Making a difference in Ashburton

By - Wednesday 18th September, 2013

Gareth Streeter explains what can be achieved when community groups and public bodies work together, citing Ashburton’s newest church as an example

A recent community event hosted at Oasis Church Shirley Park

A recent community event hosted at Oasis Church Shirley Park

Cameron calls it the ‘big society’. For Blair it was the ‘third-way’. Other terms exist, but ultimately they all come down to the same thing – a growing recognition that to truly meet the needs of the most vulnerable the state, business and voluntary groups need to work together.

Even those of us who advocate limited government (and I must declare for transparency that I am an active member of the Conservative Party) recognise that the state has a clear role in the delivery of social provisions. Paradoxically, the committed statist accepts that the scale and nature of need – which includes issues of low self-esteem, loneliness and social exclusion – can rarely be dealt with through professional interaction alone. Engagement from the wider community is crucial.

But despite this consensus, one crucial question remains: what does it look like when these public and voluntary offerings work together? As with so many things, the answer – or at least part of the answer – can be found in our own town of Croydon.

Oasis is no stranger to our part of Croydon. Since 2009 it has run Oasis Academy Shirley Park

Almost two years ago, I and a group of others decided to start a church on the Tolgate estate in Ashburton. This church was and is part of the charity Oasis (an organisation founded by Croydon boy Steve Chalke in 1985). As a church our main aims are to be fully inclusive (absolutely everyone is welcome) and to be actively engaged in the community (long meetings about the church curtains are not for us).

And of course, Oasis is no stranger to our part of Croydon. Since 2009 it has run Oasis Academy Shirley Park, one of the most improved schools in Croydon with a children’s centre, primary phase, secondary phase, and sixth form. The opportunities for the church and school to work together were abundant and obvious.

The church officially launched in January 2012 and is run by volunteers. Needless to say, it is still early days. However, I would like to give three examples of how this partnership is already starting to make a difference:

  • The launch of a Christmas food parcel scheme – Sometimes the best ideas are the simplest, and this is a case in point. As the church was preparing to launch in late 2011 we knew we wanted to do something small to help people struggling over the festive season. To that effect we were able to work together to create a number of food parcels that the academy team was able to distribute to those who really needed it.
  • The establishment of a Friday-night youth group – Oasis Academy Shirley Park has been able to turn around the performance of its students by recognising that caring about them just during the school day is not enough. The value of support teams and youth/community workers has long been recognised. In order to create more space for this, the academy desired to create a Friday night youth group and was able to create the space for it. However, through funds collected at services, the church was able to put a considerable amount of seed money into the setup costs (PlayStations and karaoke machines don’t buy themselves) as well as provide volunteers to help run the club and offer it up to young people from outside the academy.
  • Summer barbecues and community events – Partly through the relationships built at the youth group and thanks to support and promotion from the academy, the church has been able to run a number of community events such as barbecues and coffee mornings. Again, the purpose is simple: bringing the community together, chatting to people who need a listening ear, and forming relationships.

I do not pretend that this example provides a totally transferable model for voluntary and public groups working together. I do hope it gives food for thought. However, I am aware that for every reader who finds these examples helpful, there will be at least one who finds his or her hackles of suspicion raised. How can a church be trusted with this much access? Surely it’s just a front for them to indoctrinate people with their views.

I totally understand these questions. Allow me to give a clear answer to them. Any church that seeks to have partnerships with local bodies must understand it as an opportunity to spread Christian love; not enforce Christian doctrines.

At Oasis Church Shirley Park we recognise that everyone’s thoughts are their own. While we would never hide what we believe (how can we, we’re a church?) we would never attempt to press our beliefs on other people. We believe that being a Christian means accepting everybody and trying to love and help people. It’s only on this basis that churches can really expect – and deserve – to play an active role in community life.

Gareth Streeter

Gareth Streeter

Gareth Streeter is a communications professional and Croydon based community and political activist. Passionate about inclusion and community, Gareth is an active member of Oasis Church Shirley Park in Ashburton. Currently PR for charity Oasis and chairman of Ashburton Conservatives.

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  • Anne Giles

    How very lovely.