Peter Stanford reports on an SVP initiative that aims to tackle unemployment in a practical and Christian way
IT WAS with the aim of living his Christianity more fully that French intellectual Frederick Ozanam founded the St Vincent de Paul Society in 1838. Members would work both in a practical way to relieve the suffering that Ozanam saw around him in newly industrialised nineteenth century Europe, and at the same time grow spiritually by the experience, through prayer with both other Vincentians and with those they were helping.
Otanam would, I suspect, be proud of the work currently being undertaken in the industrial town of Birkenhead, on the banks of the Mersey Estuary, by a small group of SVP workers.
Eager to develop on the traditional sick visiting model that much of SVP work had adopted, the Society decided in 1987 to put into action the concern many of its members, and indeed many Christians and others, had been expressing at the high level of unemployment in Britain, particularly amongst a hard core group of the long term out-of-work. Inspired in part by Pope John Paul II's words in neighbouring Liverpool in May 198 2 when he described unemployment as sowing "seeds of bitterness, division and even violence". thc SVP established the Advent Project, based in Birkenhead, working to help those with little hope of finding jobs.
And the scheme has so far set up 42 people in permanent work. Such has been its success that the initiative is now to spread to North Wales, to Manchester, and to the North East, all unemployment black spots that have remained stubbornly resistant to the general trend of declining joblessness. The Project has helped people like a 58-year-old printer in the Mersey town who was made redundant after a lifetime in the industry. His wife was working as a teacher and his children had grown up, so there was no financial pressure on him to find a job. But with no employment to go to each day his self-esteem plummeted, he became withdrawn and depressed. With the help of the Advent Project he has put his skills as a graphic artist to use and set himself up in business.
Another example is Paul Kelly and Mark Richards, two teenagers who had left school at 16, drifted through government organised YTS projects, and ended up without es en the prospect of a job. The hack-up of the Advent scheme allowed them to capitalise on the basic skills and enthusiasm they had in the field of electronics and set themselves up in business. At first they did simple things like installing burglar alarms. But now they are looking at contract work for a national company, and have found time to address some of' the electronic shortfalls in local churches.
What distinguishes such cases, and many others he can quote, Advent director Mike Kennedy feels, is that without the expertise he and his tiny team can provide these schemes would never have got off the ground. "We are not in the business of setting up training schemes, or even of creating short-term jobs, but rather of making permanent jobs. Obviously we cannot change the unemployment picture overnight, we can't do a Datsun. Those sort of initiatives have to go through local and national government. We are looking at small and selfemployed ideas, seeding one and two man businesses in the local community."
Birkenhead is a perfect example. Mike feels, of where the Government's many and varied initialises on creating employment simply fall down because they arc not geared to ordinary people. The town thrived in days gone by along vs HI its docks, its shipyard at C'ammell Laird, the soap works
at nearby Port Sunlight, and latterly the ear factories at Ellesmere Port. "But when the crunch came and such jobs went there was no tradition of entrepreneurship, no family tradition or support in setting up in business, no capital".
And for many ordinary people, the established channels for setting up a business were out of the question. "Although there was lots of advice about, people here had a natural distrust of authority. For them it meant the DHSS, the housing people, or the police and always hassle. And the jargon of the business counsellors and bank managers just went above their heads."
It is in spotting and nurturing skills that people have like mending cars or being handy
around the house and then giving them the appropriate advice and guidance through the mass of bureaucracy to set themselves up in business that is at the heart of the Advent Project's work.
Mike Kennedy, previously a successful director of a marketing company, is determined that the money the svP is putting in should be matched by local government and central money pound for pound, and is working to that end to promote this unique project.
But equally important he feels is that the Church and Catholics should take seriously the practical work of the Advent Project. This is Christian commitment in action. So far benefactors have raised £90,000
and the Church Urban Fund the organisation that followed from the Archbishop of Canterbury's Faith in the City report has stumped up £24,000. The Catholic Church institutional has been generous with its letters of support, but Mike Kennedy is still awaiting a more practical commitment. Indeed the name Advent A Diocesan Vincentian ENTerprise says exactly what the SVP were hoping for from the Church, and what they have so far failed very largely to get.
But the SVP hope that their venture of living Christianity will be judged by its results, by the 42 people in Birkenhead who now have hope for the future because they have employment. "What we have done should be talked about in the Catholic community. Its leaders should be saying we like the sound of this and then corning to us to find out more." Mike Kennedy says this not out of any lack of modesty he is in fact a direct but quite self-effacing man who has guided the Project through its initial years with the minimum of back-up. Rather he speaks with the confidence of one who has seen a crying need in society and who has reacted as a Christian in a practical and supportive way.
Unemployment which continues to plague Britain's cities and towns is a sin against human rights, and in taking up the challenge to do something about it Mike Kennedy and the SVP are answering, in their own small way, John Paul's own plea, again in Liverpool in 1982, that we do something about that large group of young people who "feel unable to find a job, feel cheated in their dreams", and "those who have lost their job and feel rejected and useless".
The Advent Trust, which funds the Advent Project, needs the help of the Catholic community if it is to spread its prophetic work outside Birkenhead. They are asking that those who wish to support the scheme lend the trust £50 (or more) to he invested by the trustees to finance the Project. For each £50 received a share certificate will be issued, and in ten years all those who have lent money will be able to reclaim their stake, or reinvest it for a further ten years, or donate the sum. If you are interested in helping, complete the form below and send it to the Advent Trust at the address listed.