‘We get 30 or so on a Sunday, but back in the 70’s it would have been 300.’ Carl [not his real name] is telling me about the local working men’s club he has attended for decades just down the road from where we sit at a coffee morning in the church building where my wife Jenni and I have spent the last few months on our summer placement as part of our training to be Salvation Army officers. He has lived in the same house in West Leicester for 70 years and was an engineer and cleaner for most of his working life. He reflects that Leicester has a proud history of industry, particularly in shoe-making and hosiery, but like much of British industry, it declined in the decades after WWII.
With the decline of industry came the decline of institutions like unions and working men’s clubs like those Carl belongs to, and no matter what you think of the politics, opportunities for people to meet in communities arguably diminished. David Barclay from the Centre for Theology and Community suggests (in p.19 of this report) that ‘This erosion of membership from traditional public institutions has been compounded by a growing culture and language of consumerism which has now seeped into political discourse to such an extent that notions of citizenship are often limited to understandings of ‘choice’ rather than any more active forms of participation.’
The film ‘Brassed Off’ (a favourite of many Salvationists I have met) which follows the fortunes of a northern mining town through the closing of its pit depicts this process through the simultaneous decline of the pit brass band. Again, leaving aside arguments around the economic viability of mining, the despair seen in the film is primarily due to the loss of a community way of life even more than the loss of each individual job. Communities are often only as strong as the institutions within them; the places where people gather, meet their neighbours and ask how their day has been.
Because strong institutions are important for building community they are also essential for standing for justice. If the community does not have institutions in which to gather, they can never know how much of their life experience is shared. Where experiences of injustice are shared, the number of people that can attest to a shared injustice creates a collective voice of power to do something about it. This is why ‘Marching to Justice’ has such a strong emphasis on the importance of institutions. Be it listening to established institutions when arriving in an area (p.35), building a powerful movement for change (p.31-32), or publicly joining together in action (p.44), it is clear that in order to stand for justice, you win ‘nothing alone’.
Despite the decline in institutional participation, there are still numerous institutions within cities like Leicester: schools, churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, shops and other businesses. Just within our CofE parish there are four churches, two secondary schools and two primary schools, a vibrant pub and a number of other local businesses. Members of the local Methodist church, in partnership with others in the community, have established a befriending group a few months ago which attracts dozens every Tuesday and is already becoming a crucial place for people to meet and share life experiences.
Dan Tomlinson wrote insightfully a few weeks ago about the power of different people coming together for the common good; without institutions encouraging their members to get involved (and vice versa), this is unlikely to happen. Working with others in community organising does not mean that we pretend we and our institutions do not have differences – it means we establish what the common good is and work together in pursuit of these aims.
What is the take-away point of this blog? If you are a concerned citizen, explore what the local institutions are in your area. Can you encourage or get involved in any of them? If you are a Christian citizen (and especially for the sake of this blog, a Salvationist) explore how connected your church is with other local institutions. If it is not, it might be worth simply going into a few to introduce yourself and start to build relationships. If building public relationships was key to early Salvation Army justice seeking (Marching to Justice, p.6), then it should be the same today.
Sam Tomlin is a cadet (trainee officer) in the Salvation Army. He is married to Jenni and together they are coming to the end of their summer placement in Leicester and are about to start the second year of their training at the Salvation Army training college in London. Twitter: @samjtomlin