Sunday 27 May 2012

Occupying the Westfield site!

I was very impressed by the news of the occupation of the Westfield site yesterday and have enjoyed spending some time down at the camp over the Sunday. Essentially, after 10 years of delaying tactics by the Australian development company, Bradford people are saying 'enough is  enough'.

Westfield have got to commit themselves to this project. They have creamed off the big London sites, and have happily made a killing over the Olympics shopping mall, but now they have to support the North. Bradford is a great investment at the moment, especially as the new pool is packing people into the city centre for the first time in decades.

The occupier's have demanded meetings with those in the council responsible for the development, and want a statement from Westfield about when they intend to start work.

The occupy movement in West Yorkshire has really inspired activists in the area. After the city centre occupations in Bradford and Leeds, activists have taken the idea further and held very bold actions in places such as Menwith Hill. Now, people power is demanding action over jobs and development in Bradford's city centre, and the occupation of Westfield is a powerful step forward for the movement.

We will watch with interest to see how the authorities respond - in the meantime, get down to the site and show some support!

Friday 18 May 2012

The power of stories of sanctuary

I had one of the most beautiful moments in my life yesterday, and I wanted to quickly share it. I was invited to a local secondary school, where a group of students were performing a play based on real life stories from people who had come to Bradford seeking sanctuary.

The play includes that of a man from the Congo that I had the privilege of meeting some years back, and whose story is told in my book 'A Just Church'.

The children were amazing, and clearly the learning of the script had been a powerful learning tool. They were enjoying the gifts of some great drama teachers, and singing music from the extraordinary John Froud (much loved by the kids!)

As they told the story, I could not help but cry - it brought back to me the night I met this particular sanctuary seeker, and my wife and I saw the scars on his back from the torture he had endured. I remembered his call to his wife, letting her know he was still alive (he had only just arrived having escaped from a prison) I remember his night spent in prayer.

Thank God for this project, going into schools and helping young people understand the journeys of those seeking sanctuary. Well done to BEACON and the Zephaniah Trust. Thank you to the young people who are retelling these stories. Thank you for making me cry, and reminding me of the importance of 'sanctuary'.

Monday 14 May 2012

Blessing the Methodists!

It was my immense privilege to address the Convocation of the Methodist Diaconal Order last week - and many requested to hear the version of the 'beatitudes' that I used. It was written to remind us of how awful the world looks like, if we don't use the radical agenda of the original Beatitudes (Matthew chapter 5) in our mission and discipleship:

Blessed are the rich and over confident, for theirs is the world as it is today

Blessed are those who cause others to mourn, for arms dealers always live in comfort

Blessed are the strong and arrogant, for they shall dominate our institutions and inherit tax free savings.

Blessed are those who do not stand up to the oppressors, for theirs will be a nice quiet life

Blessed are those who show no mercy, for they will never have to say sorry for anything

Blessed are the hard of heart, for they have no need of God

Blessed are the warmongers, for they will be wined and dined in our National Galleries

Blessed are those that persecute others, for they will gain political power

Blessed are you when people speak highly of you, for you will have great dinner parties in Downing Street, in the same way that media moguls, billionaires and the powerful have always been celebrated.

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Moving on from the wonderful city of Bradford!

Some of you will be aware that last Tuesday I accepted a job offer as the Chaplain to the University of Sunderland,and Associate Minister for Sunderland Minster. After seven years of work at SoulSpace and JustSpace, I had felt it was time to move on, and put some of the skills you have taught me to good use in another gritty, down to earth Northern city!

SoulSpace and JustSpace have been simply the most amazing spiritual and community experiences one could ever hope to experience in ministry. It has been a privilege to have been a part of it for all these years and I look forward to seeing it develop in the coming years.

There is great news that the post in Bradford will definitely be replaced with another Chaplain to the Uni/City centre - and I'm certain that because of the reputation we have built up, this will attract someone with all the qualities SoulSpace expects, an inclusive and progressive priest who will move things forward alongside those who are already involved.

Last night we saw the swearing in of two great new Church wardens, Clive Barret and Helen Appleyard who will work alongside Bishop Nick and Archdeacon in the appointment of a new person. We say goodbye to the wonderful Nina and Anna as churchwardens, what a good job they have done over the years keeping me in check!

