“Covenant and Church for Rough Sleepers” is the title of book written by Dan Pratt, a Baptist minister, who heads up a work in my locality, called “57 West”. It is designed as a community outreach, with a strong Christian base, linked to the Baptist tradition, to homeless and other vulnerable people, and yet it also functions as a church, linked to many other churches and homeless initiatives. It happens a lot of the folk associated with 57 West (the Core, the Involved and the Occasionals) I know; thus the interest.
Before I turn to the book, which I promised Dan, whose path I often cross because of our shared interests, including pertinently involvement in funerals and baptisms, to read and provide constructive feedback (this review), I should first explain “where I come from”. It was around the turn of the millennium I became involved to a significant extent in community work. One of my early projects was called “Growing Together” and involved helping people with mental health health needs using activities like therapeutic gardening. The project was began by Christians from various churches and linked up with an assortment of other groups (mainly secular) with an interest in what we were doing. Because our funding was mainly government sourced, under a regeneration agenda, it was felt imperative by some that we were seen not to proselytize and we operate an equal opportunities policy. In most ways this did not prove to be an issue although the Christian input was weaker than I would have liked. Even so many churches did support us but as I reflect, the one that provided the most significant help was “Church from Scratch” (which happens to have strong links with 57 West and shares many common objectives when it comes to ministry) because of the way it helped two of our beneficiaries.
It seemed to me that while I was beholden to serve all faiths and none, there was an important spiritual input that those we served were in need of. The church that provided this better than any was Church from Scratch, doing something our project was not equipped to do. Later in my community activist career, I became heavily involved with homeless matters and while the funding dynamic did not exist as before it continually struck me that while what I do addresses real need, the biggest need still is a spiritual one, and this is what 57 West does provide and, sad to say, as nice as the Christian community may be they too often fail to give the holistic support our homeless friends, often with chaotic lifestyle, alcohol and mental issues, on top of being homeless, need, although interestingly 57 West has acted as a magnet to other Christian wanting to support, and I include myself. Just as important, it has been a magnet to many in the homeless community because of the practical hospitality and sympathetic response it is able to offer.
Back to the book, it relates a fair bit to ideas of one Paul Fiddes (who given my sheltered life I have never heard off before), a prominent contemporary Baptist theologian, and introduces and relates a number of different terms – Trinity, ecclesiology, covenant and fellowship (which I understand because of my own theological studies) but other terms, especially “perichoresis” I had to check out (Perichoresis – from Greek: περιχώρησις perikhōrēsis, “rotation” is a term referring to the relationship of the three persons of the triune God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) to one another). What became evident was despite the book being only 55 pages, it is heavy on the theological and philosophical side and to my disappointment somewhat light on biblical exposition, and is likely to be daunting to those not switched onto these ideas, more likely to be interested in looking simply for a Christian rationale behind the work of 57 West and curious to know what is going on and what are the hopes, successes and challenges etc. The sort of insights the book seeks to provide are necessary in order to understand what is happening.
While I needed to re-read the book to establish its relationship to a church set up that is quite unlike any other I come across, a large extent due to the vulnerabilities of those it attracts, often with chaotic lifestyles who more often than not would not fit into “normal” church, my instinct is Dan has had a good go at making the connection. The doctrine of the Trinity with Father, Son and Holy Ghost, distinct yet one, the concept of Covenant, in the context of considering the relationship between the triune God and the people in question (here it is the 57 West community) and also relationships within that community are important principles when it comes to ministry to the Core (committed Christian believers) and supporting sensitively and with compassion the larger Involved and Occasional groups that in the main have yet to come to faith.
What has been evident over the years I have been working with the homeless is the needs are complex and it is nigh impossible to generalize. Moreover, their needs have too often been ignored (and still are) and this includes spiritual as well as material. I am pleased there is a community that practically carries out the task of bringing the gospel message and all this implies to this neglected group. I suspect that I may not get entirely what Dan is saying, but I now understand better the challenges and dynamics behind what goes on in the 57 West community. Unless you are a theological nut with an academic bent like me, I would not recommend this book (although in fairness I suspect that was the main intended audience). Given Dan has thrown important light on what is going on and the many challenges and considerations that are faced, providing a strong theological rationale, the book has much to commend it. As I write, a rough sleeper friend who has had many upsets and demons in his life, I have known for some time, is soon to be baptized. His changed life is one fruit among many arising out of the work of 57 West.
Afterthoughts: as is often the case, after I post something, I have further “profound” thoughts, so here goes …
It occurs to me that the most important thing that came out of my reading of this book is the whole question of how we go about “doing church”, something I tried to lay some basic thoughts concerning a short while back (ref. my “Yesterday’s Bible study on the subject of “the church”” blog post). This is a contentious subject, evidenced by the enormous range of churches there are, even in my locality.
Like many, I have my idea as to how church should operate and have views on many of the notions dealt with in the book. I know what is my own comfort zone, which often rules out my entertaining being fully associated with most churches because of doctrinal wariness as much as anything or those like 57 West that focus attention on a particular section of the community. But I am always brought to task by remarks attributed to another Baptist minister, C.H.Spurgeon, to the effect that if you find the perfect church you should leave it else you would spoil it. Moreover, my own ecclesiology puts special store to serving the church universal and encouraging the likes of 57 West in its mission to the poor. It seems to me that Dan and his associates are doing what Christians have always been doing: reaching out to the unreached, and if need be innovatively. In sunny Southend, and much to our collective shame, the needs of the homeless community have too often been overlooked in the past, but now 57 West are doing something about it, even if they have barely begun to scratch the surface.
There is no easy solution as to how we who are part of the church universal go about addressing the huge needs in our community and operate in our individual settings, and no doubt how we go about doing what the Lord would have us do can give rise to a lot of further discussion. To their credit, 57 West are filling the proverbial gap and doing what characterized the ministry of St. Paul – by whatever means trying to win some for Christ, and that should be our focus.