Green pastures for the homeless
Pastor Pete Cunningham on the Church's social responsibility to look after the last, the least and the lost.
Green Pastures is a social enterprise that releases churches across the UK to fulfil their vision for their localities, functioning out of a fundamental belief that the Church has the power to eradicate homelessness.
Begun in 1999 by Pastor Pete Cunningham who felt compelled to tackle the issue of homelessness in his town of Southport, the first move was the purchase of a two bedroomed property to provide housing for those who would otherwise be living on the streets.
Over the next seven years, Green Pastures grew in response to the needs of an increasing homeless population in Southport, and in 2006 finally made the transition to a social enterprise with the aim of facilitating churches to support their own homeless communities. Green Pastures now purchases properties for local churches who want to respond to God's call to meet the needs of the poor and marginalised.
"We are simply a resource to release the church," Pete explains. "We are servants who have a passion to see the Church rise to see communities changed."
The enterprise now has 36 partners across the UK, and has purchased a total of 250 properties. Almost 500 people have been housed permanently, while over 1,700 have moved on to become established citizens in their own communities following a stint in a Green Pastures home.
Around 27% of all past and present tenants have come to find faith through the initiative.
In Southport, involuntary homelessness has now been eradicated as a result of the team's tireless endeavours, but they know there's still much work to be done across the rest of the UK.
"Our role, our vision is to release the church in all its endeavours to reach those people who are most in need in our communities. We want to see transformation in people. That is our calling, and we invite churches to join with us in this," he says.
As well as practical support, Green Pasture teams provide pastoral care, offering advice and back-to-work training to those who find themselves outcast from regular society. The enterprise also now offers ethical investment opportunities, where investors can expect a return of up to 5 per cent while knowing that their money is being used for good purposes.
Archbishop Justin Welby has commended the initiative for the way in which it cares for the most vulnerable members of society. "Their work makes it possible for local churches to respond to the needs of their community and make a real difference to people in desperate need. I give thanks for the transformation Green Pastures ministry has already brought in so many places and I am delighted to support their work," he says.
Pastor Pete cites his motivation as the call of Matthew 25, where Jesus tells his followers to look after the poor and needy. "When I was hungry, you fed me, when I was thirsty you gave me a drink, when I was naked you clothed me, and to paraphrase, when I was homeless you gave me a roof. This should be part of what we are as Christians," he says.
Pastor Pete shares more here about his inspiration and how Green Pastures is meeting the needs of hundreds of vulnerable people across the country.
CT: How did you come to start Green Pastures?
PP: It was a challenge from the word of God, really, from Luke chapter 10. The Good Samaritan turned round to the innkeeper and said 'Here's enough to pay for two weeks, and by the way, if I owe you anything else, I'll pay you when I come back.' We felt the Lord saying: 'This man took total responsibility for a perfect stranger.' I talked to my church about how we should be involved in the community and helping the marginalised. In some ways we've abdicated that responsibility, given it over to social services or the government, and they've made a pig's ear of it - they've given it their best but they were never commissioned to do it. So it's time we got on with it. So we did!
And we just grew - it was more organic than planned. There was no great revelation of 'Let's change the nation', we were just the local church looking after local people and trying to fulfil in community what Christ had taught us in the Book.
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CT: Do you think housing the homelessness is a call for all churches and Christians?
PP: Jesus said there are two commandments: Love God and Love your neighbour, and the illustration of loving your neighbour was based on the Good Samaritan. I think that I could generally conclude that the body of Christ has been called to do it. There's no one specific, in one way or another we can all be involved.
CT: How does sharing the Gospel come into play?
PP: I think if I was to quote anything, St Francis of Assisi had a great comment: "We need to preach the gospel by all means, and occasionally use words". Surely it's manifesting the love of Christ that is the most important? I've had wonderful opportunities where people have said: 'There's something different about the way you are, would you pray for me?' and seeing people come to Christ just by having the opportunity to share my faith. It's not a forced preaching, it's a lifestyle. And that's what Christianity to me is all about.
CT: Do you genuinely believe the Church has the capacity to end homelessness?
PP: If the Church catches the vision, we could end homelessness in the next 10 years. Suddenly the Church, instead of being an irrelevancy to communities, becomes very relevant.
When we started 14 years ago, we were a church of 50 people on a Sunday and we were looking after the best side of 200 people in a town of 60,000. If we multiply that just by 1,000 churches, that'd be 200,000 people housed. So out of 40,000 churches approximately in the UK, only 2 per cent of the Church is actually currently functioning the way we do. The maths is pretty simple, the equations are there, and I'm not saying we are great or fabulous, but that is a real statistic.
CT: Have you seen an increase in poverty over recent months/years?
PP: There's no doubt about that - the nation's in crisis. We've been over-spending, our budget's been wrong, this government is trying to bring us back into balance and it's creating pain generally across the board. As a local church we have a large independent food bank with over 1,000 people on it. We anticipate that number will grow again over the course of this year. We could quite easily be feeding 1,500 or 2,000 people by the end of the year.
Unless the Church wakes up there's bound to be an increase when you think that the government has made changes to rent, are considering giving no housing benefit to young people under the age of 25 and you've got one million unemployed at the moment. There's just not enough housing being built, especially for those who need one bedroomed properties, so there are definite problems that are coming along.
We were able to meet the Housing Minister last week, however, who was talking about the problems with us and said he has funds to help. Sometimes faithfulness brings its rewards!
CT: What are the biggest challenges of your ministry?
PP: The biggest challenge is to get the Church to wake up. To put it simply: what are we doing? We're trying to fulfil the law of Christ. The Gospel is more than just preaching. We need to be in community showing the love of Jesus. The Church needs to wake up to its responsibility. We have to deny ourselves and take up our cross. It's a life of self denial. And I'm not the best servant of the Lord Jesus, far from it, but at the end of the day I do know this: That once we actually put our hands to the plough, keep our eyes on him and plough that straight furrow, amazing, amazing, I'll say it again, amazing things happen.