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Offices Into Homes – Building a theology of reconciliation

By David Mowat

This is a theological reflection on intertwined stories: an Anglican church icon called a ‘reconciliation reredos’ created for an act of historic healing, a practice of healing through dialogue called a ‘reconciliation laboratory’ and a campaign to solve the housing crisis that came out of the dialogue called ‘AEOB’. Most of the focus is on AEOB, a campaign with a practical method. Along the way is a personal story of a spiritual journey that has included Methodist, Anglican and Quaker approaches.

Why reconciliation?

Reconciliation is not an aspect of Christianity that has resonated with me naturally. I’m much more prone in my life to have believed in God’s ‘bias to the poor’ and was suspicious of ‘reconciliation’ a concept that seemed to me to be about sitting on the fence. To hell with the rich I often thought (guiltily, having had a privileged up-bringing). I worked through these ideas, and my guilt, at the Urban Theology Unit in the early 1980s under the tutelage of Rev Dr John Vincent (one-time President of Methodist Conference). He has since the 1960s kept up core Methodist traditions: anger at social injustice and grass roots-level organisation for social change. He has been a strong influence in my life.

The fate of Dives (Lk 16 v 19-31), tormented for ever in hell because he ignored the Jewish injunction to love neighbour (Lazarus) as himself suggests (I like to think) Jesus may have felt this anger too. The idea of ‘reconciliation’ sticks in my gullet, even now, when I think I see the point of it more clearly. Perhaps I’m writing (does not every act of writing attempt this?) to try and understand what it is and why it matters.

For one thing when Canon Tim Higgins -Franciscan and recent rector of Saint Stephen’s Anglican Church in Bristol- and I sat in the church garden in the late summer of 2010 and talked about what I called a ‘dialogue café’ and he called a ‘reconciliation laboratory’ I felt it was no bad thing to be swayed by the promise of collaborative work, rather than carrying on solo as I was used to.

Secondly, I had felt for a while the inadequacy of one-sided advocacy, be it from a solidarity organisation like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign premised on the unfairness meted out to a nation, the Palestinians, or even the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme of the World Council of Churches premised on a higher principle of human rights for all. I have served on that programme in Bethlehem. I know the power and the limitation of that ‘accompanier’ identity. I was often struck by the gulf between me and others who happen to be on the other side.

For example once I was simply standing with my EAPPI jacket and note book by a check point whilst a young Israeli woman, doing her military service, was barking at Palestinians and checking their papers through a kiosk intercom. A pretty mundane non-confrontational scene in the scheme of things. When the queue had shifted she asked me with a pained expression “Why are you hurting us?”

Such advocacy (for an end to Occupation in the case of EAPPI) is necessary but it is not sufficient. How could the Israeli soldier and I, and better still the Palestinian caught in the turnstile really hear each other in a way that leads to action and builds to an alternative world? What greater field of knowing is there that sees all and holds all together compassionately? Perhaps the word ‘reconciliation’ expresses this.

After my speaking tour for EAPPI ended in 2009 I wanted to be involved in riskier dialogue than clear advocacy positions allowed, where certainty was suspended and hearts are allowed the space to feel, blindly, as they must. To help Tim by being the facilitator of reconciliation laboratories, what we came to call ‘Rec Labs,’ felt promising, not that I knew what they were.
Tim’s foundation in reconciliation seemed much more assured than mine and so I went with his name for what I felt called to develop. And now I’m exploring this thing called ‘reconciliation’ a little more carefully, not in an abstract way, but through a housing story about what is actually happening and came out of a Rec Lab event.

It is only an artifice that says a story has a beginning and an end. There is actually just a continuous stream of interconnected experience. But intelligibility demands an artifice and I chose to begin with a story of converting an office an office into a community home. Then I take the story back a little in time.

‘Abolish Empty Office Buildings, House People’ (referred to henceforward as AEOB) is a campaign that has its origins in a ‘Reconciliation Laboratory’ in Saint Stephen’s, a city centre Anglican church in November 2012. You can read about the group and its community share offer on www.aeobhousepeople.org.uk. (Pic shows the AEOB steering group and office owner in Sept 2014 agreeing a purchase of the group’s first property for conversion to an affordable social housing community copy right Mark Simmons).

