When I began the Buxton Leadership Programme, I felt overwhelmed by imposter syndrome. Wandering through the Houses of Parliament, without a politics degree, and being able to speak into the lives of vulnerable people, I kept thinking ‘I’m only 21’. I have been trusted to assist the Bishop of Durham in his parliamentary work and organise communities in my church placement at Ilford Salvation Army.
In those first few weeks I had to depend on God’s promise that I do not shoulder anything on my own. The issues I am working on are big: homelessness, the immigration system, a welfare policy which is predicted to push 300,000 children into poverty over the next three years (‘the two-child limit’). But I was struggling even with the ‘simple’ tasks, like emailing MPs. Who am I to be engaging with people of power?
This, I found, was the wrong question.
It is not who I am, but who is God? David could take on Goliath because he depended on God. No matter where God has placed you, you have the power to enact change. God believes in justice. The pressure to challenge ‘the system’ is not on you alone. Fighting injustice is a Biblical mandate; it is done in partnership with God. And God places people in your life to support you. I have been able to observe incredible people, learning from how they sustain their hunger for justice and put their faith into action daily.
But what do you do when it doesn’t feel like you’re making any change? Seeing people entrenched in homelessness is disheartening. The belief that we cannot change homelessness comes partially as a result of the breakdown between the epicentre of Politics in Westminster, or local councils, and the rest of society.
My Salvation Army placement has focused on an innovative way to tackle the feeling of powerlessness. The community organising approach of Citizens UK believes that communities can be organised to work on issues that matter to them, holding decision-makers to account. It works because it shows people that their concerns are shared by others, that they are being listened to, and that they can negotiate with decision-makers. It shows the power of a united voice. As part of this, I have been able to work on the London wide Citizens Mayoral campaign, creating asks to the Mayoral candidates that will challenge homelessness in London.
Community organising is powerful because it’s made me realise that I must not fight on behalf of people who are street homeless in Ilford, but I must fight with them, creating a relationship through which they can be developed as leaders. You don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. For me, this is a beautiful image of God’s Kingdom. When we can no longer walk, God carries us. But while we are still able, God encourages us to walk for ourselves.
The Buxton Programme has shown me that engaging at a policy level (politics with a capital P) is only productive when it engages with the communities it affects. In both, the journey is messy, frustrating and often slow. In Ilford I am confronted with the sometimes horrifying reality of what I work on with Bishop Paul. I see a mother who can’t afford nappies for her newborn because of the two-child limit. I see a man who is asked to not sit at his job centre appointment because he ‘stinks’ from sleeping on the street, leaving him indifferent because he is familiar with this dismissal. These circumstances leave me angry, fuelling my Westminster work which stops it from becoming disengaged from the change we are seeking.
Some days I feel inadequate. Some days I barely know what’s happening politically. But when I focus on the constant quiet work, building relationships and trust, breaking through people’s scepticism, I realise that part of the journey towards justice is in the conversations.
But there are also big moments of breakthrough. When the first resident moved into Malachi Place (a ‘pop-up hostel’ for people who are homeless – https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-london-51679060/boy-s-tooth-fairy-money-helps-house-ilford-s-homeless), I saw breakthrough. When a Government secretary in the Lords told the Bishop to keep bringing up the problems of the two-child limit because our arguments were being noticed, I saw breakthrough. The discipline is in bringing everything to God; the quiet conversations and the moments of celebration. It is choosing to not rely on human power alone but trusting that God will show us where breakthrough can happen.
So, I offer you the opportunity to apply to the Buxton Programme. It is an incredibly unique programme which supports you in your grappling and discerning. I cannot recommend it enough for people who are even just vaguely interested in what faith and politics can look like together.