Faith in the Community

 

This case study focuses on the work of both Faith in Community Scotland (FiCS), and the Church of Scotland’s Priority Areas, as although they are separate organisations, they share links across different projects and have a strong working relationship. Due to the range of projects and activities across both organisations we will focus here on the themes around faith-rooted anti-poverty work that are emerging across their projects. Within the organisations, reference is often made to being part of ‘the movement’ – a term coined to explain a sense of connection, shared values and common aims that are part of the bigger picture of social justice involving all projects across FiCS and Priority Areas.

 

About the organisations

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Faith in Community Scotland was established in 2005, and its key aim is to relieve poverty, particularly among disadvantaged communities and groups within Scotland. FiCS recognises that faith groups provide a wide range of vital support in our poorest communities, and seeks to support these groups through training, resources, advice and other forms of engagement. FiCS operates as an ‘umbrella organisation’, with a number of different projects existing as part of the wider organisation.

 

 

  • The Transformation Team providestraining, facilitation and support to local faith communities in Glasgow, Lanarkshire and Ayrshire to develop and sustain anti-poverty projects.
  • Faith in Community Dundee fulfils a similar role to the Transformation Team but in Dundee, Scotland’s second poorest city.
  • Faith in Throughcare supports prisoners and their families as they move from prison back into their local communities, and enables faith and community groups to provide specialist support and befriending for people leaving prison.
  • Faiths in Scotland Community Action Fund (FiSCAF) provides small grants to faith-based groups tackling poverty across Scotland.
  • The Poverty Truth Commission brings together some of Scotland’s most influential leaders and some of the country’s poorest citizens to address poverty, aiming to effect polity change by facilitating these relationships between people living in poverty and decision makers.
  • Tackling Sectarianism Together works with local churches in the west of Scotland to help them improve relationships across sectarian divides.

Alongside these teams, the core team provides overall strategic leadership together with opportunities for shared learning, reflection, and research.

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Priority Areas is responsible for the support and development of The Church of Scotland’s work within its poorest 56 communities.  In addition to the core work of coordinating a range of community outreach and worship activities, Priority Areas supports additional projects with their own focus:

 

 

 

  • Chance to Thrive – a five-year pilot project supporting eight priority area churches to develop their church-based community facilities through focusing on the energy and hopes of local people, in partnership with experienced panels of volunteers.
  • Passage from India trains and enables women in poverty to come together in small local groups to address their concerns in self-reliant groups (SRGs), based on the model of micro-finance groups in India.
  • The GKexperience is a youth work organisation that supports young people in Priority Areas through bespoke residentials and local involvement.

 

Collaboration with Local Communities and Local People

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Participants in the Passage from India SRGs

 

 

Collaboration with local communities and people is central to the way in which FiCS and Priority Areas work. FiCS holds a relational commitment in its way of working, expressed in the values statement: ‘people lie at the heart of what we do’ and ‘we stand for doing things together, seeking to operate in open and transparent partnership.’  This requires a way of working that is willing to listen to everyone who wants to be involved in making a difference, and not imposing top-down change: ‘we strive for humility, believing that others have insights that pass us by.’

Both organisations see the need for taking sides with the most marginalised in society, supporting and enabling those in these communities to develop their skills and come together to address common issues. For Priority Areas, solidarity with the marginalised is not just for those who are directly impacted: the ‘priority for the poorest and the most marginalised is the gospel imperative facing the whole Church, not just the Church in the poorest places.’

In all of the work across FiCS and Priority Areas these values of operating in relationship with people living in poverty are shown in the ways that local people are encouraged to participate in the changes that they hope to see in their communities. One of the ways in which this is best summarised is in the tag line for the work of the Poverty Truth Commission: ‘nothing about us without us is for us.’ This expresses that any process attempting to create change must have the involvement of those who are most impacted by those issues. Across Priority Areas and FiCS, there is the firm belief that it is the people in poverty who are the experts on poverty; the people within any local community are the experts on that community. This does not mean that there is no role for anyone else to be involved – rather that collaboration starts at grassroots level, with local people.

