Churches marshal frontline troops for social services

Garth George, NZ Herald

13 September 2007

Garth George: Churches marshal frontline troops for social services

New Zealand Herald, Thursday July 27, 2006


Under the radar of all but a fragment of the media, a quiet revolution is taking place in the vexed field of social welfare delivery in New Zealand.

Put simply, it is that churches and other faith-based agencies are reawakening to the fact that it is their duty to provide for the less fortunate in the communities in which they stand.

Throughout the country, church-based social services are taking up the slack and, often with money allocated by government, both local and national, are providing thousands of man and woman-hours of frontline community service.

We hear much of the faults, foibles and failures of state-provided welfare and little of the tremendous amount of good that its agencies achieve - even the much-maligned Child, Youth and Family - among those they are charged with helping.

But the state can do only so much. It has always relied on churches to provide social services and the Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists, in particular, have a long and honourable history of providing for the sick, the disadvantaged and the poor.

These services have invariably been provided on a denominational basis - for instance the Anglican Church's city missions in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

What is happening today is that more and more individual churches within those denominations - and others - are providing social services for their own local communities.

This can only be good news, for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the motivation of those church folk who choose to set up and to work in the fraught field of helping others.

They do it simply because their belief requires it of them - to feed the hungry, provide drink for the thirsty, give succour to strangers, clothe the naked, heal the sick and visit the prisoner.

Another reason is that community-based services are more intensely focused, as their workers intimately know their areas, their people and their needs.

A third is that community-based services provide more bang for every buck, because they have few paid workers and can call on battalions of volunteers.

A typical example is Hornby Presbyterian Community Church in Christchurch, whose widespread community services, mainly funded by the Christchurch City Council, employs five paid workers and has more than 100 volunteers.

In Auckland, a typical example of how a church is providing support services for its community is Destiny Church in Mt Wellington.

Its social service arm, available to all and run by volunteers, provides financial management and debt resolutions services, advocacy services (with Government departments, debtors and welfare agencies), housing assistance and emergency accommodation, employment assistance, health services including heart and diabetes check-ups and personal health and fitness assessments, family crisis support, emergency food supplies and a clothing bank.

It is also heavily involved with children and young people, providing early childhood education for children up to 4 and a school for 5 to 10-year-olds, youth programmes in several suburbs addressing issues including sex, drugs and alcohol, and it caters to a growing Asian community with language and translation services.

In Christchurch, Spreydon Baptist provides a wide range of services, from Government-funded residential mental health care (it is the biggest provider in the city) to facilities and programmes for young people.

In the blighted suburb of Shirley, St Stephens Anglican Church, through the city council-funded Shirley Community Trust, runs a preschoolers and parents group, numeracy and literacy classes, drug addiction recovery, distributes free bread, puts on family events in the local park, provides free fortnightly Friday night community meals (16,000 served since 1992) - and runs a cafe where you can get a very good latte for $2.

Hornby Presbyterian provides Oscar (out of school care) and holiday programmes for primary schoolers, youth workers for high schools, a centre for kids with learning difficulties, occupational therapy, bread distribution and an annual Christmas party in a local park.

The Christchurch City Council is this financial year giving $8.2 million to church and community organisations to carry out its community development programme.

Says Deirdre Ryan, a senior community development adviser with the council: "The churches know their local neighbourhoods extremely well and are recognised and trusted by those communities for the outreach services they provide."

Their work, she said, was based on a sense of charity, mission and social justice that released an amazing level of personal contribution in knowledge, professional expertise, volunteer hours and money, among other things.

This is good news, for it indicates that national and local government agencies are losing their suspicion of church and faith-based agencies, recognising the value of having committed troops on the ground, and are giving them the resources to get the job done.

And it looks like the commandment "love your neighbour" has taken on a whole new meaning for many Christians, and that can only be a blessing - to them and to their nation as a whole.

More and more churches are seeing the needs in their local neighbourhoods and are setting about trying to alleviate suffering and provide their neighbours with a better way of life.

As Anne Kennedy, founding trustee of the Shirley outfit, puts it: "I saw us sending all these missionaries overseas and I wondered how we were going to work with the people we were set among."