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As a society we are increasingly concerned with scale and efficiency. Mega farms with herds of thousands of cattle replace small local dairy herds, a handful of large conglomerates own many of the brands on our shelves and thousands pack out auditoriums to attend mega churches.

But what does this mean for the way we love people? It can mean that we increasingly see our call to ‘do good’ as a duty held primarily by soup kitchens, global charities, big hostels and training centres, which we can volunteer with and give to; we share on-line campaigns and run marathons for development charities. We seek to love people effectively and efficiently.

This can be fantastic, life changing and engaging, but the mistake comes when we paint this capitalist altruism as the only way to engage with our communities. When we say, ‘You want to bring good news to the poor? to bind up the broken hearted? Then what you’ll need to do is set up a Just Giving page and run to Lands’ End. Leave the gritty stuff to the professionals’.

The culture of the professional do-gooder is dis-empowering to the individual.

I live in a community house. We got together because several years ago a few of us shared, at an open-mic night for dreams and visions, that we wanted to look a bit more like the early church. We share rooms and possessions. We share meals and morning prayers. We have an open door and invite people who need a bed to stay in our spare room. We aim to create a make-shift family for the poorly, run-down and homeless. Mostly just one at a time. Around our lives and jobs. As best we can.

It often doesn’t look like a success story. It looks inefficient, messy, costly and inconvenient. I spend around 30% of my waking time washing up. We raid supermarket bins for banquets. It took me three months to complete my tax return because visitors would knock on the door with more pressing needs. My bedroom door has a lock.

I work full-time in the prison system and help to run a community church group with some people who have left prison. Thanks to a wonderful array of residents the house also hosts a would-be-wasted food café, various political campaigns and multiple church projects.

In the last months I have also given a ukulele lesson to two homeless friends, conducted a funeral for a magpie we co-parented with a guest (who also came to live in the spare room) and twice I have been the object of police contact. Last week I cried my eyes out at the baptism of our current guest and this morning found the route to the washing machine blocked by an anonymous food donation.

We get it wrong more times than I can tell you. I’ve learnt more about my flaws this year than my strengths, but I have rarely found such life.  I’ve just had to scratch the surface to find that we are no pioneers. The Church’s history is full of stories of this beautiful messy small-scale socialism. People all around the world today are giving their lives over the gospel’s cause of love.

I’ve learnt that when we make our love-giving clean, efficient financially-focussed and large-scale we can easily miss the point, which is that we are called to be sacrificial and our care-giving is supposed to be risky. What people need, more often than not, cannot be provided wholesale. It’s being known, accepted and being believed in. It’s very small-scale socialism. It’s family.

Luckily, that’s what we, in the Church, have buckets of. f


Miriam Skinner lives in a work-in-progress community house in Durham, which she started with some friends four years ago.