One approach that focuses on the capacity of local people is in the work of Passage from India, which promotes women-led self-reliant groups (SRGs) in the poorest communities in Scotland. This model, based on the principles of self-reliance, solidarity, and collective resilience, brings together groups of women who support each other, self-generate their own capital through £1 weekly savings (using some of it to lend to each other in times of need), and work together to develop a sustainable microbusinesses that will benefit them and their local communities. In pooling their existing skills, and learning new skills – often from each other – the groups draw on their collective abilities, including their aspirations, knowledge and entrepreneurial vision. This is one way of working with the ethos that local people struggling against poverty have the ability to solve problems for themselves, an understanding of the complexity of social and economic factors impacting their lives, and the resilience to act together to lift families and communities out of poverty. The Passage from India project provides training for the groups in:  identifying and growing skills; understanding power and accountability; planning project development and managing of tasks; and working with diversity, difference and conflict.

Working in this way means that many of our projects have a capacity-building role, in the training and facilitation of local groups to be better equipped to tackle poverty in their local community. Both the Transformation Team and Faith in Community Dundee provide training and workshops to enable groups to gain a deeper understanding of the poverty issues that are impacting their local community, and what actions they can take.  In particular, this involves community research training which supports faith groups to reflect on what they know about their local area, and to work with mapping and community consultation exercises to find out what issues other residents may be concerned about or what projects they want to be involved in.  Groups are also supported to reflect on the causes and effects of the issues in their area so that their actions can, as far as possible, address the root causes of poverty issues. Across FiCS and Priority Areas, faith communities are also encouraged to reflect on their sense of faith values and identity, and to explore the links between what it means to be a worshipping community fully engaged in social justice.

One of the major pieces of learning for FiCS and Priority Areas has been to work in ways that support the view that these communities are good places to be.  It can be easy to focus on problems, and to describe how difficult certain neighbourhoods can be in order to illustrate the importance of supporting faith groups and community projects in these areas. However, the reality is that there is a life, authenticity, and vibrancy in many of the communities that FiCS and Priority Areas support that is important to work with and celebrate. An ‘asset-based’ approach enables groups to identify the positives that they have – whether a building, an existing network, or a set of values – and to build on these in a way that ensures any response is true to the nature and identity of that community.

 

Collaboration with Public and Private Sector Groups

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Commissioners at the Poverty Truth Commission presentation of findings

In addition to the organisations’ approach being about working with local people and communities, the projects aim to support partnerships between local projects, and public and private sector groups.

The Poverty Truth Commission facilitates the relationship between people living in the sharp end of poverty and Scottish civic leaders. Between 2009 and 2011, the Poverty Truth Commission brought together a group of commissioners from people living in poverty, and those in positions of power in the media, government at both Scottish and local authority level, and public and voluntary sector. The conversations between commissioners focused on the themes of: the unjust plight facing children in Kinship Care; the development of positive alternatives to violence; and challenging the stereotypes of people living in poverty often portrayed in the media. Over the two-year period, the commissioners reported that important relationships of trust had been built, showing the power of bringing together people with different experiences and expertise. At the presentation of the findings in April 2011, the Commission issued a set of challenges to the governments at UK, Scottish and local authority levels, to community and voluntary organisations and to Scottish society: that the issues of poverty will never be adequately addressed until the people experiencing it are involved in the development, delivery and evaluation of solutions. 15 different organisations, including the Scottish Government, the UK Government, Glasgow City Council, the Violence Reduction Unit and Glasgow Council for the Voluntary Sector, agreed to take forward the specific elements of the Commission’s work in their own areas of responsibility. Developing from this initial work, the Poverty Truth Commission now focuses on three areas of work. The first is to bring together a new group of commissioners to work together on key issues facing people struggling against poverty including: in-work poverty; the additional costs of living in poverty; stigma; and the impact of benefit cuts. As part of this work the Commission hosts a mentoring scheme that brings together people living in poverty with civil servants. The second is around supporting organisations that are seeking to work in similar ways; and the third involves using social media to get people’s stories and voices heard.

In the case of supporting partnerships at a local level, one example is of the work of the Transformation Team in enabling the relationship between a local church and a public agency that supports adults with learning disabilities. The local church was looking to engage more with the community, particularly in offering the facilities in their building; whilst the public agency were looking for a local, accessible hub for running clubs. The Transformation Team facilitated open and honest dialogue, which both groups felt helped work toward building a shared sense of values and a common purpose. This provided a way of working that meant that the local church was ‘more than a venue’ to the agency, and that the partnership could continue to develop through regular contact and discussion.  In the evaluation of this involvement, the agency reported that the opportunity helped them to see the lack of agenda from the local church, and instead they recognised a visible desire in the church to support adults with learning disabilities.  

