Thursday, January 15, 2009

Street Carers conclave

This evening I attended the fourth in a series of meetings of people who arrange soup runs for Cardiff's street people. This was the first meeting to be held in the absence of Council officers, and felt to be important as part of the bonding process that's been going on as these meetings have progressed, between disparate people with common concerns for the poor. They also wanted to meet, aware that all known to be involved so far are practising Christians, motivated by their faith, so this was also an opportunity for faith sharing - something which might stretch the patience of public officials used to functioning under the veil of secular neutrality.

Mine was the privilege of opening the meeting, with no need to remind anyone of why we were there. I simply selected half a dozen brief but appropriate patches of scripture relating to Christian ministry and its core values, from the writings of Paul, James, the author of Hebrews and the Gospels. It was a task which gave me pleasure, and I'd like to think gave the participants pleasure also, from the appreciative grunts and Amens uttered around the room. Each of the differing street caring groups present spoke about what they did and how they went about it. There was a remarkable congruence, and also a remarkable sense of gratitude expressed by people for what they received from their encounters with poor people on the streets.

Many echoed the words of the redoubtable Elizabeth Perret-Atkins, founder of Cardiff's 'Rainbow of Hope' coalition, which organises the best part of a hundred volunteers into rotas spanning the month, when she said : "Essentially its not about feeding or clothing needy people, it's about the people themselves, making community with them in which they can experience Christ's love at work." That's a lot more passionate and compassionate a conviction than the administrative idea of 'service provision for homeless rough sleepers'. It takes a lot of extra commitment, of going the 'second mile' with those in need. And we heard lots of small stories modestly told, about what volunteers get up to, over and above feeding and clothing people.

Elizabeth been applying herself to street ministry for sixteen years, as have several others. One man present, Andy, has been ministering on the streets for thirty years. Two people present were unashamed to say that once they had been out there on the streets on the receiving end, and had been helped to move on by people of faith. It was a joyous occasion, which gave some remarkable insights into an evangelical spirituality grounded in practical service of others. I wish I could have recorded it all to play back to students for the ministry.

My involvement in this process has arisen out of my ministry on the other side of the equation - the concerns and problems experienced by city council workers and management in relation to the poor on the streets and those caring for them. It's been marvellous working with Paul Hocking, Pastor of Thorhill Community Church, and Chair of Cardiff Gweini, with oversight of activities in the Christian voluntary sector, himself a member of a soup run team. He steered the conversation with great sensitivity, ensuring all had a voice. This gave me chance to listen and appreciate all that was being said.

I was pleased that at the end of the evening, the meeting, with 36 attendees endorsed the idea of a Street Carers' forum - a small group of representatives of the wide range of those involved, charged with facilitating good relationships between the voluntary community and the City's officers. This is, to my mind, involves interpreting the Council's intentions to Street Carers, and interpreting Street Carers intentions to the Council, for there is a huge culture gap between the administrative discipline of 'service provision', working within budgetary parameters, making funding bids, allocating resources with the highest of aspirations, and the 'organic' approach of Christian pastoral and missionary outreach, attempting to centre upon the whole person and not just their presenting needs, working with a vision of what it means to be a whole person, saved by grace, rather than managing an 'individual care plan'.

Fundamentally all parties want the same thing : well-being for those in need. However, statutory service provision is guided by the head, voluntary pastoral care, by the heart. Both are needed. Each can achieve in areas that the other cannot. There's no sane alternative to partnership and dialogue.

Now that we have the beginnings of a representative instrument for Street Carers, I believe more constructive moves can follow. There's a long way to travel, and I'm hoping and praying that such a joyous beginning will be characteristic of the journey together.

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