Ash and Anji Barker met as 18 year olds in Melbourne, Australia where they were born and grew up. They had just both committed themselves to ‘go anywhere for the cause of Christ’ at a Tony Campolo meeting. They quickly fell in love and then got married as 20 year olds.
Newly married in 1990 they joined Youth For Christ where they worked with young offenders in juvenile detention. Frustrated that so many young people were isolated and devastated once in the jail system, they asked, ‘How could we prevent young people entering the system?’
Discovering that these young people were only coming from a few Melbourne neighbourhoods and not all, they began to focus on these neighbourhoods with volunteers starting youth clubs, camping and small group mentoring programs. Yet, even these programs were not enough as the young people’s families and neighbourhoods continued to struggled with abuse, addictions and isolation.
Inspired by Mick and Ruby Duncan, New Zealanders who lived in a Manila slum at the time, the Barkers sensed a call to relocate and immerse their lives into one of the neighbourhoods they were serving in youth ministry. In 1992 the Barkers moved into Springvale, a multicultural neighbourhood in Melbourne. They had no real idea of how God would use them. They simply wanted to share life and love of God and their new neighbours in practical, life-giving ways. They set up some open homes and started planting churches from among the families of young people they had been working with in Youth For Christ youth clubs there. So many of those they sought to serve as neighbours at that time found real hope through Christ.Serving the community there also brought deep transformation in them too as they found a deeper ways to love and share life together.
Urban Neighbours Of Hope (UNOH) was officially formed in 1993 as other joined this calling, and it became part of the Churches of Christ in the Department of Mission, Education and Development. Although UNOH workers and supporters came from diverse Christian churches, UNOH shares specifically as part of the life of Churches of Christ.
In 1997 UNOH workers moved from primarily a youth volunteer organization to cutting a covenant together for whole of life vocation among the urban poor and UNOH began to grow and mature. In 2001 UNOH was commissioned as a missional order among the poor by Churches of Christ.
In 1999 the Barkers had a sabbatical in Klong Toey slum, Bangkok and fell in love the place and the people. A year later Ash experienced a sense of ‘this is home’ on a visit to families there and after a discernment process the Barkers, with daughter Amy aged five, moved to live in Klong Toey, the largest slum in Bangkok as part of UNOH in March 2002.
Son Aiden was born in Bangkok, October 2003. Barkers have shared life in Klong Toey focusing on building relationships, discipleship, church planting, education, creating employment and recreational options so that their neighbourhood could be transformed through Jesus from the bottom up.
Until October 2013, Ash was the founding director of Urban Neighbours Of Hope (www.unoh.org), which the Barkers started in Springvale (Melbourne, Aus) in 1993 and now has eight teams of Christian workers loving God and neighbours in some of the neediest urban neighbourhoods in Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland and Bangkok.
After over 20 years leading and founding UNOH, the Barkers resigned from UNOH and left Bangkok in June 2014. After a short stay in their native Melbourne the Barkers are again be immersed in the life of an urban poor neighbourhood – this time Winson Green, an inner city Birmingham public housing estate to seek transformation through Jesus there.
In November 2014 Ash, Anji and Aiden moved to WInson Green. Ash initially worked with Springdale College and Yellow Ribbon as he set up Newbigin House and the various ministries based there. In March 2016 the Barkers moved into Newbigin House and from October 2016 Ash has being working in Winson Green prison as chaplain and full-time running Newbigin School for Urban Leadership, Newbigin Community Trust and Urban Shalom Project as well as beeing available to serve locally, speak widely and support the work of the International Society for Urban Mission as Convener.
Anji will be a chaplain and community builder as part of a local neighbourhood school. Anji is a trained social worker and has a special gift as an innovative social entrepreneur having helped to start ‘Helping hands’, ‘Klong Toey Handicrafts’ and the ‘Namasgan’ church, all based in Klong Toey with neighbours.
Anji was also instrumental in helping neighbour Poo publish ‘Cooking with Poo’ (UNOH Publishing, 2011). Anji is passionate speaker and advocate for social justice and discipleship able to communicate well in wide variety of secular and Christian contexts. It is these kinds of grass roots and broader ministry experiences that Ash and Anji hope to share with neighbours and friends in Birmingham and beyond as their adventure continues.