NJPN Conference told: “Xenophobia is mainstream and Christianity has to resist that”
“The great tragedy of our time is that xenophobia is mainstream and Christianity has to resist that”, a leading black theologian told the annual conference of the National Justice and Peace Network (NJPN) this weekend. Professor Anthony Reddie, a Birmingham-based scholar in the practice of Black Theology in grassroots communities, suggested, “we need to tell a new story about ourselves as British people, and not one focused on the imagined glories of the past”. His talk to more than 200 participants, wearing a tee-shirt, ‘Black History is British History’, highlighted issues of identity, history and culture. It prompted discussion about how we live together in a manner which recognises the needs of those at the bottom and on the margins of British society, and how the Christian Churches help that to happen. Professor Reddie warned about the narrow factional nationalism of Brexit – his latest book is: Theologising Brexit: A Liberationist and Postcolonial Critique – and felt Churches have a role to play in transcending boundaries and borders that are being put in place. “The people who are likely to suffer most after 31st October will be the poor” he warned.
The conference theme was, ‘Forgotten People, Forgotten Places: Being Church on the Margins’, and former MP John Battle, Chair of Leeds Justice and Peace Commission, chaired the weekend in Derbyshire. He highlighted beacon churches that are inclusive with a lively panel discussion involving a church community at Hodge Hill in Birmingham and another at Sunderland Minster. Participants were delighted to hear of Hodge Hill’s outreach to the local community as “street connectors”, accompanying isolated and vulnerable people and holding open events outside the church and in green spaces, sharing food and friendship. Sunderland Minster has a mission of hospitality to welcome refugees and Revd Chris Howson, an Anglican priest who works closely with the sanctuary-seeking community in Sunderland and is also a university chaplain, urged us to “build kingdom communities” locally as well as support justice and peace internationally. His book, ‘A Just Church: 21st century Liberation Theology in Action’ aims to help Christians evolve their own way of demonstrating the relevance of Church in today’s contexts, such as widespread poverty, militarism and the climate crisis.
Speaker Revd Dr Deirdre Brower Latz, Principal at Nazarene Theological College in Manchester, also gave examples of “faithful, active churches” which reach out to people on the margins. A key feature is hospitality, but in addition she mentioned church projects offering woodworking, self-esteem classes with prostitutes, and English language initiatives with refugees. She herself has worked with her neighbours to improve the locality and people’s well-being.
Pope Francis is a huge inspiration for positive action, having called for “a Church which is poor and for the poor”, said John Battle. And it is a Church which tackles structural injustice as well as offering charity. He quoted St Oscar Romero at the end of the Conference: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realising that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.”
At the conference Mass, Fr Peter Scally SJ, of the Catholic Chaplaincy of Manchester University, lamented that, despite the leadership of Pope Francis, the mission of Justice and Peace is sidelined in the Church in Britain. The example he gave was of the Archdiocese of St Andrew in Scotland that “got rid of its J&P post”, but, in England and Wales, the dioceses of Brentwood, Portsmouth, Shrewsbury and Wrexham are amongst those that have also dispensed with J&P fieldworker posts in recent years. His view that J&P voices are pushed to the margins in the Church received nods of agreement around the hall.
Beautiful liturgies throughout the weekend were led by Colette Joyce, parish catechist in Hounslow parish, Westminster Diocese. The opening and concluding hymn of the conference was ‘Love Each Other’ by Graham Kendrick. Another favourite was ‘The one who does justice will live in the Lord’ by Sheena Field. In the final liturgy participants were asked to move to the margins of the room, but gradually move towards the centre and eventually sit down again as various issues were listed. One was ‘being in trouble with the Church for your J&P work’!
Workshops covered a wide range of issues, from ‘Christianity, Poverty and Politics in an Age of Austerity’ to ‘Women’s Voices on the Margins’ to ‘Becoming an inclusive Church: Disability’. CAFOD led a workshop on ‘Reimagine our Common Home and listen to vulnerable yet resilient communities’. One workshop was youth-led and focused on young people’s hopes for the Church and their place in it. “Young people want to learn more about their faith and about the Bible but in a fun way” said one. “We want an active community, not just a place where you go for Sunday Mass” said another. The conference children’s group used the story of the ten lepers as a way in to considering “forgotten” people in today’s world. They organised a collection for Care4Calais, remembering refugees living in limbo in Northern France, and sang a song, ‘Come be a kingdom maker’. The youth group looked at people on the margins through the Beatitudes and discussed such topics as the difference between being a peacekeeper and a peacemaker.
The ‘Just Fair’ hosted 23 organisations including York Ecumenical J&P, Medaille Trust, Missio, Pax Christi, SVP, Columban JPIC and Catholic Women’s Ordination. Fairtrade, Palestinian and eco-friendly goods were on sale, plus information and opportunities for action ranging from challenging last week’s illegal demolitions of Palestinian homes in south east Jerusalem to supporting Shared Interest to signing up to become a member of the NJPN. J&P groups, religious orders, and caring groups mingled over a glass of wine – fairly traded of course! In line with NJPN’s eco-commitment, the conference was largely vegetarian, and the use of re-usable mugs was encouraged.
This 41st NJPN Conference was organised in collaboration with Church Action on Poverty (CAP), which is undertaking a three-year project to challenge the Churches about where they put their resources. Anne Peacey, chair of NJPN welcomed the ecumenical nature of the conference and thanked the out-going and in-coming NJPN administrators Ann Kelly and Geoff Thompson for its smooth running. She also welcomed the link with CAP. Church Action on Poverty has a new set of resources ‘Poverty and Justice’ for churches to explore the relationship between faith and action for justice. The resources are based on the pastoral cycle and take people through the process of experience, analysis, reflection, action and evaluation. Contact Sarah Purcell at Church Action on Poverty for more information.
CAP will be running a training day in the Autumn for people who want to run the course in their parish. Leeds Justice and Peace Commission has run successful pilots of the workshops with excellent feedback from church members.
The NJPN annual conference took place 26-28 July at Hayes Conference Centre in Derbyshire.