How does reconciliation work? I think it is through invitation to what sounds like an exciting event, and not through compulsion. It is through exploration of the unknown rather than the following of tested pathways and so it requires risk-taking and the ability to just be ‘all at sea’ (in ‘liminal space’ Tim Higgins calls it). At some point in the exploration it dawns on the person that what is being found feels more important than what is left behind. And ultimately it’s not down to us: something mysterious, call it Grace, call it the Holy Spirit, call it Creativity or whatever you want, is at work.

An invitation: Jesus called the rich man and hated collaborator Zachaeus down from the tree to be his host. (Lk 19 v1-10) Shocked to be snatched from the social margins to the very bosom of community, the giver of hospitality and not just the taker of taxes something in him shifted. He felt released to give half his ill-gotten gains to the poor and pay reparations to the over-taxed.

Two years ago individuals were drawn by a leaflet [below] to the city centre church of Saint Stephen’s. So far their unfolding story, led by the cry ‘Abolish Empty Office Buildings, House People!’ has touched about fifty five people who have released their wealth to purchase shares (about £240,000 to date). AEOB hope that this will release about twelve others from the poverty trap of low income-high rent as they become self-builders and residents of their first converted ex-office, in East Bristol.

Want to help make the city more equal? Whether you think you’re rich or poor, come to the Saint Stephen’s Reconciliation Laboratory and share your story. Out of these hearings we hope a ‘research’ group of rich and poor people, explore together into 2013 how honest face to face meeting leads to personal and city-wide change

“Today salvation has come to this house” says Jesus of Zachaeus. The fruit of a reconciliation is wholeness (‘salve’ can be translated as ‘be whole’) in the body of the community, divided by oppressive practices and hate.

If reconciliation is ‘the activity whereby the disorders of existence are healed, its imbalances redressed, its alienations bridged over’ (Macquarrie, John. Principles of Christian Theology SCM 1977 p 268) then what was true for Zachaeus applies equally to the work of AEOB.

Prophets of old and campaigners new castigate the rich who react by barricading themselves behind ideologies (like neoliberalism) and launch offensives which blame the poor (benefit scroungers, immigrants, yobby activists and so on). Jesus may have been an angry prophet too but was more often an enticer. To be enticed away from your money by a promise of something even more precious, is that not more effective than declaring war on the rich?1

AEOB have been sending out their invites and offering their shares this past year (and still require more investment to complete the renovation). Their story began in a circle of people meeting in the church café which is a soft foot-fall away from what could be considered a sacred space. Methodists and Quakers may wince at the superstitious notion of sacred space but it’s still strong in Anglicanism. The space lies in front of the ‘Reconciliation Reredos’, a relief frieze, the work of both a Victorian sculptor and of African-Caribbean British artist Graeme Mortimer Evelyn (and Buddhist incidentally) on the wall behind the altar (an angel and Saint Stephen the martyr in this section).

The reredos was re-modelled to celebrate the two hundred years since the abolition of the slave trade, at least a step, arguably, towards healing of the social fabric. The significance of the location is that Saint Stephen’s is the historic church by the harbour from which hundreds of slavers left for the triangular trade.

And just as AEOB want to recondition unused dead office buildings into living community, so the unloved and vandalised Victorian reredos2, hidden for years behind a curtain has been transformed into the main icon of Saint Stephen’s Church, fixing gazes towards a deeper understanding of the life and reconciling purpose of Jesus Christ.

Modern Bristol made its wealth through the slave trade horror, setting up unequal relationships in motion that continue to this day. To take one example, plantation owners compensated by the abolition of slavery twenty years on from the end of the trade were able to invest their money in newly developing industry in the city such as the Great Western Cotton Factory in Barton Hill. It paid a pittance to its workers and modelled its working day on the slave plantation system3.

