The UK Government’s drive to deal with loneliness and isolation comes at a time when there is increased pressure on local services, particularly those that cater for the most vulnerable and isolated. There are many factors which can induce feelings of fear and isolation, among them threats to our identity and sense of belonging. In the run up to Brexit some members of our communities have certainly felt less welcome than others. It does look as though government policy is on the one hand contributing to isolation and on the other attempting to deal with it. Balanced if nothing else.
To be fair there are many reasons for loneliness and isolation. At particular stages of life feelings of loneliness and isolation can be a particular problem – people displaced from their home, those going through the asylum process, single parents struggling to look after young children, those facing disability issues, the bereaved, the unemployed and the retired to name but a few.
Loneliness can affect anyone including young people and the solution is not necessarily to provide expensive specialist services but in the first place creating spaces for people to feel safe and grow supportive relationships – something the church is really, really good at. Simply sitting down with someone and having a cup of tea or a cake is a great place to start.
Over the last year Wellsprings Together, a joint venture between the Anglican Diocese of Leeds and the Church Urban Fund has been piloting a scheme in Bradford called Places of Welcome. The Places of Welcome network is a national initiative which draws together churches, community organisations and other faith groups to develop safe spaces for people to belong and relate well to one another. The Places of Welcome Network works closely with local authorities to identify areas of greatest need and to make the best use of available resources.
Typically a Place of Welcome will be a volunteer led drop-in which provides an opportunity to meet other people, have some free food or refreshments and a chat. Churches and other community groups have been doing this kind of thing for generations but this new network will provide support for those running Places of Welcome or wanting to open new ones. Working in partnership with local authorities and service providers Places of Welcome can also be places of provision as well as hospitality.
Reducing loneliness and isolation makes good economic sense. With one in four people experiencing poor mental health interventions like Places of Welcome can help take pressure off the National Health Service. Raising people’s levels of confidence and wellbeing through Places of Welcome can lead to much wider benefits.
As well as Places of Welcome, Wellsprings Together also supports school holiday clubs which help get parents and their children out of the home and engaged with their local community. One mother I spoke to said her sanity had been restored when she was able to meet other local people at the holiday club. She said her hyperactive son had learned to cook and was now feeding the family healthy food, “it was the first time he’d ever eaten courgettes” she said.
At a church in Bradford a visitor called John told me he’d recently retired and felt that his world had collapsed in on itself. After getting involved with a Place of Welcome he is now an active member of the church helping other people to feel valued and supported. There are countless stories like these including those of young mothers looking for support, frightened refugees, people dealing with a marriage breakdown, the recently bereaved and many more.
Places of Welcome and other projects which bring different parts of the community together will be part of the new five year strategy for the Diocese of Leeds which aims to see confident Christians, growing churches and transforming communities.
Importantly churches in the Anglican Diocese of Leeds are resources for the whole community and not just for Christians and the vision is for all people to live as God intended free from poverty, fear and injustice.
Mark Waddington is the Social Engagement Officer at the Anglican Diocese of Leeds. If you would like to know more about the Places of Welcome Network please email firstname.lastname@example.org or Emily Tidball the Places of Welcome coordinator email@example.com
You can also visit www.placesofwelcome.org.uk