A challenge about justice to the students of Durham

The following words are the notes from the talk I gave last night at Just Love Durham's launch event for the new academic year. At the event were many local North East charities looking for volunteers. The students on the night were asking for a copy of my words after I had spoken and the leaders were keen that more Christian students heard this challenge to their specific university context. So here is what I said, I hope it both encourages and provokes you to action.

(Started by showing my 1 Year in Middlesbrough film : worth 3 mins of your time)

Luke 10: what I am discovering about the story of the Good Samaritan

The more I think about and reflect on Jesus’ explanation of what it means when God calls us to “Love your neighbour as yourself” the more uncomfortable and nervous I am getting. The more I sit with the story of the Good Samaritan that I just referenced in that film, the more I am being challenged to the core as a Christian.

Even since I made that film only 6 weeks ago, I’d say my thinking, my theology, my prayers, and I hope eventually even my actions, are moving on beyond the radical indiscriminate love of whoever we meet. 

I think Jesus actually provokes us to go even further than unprejudiced love. 

Let’s read the words of Jesus, telling the story he uses to explain what it means to love your neighbour, and I’m going to pause at some of the challenges this passage is hitting me with right now, that might also hit you too:

Luke 10: 30-37

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead."

Challenge number one: this is a crime scene.

Living in the neighbourhood and on the street that I do in Middlesbrough has made me more aware of criminal activity than ever before. I don’t report it, but it’s all around me. 

I’ve never seen so much drug dealing, prostitution, break-ins and vandalism as I have done in the last year just by being at home. The one time I rang the police to report a load of kids smashing a house up, it took 6 minutes for anyone to pick up the phone, let alone respond to the scenes I was witnessing. I actually think no-one bothered to follow it up.

I have never been in so many situations where walking across the road is actually walking into a potential crime scene. If we choose to not turn a blind eye, your city and my town has trouble and injustice happening everywhere.

"Love your neighbour" does not mean love the person who lives next door by baking them a cake and giving them a Christmas card. It's not less than that, but it is far more. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve knocked on my neighbour's door, shared cake, emptied my fridge of fresh stuff when I go away for work and bagged it up for them, taught the kids to skateboard, shared a cup of tea with the mums. All of that nice stuff.

But it sometimes means walking across the road into a crime scene, into danger, into situations that are messy, chaotic, and potentially unclear as to who is guilty and who is the abused. We don’t find out at the start of this story Jesus tells whether the beaten up half dead man deserved it. Jesus doesn’t appear to speak any judgement over the victim, in fact he doesn’t make any comment about who they are, where they’re from, or what they’ve done at all. Its just “a man”. And that is enough for him to be worthy of help and compassion. 

Like the time I ran across the road because there was an ambulance outside. I didn’t know the situation, I didn’t know if someone had hurt someone else, but I decided to be the kind of neighbour that got dressed and went out to check everyone was ok anyway.

Just Love students, the first challenge is, are you willing to follow our faith so far as to inconvenience yourself, even endanger yourself, to step out of the student bubble and come face to face with some of the reality of life and those who are having the hardest time of it in this area? Are you the cross over the road kind of person, regardless of the scene you can see?

31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

Challenge number two: changing the story of Durham.

In Durham, you have the biggest opportunity in the whole country of writing a powerful, impactful, remarkably different story about what it means to be a student living in a city. 

The Durham "town verses gown" divide I would say is the most extreme in the whole of the UK. You have the most extreme difference in economics, education, background and prospects between the student population and the local born and bred North East population. On paper, you are worlds apart in almost every way and I do not see how anything but the Kingdom of God and the people of Jesus can bridge this huge divide, this gaping chasm between the locals and the students. Only people like you, with your faith as a motivator, will realise you can make friends with people not like you and actually it’s better for you, your life and faith, to bridge the divide, it’s not even all about what you can give.

If you ask a local from Durham about who would walk by on the other side of the road if there was a lad from one of the estates beaten up on the Bailey, perhaps they’d say that an academic professor would walk by, clutching their books and muttering about how sad it is. Next, it would probably be a student in black tie, running late for the college formal who upon seeing the bloodied tracksuit of the man on the cobbles, perhaps looks down at their phone screen and starts texting a mate to say they’re nearly there as they hurry on up the Bailey.

Having spoken to a few Durham local residents about students, even Jesus-loving church leaders have spoken about how badly the university students treat their city like the whole thing is their campus, their halls of residence even, and consume whatever they want with no regard for the impact it has upon their neighbours. Even some churches have given up hope that any student cares about where they live and who actually lives there already. 

Perhaps to a local, the Samaritan in this story, the most surprising person to stop, would be a Durham university student who actually notices, crosses the road, and gets involved in a hands-on way with the reality of life for their North East neighbours?

33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

Challenge number three: this actually costs us our comfort

The more I reflect on this story the more aware I become of the personal cost it takes to actually love someone else, especially someone not like us, especially someone who has been abused, neglected, the victim of crime, or has been beaten up by society, their past, addiction, whatever form the robbers of this story might take today.

It took me nearly a year of being consistently available, friendly and making extra effort with my neighbours on my street, before they started calling me a friend, sharing their actual lives with me, and letting me in on their reality behind their closed doors. Now we share birthdays, deaths, trauma, we laugh, pray and discuss the future. My neighbours are the best thing about coming home now.

The Samaritan did not do a quick fix and then move on. He stayed through the night. The next day he set up a sustainable way of supporting the man he’d helped, only to then promise to return again to give yet more provision to see him well.

