This interview is the fourth in a series on Anabaptism in the UK in which I’ve been talking with directors of organizations in the Root and Branch Network. Today I’m talking with Louise Donkin, founder and director of SPEAK, a network of students and young adults who pray and campaign on issues of trade justice and the arms trade and also share their faith with other activists. She’s joined by Joanna Frew, who has been on the SPEAK staff for many years and is now focused on fundraising and development. She was also my manager for a year and a half when I worked at SPEAK.
Tim: How was SPEAK inspired and founded?
Louise Donkin: Basically, SPEAK was started in 1998 by a group of people that were studying at different universities. We wanted to both campaign for change and to demonstrate how we felt that God cares for the poor and the oppressed and that people were treated unfairly. That is his heart, so we felt like wanted to share this good news with people who had gotten quite skeptical, such as activists who believe that people don’t care about justice issues.
What we did was network together and have conversations, starting in 1997, about how we were going to network and do more together. Then in 1998 we tried to facilitate bringing different people together to talk about justice issues. We also wanted to root our effort in explaining to Christians the importance of things like world trade and world debt. Jubilee 2000 was very important at the time. We really felt that if we prayed as well as campaigned there would be spiritual change and social change, and the two were very much connected.
We all met up and decided that we would do these simple Pray and Post cards that we would send out every two months to Christian Unions throughout the country. We invited recipients to pray through the points on a prayer card and then send off the attached campaign post card. For our first card, we met Tony Campolo, and he gave us some money to help with costs for the printing and mailing. This was quite amazing because we didn’t have any money when we actually agreed to print the first pray and post card and send them out.
What are important milestones that you’ve passed?
Joanna: The beginning of our “Flower Model” was a pretty big milestone. The Flower Model is our participatory forum where the Network gather in teams around specific areas of SPEAK (such as campaigns, faith sharing, prayer, arts…) and meet in teams and as a big group to brainstorm, envision and plan future actions, projects and support of local groups. It is the natural development of SPEAK’s values, but are first meeting was in November 2001 in Bradford. Since then teams have been developing and these exciting weekends have continued.
Another big milestone was launching our own arms trade campaign. There was a real sense of ownership and passion in the network and everyone got behind it. We did a lot of work to put together the educational resources, political asks and to mobilise for the Day of Action in 2004 in which we knelt in repentance in front of the offices of the government agency that subsidized the arms trade. And this wasn’t just those of us in the office, which is great. It was a very Holy Spirit inspired idea for combining our values in a street action–prophetic words from the Bible, the focus on personal and social transformation, meeting decision makers to present our concerns. About 350 people stayed for the day of action after Soundcheck which was great!
Another huge milestone was making the Big Dress! For years people across the Network had been collecting squares with prayers and petitions for justice in global trade painted on them. The plan was always to make them in to a Big Dress petition to illustrate our desire to see a change in the way multinational companies behave, particularly in the garment industry. We launched the Big Dress in February 2005 at our Day of Action with hundreds of SPEAKers inside praying and celebrating, and lobbying their MPs! It is the biggest dress in the world and a marquee that we can use for events across the country.
As word about SPEAK has spread, how have people in the UK responded to SPEAK?
Joanna: In the beginning, things really snowballed and people were signing up and setting up groups rapidly. I think is a response to a real desire in young Christians to do something more than just mop up after the damage has been done in the developing world. A lot of students go on gap years or summer programs and see first hand the effects of our governments policy, and more generally the rich world, abroad. When they come back they want to be effective here.
How has it affected people lives?
Joanna: I think many people’s lives have been changed by being part of SPEAK groups. They find a Christian community that that understands their concern for justice, gives them space to express their faith creatively and gives them a chance to take the initiative. I think the relationships and places that people find themselves in through SPEAK do shape them (and nothing to do with hard work or cunning plans–just God!)
How has it affected the way people do church? Has it become church?
Joanna: Whether it’s church or not depends on how you define church. It’s part of the body of Christ but non-denominational and a lot of the relationships are trans-geographical. We have shared values and we support each other and are active in our faith together, sharing that with others. I think SPEAK, along with other groups concerned about global issues, have shifted church in the UK. It seems like there are more and more churches and groups of Christians open to the idea that tackling the root causes of injustice, often political, is important. I think that the Jubilee 2000 movement is an important factor in that.
