A different approach

In the run-up to the Third World Day of the Poor, on 17 November 2019, we have assembled a series of three articles. Each reflects on emerging developments in Catholic social mission. In November 2018, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales encouraged leaders of Catholic organisations to work together on addressing the housing crisis. This first article in the series explores some progress in the Archdiocese of Birmingham, within the wider context of the Church’s pastoral work and mission in communities.

By Steve Baylis, Head of Development, and Jane Bamber, Senior Development Officer, at the Archdiocese of Birmingham

Over the last five years, the development team at the Archdiocese of Birmingham has been hard at work connecting with its deaneries, parishes and communities to discover their unique needs and to identify their priorities. Through this work it became clear that there was a need to develop strategies and plans to support the maintenance and long-term sustainability of the Catholic community’s buildings. With approximately 1,200 buildings in the Archdiocese alone, these are significant assets which support the fulfilment of the Church’s mission. These buildings hold Masses and services, others provide outreach and support for those affected by poverty, or those who experience social isolation. These buildings can provide the setting in which communities come together in fellowship and mission.

By identifying the priorities, and the issues our communities face, we have secured more than £4.4 million of new funding, specifically for the development and improvement of our buildings. We have invested this funding in projects valued at more than £7 million. This is a wonderful achievement which allows us to make real improvements for the benefit of our community, but, as always, we are looking to the future.

To achieve the greatest positive impact with our resources, we have strived to ensure that Catholic-owned buildings remain a vital, relevant resource to the people and communities who need them the most. In keeping with the Archdiocese’s mission, we want to continue to use our expertise and funding to improve the lives of those who feel disenfranchised, who are experiencing poverty or are subject to discrimination.

The Archdiocese has a diverse mix of parishes with some that are particularly land or asset rich, despite being in deprived areas. We continue to invest in our churches as sacred spaces where we come together to pray and worship God, however we also want to ensure that we are fully utilising all our assets in pursuit of our wider mission, and that means looking at ways that we can respond to the needs of the local communities, working with them and reaching out to those in need.

We are currently working with a number of partners to scope and develop new housing schemes that will increase local people’s access to good quality affordable housing. This is a long term project that will contribute to our vision and mission, and demonstrates a commitment to future sustainability. When scoping these major projects, the team is especially keen to foster wider community engagement and participation. One of our partners is offering parishes 40 per cent nomination rights for any new social housing projects we develop with them (meaning we can nominate people we know who are in need, so this could be a local family, refugees or a retiring priest). We see this work as being key to our department’s role of developing sustainable and vibrant parish communities.

We believe in starting at the grass roots of the problem. By carrying out a full feasibility study on a site we are able to gain a wider picture than the one which may seem immediately obvious. We are committed to enabling and empowering individuals and communities to have their own voice and to get involved in shaping their neighbourhoods. By supporting the community to support itself we believe we can promote greater well-being and a sense of belonging. In our commitment to the community, we always ask ourselves: what would really work best for the community and its people? How can local people gain from this project, what are their housing needs, and how can we campaign and deliver safer, greener spaces as well as services and facilities that are meeting the needs of the whole community?

We recently secured some £430000 from the National Lottery to work in partnership with two of our churches, the local Irish Centre and two Muslim organisations to deliver a joint project around early intervention activities for socially isolated older people.

We are currently developing a project in partnership with the travelling community, having invested £9,000 to employ an outreach worker to engage and work with this community, to fully understand their concerns and issues, to make sure we have their voices embedded in how the project will be developed and ultimately delivered. We hope to have this project funded by the Lottery and expect to be submitting a funding application early 2020 based on a clear evidence of need with end users at the heart of the solution.

Alongside our major project developments, we are becoming more aware of the increased need for parish and community based responses to homelessness and localised poverty. Many of our parishes are facing daily challenges: from the pressures of sustaining food banks, with people seeking refuge, requiring support for addiction and experiencing a lack of safe pastoral areas, which has led us to develop a pilot in a cluster of four parishes to make sure we have training and resources to deliver a “dementia friendly” church.

By producing skill banks – how we engage, identify and build the skills of local people and by utilising the strengths that our parishes already have – we are committed to getting the best out of our resources and thus supporting and developing truly effective parish action.

This article was first published in The Tablet.