Over the years the rich have stayed rich and the poor stayed poor, including, largely, the slaves’ descendants who came to Bristol as immigrants in the last century. Such structural inequality is exemplified, so the people talking and listening to each other two years ago began to see, in the line that divides house owners from house renters. That’s where AEOB started.

Central to the ‘Reconciliation Reredos’ is the curious carving of a lamb, standing tall as a stallion carrying a cross over its shoulder. The cross, an instrument of torture and symbol of the might of the Roman Empire collides with the victorious lamb, symbol of a tribe and their God in familial closeness, protected from a vengeful angel. In Jesus, a whole system of domination is subverted4. The way of ‘love your enemy’ triumphs over ‘might is right’. But reconciliation is more personal than that: the word means, in English as in the Greek, to ‘make friendly again after an estrangement’ (OED). So the way of Jesus (at least-leave aside the relationship between God and Her/His creation) allows the humanity of all, rich and poor, to be revealed and for friendship to grow.

We were a rum bunch gathering during those three blustery November night ‘laboratories’ two years ago, listening to each other and allowing something beautiful to incubate. A high-born Nigerian refugee turned cleaner and her student daughter attracted by the flyer handed to them on a pavement in Saint Paul’s district, a repentant bijou harbour-side property developer, an ex-traveller, a lonely land-lady dreaming of community and fed up with tenants taking her for a ride, an elderly woman who’d just inherited some money and an ‘involuntary millionaire’ (he told us) who’d made money through three property booms and had recently turned his Clifton mansion into a housing coop. The vision of AEOB came out of these and subsequent gatherings.

How can a vision incubate when differently empowered people gather around such a divisive issue? Drawing principally from the wisdom of silent Quaker meetings for worship and from Scott Peck5-inspired Community Building in Britain, Rec Labs form a circle inviting people to share their story. The emphasis is on listening, on speaking only when moved, on allowing discomfort and silence and mutual responsibility for the unexpected to emerge. It’s a trust-building and creative process and by and large it works. It incubated AEOB.

Away from the safety of the laboratory, does the telling of a powerful story, gentle invitation and deep listening still characterise AEOB and bring reconciliation?

Some people, drawn by the prospect of being a self-build housing coop may not recognise the description of AEOB as an experiment in ‘reconciling’ the rich and poor. Dialectical struggle not dialogue, the exposing of ‘class contradictions’, is a more common approach in activist circles. But in Christian terms, the rich but ‘unclean’tax collector Zachaeus becomes clean (or ‘saved’) through his act of repentance.

Is AEOB likewise an opportunity for restoration by the rich who feel guilty or defiled by their privileges? Arguably so.

Reconciliation is a revolutionary act. It shortens the distance between people mediated by systems, and so does away with the need for them.

AEOB is, so far, a growing friendly alliance between all kinds of people, citizen-brokers, investors, self-build tenants, supportive professionals amongst others (pic AEOB steering group examining architect Chris Askew’s first plan to convert Battens Road office into flats).

Looking speculatively ahead, were things like AEOB to become multiplied in large scale, bankers would be much diminished in their power and importance and would find again their true purpose, to be of temporary service in providing liquidity. So for instance it seems as if only about 8% of the project funding will come from a bank loan.

What is true for banks is true for all the other professionals we are dealing with, whose mystique diminishes by the day, whose power-over the project reduces as we become more experienced and assertive. We’re beginning to see how the energy that comes from cooperation flows so much more easily than that which comes from compulsion.

And likewise in the New Testament, the Salvation that comes from the life and example of Jesus brings into question the Temple system or the authority of the formally-educated Scribes and Pharisees, let alone the hollow power of Rome. It is no accident that, in its first flush of deep understanding, the early church ‘held all things in common’ and so abolished the divide between rich and poor.

Methodism has long understood what we in AEOB are discovering now. For example ‘several of the Rochdale Pioneers who formed the first Co-operative Wholesale Stores at Toad Lane in 1844 were members of the Rochdale Methodist Unitarian Movement’6.

