Ash Barker seems like a really nice guy.  He looks cuddly, has a bashful smile, and a soft voice.  The sort of person it’s comfortable to be around… till he starts talking about his passion – the urban poor.  Then he starts saying things like If every Christian would take in a homeless person there’d be no homelessness. Awkward sound bites like these fall from his lips with ease, interspersed with equally uncomfortable statistics like 1 in 6 people in this world live in slums.

As if this isn’t bad enough, you know he’s talking from personal experience.  As a young man, he moved into a Melbourne slum in order to spread the love of Jesus to people the rest of the world was rejecting, and founded a missional order called Urban Neighbours of Hope.  UNOH has subsequently extended its work to a number of cities in Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand.  It helps to empower the poor to take ownership of their own problems, it advocates on behalf of the urban poor and provides training in mission to young people.

After ten years in Melbourne, Ash and his wife Anji moved with their two young children to Bangkok, to set up home in the infamous Klong Toey slum, where 80,000 people live packed into just two square kilometres.  Living in the same conditions as their neighbours, they reach out to the community, where drugs, crime and prostitution are endemic.  Through partnering with local people they have empowered them to change their situation.  One lady called Poo, who was a good cook, started a cookery school and has just published a book called Cooking with Poo, which isn’t such a humorous title when you remember that the sewerage in Klong Toey is pretty basic.  Another lady began a handicraft cooperative which now employs sixty people earning twice the minimum wage.  There are a number of other local catering businesses.  These small enterprises help people out of poverty and provide them with an alternative to prostitution and crime.

All this is run out of a local community centre, which is also the base for a school with 60 children, a youth centre with 200 daily users, a medical programme and a prison visiting ministry.  There is also a church, started not by outsiders but by a local man set free from drug addiction and gang membership.

Ash is clearly frustrated that there is so much work to do among the urban poor, and so little support from western Christians.  He points out that if you plot on a map the areas of greatest population density (south and east Asia, urban inner cities), and the areas where the greatest percentage of Christians live (north America, suburbs) there is hardly any overlap. However in recent years more churches and individuals are recognising God’s call to the poor and many are partnering with Urban Neighbours of Hope to bring hope to some of the most downtrodden people in the world.  You can find out more at www.unoh.org.