I have been in love with the city of Bradford for 23 years, and it will always be my 'hometown' - the place my faith and ministry grew, the place I met Catriona and saw both Angela and Clara come into the world. For all the love and care you have shown me and my family, I am grateful to all of you. Watching many of you grow in spiritual maturity has been a great joy, and watching hundreds of you put your faith into action has made any hardships worthwhile.

I am grateful for all your support and prayers over the last few months as I have been working out what God might be asking of me in the future. I ask that you continue to support us in prayer as we prepare to move on to this exciting and challenging new post (Leaving Bradford in August) - and do make plans to come and visit us in Sunny Sunderland (we will be near a beach!) 

Support each other - show solidarity by supporting SoulSpace and Desmond Tutu House, so they remain a beacon of Christ's liberating love for all.

We have a few month's before we leave, so watch out for farewell services and goodbye walks and parties. I would love people to make up A4 sheets that we can collect into a scrapbook, full of stories of how we met, stories of things we've done, big and small, photos etc - that would mean a lot to us as a family!

If you can make it to our last Christian Aid week 'Beer and Hymns' this Tuesday at the Beehive pub 8pm - that would be a great start!

May the God of justice and peace be always with you!


Rev Chris Howson
Desmond Tutu House
2 Ashgrove

Monday 7 May 2012

The French Go Dutch!

Now Hollande is running France, my European geography is really messed up. But seriously, I am watching this with huge interest because what happens next across the channel could potentially give hope to millions of working people across Europe.

The right wing, neo-liberal has dominated the economic and political agenda for decades. The banking collapse in 2008 has allowed the elites (who caused the mess by combining greed with policies of deregulation) to use the techniques outlined in Naomi Klein's 'The Shock Doctrine' to decimate the public sector for the enrichment of the corporate world.

The misery caused by the austerity agenda cannot be simply brushed aside by the capitalists as a 'necessary evil'. The damage to people lives is clear even to the wealthy. Mass unemployment, especially with the young, and financial uncertainty affecting almost everyone except those on extremly high incomes.

When given an opportunity, the people will punish these oligarchs at the polls. Sadly in the UK, we mostly face a choice of different shades of the austeriy agenda, from Labour to the Tories. In France, given an anti-cuts, pro-growth candidate, it was clear what the choice of the electorate would be.

However, the real test is to come. Germany has already stated that Francois Hollande cannot renogotiate the European treaty on budget discipline. Angela Merkel will make it hard for the French to backtrack on Sarkosy's conservative deals. And now we will see the 'market' making Hollande suffer if he sticks to his election pledges.

If you have ever read Chris Mullen's excellent 'A Very British Coup' you will remember how the 'Market' (not the public, but the owners of the 170 companies that run 50% of the world's economy) punish a truly left wing fictional government. They cause huge financial pain to provoke a backlash against the socialists in power. It's hard to beat the corporate power brokers.

But I am praying for a miracle. We need an alternative to the cruelty of austerity budgets which destroy jobs, freeze wages (except for the rich of course) and cut back the sorts of public services the rich don't use anyway.

First France, hopefully Greece and then potentially the rest of Europe will throw off the corporate hackles and forge a new way forward. We need policies that support the needs of the majority of the population and are independent of the selfish needs of the Elites.

Vive la France! Liberte, egalite, fraternite!

Thursday 3 May 2012

Support the Treehouse Cafe!

It was almost inevitable, with rising costs and fuel bills, and a difficult financial past, the Treehouse Cafe has been asked by the Diocese of Bradford to find new premises. This is a great shame, and in July, we may well see the end of 18 years of soup and fairtrade cakes at 2 Ashgrove.
It was the first Fairtrade Cafe of its kind, launched at the same time as the Fairtrade mark - funded by Tearfund and Christian Aid. With the UK the first country to come up with the certificate, this makes it probably the first official certified Fairtrade Cafe in the world.

I hope it is not the end of the story. Desmond Tutu House could still be a home for a well stocked Fairtrade Shop (The Olive Branch) while actively promoting Fairtrade issues by continuing to be a home to 'Fairgrounds' (Nina Carter Brown's social enterprise that sells and promotes Fairtrade).

The Treehouse Cafe may be able to find new premises, and this could allow it to flourish. Sadly though, I think it is unlikely to be able to find a home that is quite as affordable as Tutu House.

Is there any hope? Well, the new Bishop is a fan of Fairtrade, and was pleased to announce that the Diocese has just achieved Fairtrade Status - perhaps if enough people contact him to encourage him to retain it, and enough people are eating in the Cafe between now and July to help pay the bills - then who knows? The Cafe collective are working hard to refine a business plan that could provide hope, and there is finally an understanding that the Treehouse could work in partnership with others, including faith groups - vital for its funding prospects.

