being dangerous, and these were most commonly parks with poor lighting, and alleyways.

It often takes only one captivated young person to grow an army

There are a huge number of schools and institutions that could get involved so we have to consider how to be strategic about drawing them together. Encouraging young people seems an effective way of mobilizing support from others around who know and love them. One young person at St Peter’s has become particularly excited by the possibilities opened up to him through the campaign. Through his involvement, which has included presenting the story of CitySafe in Bethnal Green to the Deputy Mayor of London, other people in the church who want to support this young person are beginning to further recognize the significance of the initiative. Not only does he become the catalyst for wider involvement from congregation members, he is growing in confidence as a leader. This is creating potential for building relationships with his school where he is now developing a team to establish safe havens around their premises.

Having learnt what happened at St Peter’s when I invested a significant amount of energy in a few individuals, I am now taking this same approach to the wider campaign. We are developing a core team of a few young people from each school and institution who will be responsible for developing the work. When they meet each month they will also meet with shop-keepers and police. It is my aim that keeping the group fairly small will catalyse momentum so that each sub-group can go back and promote the initiative in their own institution. This is to build ownership of the campaign in order to ensure that everyone in the area knows what the initiative is and where they will find the havens. From there we can develop more leaders and grow the campaign more widely. This provides a regular platform for members of the church congregation to work alongside these others. We are also encouraging each St Peter’s life group to commit to supporting the different shops through prayer, relationship building and providing custom.

So how does all of this tie in with a placement in Westminster?

Not only has my Westminster placement research informed how I understand the backgrounds of the young people I am working with, it has forced me to reflect upon the nature of advocacy, and how you might effectively raise grassroots needs and concerns to the national spheres so that they are heard and so that politicians respond effectively.

The major subject I have been tasked with researching is family breakdown. The issue is sprawling, and the statistics are striking. Over 50% of young people will only live with one parent by the time they are 15, 75% of young offenders do not have a father at home, and growing up in a community with high levels of crime, low social networks, and lack of employment gives you almost a 0% chance of living any differently when you are an adult. There is an obvious parallel with my experiences in the East End, and the statistics give weight to the City Safe initiative. Trying to compile research on how family breakdown affects all aspects of public life is a huge challenge and requires me to be careful not to extrapolate and compare the wrong data sets to making false conclusions. It has certainly been a very important exercise in developing my methodical rigour!

The Church as the catalyst for the ‘authentic development of all humanity’

In addressing the practical questions at the heart of each of my placements – of how to build safer communities, and how to support family life – my personal reflections are led back to the role of the Church and Benedict XVI’s description of ‘charity in truth’ as ‘the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity’.

The Church can create an environment for nurturing stable and healthy family relationships, and (as St Peter’s and many other churches in Citizens UK are showing) can draw its neighbours together to build safer communities.  The Church can also clearly advocate ‘truth’ on with and for the poorest in society, ensuring their experience is heard in the public debate.

It is through the transformation of the heart that the Church can create space to listen to their neighbours, address their needs, and encourage the development of their humanity. This transformation occurs when the Church is not closed in upon itself, but is engaged with the other religious and civic institutions in the neighbourhood, acting together to discern and promote a truly Common Good.

Because it recognises that every person is created in the image of God, the Church realises each human being has a God-given potential – something God wants them to realise. Church-based community organizing enables this to happen – by listening, affirming, and enabling individuals to become leaders who are animated, perceptive, and motivated by the love we see in Jesus Christ, God’s Word of love made flesh.

The Buxton Leadership Programme is helping that to happen in local communities, and also enabling participants to experience that process alongside spending time in the world of Westminster.  This means local communities get more of an understanding of how Westminster works – and more of those in  Westminster have first-hand experience of life in some of Britain’s most deprived and diverse communities.  It has enabled me, alongside Selina and Sarah to develop as Christian leaders – and to think about how the rest of our working lives can best embody the Gospel truth set out so clearly by the Pope Emeritus: ‘Charity in truth, to which Jesus Christ bore witness by his earthly life and especially by his death and resurrection, is the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity.’

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