One of the things that both Priority Areas and FiCS have been learning about is that within the organisations and within local faith groups there can be concerns about being perceived negatively by voluntary, public and private sector groups. These concerns can keep faith groups from taking steps toward partnership, or from positively putting forward what they are capable of offering as a faith group to the local community. In recognising this, the organisations are learning about how to challenge these perceptions within faith communities – for example, in hosting days where faith groups can meet voluntary and public sector groups, and also in providing training in funding applications.

 

Collaboration across Faith Communities and Traditions

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Artwork from one of the Tackling Sectarianism Together projects

FiCS is committed to working across a variety of faith communities and traditions, and the board, staff and volunteers across the teams are from Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh communities. As well as working with a range of faith groups (churches, mosques, gurdwaras, synagogues), FiCS also encourages different faith communities to work together at a local level. A vital part of this support is the work of FiSCAF, which provides grants to local communities aiming to tackle poverty, as one of its priorities is to support greater understanding and respect between and within faith communities. The fund supports crucial grassroots interfaith projects across Scotland, and supports them to learn from their experiences and to share this learning with others.

In the Tackling Sectarianism Together project, FiCS worked in local communities, bringing together groups from across different Christian traditions in order to increase their awareness of the way in which sectarian attitudes can damage individuals, families and communities. A particular focus of this work was to enable participants to see and work with their existing assets, but to use these to promote relationships across different Christian traditions. For example, in one of the communities there was an existing community choir run from one of the churches; during the project they focused on developing relationships, rotating rehearsals between the Roman Catholic, the Methodist and the Church of Scotland buildings and inviting participants from each church.

This asset-based approach provided a way of using existing relationships, networks and projects as these enable the trust, energy and motivation for people to take part. However, the asset-based model is not a way of avoiding dealing with difficult issues, but provides an intentional way to approach the issues creatively. In particular, this approach helped local people to feel that they could begin to honestly and openly discuss what the challenges and issues of sectarianism in their neighbourhood are, rather than having the problem proscribed for them. From this, the Tackling Sectarianism Together project learnt that one of the challenges in overcoming sectarianism is enabling people to work with the different perceptions and experiences of sectarianism in order to build a shared framework for collaborative action.

The commitment to these partnerships across Christian traditions was aided by engaging in dialogue with faith leaders and with people from the local community. In one neighbourhood, local leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Scotland invited families from their churches to participate in a family residential, where relationships were built and space was made to listen to stories and experiences from the different communities. This then lead to a new commitment to make an existing youth club more ecumenically focused, drawing together young people and volunteers from the different schools and churches. One participant commented:

‘What the residential taught us is that there really is no substitute for just spending time with people…and so because of that the youth club idea came about – by genuinely doing something together you can see barriers coming down a little but….it’s a bit more real in terms of the church’s response rather than just talking about it.’

Additionally, the Tackling Sectarianism Together project highlighted the importance of leadership and lay participation. Encouraging local leaders to work together, and to be seen working together in their community, had a greater impact on enabling local participation. Volunteers across the different projects commented on the positive impact of seeing the leaders together, letting people know that it was safe to be involved, and that the project was genuinely ‘for everyone.’  Wider participation enabled real friendships to be built across sectarian divides, meaning that change was embedded in the local communities, rather than just in the projects. This has also meant that many of the local people feel a commitment to creating change in their community through being seen to overcome negative and sectarian behaviour in their own families and neighbourhoods.

Discerning the faith-rooted character of FiCS and Priority Areas

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Examples of staff and volunteers thinking through the place of faith-based organisations in society,

and the relationship between action and reflection in social justice work

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research and reflective practice across FiCS and Priority Areas was undertaken in the past year to further a conversation about the relationship between faith and anti-poverty in the work of the organisations.  This identified two distinct areas in which participants were thinking about the role of faith - faith motivation and learning as individuals, and the question of corporate faith identity as organisations.

Individuals and their motivation

A short survey identified that the large majority of staff who took part in the study stated that they saw a relationship between their faith or worldview and their involvement with FiCS or Priority Areas: 13/14 staff in FiCS, and 9/10 staff in Priority Areas. Additionally, those that saw this link identified that their faith was not only the impetus to get involved with anti-poverty work, but they also felt that their faith or worldview was enriched through their practical involvement with the organisations.

