Can you help house the homeless in Norwich?
Mark Fairweather-Tall is determined to do more to help the homeless of Norwich this winter, and is asking for help from the Christian community.
It was lunchtime on the last day of February earlier this year when my phone pinged to tell me a text message had arrived. It was from one of the members of my church who has a great concern for the homeless. He wrote: “You will understand my shock when, last night during a heavy fall of snow, I saw two people huddled together on the ground by the bridge at the bottom of Prince of Wales Rd in Norwich, both covered in snow. I feel we as Christians and as a church have a duty to do something about this…”
Norwich, like many other places in the country, had been hit by ‘The Beast from the East’ with over 20cm of snow and freezing temperatures. This was no time for anyone to be without shelter. And, I reflected, the sentiment in the text was absolutely right – surely as Christians and as a church we could not ignore such a need. However, my mind went straight away to the logistical problems of doing something like this.
Very soon after I discovered that St Peter Mancroft had been approached and were going to open their doors. Many volunteers, both Christian and non-Christian, came together to provide food and shelter until the weather conditions eased. It was a brilliant response of care for some of the most vulnerable in our community.
The question of our Christian duty in such a situation stayed with me, and this was to be tested a few weeks later with the arrival of ‘The Pest from the West’. More snow and freezing temperatures meant there would be a need once more. The day before it arrived and as Norwich City Council activated its Severe Weather Emergency Procedure (SWEP), we were asked whether we could help.
We were able to offer a location but much more than that was needed. However, different groups pulled together to make it easier than I thought. Norwich City Council provided beds, bedding and expert help for the night, right; There were many volunteers who gave of their time throughout the night; Soul Church volunteers cooked food and provided minibuses to help people commute to the site. Yes, there were challenges but they were met and those in need were cared for.
Right now, thoughts of snow and freezing temperatures seem just a distant memory after a long, hot summer - as I write, temperatures today are due to reach upwards of 20 degrees Celsius. But the question remains – what is my Christian duty and what is our responsibility as a church to respond to the needs of the homeless? My mind is inexorably drawn to Isaiah 58 and the prophet writing to a people who were missing the point of their faith. God says to them:
“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free and remove the chains that bind people. Share your food with the hungry and give shelter to the homeless. Give clothes to those who need them and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” Isaiah 58:6-7
Last week I was in a meeting with people from the City Council, organisations that work with the homeless and church representatives. The question was asked about whether churches in Norwich can pull together to provide shelter for the homeless not just during the most severe weather but throughout the winter. Last year was a learning experience, but can we be better prepared this year? Some churches may be able to provide a venue, others might be able to provide a team of volunteers, but wouldn’t it be amazing if the Christian church could take a lead on serving in this way.
A few verses later in the same chapter of Isaiah, we read:
“Feed the hungry and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.” Isaiah 58:10
I know churches in Kings Lynn and Southend (amongst other places) have got together to do exactly this. Can we do the same in Norwich? If we do, won’t we as God’s church in this city shine out as the light that God calls us to be? It might seem like a big ask but if we pull together, working with other organisations and praying to the God who multiplies our little, who knows what can be done?
If you would like more information about what this might involve, please do let me know. The initial plan is to see if churches can offer one-week accommodation from November and throughout the winter. Training and support will be provided. You can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Rev Mark Fairweather Tall is the Minister of Norwich Central Baptist Church.
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