Time for the church to connect the dots when tackling community isolation

18 AUG 2020
Patrick Regan
Patrick Regan
CEO and co-founder of Kintsugi Hope and author of five books

"People need an entire lifestyle change; to build real, supportive relationships with people willing to go the distance and be there for them throughout the journey, and this is where the amazing opportunity to connect the dots for the Church is, right here in the middle of the storm of life many are facing in our country right now and in the future. "

Patrick Regan is CEO and co-founder of Kintsugi Hope – a charity striving to make a difference to people’s mental health, including through the Allchurches Trust-funded expansion of its wellbeing groups, which are run in partnership with churches. In this blog, Patrick Regan talks about how churches can make a big difference in tackling community isolation in a post Covid-19 lockdown world; by asking the right questions, listening carefully and making connections with others striving to improve mental health and wellbeing in their area.  

Churches across the UK are rightly recognising that loneliness, isolation and mental health challenges are the priority issues that their cities and communities are facing right now and in the near future, with the recent Hope Beyond research from Allchurches Trust highlighting these social issues as being front of mind in the Christian response to Covid-19. 

These three key issues – all interlinked – present a unique opportunity for the Church, which is at its best when on the frontline of caring for the vulnerable and isolated. So it’s encouraging to see within the new research, that many churches are already planning and ready to respond to evolving community need with an increasing number of online services, support and social action initiatives aimed at tackling these major issues. But before leaping into action, it’s essential we do two things first - ask the right questions and connect the dots. 

Why is this important? Because the statistics are alarming. There has been a 250% increase in referrals to social services and a significant increase in the severity of mental illness cases being referred for the first time, according to The Royal College of Psychiatrists. Refuge, a domestic violence charity, has had a 700% increase in website traffic! This should be a huge wake-up call to all of us. 

For too long we’ve had this approach when putting on events in churches of, “come to this venue, sit down and listen to us talk about this subject”, and there is a place for that. But there are fewer examples of us simply saying to anyone of any income bracket, race, age or gender, “we’re here to listen, we’re here to journey alongside you, we’re here to share our stories together, to share about our faith, how we cope, support each other and can we pray for you?” We don’t always listen very well; we usually just jump with a pre-conceived idea about the answers.  
So, as churches or church leaders, we could just ask the obvious question following COVID-19 of "when and how do we get back into our buildings and meet together in person?”. Or could we begin by asking, “how do we best care for our communities, including the people in our church?” Of course, if the church building plays a part in answering the latter question, then that should rightly be a focus. 
But we should also ask how we help people cope with ongoing uncertainty. COVID-19 is going to be a part of life for a long time, and for the next 18 months to two years at least, we can expect some restrictions and practical challenges to remain. So how do we, as the church, help people to cope with the anxiety and loneliness that this has already caused and will continue to produce, while helping them to grieve these changes and walk through disappointment and loss to find hope and peace? 
This is the perfect time to examine our theology behind issues like mental health, which has changed over the past few years, but not enough. For too long, we’ve made people feel guilty for struggling with anxiety or depression, telling them they are the result of hidden sin in their lives. What people need right now is empathy and a non-judgmental listening stance. Jesus had this amazing ability to make people feel safe and not judged, whether it was a tax collector, a prostitute or a Roman soldier. People start the healing process the moment they feel heard, so, as the Church, we need to be available to just listen when our whole nation is crying out for care and support.
Another question to ask is how we can work better together as the Church in its wider sense in the UK, but also within the broader societal structures that include charities and community, and social and health organisations? How do we avoid going back into our silos and getting on with only our own agendas? 
The other key thing is for the Church to realise what an important role it has to play in addressing these mental health and social issues. If someone has cancer, the medical professionals will rightly provide the chemotherapy, radiotherapy and medication that may be needed. But a cancer journey also requires community support, love, compassion and friendship, and that’s where the Church can step in. 
And it’s the same with mental health. We can’t do what medical professionals are doing and we shouldn’t try to. But we can create a space where people can be vulnerable and process the extreme situations they’re facing. Doctors are saying to me that five minutes with them and some tablets can provide a level of help, but it’s not going to solve the whole issue. An hour’s counselling won’t be the solution either. 
People need an entire lifestyle change; to build real, supportive relationships with people willing to go the distance and be there for them throughout the journey, and this is where the amazing opportunity to connect the dots for the Church is, right here in the middle of the storm of life many are facing in our country right now and in the future. 
I recently met with the Centre for Social Justice to look at how we, as the Church, can serve the nation better at this time through “social prescribing” as part of a holistic approach to helping people. Being given a ‘prescription’ to join a choir, a gardening club or a Kintsugi Hope Wellbeing Group run by their local church could be the start of a journey to improved wellbeing.
Our culture is in turmoil at the moment as the world grapples with massive and important struggles such as poverty, racism and hate speech to name just a few. We’ve got to connect the dots here too and establish what sort of culture we want to move into being, challenging the status quo of our attitudes and values as the Church to make sure they’re centred on the truth of who Jesus was and is.
As the Church, we are not the answer to the issues our communities face, but we are and can be a big part of it. Historically, the Church was embedded in the welfare of people’s holistic life, including emotional, physical and spiritual aspects, and it’s time that was true again in a positive, life changing way for more than just a handful of churches. At Kintsugi Hope, we’ve signed up a different church every day since lockdown, with groups being set up all over the UK that will be a listening ear, and provide encouragement and support for those struggling with mental health issues. There are hundreds of leaders now in training. I just pray that God starts something really special in the Church, for such a time as this, and that we take hold of this opportunity to care and love others with both hands - just like Jesus did. 

More about Patrick Regan: Patrick Regan is CEO and co-founder of Kintsugi Hope, which came about following a series of personal trials and ill health affecting Patrick and his family. Prior to that, Patrick led urban youth charity, XLP which he ran for 21 years. He has travelled to over 30 countries working with and on behalf of the poorest communities and is a regular contributor on radio and TV on issues of poverty and justice. 
He received the Mayor of London Peace Award in 2010 for his valuable contribution towards peace and justice and was also awarded an OBE from her Majesty the Queen for services to young people.  He is the author of five books. In this latest book, “Honesty Over Silence”, Patrick opens his heart on very personal issues, while exploring the importance of holding onto our faith and God in challenging times.
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