Former Greenbelt Chair Andy Turner reflects on the life of the inspirational Bob Holman.
While there are many Greenbelters who will know of Bob Holman and been inspired by the man, there are others who won’t. Yet, such was Bob’s reach, my hunch is, your vocation in social work, community work, campaigning, politics or in the church, may well link back to Bob, and his extraordinary life.
Bob was a one-off. A rare mix of intellect, community worker, social work professional, advocate and campaigner, as well as a prolific writer – with articles in academic journals, magazines, national newspapers as well as a stream of books.
A full-time social work professor at Bath University, Bob spotted early on the temptation for academics to get walled in behind their books, cosy and closeted, detached from the real world outside. In the 1970’s Bob resisted, went part time and moved with a young family on to a council estate – for locals, the wrong part of town. Working with young people, Bob set up a youth project and opened his home. Where as with the first sight of trouble, the chattering classes would run to the hills, Bob, with his family went looking for it – all manner of people, many with complex social problems on the doorstep, in the front room, even the greenhouse. Which made Bob unusual.
Here was someone inspired by their faith, moving with family to a dodgy neighbourhood, not to proselytise, prove a point, wave a flag or look smug – but to help out. This was fundamental to them as a Jesus follower. While for many, religion is about personal piety, Bob embraced a bold commitment to those most marginalised, training and enabling local people and families to take control of their lives and crucially, to act in their own interest.
In the 80’s Bob went further, with the family upping sticks, downscaling further and moving onto Easterhouse estate in Glasgow – at the time one of the poorest communities in Europe. Bob got stuck in as a community worker, using his daily experience as a basis for his writing. A sharp intellect with concise, clear thinking, Bob laced his books and articles with everyday stories highlighting the reality of poverty. In the process frequently chiding politicians and policy makers, charities, companies and caring professions – industries established to eradicate poverty – to do more to listen to the poor. To not blame those in poverty, but build relationship and challenge systems that disadvantage and entrench inequality.
I met Bob after his move to Glasgow, and was pleased to introduce him to Greenbelt. He became a regular on and off during the 90’s and early 00’s. I knew him as a quiet, unassuming man, and while he never attracted the huge crowds he deserved, there were always groups lingering after his talks – young people in awe of the stories. Today there are many who trace back their story setting up a project, moving to an estate, joining this community, getting political or starting that campaign to Bob and his story. And, as all manner of faith groups set up food banks, credit unions and get involved in their neighbourhood today – they’d do well to check out Bob’s story.
Bob Holman! Patron Saint. Real deal. Leaves a huge legacy and no small challenge to us all.