Street Church in Northampton welcomes up to 90 vulnerable and homeless people at its weekly get-togethers. David Bird describes how Christians from various denominations work together in developing the work and ministry of this growing fresh expression of church.
Our early experience of homeless people here at St Giles involved them coming along to Alpha courses for the free food before disappearing pretty quickly. They'd also turn up on the doorstep of the vicarage and I would have a chat with them. At one point, a guy came along with a spiritual understanding of God who asked me to pray for him; at that point I knew that I had to do more than offer him a cup of tea and a sandwich.
A member of the congregation is involved with the Hope Centre, a project that serves what is quite a large homeless community in the Northampton area. When one of the community died, it was a social services funeral and none of the rest of the people who knew him from the streets had any idea when it was or what had happened.
They wanted to have some sort of memorial service and the Hope Centre volunteer asked if I would go in and do something for them. About 50 people turned up to that. It wasn't a recognisable service as such, but we played his favourite music, talked about what he was like as a person, and they lit candles to remember him.
A lot of homeless people find Sunday the most difficult day of the week because there is nothing open specifically for them so we got together with other churches to arrange a weekly Street Church drop-in service from 1.30pm to about 3pm. It takes place at the Salvation Army Northampton Central Corps community hall, and the majority of helpers are from St Giles but there are also people from Kingdom Life New Frontiers International Church, the Salvation Army, the Roman Catholic Church, and another Anglican Church. Each takes it in turn to provide the all-important catering.
We use multi-media material from The Work of the People, an American organisation which highlights Christian issues – usually through visual images rather than words. There is very little 'preaching' as such, it's more a case of sharing testimonies and stories but a lot of it is one-to-one relational stuff. We also invite guests to come along and sing to us as performance worship. Some of the homeless have got musical gifts too so they're also getting more involved in that now.
Every six weeks or so we offer pampering when people get their nails and hair cut. Some prostitutes also come in and we do their nails too, just to serve them and show that we care.
Street Church began in Easter 2008, and some of the people later started coming to our traditional church service in the evening as well. One man who did that now wants to be baptised. I have been quite precious about it in some ways because it feels like something that is both the work of God and a tender plant. The direction we want to take it in is to help these vulnerable people get a lot more stability in their lives, and set up mentoring for a number of individuals.
As ever, money plays a key role because the project is being run entirely by volunteers at the moment though we have recently applied for a grant for a part-time worker. It is nothing like church as many would think of church. You can't ask our regulars to give by Direct Debit for example, and that means it will never be self-supporting. Instead we see it as part of our mission to Northampton, our church supports it and other churches support it in that way.
It is tough work but worth it because there is a huge mix of people at Street Church. Some of those are kids thrown out of their own homes by their families; they can be into drink or drugs so that can be quite difficult. There is a guy called Dancing Joe who always turns up smartly dressed though a bit 'crinkled' round the edges, and there are quite a few Eastern Europeans who have had jobs in the past but are now sleeping rough.
One of our volunteers is an ex-Army guy, and he deals with a number of men who have come out of the forces and – for one reason or another – just can't cope.
I often say that many of the homeless we deal with are no different than anyone else; it's just that their sin and their weakness are much more obvious than other people's. Those who come to faith at Street Church and begin to sort their lives out often say they no longer want to be part of the community because they are keen to move on. That's understandable but some have remained and carried on helping as volunteers and that's a very powerful message to those who come. It says, 'just because I live on the streets doesn't mean I will always live on the streets. Just because I haven't got my life sorted out now doesn't mean that it will always be that way.' It gives them hope.