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Barking Churches Unite: taking faith onto the streets

"Communities are truly blessed when local churches work together," says Graham Hedges

I was recently a lunch guest at the home of Elizabeth Mednick, author of the book Jesus in Town, and her husband Michael. After our meal we settled down to talk about the book and the various inter-church projects that it describes in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

Michael, who has worked for many years as a teacher of special needs children, shared that around the time of his fiftieth birthday, and during a week at Spring Harvest, he had become convinced that God was calling him to begin a ministry leading and promoting joint church initiatives. 

When he approached local church leaders in Barking and Dagenham, the London borough that neighbours his own, he was surprised by their positive response. It wasn’t long before Barking Churches Unite (BCU), a new network linking many of the churches in the town, was born. And this, in turn, led to the creation of new charities to address particular challenges in the area. 

In its early days, the network placed great emphasis on united prayer for the borough, and this emphasis has continued until now,” said Michael, BCU’s chairperson and coordinator. But over time, Barking Churches Unite has engendered many of the projects and ministries described in Elizabeth’s book, including a Kidz Klub on a local estate, a music academy, a foodbank, and a night shelter for homeless people. These projects are linked together by The Source, a centre that provides advice, counselling, information, and prayer support for local residents.” 

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As Michael described the work of BCU, it became clear that there is a special concern for supporting the poor and needy in the borough, both materially and spiritually; and Michael, himself, said he sees the various ministries as ways of taking faith onto the streets”.

The volunteers at The Source, for example, have been able to help visitors apply for income support, find employment or accommodation and, in some cases, discover new life in Jesus. Homeless people often find difficulty in applying for income support, applying for jobs, or registering with doctors or dentists,” said Michael. But The Source provides them with an address that they can use when making the necessary applications, as well as assistance in other ways.”

Michael went on to explain that many of the visitors to The Source have expressed appreciation that they are treated as valuable human beings, which contrasts with the reception they sometimes receive from statutory agencies. Add to this, all the ministries that have been launched through Barking Churches Unite have faced challenges, but the work has continued and has won the respect of its beneficiaries as well as the local council and local residents.

This wider respect was illustrated recently when the public library service in Barking and Dagenham approached the organisers of The Source and invited them to provide Source-style’ sessions in the central library on several afternoons a week,” said Michael.

This comes at a time of great change for Barking and Dagenham, with the building of new high-rise apartments in Barking, the relocation of Billingsgate Fish Market to Dagenham, and the creation of a major film studio, also in Dagenham.”

In addition to these changes, the Vicarage Field shopping centre, which has housed The Source for the past few years, is due to close within the next couple of years to allow for the redevelopment of the site. The local authority, however, is aware of the value of the work carried out at The Source and has offered to provide new premises where the work can continue with enhanced facilities.

Elizabeth’s book describes some of the obstacles that can stand in the way of churches working together. She wrote that one local church leader, for example, was reluctant to encourage members of his congregation to take part in Barking Churches Unite activities because they might choose to prioritise those activities over their own church’s work. In addition, churches of a particular doctrinal persuasion sometimes fear that their members will be polluted’ if they take part in activities with Christians from other traditions or backgrounds.

When asked what can be done to encourage churches to work together more effectively, Michael and Elizabeth stressed the continuing importance of prayer as the foundation on which unity movements should be built”. They believe that it is important to try and change the mindset of local Christians so that they see all of the believers in a particular area as part of the body of Christ, rather than focusing exclusively on building their own denominational kingdoms’ or empires’.

Michael and Elizabeth are now both in their early sixties and hope to be able to retire to Broadstairs, Kent, within the next few years. There is always the danger that united ministries will come to an end when key personnel move out of the area, but Michael is sure that the trustees of the various Barking Churches Unite charities will be able to carry on with the work when he finally gives up his present role.

Elizabeth shared that, although she has always been a writer of diaries and letters, she has no plans for writing further books. This is a pity as Jesus in Town is a good read, and the book stands as an impressive testimony to what local churches can achieve if they work together. I hope that Christians in other parts of the country will read the book and be inspired to attempt similar ministries in their own areas.

About the author

Graham Hedges is the Secretary of Christians in Library and Information Services and a trustee of the Christian Book Promotion Trust.

See more from Graham Hedges

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