I yearn for the ‘reconciliation laboratory’ to be a method used in all kinds of conflicts, between Israel and Palestine or between rich and poor to use two examples. We are just at the start of learning how to do this.

 – David Mowat Nov 14th 2014.

The writer is an advisor to Abolish Empty Office Buildings which is inviting people to buy shares from £50 to £100,000. Up to date news is on www.facebook.com/AEOBhousepeople and the share offer forms and business plan is on its website www.aeobhousepeople.org.uk. He also has a Diploma in Theology and Mission from the Urban Theology Unit and is currently seeking to develop a ‘reconciliation ministry’ at Saint Stephen’s Church Bristol where he also runs the music programme. www.saint-stephens.com. Contact him on bigbromo@yahoo.co.uk

Footnotes

  1. The same argument can be developed in the context of Israel and Palestine, but that might be confusing to bring in too many examples. It is only developed here in the context of the social divide between rich property owners with spare investment capital and poor people in insecure rented accommodation.
  2. I’m indebted to Rev Tim Higgins ‘Reconciliation Reredos’ article June 2013 for understanding its story and theology
  3. The writer researched the cotton factory some years before for another project. See also https://www.independent.co.uk/…/payouts-after-abolition-8508358.html
  4. The lamb was sacrificed and the blood smeared on the lintel so that the angel that killed all the first-born sons in Egypt ‘passed over’ (Ex 12:23). In the traditional doctrine of the atonement, Jesus is taken to be the Passover or paschal lamb. This interpretation of the Atonement is developed by Walter Wink as an effective spiritual and social transformation of ‘power as might’ e.g. in ‘The Powers That Be’ Doubleday 1998.
  5. Scott Peck ‘The Different Drum’ Arrow Books 1990
  6. From p 12 ANVIL Volume 14 No 11997 Nigel Scotland Methodism and the English Labour Movement 1800-1906

Act Together Spring edition 2015

What the Government is doing

Opinion Piece by Tony Crofts

Originally posted on althousing.blogspot.co.uk

All Government action on housing is directed at selling homes. Even the adjustment to planning regulations to allow conversion of derelict office blocks simply lets big developers convert them into flats to sell. This makes money for developers and for money-lenders, but does not solve the problem of lack of affordable homes. And it is expanding debt, creating more of the sub-prime mortgages that precipitated the last economic collapse and meant banks had to have a billion-pound bailout from the taxpayer. People taking the Government’s Help To Buy are mortgaging themselves to the limit of their income; and when interest rates go up, as they are bound to do, they will find themselves unable to cope, being repossessed and losing everything they have.

Britain’s total mortgage debt is now over £1.2 trillion – three-quarters of total GDP – and BORROWING TO BUY Is NOT reducing our national debt. The only way to tackle the housing crisis is for local communities to raise their own money to buy in empty sites and empty buildings, convert them and own them to keep them permanently affordable, says the Abandon Empty Office Buildings campaign. “We have already raised £150,000 in investments in our Community Share and this is a way for homes to be owned on behalf of the community, and keep banks, with their dangerous tricks, out of the equation,” says Tony Crofts, one of AEOB’s founders. “We need to go on building this fund to enable us to buy and rescue buildings that are capable of producing good, secure, long-term tenancies for families.”

“Stonesfield Community Trust, in Oxfordshire, has only had two rent rises in twenty years, and is now letting at below-council rents. It has paid all its debts and its still looking towards a £200,000 surplus to put into further social benefit for its village. This has proved it is possible for a voluntary non-profit organisation to make affordable rents wash their own face. We want to achieve the same for Bristol. We aim to work with Bristol Energy Co-op, which is aiming to make Bristol self-supporting for energy generation by spreading photo-voltaic panels over an increasing number of houses. Localising the economy is the answer to reducing the economic power of the big bullies.” Go to AEOBhousepeople.org.uk or Tel. 0117 9265931 to learn how to make an interest-bearing investment of £50 to £20,000 for Bristol’s future.

The opinions expressed are the individuals, and do not necessarily represent the view of the society. Material posted here does not constitute an official statement from the group.

