Space for Strangers
Temple of Praise is a lively, multi-ethnic church in Liverpool that wants to share God's love with those in their community. And they learnt early on that they needed to be both practical and brave, reaching out to those rejected and ignored by others.
The church is in Anfield, within sight of the Liverpool FC ground, situated on a busy street. There's a surface energy to the area, but at the same time the streets feel almost empty and lifeless, busyness for its own sake hiding a deeper malaise. And everything is grubby and run down.
The church was set up by Tani and Modupe, both originally from Nigeria. They had arrived to Liverpool to work with ICI and then moved to Manchester to study, but God called them back to Liverpool. Once there they quickly met other like-minded Christians and started to worship and pray together. They discovered that God was calling them to something new rather than encouraging them to join an existing church. A small group began meeting regularly in different venues, before buying a building which seats 250.
Once in this building, the church members quickly became aware of the desperate needs of the area. They often saw children playing out on the streets at 11 o'clock at night and knew of local residents who were terrorised by groups of teenagers with nothing to do except cause trouble. Some of these residents started coming to the church to ask for help and the church responded as and when they could. But it was all very informal and the church wasn't really able to do more than provide a temporary solution.
Then a young man in the congregation suggested that they set up a housing and drop in project, to support young people struggling to live alone. There was little provision for these people and as a result many of them were struggling with debt, addiction and the temptations of crime.
The project was set up and after a few months, the church held a thanksgiving service for it, to which they invited clients and sponsors. Because of the work with young people just out of care, they had built up links with Liverpool Social Services, and social workers were invited along to the service. One manager came, Steve.
He was not sure what prompted him to go along to the service, he didn't usually go anywhere near a church. But at the end of the service he said, 'I used to be suspicious of churches, but I am really pleased I came here today. Now I see your motivation and I understand what you are trying to do.' And he offered to help and support their work.
A few months later, Steve approached Temple of Praise to talk about Phil. His was a tragic story; he was 15 years old and had spent most of his life in care. Due to his volatile behaviour he had been in 10 different homes in the previous month, and had smashed furniture or windows in all of them. Steve had exhausted all potential foster carers and had now run out of children's homes and hostels as well. Phil was due to go to court on charges of criminal damage, and Steve wanted to be able to say that he had tried everything to support him and give him the stability he so craved. So he approached the church and asked if they would take Phil on.
At this stage the church didn't have any experience of working intensively with young teenagers, especially those with such severe needs. But they prayerfully agreed and made a temporary bedroom for him in their offices. Two members of the congregation volunteered to look after Phil on a rota system, 12 hours on, 12 hours off. Social Services offered to pay £1000 a week - they were desperate and didn't expect him to last longer than a few days.
The church rallied round to support Phil and the two church members who were taking care of him. He was invited to people's houses for meals and to sleep; he was welcomed into the services on Sundays. And 18 months later he was still in the care of the church (although no longer sleeping in the office!). Not only that, but he had become a Christian and was singing in the church's gospel choir. Steve from Social Services was amazed. Phil was a different boy, calm and responsible and on his way to being healed from the hurt and rejection of his childhood. When asked what had made the difference, Phil said, 'I couldn't believe the way they treated me. They let me into their houses, although they knew what I was like. They ignored my past, they treated me like a person.'
Love is active
James says, 'Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?' (James 2:15-16) James is focussed mainly on our love for fellow Christians, but the same principle applies when we consider the second great commandment 'Love your neighbour as yourself.' (Matthew 22:39)
If the love we have for ourselves is healthy, it is not a passive love but an active one. We feed ourselves when we are hungry; we put warm clothes on when we are cold. Our love for our neighbour should be the same: active and practical.
Faced with the problem of young people lounging around the area and threatening local residents, Temple of Praise did not just agree that it was a problem and sympathise with their neighbours. Nor did they just pray into the situation, asking God to transform the behaviour of the teenagers. They did both of these things, but they also tried to find out why the young people were on the streets and what was causing them to be so anti-social. The result of their investigations was the drop in centre that has expanded to include a tenancy support project. It offers very practical help to those who struggle to live alone in local housing association accommodation and is now supported and part funded by the housing association.
When I rented my first flat I was on the phone to my parents regularly, asking their advice about everything from how to find a plumber, where to buy tokens for the gas meter and how long the lamb chops should take to cook. They made my first few weeks and months easier by sharing their experience, as well as giving me old bits of furniture and ferrying me around the local shops in their car, to pick up cheap book shelves and a new mattress. But 16 and 17 year olds who have just come out of care don't have this parental support. They often have nowhere to go for either advice or practical help and they tend to lack the skills to enable them to set up home.
The tenancy project offers the sort of advice most of us would get from our parents. They offer a ten-week life skills course that covers all the practical necessities of setting up home, for example budgeting, dealing with landlords, cooking. This course can be tailored to the precise requirements of each individual; time is spent exploring the personal needs of each person who comes to the project.
After that basic course, there is another programme that encourages the young people to be involved in their local community and to support others who are struggling. In this way, the young people build relationships with their neighbours and begin to develop natural support groups to take the place of their absent parents. Alongside these courses, the young people can also access training that will enable them to find a job; including basic literacy and numeracy, ICT training and work experience. And the tenancy project workers are only ever a phone call away, just like my mum.
The needs that are being met are all very practical, not spiritual in any narrow sense of the word. But they are transforming the lives of the participants, who are enabled to live independently, and of their neighbours who are freed from the fear of aggression from disenfranchised young people. And the young people themselves, being given assistance with no strings attached, are forced to consider the motivation of such selfless support. They have not all responded as dramatically as Phil, the teenager the church looked after, but they have all experienced God's love, shared by his people in very practical and personal ways.