A reflection on the work of MK Christian Foundation given on 15 March 2019

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A reflection on the work of MK Christian Foundation given on Friday 15 March 2019 on the occasion of a visit by the President and Vice President of Methodist Conference.

Helen (Cameron) has asked me to share a little of our work here at the MK Christian Foundation, which I hope will provide a stimulus to our conversation about Mission in 21st C.

A little introduction to me, I’m a lay Baptist, funded by the Anglicans, for many years on the URC pay role, until very recently managed by a Methodist and with much of my early mentoring in this role coming from a RC Sister.  So either very confused or a confirmed ecumaniac!

What I’d like to do through this talk is to tell you a little of our work at the Christian Foundation  and to interweave, with this story, some of the theological questions we live with as we seek to take forward what we see as our mission.

Introduction to org mission

As you know, organisations are, these days, expected to have vision and mission statements. Big companies spend millions developing and refining them. Short, pithy statements that set out what the organisation is all about and that provide a focus to their growth and development.  Ours is very short and I hope pithy!

Our Mission

The Christian Foundation’s is:

Growing people and community through social enterprise. (repeat)

We’re about individual and community flourishing and our main mechanism for achieving this flourishing is social enterprise.

Our vision is for communities where: the value of everyone and everything is realised and where their potential is released.

Jesus and fullness of life

What I’m sure is immediately apparent from these statements is that we’re working very hard not to use ‘churchy’ or ‘religious’ language in our Vision and Mission statements. This is something we are often trying to do when we talk about our work. I want to come back to the difficulties of language in a few minutes.

I’m sure you will understand the meaning that we are seeking to communicate when we talk of ‘growing people and community’. We are thinking of the life that God seeks for all people, life in all its fullness or shalom.

Transforming the world: Jesus and social enterprise

So growing people and community may hopefully have some resonance with you; however you may be wondering a little more how social enterprise fits in.

There are a couple of definitions of social enterprise which I hope will help explain why it’s become an important approach for us:

Firstly Social Enterprise UK defines A social enterprise as: ‘a business that is changing the world for the better’.

The second is slightly more complex, but I think a more powerful definition from a book on social enterprise by Roger L. Martin & Sally R. Osberg.

Social enterprise is defined as activity that ‘both take(s) direct action and seek(s) to transform the existing system…. to go beyond better, to bring about a transformed, stable new system that is fundamentally different’.

What I find interesting in this definition, and the sense I want to emphasise in thinking about our mission statement, is the idea that a social enterprise is not just ‘a business doing good’ but is about transforming the existing system; transforming the world to a stable new world that is fundamentally different.

So our enterprises provide a mechanism to be involved in transforming systems and the world as we seek to be growing people and communities.

I remember when I first read this definition being struck by how much it sounded like my understanding of the agenda of Jesus, turning the world upside down, making it fundamentally different; the Reign or Kingdom of God. I hope that those Methodists among you are also hearing echoes of One Mission and Our Calling which asks us to ‘work towards a world transformed by God’s love’.

Engaging social enterprises

I’ve managed to get quite a way without telling you anything about what our social enterprises do. Which I need to do, but I need to be careful because I could probably talk for half a day on each of them, so what follows is a thumbnail sketch.

We currently have 8 social enterprises:

  • A café – ‘Think Food’ explores the role of food and eating in individual, community and global health. Food has a vital role in addressing some of today’s most pressing social, economic and environmental problems; from obesity and diet-related ill-health to food poverty and waste, climate change and biodiversity loss to isolation and decline in community cohesion. Food is not only at the heart of some of our greatest challenges, but also a vital part of the solution.
  • An Urban Farm where the Growing People team work to produce locally grown food, so picking up many of the issues of our Cafe. With a weekly veg box, green gym, growing workshops and regular community events we explore how our current food systems operates and how they can be more people, community and environmentally friendly.
  • A forest school - The Learning Tree creating outdoor therapeutic and learning environments, involving campfires and shelters, sometimes scarily for me axes and knives. Reconnecting children with the environment through play and managed risk taking.
  • A nursery - Childcare Pathways supporting parenting and children to learn and grow.
  • A community centre - providing gathering spaces for growing people and community.  Full of creativity and diversity; disability arts to Russian language classes and MK Soup our grass-roots-micro-fundraising event that uses soup to promote small scale community action.
  • Cycle Saviours renovating and repairing pre-loved bikes, emphasising the importance of reuse, encouraging cycling to work. Getting people on their bikes. Showing the power of cycling for health and environment.
  • Urban Bee-lievers bringing bees to the city. Working with businesses and schools to host hives in our city centre. Selling honey and creating things from the bi-products of the hives. Promoting understanding of the importance of bees and other pollinators, the impact of our patterns of food production to their decline and therefore to our food security and environment.
  • Sew and grow producing beautiful and useful upcycled products made from naturally dyed and waste textiles. Encouraging us to look at the waste and abuses of textile industry and textile production. We make beautiful bags and table runners and are currently testing reusable women’s sanitary products made from reclaimed textiles, addressing issues around period poverty.