Share your wealth for a while

Opinion piece by David Mowat

‘AEOB house people’ needs people now. Offer some of your savings to buy shares in order to buy land and buildings, to make a model social housing community in Bristol.

I’m in this project waist-deep.

Numbers on spread sheets make my eyes wobble. ‘Business’ feels uncomfortable; I earn less than £8,000 a year through my bits and bobs of freelancing. I can barely put up a shelf, let alone a house.

So why do I find this scary project exciting?

I used to feel guilty about having more than enough when others struggled. Over the years I learned how the so-called free market advantages those with assets in the bank or buildings whilst disadvantaging those with only their skills to sell.

My parents in mid-retirement sold a house in Kent to buy one in Somerset in 1990. The price difference meant they could give me a good deposit on a house in Bristol which I bought for £39,500 in 1992. 20 years later the low mortgage is paid off. The house is now worth on this ‘free market’ about £150,000.

Meanwhile a fellow parent-a qualified civil pilot- at my daughter’s nursery in East Bristol can only find work in call centres and retail outlets. He struggles to pay his rent. He would not get or be able to afford a mortgage.

This state of affairs is unjust. It’s been compounded by governments (begun under Thatcher and continued by the Tories in New Labour guise) who’ve transferred thousands of public assets, council houses, into private hands. So there’s a huge shortage of affordable housing. And it’s significantly helped increase the divide in Bristol between the Have’s, largely in the north and west of the city, and the Have Less largely in the inner city, east and south.

Meanwhile Mr guilty has, along with many of my class, become disillusioned with the banking system. I was pressurized into getting an endowment mortgage which brings a fraction of what was alluringly promised. What savings I have earn nothing in a system that crashed and lost its dynamism, its capacity to lend for the common good.

I had already taken a so-called ‘ethical’ endowment policy. This is the passive ethics of avoiding the quick-growth but dodgy armaments, tobacco and extractive companies. What could I, a prudent radical, actively be for? How can I turn guilt into useful geld?

What can I practically contribute to, to help make a more equitable world when governments have failed in their duty of care? Politics is often a game of safely blaming others.

What better and more direct a way might there be to use my savings constructively when banks have lost my confidence?

As a free-lance community worker I had been running reconciliation laboratories for a while at Saint Stephen’s church in Bristol when, last autumn, I asked if there were any rich or poor people at my Quaker Meeting willing to help find a way through the wealth divide in Bristol. “I’m a millionaire” piped up the chap sat next to me, “I’ll come to your meeting”.

Now in ‘Rec Labs’ we sit in a space my colleague Tim Higgins at Saint Stephen’s Church describes as liminal and sacred. Instead of debating or exchanging views we create an atmosphere of deep listening and honest telling of our stories. In one theme or another we’re exploring ways through conflicts which over years have become encrusted into the very fabric of the city. What emerges is often surprising.

AEOB was born in such a gathering last November. It wants to be a practical expression of reconciling this wealth-poor divide. It’s had various twists and turns. We’ve looked at the experience of the community-builders at the old South Bristol College site in Bedminster, heard from squatters and learned from Stonesfield Community Trust www.stonesfieldcommunitytrust.org.uk.

People have come and gone and the vision is still being tweaked. Now, as we publish the community share offer we have on board Hari Beales, a young scientist from Brighton with experience in co-housing, Jim Kinnaird, a well-known housing activist and experienced cooperative housing member, Tony Crofts (the millionaire, in terms of property ownership), graduate architect Tom Eddington and myself.

This is only the beginning. We need more people to be on the steering group-especially an accountant or business person. We all have our own livings to earn and lives to lead. There are tensions, for instance between those of us who are more cautious and those mindful of fast-changing markets and the need for decisiveness.

It is hard to draw up a project which demonstrates a return for investors and a completion of loan repayments, yet is affordable to people on modest incomes. It is not absolutely certain your assets would be safe. Read the website and the small print. Ask questions. Judge for yourself.