Louise: There are a few people who do regard SPEAK as a Christian community that they primarily connect to, rather than the established church. I think that “church” is pretty much like a loaded word. We wouldn’t want to explain SPEAK as “church,” but we do want to create Christian communities that can offer things to people who are searching. We also want to be careful that we have relationships with people who are older as well as in our age range, and people from different cultural backgrounds.
What we don’t want to do is relate to people in a context that is constrained to the church structure as the only way to work out our faith on a community basis, because I don’t believe that is accurate. The sad thing is that a lot of older Christians tend to do that. So we are trying to build relationships with older Christians who up the spiritual things, but are also aware of the challenges and dynamics of that.
How has it affected the way people do politics?
Louise: I think it has affected the way that people are aware of justice issues and the way they see politics and structures. It’s made people realize that campaigning is not just about being the sort of lefty stereotype.
How was the theology behind SPEAK formed?
Louise: We have tried to connect the personal and social in our theology. That’s been part of us all journeying with other groups like Workshop and the Anabaptist Network.
How has the organization lived out that theology?
Louise: We’ve tried to do that by doing things like Days of Action where we bring the personal and social together. Something we did outside of Department Export Services Organisation (DESO), was we prayed and repented in a trench to represent the gap that social sin creates between us and God as well as between us and others. We formed a bridge over the trench and gave flowers. We found out recently last week that the DESO is going to close. So we’ve had a campaign success!
When did SPEAK discover Anabaptist convictions and values?
Joanna: As with many people in Root and Branch, Anabaptism is something we found out about and thought, “Yeah, that seems like us!” So, I’m not really sure when we discovered the convictions! Nor am I even sure when we met others in Root and Branch at first.
Louise: It’s good to have the Anabaptist model of relationship between personal and social. It’s been good to be part of Root and Branch network and send representatives to meetings and see what’s going on. We hope that in the future networks like Root and Branch and other places can be spaces where people don’t have a culturally bound view of church. So people like Stuart Murray Williams or Noel Moules have visited SPEAK groups who are interested in being Christian community and talked with them about Anabaptism.
How have Anabaptist convictions been useful/inspiring/unhelpful?
Louise: Anabaptism has been excellent for us to see that people want to do personal discipleship as well as social change. Because we find that a lot of Christians are either liberal or evangelical. I’m not wanting to stereotype too much, but quite often they are. The annoying thing about the evangelical thing is that it is quite personalized and not connected to social justice issues and quite culturally bound. But the annoying thing about the liberal thing is that it is quite often in reaction to the evangelical thing. So it’s like “let’s be concerned about social justice, but let’s not be that worried about personal lifestyle issues.”
What has the Root and Branch network meant for SPEAK? How has it benefited from connections with other Root and Branch organizations?
Joanna: The wisdom within the Root and Branch Network has been great! Lots of people have done Workshop or attended Peace School. Also for those of us in London, the Mennonite Centre is a great place to read, pray and learn about community living. Just knowing about the post-Christendom series by Stuart Murray Williams and Jonathan Bartley is a great resource, and being able to tap into the Metanoia Books (an Anabaptist book service)!
I think the post-Christendom values have been very helpful for SPEAK as a whole. In campaigning for justice we are dealing with an oppressive and imperial history that the Church was very much part of. Understanding more of the possibility of living outside of that “establishment”/hierarchical/centre-controlled church or even society, and knowing that others are doing that too, is very liberating and opens up exciting possibilities.
What are your hopes for the future?
Louise: We do hope that the Big Dress will go on tour and engage people who are searching and about justice issues. We hope we can share more of our theology about repentance things with Christians in the States. And it would be good to have relationships with Anabaptists in the States. And of course we want to work towards a strategy for introducing SPEAK in the US, but it’s a very big country. It would be good to carry on with the work we’ve done with Tony Campolo there.
Joanna: For SPEAK over the next few years, I hope that the sense of network (rather than an organization) continues to deepen through the local groups and regions and Flower Model where more initiative and responsibility is taken by non-staff people to. I really hope that the national campaigns develop and that each step inspired by the Holy Spirit so our action is right where God’s heart is. I’d like to see us more and more involved in the activist scene and less in the Christian scene so that we really are activists with a genuine spirituality to share.
For Root and Branch I think it’s important that we continue to develop the relationships we have based on our shared values. We have common ground, but are doing a lot of different things with those values. So rather than setting up some sort of coalition or action together, I think there is more potential in supporting each other’s initiatives.