01 July 2011
Housing for God
In the current recession, the Church has one of the greatest opportunities to be truly radical and minister more directly to the poor. Rebecca Taylor meets church groups and housing associations tackling market forces and creating longterm mission and community opportunities in response...
Despite the economic downturn high house prices prevail even in deprived areas, meaning Christians wanting to commit to helping these communities by living there long-term are prevented from doing so because of the cost.
Tower Hamlets in east London is a case in point. It has one of the highest proportions of child poverty in the UK, despite having some of the highest house prices as a result of the Olympics taking place nearby and the impending market forces, according to research by Save The Children.
Fifteen years ago Chris Lawrence, a community worker, needed a £35,000 mortgage to buy a house; share-owning it with housing association Victoria Park Homes to live near his Hackney church. Today, he would need a £350,000 mortgage with the same property now valued at £700,000.
"That is such a huge leap. The economics stack against you," says Chris. "It seems crazy that people can't afford to live here if they want to do mission.
Robert Lantsbury, of Alliance member Affordable Christian Housing Association Ltd (ACHAL), says: "The recession has increased pressures, particularly in areas such as Tower Hamlets. Christian workers who have a strong calling to share their faith and live in the community can be frustrated simply because they are unable to find an affordable home."
But four member churches in the area from the Tower Hamlets Evangelical Fellowship are fighting back. The E123 Mission House project led by Bethnal Green Mission Church, Victoria Baptist Church and church plants Hope asha and E1 Community Church, want to create an affordable household for Christians, so that the church can reach out in mission more sustainably and meet the stark needs of the local community more directly.
Based on a previous partnership between a housing association in Hackney that has seen great successes as households get involved in their community, the four churches want to do the same and buy two properties to create mission households in the community.
The churches' project is backed by housing associations Victoria Park Homes 1965 Ltd (VPH65) and ACHAL who are supporting the pilot venture by underwriting rental costs for the first year.
The E123 Mission House project is to start this autumn and will enable householders to rent at an affordable price and be involved in long-term mission in their area.
The housing associations will work with the churches to find funding of £600,000 for each house which the project will then own as mission houses for the next five years. After this, the money donated will be returned and if money is available the process will start again.
Rod and Vivi Boucher have been living in the present Hackney house supported by churches and a local housing association. Rod says: "Without their help we couldn't live here. Prices are becoming so high and churches are facing a real vacuum. [This] gives you enough money for rent and then have head and heart space to do local community and church work."
Chris adds: "The kingdom work is being supported through people's gifts and it's a way of connecting churches all around the country. Twenty-eight churches and individuals funded the last house in Hackney. From a rural church in the Chilterns to a city church in Derby, they were both able to give £50,000 and £10,000 respectively for five years which helped enormously."
ACHAL's Robert Lantsbury says: "Longterm investment is better. It provides stability and a focus for mission, and enables people to be a part of the fabric of an area rather than a short-term crash course of the gospel being declared."
The E123 Mission House project has big plans for its community work, including projects with the local Food Bank, youth inclusion groups, Olympic Games outreach and street pastoring. Inspired by the tradition of Christians involved in social action in the area, the churches on the project want to create a place for longterm mission just like their predecessors.
Bethnal Green Mission Church was originally started by Annie McPherson who worked with child matchstick makers and was a friend of Dr Barnardo. The first Baptist mission church in the UK was founded in Spitalfields in the east end in the 1600s. The Salvation Army began in Whitechapel nearby, while Charles Wesley was famously active in the area.
And as figures show, hundreds of years on - the need is still great.
"Long term investment is better. It provides stability and a focus for mission"
Visiting the area to interview Mike Houston Pastor of the Bethnal Green Mission Church, I chance upon a hotel just off the high street. It charges £1,000 a night. Mike tells me of a family of eight people nearby; three generations living in a two bedroom apartment - a very common situation in the borough, according to him.
The Food Bank initiative run by The Trussell Trust, giving emergency food to families in crisis, normally works with a few organisations in one town; in Tower Hamlets they work with nine different churches and other organisations to meet the demand.
International Christian speakers Christine and Tom Sine, founders of Mustard Seed that encourages simple living, supported the mission house in Hackney and are clear that the scheme is something the Church should support if mission is to continue in areas like Tower Hamlets. Christine says: "We all need to create a range of new expressions of community like this, from shared housing to co-housing that move to a very different rhythm of life and discover new ways to make a little difference in the lives of our most vulnerable neighbours, locally and globally."
Chris adds: "It is soul-destroying to see how many people move out to the suburbs because they can't afford to live here anymore. These long-term mission schemes are really needed and the Church needs to support these people in what they are doing."
- For more about the project contact Anne Cartwright at Victoria Park Housing 1965 Ltd on firstname.lastname@example.org
- ACH has provided assistance to Christian workers in London for 24 years and has been involved in nearly 60 housing projects affordablechristianhousing.org
- Tower Hamlets Foodbank are running a supermarket collection at Tesco in Bromley-by-Bow on Saturday 2 July. This food drive will go directly to low income families in Bethnal Green.