Theos is a Christian think tank which believes you can’t understand the modern world without understanding religion and seeks to inform the debate about the place of religion in society, challenging ill-informed thinking through research, events and media comment.
In May 2017, Theos published Doing Good Better: The Case for Faith-based Social Innovation, a report which examines how faith organisations are responding to social need in innovative ways, and asks what can be learnt from them. Paul Bickley, argues that religious institutions and faith communities, who already have a strong track record in helping those in need should consider how social innovation can help them achieve greater impact in response to a range of social problems.
Sanctus St Marks is one of several examples of faith-based social innovation case studies and the report explores asks what can be learnt from them. It argues that innovation depends on having the right kind of ‘engines’ – institutions which prioritise and incubate innovation, ‘fuel’ – funding which will scale and support innovation, and ‘drivers’ – social entrepreneurs that can lead innovation.
When Rev Sally Smith became the Vicar of St Mark’s Shelton in Stoke-on-Trent in 2013, one of its existing activities was a craft group for refugee women. After a while, men began to turn up too. The craft group eventually closed but the doors remained open, and a growing number of people would attend drop in sessions. Initially, reported Smith, it was a matter of opening the door and putting the kettle on.
Stoke-on-Trent is a Home Office dispersal area, and the drop-in sessions in churches in Shelton and Longton quickly grew. They are now attended by hundreds of people per week with a variety of needs. Sanctus St Mark’s formally incorporated as a Community Interest Company in 2014.
Practically, the project provides a foodbank, clothing, toiletries and household goods, English language and literacy support, and informal advice – and emotional support – during the asylum application process. They have also persuaded church members to buy houses in the area, which are used to accommodate asylum seekers who have no recourse to public funds.
The drop-ins also act as ‘hubs’ where asylum seekers can access support from other parties, such as a dedicated asylum and refugee health support team from Stoke on Trent PCT, or advice from the Citizens’ Advice Bureau. Smith experienced opposition from members of her church, who didn’t think that the church should be so focused on helping refugees and asylum seekers. Many left.
The life of the church, including its Sunday services, is now marked by the presence of a diverse, multi-racial and multi-ethnic community. what’s the social innovation? What sets Sanctus St Mark’s apart from the many other projects that provide support for asylum seekers and refugees? It’s an impressive project, but is it social innovation?
First, Sally Smith is a religious ‘intrapreneur’ who has taken the limited resources available to a dwindling congregation, and refocused them on an outward mission, sadly to the frustration of some of her early congregants. Second, the project incorporates aspects of enterprise, not least in persuading people to invest significant amounts of money in housing in the local area. Third, there’s an insight – namely that ‘the problem’ isn’t just one of material lack, but of isolation. Sanctus St Mark’s provides various important services – but it is a community