It will be a challenge as a student not to just do one-off events and random acts of kindness. Life is busy, your terms are intense, the weeks are full and go by fast. But consistency is one of the most valuable and underrated character traits you and I can give to the organisations here tonight, and to the people you want to meet, make friends with and bridge the divide with, by choosing to do life outside of the student bubble.

I also notice in this story that the Samaritan gave the beaten up man what he actually needed.This sounds obvious, but so often I think our generosity, our giving, our social action, our justice-based activities, end up being what we want to give, rather than what’s needed. 

We might want to decorate a house for a single mum who has just been given a council property that needs freshening up for her and the kids. Because the before and after photos will look brilliant and there’s something satisfying about painting and seeing the difference in a day. You can do it, feel good, and leave. What that mum might actually need is nappies, food, help with the forms to apply for child tax credits, and someone to do a load of the kid's washing because her machine broke. It’s less glamorous, its more inconvenient. It’s what she actually needs.

Can I encourage you tonight to ask every charity and project represented here, what they actually need? To find out what their greatest needs are first and then count the cost before deciding to commit. Actually commit. As in show up and serve even if it will never make the instagram post. I know for a fact that some of these guys just need the people power and it isn’t exciting, it is just what it takes to be a sustainable force for good in their area. I’d love to hear stories of Just Love students ensuring where possible, on their watch, every need was met, the seen and the unseen.

Finally the story ends with Jesus asking the man he has been teaching, a question about what he had just said:

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Challenge number four: help even when it's undeserved

The final thing in this story that literally only struck me this week, is the use of the word “mercy”. I think mercy is a funny word to use here. I would have thought compassion or kindness might be more appropriate.

The definition of the word ‘mercy’ is: compassion or forgiveness shown towards someone whom it is within one's power to punish or harm.

This is what is striking. The guy being taught by Jesus, and then Jesus himself, seems to acknowledge that the Samaritan could have harmed or punished the beaten up guy. Mercy implies where there could or should have been judgement, punishment, justice, instead, mercy is shown. Like a gift of grace, undeserved kindness and forgiveness. 

Perhaps the guy beaten up in the story is the scum of the earth and deserving of death? Certainly Samaritans were the enemy of everyone, so what's to say the beaten up man wasn't exactly the kind of guy who would have beaten up the Samaritan if the tables were turned? And perhaps Jesus decides that guy is who we cross over the road to and care for, like he is our own family anyway? 

In a society where there is often an unspoken attitude of “help yourself” or “you probably did something to deserve where you are today”, it can be easy to judge others and be the judge of who we think is worthy of help, of our time, our money, our efforts. 

Our society writes off criminals easily and immediately, they deserve what they get, they broke the law. Never mind the terrifying stats of how many of our kids in the care system get tipped straight out of foster homes and picked up by our prisons almost like a delivery service. 

We quickly assess that if a person is using money for drugs, they don’t deserve our help. Never mind the underlying struggles going on with them and their need for numbing and escapism from their mental health conditions and the fear of being attacked or worse, when they are spending the nights out on the street.

As followers of Jesus we have the utter relief of not being asked to ever sit in the seat of judgement. Instead we get to be the people of mercy, having received God’s mercy, we also get to give it out to anyone we meet. 

Where Durham student culture swerves towards elitism, comparison, judging others by the brands they wear, the schools they attended, who their dad is and what they have, students of the way of Jesus get to fly in the face of our class divisions, and preconditioned prejudices, and instead cross over the road to the most seemingly undeserving people and places our society would avoid.

This is why Luke 10 and Jesus’ teaching on what it means to love our neighbour is still challenging me to the core daily.

The gift of the North East and now:

All I would say to finish is that it is the greatest gift of my life to get to live in Teesside, in the North East, at this time, on my street, with my neighbours. If I had to leave Boro tomorrow, for all the wonderful things that have happened amongst the churches, my local church, my mates in the area and the students I help mentor, the thing that would make me cry to leave would be my insignificant litter-covered street and my immediate neighbours.

It is good for our souls to not swim in a bubble of people and problems just like us and ours. It is good for us to wake up and see reality beyond our own current experience and culture. It actually activates our need for Jesus.

I celebrated my 30th birthday last month and it was the perfect time to take a snapshot of my life and compare it to one year earlier turning 29. On my 29th birthday I had been living in Middlesbrough for two weeks, I received six birthday cards and two presents from my immediate neighbours and on my birthday I had bought 24 iced ring donuts and gone door-knocking to give them out, to introduce myself and basically use my birthday as an excuse to try and meet my street. It was a strong start all things considered. But it all happened on the doorstep.

On my street this year I held a takeaway pizza party. Where cards were dropped through my door last year, whole families came inside to eat, drink, give presents, dance and share space. Loving my neighbours has changed my life. Actually living what Jesus says in the bible has radically shaped my every day reality and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

So students of Durham. Do something extraordinary with your time here. Do something that is exceptional in your current culture. Move into the neighbourhood of the North East. Make friends with people not like you. Share your life and resources with your city’s locals and get to know their names and stories by being genuinely interested. 

Don’t be naive to the fact that it will cost you your time, your money, your energy. Count the cost and in faith make some brave steps to decide to pay the cost anyway. Fulfil genuine needs. Be known as the most generous students the city has ever seen.Tip extravagantly. Be interruptible by the ordinary. And invite your friends yet to meet Jesus to join in with his way of living justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with God.


To find out more about the student justice movement of Just Love click here.

Miriam Swanson

Global Student Mission Leader

Miriam helps equip the church for student mission internationally. She's based in the USA and hungry to see young adults follow Jesus with all of who they are. 

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