 

Church and social enterprise offering a real glimpse of the K o G in the here and now

As you can see our enterprises allow us to ‘engage locally with some of our world’s key economic, social and environmental challenges’. Many of these issues have been high on our news agenda in recent weeks. They try to provide very practical responses to these issues. We don’t want to be seen just as a pressure group or protest group (important as such approaches can be) rather through deep involvement in the issues to: search for; identify; and offer direct and practical responses.

These may only be glimpses of how things could be done differently. But they try to be small scale, fragmentary versions of the future we seek.

This I understand to be one of the roles of church, to be a practical expression, in the here and now, of the how things might be if God was in charge, the Kingdom of God. To be a foretaste of the goodness of God for the earth and its people

Not carers but partners in each other’s mission

Our enterprises bring diverse groups of people together from across our neighbourhoods; brought together around shared concerns and a desire to do something about them. They also provide us with a very different way to engage with groups that are often on the edges of our communities. Through their involvement in our enterprises such groups can become co-workers with us and not be passive recipients of ours or someone else’s concern.

Co-working describes a very different sort of relationship to that of carer and recipient of care, signalling both a relationship of equals and that everyone has something to contribute; expectations that Paul is at pains to emphasise repeatedly in his letters to new church communities.  

One of the groups on the edges of our community that we have committed a significant portion of our energies to, is those often referred to as disadvantaged young people. I don’t want to get lost at the moment in talking about labels, I’m sure you will share my concerns about them.

Our enterprises are all staffed by young adults who have significant challenges in their lives (learning difficulties, mental health problems, care leavers, youth offenders, young parents and pregnant teenagers) and who are on the edge of, or outside education and employment. In the enterprises the young people work with us on demanding common tasks, growing, learning and building their skills; but most importantly being contributors, contributing to the enterprises’ running.

The young people are critical to the delivery of our mission; we can’t do what we see as God’s work without them.  This is not a pastoral or one-way relationship where we care for what might be characterised as poor young people. This is a partnership where everyone contributes and everyone is transformed; we co-create our futures together.

Our staff and trainees come from all faiths and none, but I cannot but see them as joining us in what we see as God’s work. They of course may not see it in that way and may be offended were I to suggest it; however I am not able to distinguish the point where God’s work begins and ends. And we of course join them, where we can, in pursuing their goals and mission also!

I hope what’s emerging is that our mission is not something we do ‘to’ people and communities; rather it is done ‘with’ them. And the experience is that we are all transformed through the process.

Using language that can look inwards and outwards

Because of the different backgrounds of those who share in our mission the language we use is important to us. We work with partners, staff and trainees who, not only don’t share our faith, but, importantly don’t share our traditional faith vocabulary either. Such language is also off-putting to many and therefore a barrier to engagement and most concerning conveys little of the meaning we want to communicate.

Language is therefore often a challenge because I can find myself using one vocabulary in church and another in community. So we work hard to find a common language that communicates something of our faith and which can also be shared with those many partners with whom we work and who share our concerns.

Underpinning belief

I hope the diversity of our enterprise activities speaks to one of our central beliefs that God is passionately present and active in everyone and everything, the whole of creation.

However we know through our scriptures, our traditions and our experience that God’s presence and activity is often focussed in those parts of our community and world where there is dysfunction, disadvantage, powerlessness and poverty.

In recent days Pope Francis has been using the idea of those living with the experience of non-power to help us talk these situations and symptoms of dysfunction. So those of us seeking God will do well to be looking in these places of non-power, in relation to individuals, communities, societies and systems. Importantly Pope Francis challenges us further to recognise that it is in situations of non-power that the Holy Spirit is set free and that this is how the Church itself will be transformed.

So engaging and listening are critical first postures in our approach to mission. Our community engagement and our enterprises become ways to be present in, involved and committed to local communities and neighbour-hoods and the issues that impact on them. This is not a parachuting in presence, but a long term commitment.

We begin with an assumption that we need to find out what God is doing in these contexts and that we don’t have pre-prepared solutions, answers or responses. What we discover is that many who express no or other faith commitment, feel drawn to work in the same areas that we believe God is calling us to be. When, as church, we commit ourselves to engaging with some of the world’s most pressing problems, we discover that many others are happy to work with us. The Popes encyclical on the environment has a powerful sub-title ‘The care of our common home’.  This has attracted positive support from many environment and justice groups.  I am often humbled by my staff and other partners who show far greater commitment and energy in challenging some of the dysfunctions of our world than I do.

I want to end by telling you about one of our trainees, who has a number of challenges, who a few weeks ago came into my office with a huge smile on her face and a bag of cash in her hand. She had given up her Saturday to promote our work and the work of Urban Beelievers at a Milton Keynes Council conference. She and other trainees had made hundreds of bee bombs; A selection of Bee friendly flower seeds encased in soil and clay to sell. She had sold over a hundred pounds worth, but what had excited her most was how she had sold them by telling folk about the plight of bees and the importance of pollinators. She was excited and empowered by their positive response to what she was doing. She was in a small way transforming the world and being transformed herself in the process. 

So our mission put simply is doing what we can to join in with God’s mission; trying to understand what the activity of God in the 'world' is and working out how best to join God in those activities. We do this by engaging with people and communities where they are, finding common cause and common language and through social enterprise and activity working for our shared flourishing. We grow people and community through social enterprise.

 

Stephen Norrish March 2019


District Office

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