We do not want to set the blueprint too narrowly. It is the future residents, the real builders of the community, who will help design the details alongside architect Chris Askew and become the real co-managers of this community. Mostly they will be people rich in skills and aspiration if poorer in financial assets. They may well be amongst the 14,000 Bristol people on the council housing waiting list who have little prospect of earning enough points to acquire what little social housing there is.

How they will select themselves or be chosen we have yet to work out. I know I don’t want to be a judge-that is part of the power divide. Experience tells me that those who start out together are not necessarily the ones who stay the course. It will not be an easy ride and the result will be a fair but not necessarily cheap rent. But for those, old and young, able-bodied and disabled, from whatever ethnic or cultural background, who long to be in community in a green housing complex, it will be a rewarding journey.

I think we have to find creative ways to be in community, in dense neighbourhoods. ‘We’re full up’ was the message of residents at a recent Neighbourhood Forum, presented with our ideas. But the crammed-up feelings of individuals jealous of their space might be different when embracing partial community living.

One exciting part of this journey is the prospect of taking part in a European-funded scheme which supports ‘adult learners’ which the team of future residents will be, to learn from other European projects (for instance in Latvia and Portugal) where groups of adults are engaged in community-led projects which pay a dividend of improving skills confidence and know-how.

Where will this model social housing community be? Maybe on a particular site we’ve seen on Whitehall Road East Bristol. Maybe somewhere else.

But first the money. Either way this story is an invitation to you to share your wealth for a while. If you’re like me, drop the guilt and reach for the geld. Make it work for reconciling rich and poor in Bristol and still receive it back for you, your children or grandchildren, some decades later.

The opinions expressed are the individuals, and do not necessarily represent the view of the society. Material posted here does not constitute an official statement from the group.

Newspaper article: Bristol Post

An article by our local newspaper, Bristol Post. Published in print and online here http://www.bristolpost.co.uk/Social-housing-plan-offices/story-19417539-detail/story.html

(Name correction: Hari Beales, not Bowles)

28th June 2013

Social housing plan for empty offices

EMPTY office blocks could be transformed into new social housing under a plan put forward by a group of campaigners.

Abolish Empty Office Blocks intends to launch a “community bond” to raise money for some of the 60 acres of unlet offices buildings in the city.

Members of the group hope their plan can help ease Bristol’s housing crisis by providing affordable, sustainable, community-owned housing which cannot be sold off.

The group’s three board members are looking for investment in the “common sense” project to revitalise derelict buildings and reduce the council housing waiting list.

Tony Crofts, founder of Stones- field Community Trust who also worked on the Manifesto for Bristol campaign, told the Bristol Post that the project could help thousands of people who are priced out of housing in the current market.

He said: “13,860 council houses have been sold off by Bristol under Right to Buy, transforming them from affordable homes into high-cost speculative investments.

“As a result, Bristol now has a housing waiting list of 14,750. These are not scroungers, they are people on ordinary working incomes who cannot afford to buy or rent homes in a greed-driven market.”

He said that by registering a co-operative Community Interest Company the group could launch a Community Share to raise money to buy empty land and unlet office buildings and convert them into affordable homes.

He said: “It is our long-term ambition to replace those council houses with new, energy-efficient affordable homes with permaculture gardens, owned on behalf of the community, that can’t be sold off.

“We hope people will invest in this project to set up a new Peabody-type trust and make Bristol a decent city that houses its people.

“This isn’t socialism, it is common sense. People with money need to think.”

The Abolish Empty Office Blocks project is run by an number of people who are Quakers in Bristol.

Mr Crofts said: “I must stress that it is not an initiative of Bristol Area Quaker meeting.” He added: “There is a history of Quaker individuals making initiatives to improve housing in Bristol.”

The Abolish Empty Office Blocks board includes Tony Crofts, Jim Kinnaird, founder Mina Road Housing Co-op, and Hari Beales, a permaculture and community expert. Chris Askew, an architect, is also working with the team to develop the project.

The opinions expressed are the individuals, and do not necessarily represent the view of the society. Material posted here does not constitute an official statement from the group.

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