Eden is coming to Winson Green, Birmingham – famously the location of Channel 4’s controversial Benefits Street. Bringing 25 years of experience in tough urban communities are Ash and Anji Barker. We met up with them shortly after they moved in to their new home…
Halfway down a long street of identical terrace houses, a door stands wide open. It is a hot summer’s day and people are out and about. The street is vibrant with colour, and echoes with the unfamiliar sounds of different languages. Mums with pushchairs weave between the wheelie-bins. The occasional passer-by ducks into the doorway to say ‘hi’.
Inside, Ash and Anji Barker are telling stories of the people they’ve met since moving in, just two weeks ago. Next door is the immigrant family whose loud Pentecostal worship came through the walls the night before. There’s one of the Romanian guys who helped clear rubble out of their cellar. Across the road is the ‘gangster dude’ who keeps tarantulas.
They may be relative newcomers to the Birmingham neighbourhood of Winson Green, but Ash and Anji are already characters in the drama that unfolds here day by day. And while the area may be deprived, overcrowded and vilified in the press, for Ash and Anji, it’s simply home.
Winson Green is the third gritty urban neighbourhood the Barker family have chosen to call home over the last 23 years. After responding to a challenge to ‘go anywhere for the cause of Christ’ at a Tony Campolo meeting, Ash and Anji began reaching out to young offenders in juvenile detention in their home city of Melbourne, Australia. Eager to do something to help young people before they ended up in custody, they began outreach projects in tough, inner-city neighbourhoods. But they soon realised that you can only get so far working from the outside in.
‘A lot of helping a community comes down to identifying the problems correctly,’ says Ash. ‘If you’re an outsider coming in, you don’t see things the way they really are. And if you identify the problems wrongly, your solutions aren’t going to be right either.’
So, inspired by a New Zealand couple who had moved their whole lives into a slum in Manila, Philippines, Ash and Anji chose to immerse themselves in the multicultural neighbourhood of Springvale in 1992. Ten years of working among migrants, refugees, drug users and dealers transformed the way they understood helping the poor – and sharing the gospel.
‘Live in the community – that’s the start. Then ask God every day to show you with new eyes what’s around you. It’s amazing where that takes you,’ says Ash.
During their time in Melbourne, they began Urban Neighbours Of Hope (UNOH), allowing others to join them in an incarnational mission ministry similar to Eden. As teams began to spread across the region, the Barkers chose to become downwardly mobile again: between 2002 and 2014 they raised their family among some of the world’s very poorest people in the slums of Klong Toey in Bangkok, Thailand. Stories from their 12 years there can be found in Ash’s book, Risky Compassion.
The Barkers have lived with the sights, sounds and smells of poverty for the sake of the gospel for over two decades. So it is not surprising that they should have sought to make their UK home in one of the nation’s least desirable postcodes.
Winson Green achieved notoriety last year as the location of the first series of the controversial Channel 4 documentary series Benefits Street. James Turner Street, a stone’s throw from Ash and Anji’s new home, was derided by the tabloids after the series depicted benefit fraud, shoplifting and drug use.
The TV series was grossly unfair, says Ash, but the poverty here is real: ‘Honestly, we were shocked. Coming from the slums of Bangkok, we were expecting to be making jokes about first world problems. But the reality is, this is an area which has a deeper level of need than we thought was possible in a country like the UK.
‘The streets around Winson Green were ground zero for urbanisation. This is the area where Matthew Boulton, business partner of James Watt, was raised and where their first steam engines were designed and built in the Industrial Revolution. But now the area is known for two things: a big prison and poverty.’
At the end of James Turner Street, is the Oasis Academy Foundry school where Anji works as a school chaplain and community hub leader. Her first few weeks in the job provided an eye-opening introduction to the area: ‘My orientation to the job was listening into the phone calls that were coming into the office,’ she says. ‘We are a 98% ethnic minority school, with 230 kids speaking 44 languages. It’s a very mobile population because of a high degree of Home Office housing.
‘The stories I heard were harrowing. One kid I heard about discovered his dad hanging from the ceiling and had only one counselling session because there was no funding for more. Another kid who was a child soldier in Somalia eight months ago is now struggling to get along in Year 6 of mainstream education, with no psychological support. Kids are getting permanently excluded from school in Year 7 and 8 but the pupil referral units are full so we can’t do anything with them. We come across kids aged 12, 13, 14 who are actually malnourished.
‘The issues are extreme, but all the services have been privatised out so there is a lack of coordinated support. And everything is being cut.
