Sunday, 18 November 2012

Simple Gifts and the UCSA

I love living in Bethnal Green. It is a lively part of town with a lot going for it. When I returned to the east end over a year ago I concluded that I had missed the place. However it is obvious even to a partial outsider like me that for some people this is a difficult place to live. Vagrancy for instance is a visible problem- even compared with the rest of London. When I first lived here I rented a private sector flat that was somewhat grim and extortionately priced. Many people face a lifetime of this, especially as the availability of social housing declines. Although plenty of good public greenspace is only a short walk or tube-ride away, life in east London is characterised by crowdedness, poor air quality and traffic noise. East end shops are disproportionately bookmakers, pawnbrokers and fried chicken outlets. As I walked past the Whitechapel Ideas Store the other day, I saw advice sessions being offered as to how the cuts in housing allowance and other benefits would affect people's weekly budgets. All kinds of poverty can be found here- absolute, relative and cultural. In my opinion the only map on which Tower Hamlets would not be a "poverty hotspot" would be the "spiritual-poverty-map-of-London". If you are looking for a truly spiritually dead place try somewhere a little further west!

Before I became a Unitarian I tried a church where something akin to the "prosperity gospel" was preached. This encourages people to view their wealth as a blessing for virtue in this life and that by "giving to God" (i.e. the church) their "blessings" would increase. The vicar once cited the "parable of the talents" (Mathew 25: 14:30, Luke 19: 11:27- hey I looked something up!) to claim that God had pre-ordained the distribution of wealth and that it was wrong to expect equality. He also cited Jesus' saying "the poor will always be with you" (Mathew 26:11) as a proof against the idea that the state can prevent poverty. Nothing I have ever learned- either from looking at the world or learning economics seems to chime with this. Part of the attraction of Unitarianism for me is its role as a radical dissenting tradition which has at times been linked to early Christian Socialism and Co-operation in Britain.

As part of the concern for social justice, there has been a Unitarian presence in Bethnal Green since the 19th Century in some form of another. It is based in a building that was once one a domestic mission centre. The latest incarnation is the "Simple Gifts" cafe which focusses on after school activities for local children. There are also plans for a food-bank to help people who have been hit by the recession and the cuts. I attended a "Social Action Lab" for interested comers on 10th November to hear more about this. As part of the discussion some points were raised about where the concern for social justice is in Unitarianism today. Is it true, as some advocates of the "Big Society" claim, that the welfare state has "crowded out" philanthropic and church based initiatives that might have been more effective? My counter argument would be that before the welfare state, philanthropic and self-help remedies were somewhat piecemeal. However, despite the many positions that we could take on this there are obviously social needs that all people of faith and goodwill could rightly engage with. It is also perhaps the most visible way of showing what Unitarianism is about.

In my experience, Unitarian congregations do not always act like "local churches". There are places much closer to me on a Sunday morning where I could go but I sadly could never really belong and for that reason my faith community is not my connection with the civic life of my neighbourhood. I often feel a frustration that despite doing "a bit" now and again there are barriers to what I do as part of a corporate Unitarian initiative based on a common vision. This is why, although these are early days, the Unitarian Centre for Social Action seems like an exciting development. An interesting question is what the "unique selling-point" of a Unitarian initiative might be. After all, there are after all plenty of secular and religious social justice initiatives out there. For one thing, our movement is able to speak to spiritual needs in an enabling but not proscriptive way. Secondly, a Unitarian intitiative would not turn away would-be volunteers if they refuse to sign a creed-based "statement of faith". Thirdly, I would expect a Unitarian initiative to bring rationality and intellectual curiosity to social problems and be a radical voice for social change as opposed to a philanthropic stop-gap.

So I will be encouraging others to take an interest in the Unitarian Centre for Social Action and look forward to seeing where the follow-up to the Social Action Lab leads. Of course, as George Carlin would say- "money.. they always need money" :). In addition, I am sure interest and enthusiasm from members of the Urban Unitarian meetup group would be welcomed.

Here is a link to the website: