Sharing Friendship at Granville Flats
by Adrian Leason
Hold your breath as you get in the lift. The smell of Lion Red urine can take a bit of getting used to. Push level five and wait for the doors to shut. Don't touch the sides - they're sticky, and we won't see the cleaners again until next week.
Walking down the corridor with flats on both sides you feel like you're underground not five floors up. The smoke damage on the ceiling comes from the fire at flat 67. Two Psych outpatients electrified their door handle to prevent being rescued then set fire to their flat in a double suicide attempt. The Fire Service did a great job with their extension ladders and rescued them off the balcony. Too bad it gutted their flat and their neighbours' places.
Here we are at flat 83, identical to most on this floor. 5 x 6 metres in total, but very cheap to heat in the winter. Welcome to Granville Flats.
Just over five years ago we moved into this Wellington City Council housing complex. At the time Council were having a hard job finding tenants to move into these flats.
There had been four suicides involving people jumping off the roof of the tower block. The vast majority of tenants were on benefits. There was a large number of transsexuals in the flats. I remember coming home one evening and finding two 'queens' in the corridor trying to fork each other (literally, with dinner forks). Both were dressed up for 'work' and very drunk, stabbing and screaming.
The buildings were run down, there was a lot of vandalism and graffiti, often added to by visitors and passers through. We suffered fire alarms almost once a week and the police were regularly turning up to break up fights.
The City Council offered us a rent-free flat in exchange for a willingness to get involved - we turned the offer down as we did not want to be indebted to the Council. In our discussions with Council it was clear that we were community workers, not regular tenants. However, by moving in it was tenants we became.
Right from the very beginning we had a deep sense that God has a special concern for Granville Flats and for the people and places that no one else seems to be concerned about. More than that, God was quietly at work in this community long before we arrived, crying with people in their pain and loving people unconditionally. People like Tina, a woman in her forties who has suffered a lifetime of sexual abuse, trying to find a bit of comfort in her alcohol and drugs. In her own way she reaches out to God by singing old praise songs until she's hoarse. Sometimes she is sober, sometimes she's not. God, in his own way, shows up every time!
A starting point
Prior to moving into the flats I was working in the local Community Centre just down the road. In partnership with my local church, Lifepoint, we set up this centre in an effort to reach out to locals in our area. It was a good idea, however we soon realised it was flawed. The relationships that I was forming had a totally uneven power balance. People came to the Community Centre to get help, be entertained or receive a service, and people from the surrounding housing projects didn't bother coming at all.
The problem was I couldn't get past a user/provider relationship. I had bought into the old Christian charity model and was becoming another Christian do-gooder who was dabbling in 'mercy ministries'. The neighbourhood was much more complex than I perceived it to be. It was going to take more than a cheap lunch, a chat and a prayer to address the real issues of social disintegration and despair that plagued our community.
The City Council owns 2,312 flats throughout Wellington,1 most of them in large high rise, inner city complexes like ours. It is the Council's policy to provide housing to the most needy in town - to house people no one else will house. This is a virtuous policy, however the downside is that they have created virtual ghettos of poverty that fall into a downward spiral of noise, fear, violence and loneliness.
In the words of Mang Jung, a South American peasant leader, "You live in the world of the birds of the air and we [the poor] live with the fish of the sea". 2 You see birds fly freely through the air and go wherever they want to go. Fish, on the other hand, swim slowly in an ocean of usury, tenancy and discrimination, along with many other unjust forces - there is no level playing field here!
Most tenants in our community are playing up hill and into the wind, right from day one. Driving in the van on the way home from a holiday programme, Mary turned to Jeff and said, "Look at that area, I bet they're rich out here," as we passed a 'working class' suburb north of Upper Hutt. Then follows a string of jokes and heaps of laughter about how useless and thick we all are, stuck in our 'matchbox' flats in Granville for the rest of our lives.
Poverty at home
Margaret arrived at hospital to deliver her first baby. Her face was black and blue from the hiding she had received that morning. Margaret and the baby's father Eddie had been together for the last couple of years. They had both left school at about thirteen years of age and been on the streets ever since. Their relationship had always involved violence.
Both of them had missed out on childhood as they cared for younger family members until each of them finally ran away from home. Now with baby due they could no longer live rough and so ended up at the flats.
When I first met them they needed a blanket (they were sleeping in their clothes on a mattress on the floor). Their flat was empty apart from a drawer where baby was sleeping. They had turned up at a tenants committee meeting in the hall looking to get involved and help out in some way.
There are many popular 'myths' about poverty. People are poor because they're lazy. People are poor because they're stupid. People are poor because they have no self-control. People are poor because they choose to be. Just as it is untrue to suggest that all wealthy people are rich because they cheated people and all business leaders engineer unemployment to keep wages and inflation down, so the above simplistic myths about poverty are also untrue.
Poverty is a complex web of injustice, dependency and worthlessness. It involves eating food that's unhealthy because it's cheap and that's what you grew up on; hitting your kids because you were hit; sharing everything you have because that's how you were brought up. It involves not finding regular work and never owning your own home.
It's about living with sickness because of overcrowding. It's partying and fighting with your neighbours as there's fourteen flats on your floor and your building is six stories high. It's spending spare cash at the TAB, buying a Lotto ticket and going to 'housie' because you never know when you're 'gonna get lucky'.
It's keeping a spotlessly clean flat with heaps of family photos on the walls and no books because books are for school. It's relying on the benefit because it's regular and bills don't pay themselves. It's not taking chances for fear of discrimination.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about poverty and how it restricts people. The truth is, communities like ours are full of some of the most gifted, generous and resourceful people in the city. To survive on the DPB or Sickness benefit you have to be someone pretty special. Our flats are overflowing with talent, but talent that seldom gets the space for expression. It's not due to a lack of ability that many in our community live with a deep sense of frustration and failure. The talent in our neglected communities is very much alive, just longing for an opportunity to shine.
There are almost as many definitions of community development as there are practitioners out there doing it. However, there are some recurring themes that have widespread acceptance. These include: "community development encompassing the improvement of the social, cultural and economic lives of people. The valuing of the physical, emotional and spiritual quality of life. The empowering of people in the transition from dependence to independence. Enabling of people to identify their own resources and strengths and to meet their own needs." 3
Recently, work on our new childrens' playground began at the flats. Four years of lobbying, pertitioning Council, fund-raising and planning has finally started to produce fruit. Apart from being a major 'eyesore' in the heart of our community the old playground was a major health and safety risk.
I was in the community room some time ago when a five year old came running in holding a live 303 rifle shell in his hand that he had found under the swings. Later that day a six inch knife blade without a handle was found in the same area. Around the edges of the play equipment fungus has been growing in the rotten wood, much of the equipment is broken and the bark chips are full of cat dirt.
With at least 50 children living in the flats a playground has been a real need. The tenants' committee, many of whom are parents, frustrated by Council's unwillingness to help, organised two tenants' 'fairs' to raise funds. Along with two hangi, these have raised $1,200 towards a new playground.
A large group of adults and children put in a good day's work creating the new playground. The day ended late at night with a workers' social. I overheard one onlooker say "Council should be doing this". The reply came back, "We want to do it, so we can say we did it ourselves".
"There is no greater menace in the church than a born-again Christian without a social conscience." 4
Is it only our 'souls' that God is concerned for? No, I don't think so. His interest extends to our whole wellbeing, our relationships and the entire created universe. His kingdom involves the redemption of all things, including our most neglected communities.
Unfortunately there are no 'quick fix' solutions to our society's social and economic problems. Reality is far too complex. Hope calls individuals and groups to personal involvement in individual and structural change. Armchair criticism is a luxury for the idle, 'hands-on' participation must be rediscovered.
For us, being 'insiders' in the flats has become one response to our community. Not that we pretend we can totally identify with our neighbours: we know that can never be possible because we are choosing to be here, we have options and can always move out into our own home.
In moving here we were hoping to participate with our neighbours. When there is noise we suffer it too (last night there were two guys panelbeating their car until midnight and this morning a drunk neighbour had his radio on full volume from 5 am onwards). When there is a round of break-ins our things get stolen.
When Council threatens to sell off its housing or push the rents up we worry together with everyone else. When there is a flu virus or a cockroach infestation we get our share along with our neighbours.
Sharing and being a part of the community in this way has given us the opportunity to do what God has called us here to do: that is to form deep, trusting, loving relationships, from which all lasting change will flow. Yes, we have been involved in many programmes and committees and helped organise camps, hui, parties and protest marches. We have been involved in the development process of this community for the last five years. You name it, we've done it.
Still, at the end of the day we must never see these events and initiatives as an end in themselves. They are simply a means that may lead to deeper love, trust and real relationship; the kind where God is profoundly at work.
More than just neighbours
"If God has reconciled us to himself but cannot reconcile us to each other, then the whole thing is a fraud."5
Forming close friendships has required us to slow down. Both Shelley and I work part time teaching and doing paid community work a couple of days a week. This brings in enough income to get by. We make time to just 'hang out' because that's when life happens around here. Making time for people can be challenging as it is hard to measure success at the end of the day.