This understanding of the relationship between faith or worldview and involvement with anti-poverty work was further developed in a series of semi-structured interviews with staff. The majority of staff stated that they felt anti-poverty work was not just ‘an important part’ of their faith, but rather completely inseparable from it – intrinsic to their faith tradition. One participant commented that ‘it’s part and parcel of the same thing’, whilst others stated that ‘justice is at the core of my faith tradition,’ and ‘part of my tradition is seeing the world be just and holding together.’  Furthermore, participants felt their personal, practical involvement was what it meant for them to be a person of faith, as one person commented: ‘my faith doesn’t make sense if I’m not involved in this, it grounds my faith in reality’, and another stated that ‘community development enables me to be true to my faith.’  

In addition, participants drew on their particular faith tradition to explore why they felt this intrinsic relationship between anti-poverty work and their faith. Within the Christian traditions, participants drew on concepts such as: God’s priority for the most marginalised; on the life of Jesus showing care for those who are socially outcast; and the relationship between faith and works.  One participant also drew out the fact that the heart of the Gospel is about enabling people to do things for themselves.  Within Judaism, the sense of tikkun olam, or repairing the world was felt to be the central aspect of getting involved in development work, as well as the sense that social justice is ‘at the heart of Judeo-Christian belief and practice.’ Within the Islamic traditions, participants drew on the relationship between prayer and zakat (alms giving) to indicate the links between spirituality and action; and the centrality of ‘looking out for all people and meeting basic human needs for everyone, not just people of your own tradition’.

There was also a strong sense from the interviews that participants were learning about their own worldview and faith from working alongside others from different faith or religious backgrounds. One participant, who described themselves as not being particularly bothered about faith, stated that they had learnt so much from observing the different ways in which people were committed to social justice from a faith perspective, and that it had made them reconsider their understandings of faith.

Organisational Identity

In contrast to this intrinsic relationship between faith and anti-poverty work found with individual staff and volunteers, the surveys and interviews highlighted a range of responses to what faith meant for the organisations. Most staff felt that there wasn’t an adequate definition for how the organisations related to faith, with the majority of assertions being negatively orientated along the lines of ‘we are not ecumenical/interfaith/faith-based organisations’. There was a strong feeling from participants that the organisations’ identity and interest was primarily drawn from their anti-poverty focus, and that current understandings of ‘faith-based’ or ‘interfaith’ did not adequately represent this identity. As a result, participants felt that the role of faith for the organisations was somewhat ambiguous. What was most interesting was that this was across FiCS - a ‘multifaith’ organisation - and Priority Areas, a denominational organisation; as a result, this ambiguity is not simply down to working across different faith traditions.

However, this sense of ambiguity should not be interpreted negatively; rather it indicates the possibilities for the organisations of reflecting on the role of faith in the context and responding to the changing understandings around the role of faith in the public square. In particular, this has provided ongoing space for the organisations to hold action-learning days to reflect further on their experiences around faith and social justice. These have enabled staff and volunteers to reflect on the social, political and religious factors that impact their work, and to address how to respond to these clearly and positively.

Ongoing Learning

What has been learnt so far in FiCS and Priority Areas from this reflective practice is the necessity of dialogue around the different ways in which participants in the organisations perceive the relationship between faith and social justice work. In particular, there has been learning around finding the appropriate balance between reflection and action, seeing experience-based learning around social justice themes as part of creating change in communities and society.  There is also the need to reflect on ‘faith language’ and what it means to talk about faith; for many staff and volunteers social justice language is the way they speak about faith, and it is perhaps unhelpful to create too strong a divide.

From the action-learning to date, FiCS and Priority Areas have identified key areas that need to be attended to when reflecting on the faith-rooted nature of the organisations:

  • Diversity of faith and religious traditions and worldviews
  • Different preferences for a defined or a flexible understanding of the role of faith within organisations
  • Different perspectives on the relationship between the sacred and the secular, and the place of faith in society
  • Based in and directed toward commitment to social action

Whilst these factors perhaps make it more complicated to precisely define the faith-rooted nature of the organisations, this is part of the learning that is taking place around practitioners’ sense that existing language and descriptions do not always represent the reality of faith-rooted social justice in an increasingly pluralistic and post-secular environment. Continuous learning about these faith-orientated social justice practices is necessary in order to be open and responsive to this changing context surrounding faith-rooted anti-poverty work, and to the nature of working in relationship across difference.

Clare Radford
Community Theologian, Faith in Community Scotland and Priority Areas
www.faithincommunityscotland.org
www.churchofscotland.org.uk/serve/priority_areas
www.clareradfordconsultancy.com

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