As energy costs soar, churches in Gateshead are now ‘warm spaces’, welcoming in the community, writes Deacon Tracey Hume.

In the spring issue of the connexion (‘Doing Justice’) I described the work of the Gateshead Poverty Truth Commission (PTC). People living with poverty are being heard and real change is taking place.

tracey-humeNow I can share a recent experience of working together to respond to the cost of living crisis. In early summer, Alison Dunn, Chief Executive of Citizens Advice Gateshead, approached the PTC about setting up ‘warm spaces’.

These are public buildings such as libraries, community centres and churches that open their doors so people have somewhere warm to go in the daytime. Alison said they were considering establishing these across the borough to respond to anticipated need this winter due to energy bill hikes.

Alison was one of our civic commissioners on the PTC. She wanted to run the idea of warm spaces by the community commissioners (people with lived experience of poverty who help shape the work of the PTC) and get their input. They gave valuable insights into what they felt the warm spaces should look and feel like and some of the underlying values that needed to be present. Gateshead Council produced a Warm Spaces Charter that each warm space signs up to and there is mandatory training that includes a contribution from one of our community commissioners.

We were very keen the scheme should not be a couple of people in an office designing something for people in poverty, but it should be designed with them.

Together we’re stronger

About a fifth of the 52 warm spaces across Gateshead are churches. I asked Alison why it was important to involve the PTC and faith organisations in the scheme.

Alison said: “It would be easy for me to sit in my ivory tower deciding my next good idea, but what do I know? Nothing. When I work with the Poverty Truth Commission I know I am working with people with real experience of the issues I’m trying to tackle.

They know what it feels like to need a warm space, what would encourage them to walk across the threshold, and, importantly, what would stop them going. It brings realism to the project, it puts local people at its heart and it helps us to get it right first time.

And of course Gateshead has a long history of working with the faith community; relationships are strong and there’s great enthusiasm for collaboration and mutual support. As we started to develop this idea, talking to our faith partners was an obvious choice.

It provides us with community reach, great buildings and committed volunteers right where we want to be.”

A warm space for all

The Revd Matt Sheard is a minister in the Bede Circuit in Gateshead. He explains why his church wanted to become a warm space. “After hearing about the Warm Space scheme, God moved among a few of our church people. In their hearts they felt the need to increase what we were doing to help those who live in Kibblesworth.

It is a former mining village in the North East of England and surrounding the church we have hidden poverty. The local school responds to the needs of low-income families in their care and we got to hear of people who had previously been financially stable and in employment who were now struggling to pay their bills due to the cost of living crisis.

“As the Spirit of God moved among us, we felt moved to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up and support those who are struggling, and to ask God to set the captives free. In Kibblesworth our church will provide a warm space, food, a listening ear and a charging station for phones and technology. It will be a place of love and welcome and our arms will be held open wide for all. It could be said our response is simplistic and yet what we have heard is that it will make such a big difference.

“When the Spirit invites us to participate in the work of God, it is an immense privilege, but it can also be scary. We cannot however let our fears get in the way of that invitation. As we see levels of poverty rise and inequality in our country increase, the Church needs to respond and reach out in love. It is the spirit of God that calls us on and equips us to share the love of God and be the good news of Jesus.”