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04 July 2014

Southampton: City dwellers with a common hope

Southampton: City dwellers with a common hope

Illustrious Southampton – known historically for its bustling trading port, jobs creation and the place from where the Titanic set forth.

Lucy Cooper talks to some key players in the coastal city...

Despite its illustrious reputation, the city with prosperity coming through its docks has experienced more recent setbacks. The closure of the Ford assembly plant last year, a vital job source for many since 1939, is just one.

Alongside higher levels of employment insecurity, the local authority in Southampton is facing a serious funding crisis. Programmes are under threat, something which could spell a future with no libraries, youthclubs, repaired pot-holes filled or emptied bins.

Southampton City Council adopted a vision statement that the place would be "good to grow up in and good to grow old in". The churches of the city are committed to working together, partnering with the council and helping it prosper once again – to see the vision become reality.

Of course, the Church is no stranger to social action and serving the local community. In fact, in 1925 a sign on the part-built Methodist Central Hall called for workers, not for construction, but for volunteers in maternity care, Boys' and Girls' Brigades and to assist with food and clothing provision.

Southampton Christian Network is made of evangelical churches and para-church organisations who pray for the city. Paul Webber from Above Bar Church said: "We are about 40 leaders. Within the past year we have changed our rhythm to better reflect diversity. We realised, for example, that meeting on Thursday lunchtime wasn't great for the Polish leaders who were in the workplace and whose ministry was voluntary. We now have a termly Saturday morning breakfast, a monthly Esther Prayer meeting and regional prayer meetings around the city."

To serve the city more effectively, two years ago, the Southampton Christian Network, the Churches Together group and the Southampton Pastors Network (mainly Black Majority churches) came together to form Love Southampton.

In the light of the cuts - £25 million and 300 jobs to go in one year alone - the council asked for the help of the churches.

The council had set out four areas of particular need; youth unemployment, youth clubs, childcare provision and a shortfall of families willing to foster and adopt vulnerable children.

A meeting responding to the cuts was held for church and community leaders and attended by around 400 people. "We saw this as a significant opportunity for the Church to respond and the potential to make an impact," explained Paul Woodman, leader of City Life Church.

Churches realised that between them there were 17 paid youth workers and 37 mother and toddler groups - the resources and the opportunity to serve the wider community. Several working groups were formed to explore ways to address particular areas: open access youth provision, work with under-fives, fostering and adoption, post-16 housing and hardship.

"We all committed to 21 days of prayer and then we got practical," continued Paul. "We've managed to keep youth services open that were to close, youth drop-in centres are open for more sessions and we've increased output and help for families. Churches are more engaged and the city council has saved a lot of money.

"I have built stronger personal links with other church leaders when working together in niche and practical ways, like looking hard to find foster carers, rather than planning a basic church event. United for purpose."

Billy Kennedy, leader of New Community Church, said: "The coming together of churches under the Love Southampton banner has provided a way for us to present ourselves collectively to the council. It makes it easier to show what we are doing to serve, find ways to improve our collaboration and also look for new ways to meet challenges."

He was realistic about the speed of transformation though: "It does take time, generations possibly. We have to recognise that we might not see the fruit of the seeds that we sow."

As churches have demonstrated that they can deliver successful initiatives, there is greater credibility, increasing partnership and a broader conversation about involvement.

Street Pastors has had a strong presence for more than four years and there are five Healing on the Streets (HOTS) teams working in different suburbs of the city. Other projects include a pregnancy counselling service, 'messy church' on local estates and four food and one clothes provision outlets.

Each week there are co-ordinated meals for homeless or individuals who are struggling financially. Peter Lambros from Portswood church said: "We provide free breakfast each Saturday for around 60 people but it's not just about food, it's about friendships, offering a safe place and a listening ear. "Working together we are more effective – like a fishing net instead of individual rods."

Christians have also been very involved with establishing the two new Oasis Academies which replaced four old schools under threat of closure. Churches are collaborating together across the city to ensure sufficient schools work, assemblies and RE lessons. Together with New Generation Schools Trust, local churches have applied to open a new primary free school, Hope Community School, in the city centre.

Local government spent £1.2 million a year paying agencies to search for families able to provide a home for vulnerable children in need of foster care or adoption. Through establishing Families for Forty, churches committed to find the council more foster carers. Since March 2013 more than 70 people have applied to become foster carers. The Alliance's Home for Good initiative, learning from the success of Southampton, is now working with churches across the UK to achieve the same.

Rev Sarah Hall, St Andrews URC and part of Love Southampton, said: "I think unity,though not uniformity, among Christians is crucial. When we see God at work with people others scorn or ignore, and join in, that's good news. I want Love Southampton to become one of many ways we can embody good news in this city."

Above Bar Church hosts one of the foodbanks organised by Southampton City Mission. Their church leader Paul Webber added: "There is a desire to seek the good of the city rather than an individual church. While we have theological and church differences, they are recognised, respected and celebrated. We are one church here."


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