One of the great speeches, loved by many, is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, whereby he related his dream of ending racial inequality. While some aspects of that dream have not been entirely realized, many have, and not so much as a result of talking about it but rather doing what needed to be done. I have often been struck by the “your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams” text in the Bible and nowadays see myself more in the latter rather than former category.
I have in recent years, more by accident than design, found myself working in the field of homelessness, recognizing the gaps, which are many and wide, and doing my bit trying to fill them and encouraging others to do likewise. As one might imagine, I have come across many harrowing situations, which might have been avoided if only the right action had been taken, and like any disagreeable yet avoidable (if only) situation we might dream of a world where such things are not so. One of the latest examples is of a rough sleeper from Eastern Europe, who lived in a tent in my town and also attended my church, who was desperate to find work and behaved well. He went off the radar for maybe two years as he sought work elsewhere, but I learned yesterday that he had died under suspicious circumstances. If only …
But also it is well to do a reality check. It is well to dream but it must be matched by action and realism. We do what needs doing without ostentation and we are not, as sadly many are, five minute wonders – we stick to the task, putting aside our own prejudices and preferences, and recognizing our limitations. After all, the big need for all rough sleepers is finding suitable accommodation, of which there is a lack, and for many rough sleepers which have, for example, mental health and substance misuse issues, the right kind of support. And yet, and without decrying the efforts of people who help out of a sense of compassion and community spirit, it is well to dream of what can and should be and work toward it.
Putting aside my dream of a world where righteousness and justice flows, something that can only truly come about when the Kingdom of God comes, here are some basic thoughts concerning my own interest in my small corner of the vineyard. It is my privilege to be involved in a number of operations that help the homeless. I wouldn’t be involved if I didn’t think we were making a difference, but as with the classic school report, the words “could do better” spring to mind. For example, as I manage my night shelter, I recognize that I am one of several, and inevitably there is significant duplication of effort. As I help in my soup kitchen, I recognize others doing similar and I wonder if we can do more to pool resources. As I come across stuff that people want to give to the homeless, e.g. food, clothes, I wonder if there can be a smarter way of doing this. When it comes to helping individuals with complex needs, it seems to me despite every good intention and progress in terms of sharing information, not only is there considerable duplication and waste of effort by those helping, but often help does not arrive.
As I often say, I am not here to decry the efforts of organizations and individuals who are often making extraordinary headway in all these areas, but from what I observe, and this from a position of long experience and wide knowledge, there is an lot that isn’t happening that might happen – if only … Let me prefix what I am about to say by saying, while I would like my dream to be led by Christians, who are entrusted with the gospel, the very thing homeless folk and non homeless can do with in order to live fulfilling lives and having the reason and motive for getting “sorted out”. My own practice is to work with those of all faiths and none and serve those with all faiths and none, without imposing our beliefs on others.Yet my prime motive is to honour God and am keen to maintain a Christian ethos.
So here is my dream… I would like to see a centre managed primarily by Christians who get it in terms of what the homeless need and what the Gospel is, and are prepared to do what needs doing to bring about that dream. That centre can be a building or buildings, probably in and around the town centre, but there is capacity to run an all the year round night shelter. It can also act as a base to collect and distribute food and clothes and other things the people we serve might need. While the emphasis is on helping the homeless, there are other needs too, e.g. sanctuary seekers or those who are impoverished in some way or with other human needs. Connected with the centre are those who can help sort out issues, which will no doubt be many and varied for most of those we seek to serve. While it will rely on volunteer help, it will likely need paid people e.g. to manage and do the support activity. Regarding support, it is not just about sorting out benefits and such like, but dealing with life skills, training, vocation etc. And it is not just focused on the town, although we must begin somewhere, but it is world wide, it draws on many networks and it is relational.
And it should not be embarrassed about the Christian side – so prayer, praise, Bible study are part of what goes on, but in all humility and with respect. Practically, there is a need to be smart and efficient in our approach. There needs to be recognition that we are not about duplicating effort happening elsewhere but doing something that isn’t being done enough of – building relationships and attending to holistic needs. It is important to build good relationships with all sections of the community. In terms of fund raising, it will be a faith venture. While we will take money from whoever wants to give us money (after all it could be a smart way to address the varied and huge welfare needs when we know the statutory pot is a dwindling one), and we will respect conditions funders impose, but we won’t make the mistake many Christian inspired charities have made down the ages, and that is to jump to a tune that is not in keeping with the dream (and vision).
Often life is about doing what needs doing and trying to make a difference, but it is also good to dream. Whether I will have the energy to see the dream come to pass, or merely continue doing my bit, encouraging those who may be better placed to realise the dream, remains to be seen, but like Dr. King – “I have a dream”!