Community: Making a difference to those in need
Author Natalie Williams celebrates the way Christians have been reaching out during the pandemic – and urges us to continue sharing God’s mercy within our local communities
Today, many churches across the country are at the forefront of efforts to tackle poverty, injustice and all kinds of societal issues within their localities.
For many of us, ‘going on mission’ has become a beautiful combination of both speaking about the love of Jesus and acting out a practical demonstration of his love right within the communities we live in.
But it wasn’t always like that.
Before I started working for national charity Jubilee+ and my local church, my job was to persuade people in my hometown of Hastings that they were safer than they imagined. Seriously.
In the late 1990s, crime had soared, leading to headlines in national newspapers calling the place that I love “Hell- on-Sea”,
a “sad symbol of decline into crime” and a town of “decay and despair” with “ordinary families desperate to find a way out”.
A 10,000-signature petition was handed to the Home Secretary – astonishing for a town of 90,000 people (including children).
By 2004, crime was falling dramatically. Yet no one believed it. So a job was created for a journalist to focus all of their energies on putting out good news stories, letting people know they were safe in the community. I held that job for seven years.
One of my biggest frustrations during that time was that none of the partners around the table – from the local authority to the police to the fire service to probation to health care – ever considered that local churches might have something to contribute to ongoing discussions about making Hastings a safer place to live.
My frustration was aimed in two directions. At the statutory agencies for not realising what wonderful resources and compassionate insights could be available to them in tackling some deep-seated, long-lasting issues in our community. And at the Church, for not positioning itself in such a way that others might know we had something to contribute.
I wrestled with this because I have always believed that Christians and churches should be a force for good in their local communities. The people and places around us should be blessed because we’re here.
Fast forward almost a decade, and I’m encouraged that so much has changed. From inner cities to seaside towns to small villages in rural settings, Christians have been rising up to “restore the places long devastated” (Isaiah 61:4). From what I see in my role with Jubilee+, a charity that equips churches of all kinds to be more effective in lifting people out of poverty in our communities, we are now on the front foot, actively on mission and doing our communities good.
Even relatively small churches in rural settings are punching above their weight when it comes to playing a positive role in their towns or villages. When fierce storms hit rural north-west England in December 2015, causing thousands of homes to flood, tens of thousands to be left without power, and an estimated £500 million damage in total, it was the local churches that set up a flood-relief centre. Followers of Jesus went on mission in that rural community by volunteering at the centre, clearing out homes, moving rubbish and doing whatever else they could to help.
When the flood waters receded, they mobilised to set up a café where people affected by the flooding could go for free hot food, advice and an opportunity to talk about what they were going through. Churches also gave out cleaning materials and food.
Even after the immediate disaster, the Cumbrian churches continued to work in partnership with statutory agencies and charities to form a response team to plan for future flooding. Together with other local organisations, Christians in the area have gone beyond crisis support to putting in place preventative measures for the good of the whole community. They made a big difference during the emergency, and they’re making an impact for the future too.
During the coronavirus pandemic, this practical demonstration of God’s love has been replicated thousands of times over through the lives of individual Christians. At my own church, for example, when one 70-year- old woman could no longer volunteer at our food bank because she was in the vulnerable category, she started writing all of the ‘thank you’ cards to everyone who donated money to the food bank instead.
Other Christians right across the country have befriended, donated and volunteered. Even some who have been shielding or self-isolating themselves have taken the opportunity to make phone calls to people who are lonely, isolated or vulnerable.
I firmly believe this reflects the fact that every Christian can make a difference to those in need. Wherever you’re based – whether you’re in the heart of a city or the ‘middle of nowhere’, whether you’re in a deprived community or an affluent one, whether you’re in a small church or a ‘mega church’ – your actions can have a far-reaching impact, not just on your neighbours, your village or your wider community, but even nationally and internationally.
In fact, the way the kingdom of God works means that the less influence you have, or impact you think you can make, the more God can use you. He raises up those who others think have nothing to offer and works his power through them. He uses a little boy’s loaves and fish to feed thousands.
Jesus is calling his followers in this season to step up, not shrink back. We are to be mercy-bringers in our communities – those who will demonstrate radical compassion, kindness and generosity as we imitate Christ. It might disrupt our comfortable lifestyles. It will not be easy. But as we go on mission in our communities, we will have the wonderful privilege of seeing lives and places “long devastated” transformed, for their good and his glory.
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