We have made plenty of mistakes in our time here. Both of us, as community workers and Primary School teachers, have struggled with the most basic of questions: How should we respond to neighbours we are close to asking us for money (again) to pay a power bill that will save their power being cut off? Their family would help out, but it's not 'pay week'. They would give to us if the tables were turned.
What about a friend who is getting assaulted by her boyfriend every couple of weeks? Do we call the police and see the family split up and then her returning to him and turning against us? What about running programmes? The needs are so great and it would be so easy for us to provide the leadership.
Just as Jesus was not incarnated as a policy analyst, so he did not come as a social worker either. Jesus came as a baby, born in a cow shed. Jesus of Galilee lived and ministered among the poorest and most marginalised in the nation, taking time out to challenge and convict the establishment of his day. We have not been called to be 'saviours', we are simply called to love our neighbours - and this is always so much more costly.
After four years here in the flats Eddie, Margaret and the kids have moved out. Eddie is holding down a full-time job and is doing really well. Margaret is a key organiser with several organisations and committees. She is also working part-time and studying. The two girls are happy and feeling great about their family.
We are all still connected with them through the management of a local children's playgroup and a new community 'Sunday School' type of event joining with other families in the flats community. We are part of one anothers' extended families expressed in the unconditional love we share together.
Communities in crisis can always spot phonies; they stand out a mile. As white, middle class, educated kiwis trying to make it in a staunch and streetwise community, credibility is vital.
Credibility is earned through the 'hard yards' of faithfulness and honesty in being yourself. It's being part of what others are into, and serving in the background (particularly in the kitchen). It's being relaxed and not getting uptight when things go wrong or differently.
As a regular Pakeha family this has not come naturally to us. I remember one day preparing to put down a large hangi while looking after Jack our six month old son, down in the community room at the flats. There were lots of people around organising food and socialising. Shelley, my wife, was upstairs at a friend's place when Jack started screaming for a feed.
Across the room one of the mums whom I didn't know that well saw me struggling and came over. Before I could say a word she had her breast out and was feeding my kid. All eyes turned to towards me to see what I'd do. After going quite red in the face, I responded: "Sweet as, go for it". Everyone breathed a big collective sight of relief, as if to say: "Choice, he's one of us".
All three of our boys were born at home in our flat (in the bath). Lots of our neighbours were there to be part of the celebrations and the naming of our children. Being close to people in all of life's dramas leads to an intimacy that makes the sharing of faith very natural.
We have had our fair share of worries over our kids growing up in this community. Jack received his first hiding the day he was born. A young child did not appreciate all the attention he was getting and scratched him across his face.
However, our children have benefited enormously living in these flats. The 24 hours a day access to a social and friendly community of babies, children and teenagers is fantastic. The stimulation and companionship is almost never ending. Ninety-nine percent of the time children care for one another and for property and relate like a family. The privilege has been ours and our children's to live in such a 'rich' environment.
I was talking to a real estate agent recently who was telling me a little about what people look for in choosing a home. "Location, location, location" came through very strongly. Good capital gain potential, safety, security, quiet, sun and view all helped contribute to good resale demand. Access to transport and schools but definitely not near state housing areas.
What do Christians look for in choosing a home? Are our priorities any different from the rest of society? Right now approximately 928,308 New Zealanders live in rental accommodation. Many of these folks live in one of Housing New Zealand's 61,453 homes around the country many of which are in high density complexes just like Granville.
I wonder how many Christians have relocated into the hundreds of housing projects throughout New Zealand? How many are purposely choosing to rent or buy in a poorer neighbourhood for the sake of the people there who don't have options?
I am not suggesting that every Christian family relocates to the poorest part of town in an effort to build relationships and work for justice and development. However, I am suggesting that loving our neighbour is Christ's invitation to all his followers. The question is, who will go to our forgotten neighbours locked away in high density housing complexes?
Three years ago we linked up with an organisation called Living Well Mission and Development. It has been in the context of this team that we have gained much needed encouragement, clarification and training as we have travelled on this journey. I strongly recommend that anyone attempting this approach to change, work in a team setting with people who are on the same track.
The significant transformation we have seen take place in this tenant community remains very fragile and in a sense that makes it all the more significant. What individuals and the community as a whole have achieved is nothing short of a miracle. Like the Church throughout the years, it's a humble and vulnerable Spirit filled alternative, swimming against the prevailing tide.