‘Social capital – the ability of people to work together and support each other – has been whittled away here,’ adds Ash. ‘I compare it to the amazing resilience of my Thai neighbours when they worked together. They couldn’t afford not to – they would have starved to death if they didn’t. Here there is still a sense that “the state should sort it out”, when of course it can’t.’
Behind Ash and Anji’s approach to ministry like Eden, a fundamental belief that poverty is not firstly about money, but relationships between people. They have seen first-hand how a gospel-transformed community can powerfully demonstrate the love of Christ. And crucially, this is not about only providing services, but involving those who are poor in creating better places to live.
‘What we’ve learned over years is that the kindest thing you can do for a poor and marginalised person is to let them help you,’ says Anji. ‘You come in as a learner, or a co-learner, experiencing the same things. And you give the poor a chance to give.
‘We call this ABCD – Asset-Based Community Development. Our assets are our people – their cultural diversity, their food, their experiences and their stories.
‘So we run a cooking group for mums and daughters and we concentrate on passing on skills at the same time as passing on our stories – what it’s like to live as a Bengali in the UK? We can do that really low-cost using our own pots and pans and stuff, or if we access a bit of funding, we can do it a bit more snazzy.’
Anji is something of a serial kingdom entrepreneur, spotting opportunities to build community and seizing them. When we met in July, she was researching the viability of a mobile petting zoo, giving community kids opportunities to care for alpacas and lizards: ‘You need something a little bit weird to attract rough teenagers, a bit edgy,’ she says.
They also have plans to quickly establish a new Eden team in Winson Green, having already gratefully received help from volunteers with neighbouring Midlands team, Eden Weoley Castle. ‘There are so many opportunities – but you’ve got to have workers who are willing to come,’ says Ash.
Ash is excited about the missional culture Eden is helping to grow in the UK and is keen to be an ambassador for the movement: ‘Part of the issue with areas like Winson Green is that the folks who could get out, have got out. That includes the church. The people who can get themselves together move out. But we need people to stay. It’s a courageous thing to do. To stay is the new go.’
‘Everything in our culture wants to look beyond the horizon. To choose to be rooted is so counter-cultural. If people have a reason, a mission to stay, if they feel placed by God there, they will sacrifice opportunities to go elsewhere. That’s the power of something like Eden.
‘That’s what we’ve done too – we’ve bought a house. And by that we’ve said, “This is where we want to be long term. This is where we will put our roots down.” We’re willing to say no to other things to say yes to what God’s doing here in Winson Green.
‘In the end you hope that there can be a tipping point. That if you’re not taking place seriously, it feels a bit awkward to be a Christian. If you’re really seriously about Jesus you’ll take seriously God, people and place. That would be a great day.’
That’s also the vision behind the Newbigin Centre, a training centre for urban missionaries which will be based in Winson Green in a refurbished manse. They are calling Christians to join them to be ‘incubated into mission’ for urban communities in the UK and elsewhere:
‘We’re looking for people who are in a learning posture.They’re looking to grow and try new things with support. To get their foundations right so that they can be replanted somewhere else, which means theory but also good habits and disciplines, a rhythm of life. Two or three years here with us, they could almost go anywhere in the world and be ready.’
The Centre is named for famous missiologist Lesslie Newbigin who made Winson Green his home after returning from missionary life in India. Newbigin wrote two of his most influential books, Foolishness to the Greeks and The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, while living and pastoring a church here.
‘It’s a complete coincidence, but a nice one, that we should have moved here. A lot of Lesslie’s stuff is about coming back from the majority world and realising that people in the West have lost their confidence in Jesus because they are just overwhelmed by the secular and other religions. But the gospel is public truth. If Jesus rose from the dead, then that changes everything.
‘If we can be a part of giving people confidence to do mission well, for the long-haul, that’s a good thing.’
Right now Eden is looking to mobilise hundreds of workers to the nation’s poorest neighbourhoods. Click here to find out our priority recruitment areas.
Ash is eager to play a role in calling and developing leaders for Eden teams around the country, and contributing his own experience in raising leaders from within urban communities themselves.
‘With Eden we really feel we have found soul mates. We love this movement – and this nation needs this movement. We are so excited about what Eden is doing and we want to help mobilise as many people for urban mission and help to train them up however we can.’
Find out more about the plans for the Newbegin Centre at newbigincentre.org
Ash also teaches a new MA programme in Urban Mission at ForMission College. More at formission.org.uk
Ash will also host The New Parish Conference from October 2-3 in Birmingham, featuring keynote speakers Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Jean Vanier. More at formission.org.uk/newparish