All I know is that the place is a remarkable achievement, build on the efforts of hundreds of incredible workers and volunteers over the years. It has provided a hub for ideas and hopes in the city, and will be sorely missed if it goes. Get down there as soon as you can, and show your support for those who have been working hard to sustain a new co-operative model for the Cafe.

Be kind to the Diocese, this cannot have been an easy decision for them, and they have subsidised the project in some way for nearly two decades. That does not mean however that people should be afraid to lobby them to retain such a vital facility.

There must be at the very least in Tutu House, support for a fairtrade hub, and a social space for great ideas to be debated and enacted. Let us hope and pray that this is not be the end, but merely a new beginning. It is hard for me to mask my own disappointment - I've watched this baby grow into adulthood and it is so very hard to see it potentially leave home at 18 to an uncertain future.

Let us do all we can to support the people involved and discover new ways of promoting Fairtrade, non-violence and ethical living for all.

Wednesday 2 May 2012

Why I'll be voting Respect in today's local elections

Its very simple. Local politics in Bradford has been extremely disappointing over the last decade or so. The Lib/Con alliance was disastrous, and I remember having to fight off the closure of important resources such as community centres and old people's homes. Then Labour got in, and with cuts backed by members of the Green Party, I had to fight against the closure of community centres and old peoples homes.

Even if some services inevitably had to go because of the national Tory austerity drives, the manner in which local authority leadership has been exercised has left a lot to be desired. Dismissive of community and especially of community activists is one way of putting it. Another would be 'contemptuous and arrogant'. The three main parties have continuously let down their constituents. Over the years they have been timid in standing up to big business - giving tens of millions of pounds of our money to people such as SERCO and many private sector 'consultants'.

I want a shake up. I want councillors who actually listen to local people. Whatever people think of George Galloway, he has allowed local activists to stand for the Respect Party, good people who have a track record of fighting for issues that affect Bradford folk.

Sarah Cartin, James Clayton, Ruquayah Collector and Mohammad Shabbir are personally know to me as wonderful human beings who care greatly for the city. These choices lead me to support all the Respect Candidates - as they have taken huge personal risks in standing. Some have even been threatened.

There are some outstanding people standing from other parties too - Ann Cryer for Labour in Ilkley, the impressive anti-cuts candidate Alex Newsham (Green) in Baildon and even the honest, straight talking John Pennington (Conservative!) in Bingley.

Often in local elections, the individual should come before the party - the only question should be; is this person a good, honest person who is able to do the job?  Respect have shown that they have carefully picked great candidates in key seats - Dawud Islam in Clayton and the inspiring Alyas Karmani, up against Ian Greenwood in Little Horton.

I wish Respect well, and I hope that progressive candidates of all parties will work with whoever is elected for the common good of this great city.

Now, get out to the polling stations today and make your vote count!

Tuesday 1 May 2012

May Day hopes....

I spent most of May Day (the proper May Day, 1st May - workers day!) doing what a good socialist should be doing. I was out supporting a candidate in the local elections, someone who is actually a socialist and a committed local activist.

I could only wish she was a member of the Labour party, but good socialists are becoming a rare breed within that particular organisation. She is the Respect Party candidate for Tong ward, and her name is Sarah Cartin. And she is amazing - the Labour Party should be desperate to attract local councillors of her calibre.

As I went round the Holme Wood estate, a place I know very well having served as a priest there for 3 years, in became obvious to me that people felt let down by their current councillors. Whether they have the collective insight to vote for a relatively new party such as Respect remains to be seen. I'm just glad that at least there is an alternative from the left, and not just from the right.

The people of Holme Wood are the most friendly, down to earth, remarkable folk I have ever had the privilege to work with. Honest working class heroes living with the legacy of joblessness and low income that has become the norm in pockets of the North since the Thatcher years. They continue to build community and solidarity despite the sometimes harsh realities of estate life.

They deserve a good local councillor who really cares about the issues they face. I hope that if Labour get in again, they will represent the people vigorously and fight for better conditions on the estate. But I know that if Respect candidate Sarah Cartin gets in, then she will fight for ordinary people automatically, with great skill and with every fibre in her being.

On May Day, at least I can be grateful that such socialists of charactor still exist to defend the working class people of Holme Wood and beyond.