Over the past few weeks, I’ve been writing on and off about the implications of the current cost of living crisis for the church. In these last few articles, I want to think a little bit more about how we approach the challenge Biblically and practically.
In this article I want to talk about some of the approaches we have taken as Christians to address issues around poverty and cost of living over the past few decades. At the outset, I want to commend the desire of Christians to engage with social issues. There has been a mushrooming of organisations with links to churches and evangelicals to do this including:
- Church run foodbanks with links to The Trussell Trust
- Christians Against Poverty and other debt action programmes
There are also a host of other organisations seeking to help families in need and at risk children. These organisations and movements arise out of a Biblical conviction that we should love our neighbours. However, there can be risks with them too. To explain why, it might be helpful if I share a little bit of our experience with one approach.
A few years back, a foodbank was set up in our area and our church decided to get involved. We did two things. The first was that we began to collect food. People were able to drop in donations. The other thing we did was that we became one of the foodbank members which meant that we were able to give vouchers to people having accessed their need. The idea was that if you were signed a voucher then you could visit the foodbank on one of the days it was open and receive several days worth of food for your family. In one crisis period you were able to claim up to three vouchers.
After a while we decided to withdraw from the Foodbank. Why? Well, we became convinced that we weren’t helping. Indeed we were concerned that there was a risk of hurting. You see, we were observing what was happening. First of all, we were meeting people who were experiencing long term difficulties in terms of poverty caused by unemployment, emotional and physical health issues, addictions or immigration status. The Foodbank system of three vouchers had been set up to deal with short term crisis situations where people found themselves experiencing a gap between need and income either because they were waiting for a pay-check to arrive or benefits to begin. It wasn’t geared up for longer term issues. Often we would receive a phone call from the centre to be lectured about why we had given someone a fourth voucher.
Secondly, we watched the experience of people in the system. We saw that people would come to us, often directed from the job centre/social security office which happened to be right next door to the actual foodbank. They had been told that we could give them a voucher. Note that at this stage when referred via an official body it would be difficult for us to engage in any conversations to assess the situation. Then, they would receive their voucher before having to return to the foodbank. This was an hour round trip on foot before they began the walk home again. This also assumed that they caught us on a day when we were available and this coincided with the foodbank’s own opening hours.
It seemed that we were part of a process that was lengthy and inefficient that sent people from pillar to post and which required them to parade their need in public. As someone commented, “the difference between being poor and well off is that a poor person must queue in public to have their problems dealt with.”
Thirdly, I think that we were seeing that we were simply creating demand. I wondered at times what people would have done if we had not been there. The tragedy is that for some people, it would have pushed them further into hunger and malnutrition but for others I wonder if they would have learnt to cope. You see, people were learning that they could turn up at the church and get a voucher and other bodies were learning that they could pass problems on to us and we’d just give them a voucher. Indeed, one of my wry observations was that foodbanks gave liberal churches an excuse to feel good about themselves by using their buildings to store food whilst often evangelicals manned the positions to make it work. Oh and those that became part of the demand also seemed to be used as pawns in political campaigns too.
Fourthly, think about the kind of food we were collecting and handing out. Cheap tins of processed food that people found at the back of their cupboards or perhaps picked up a couple of to add to their shopping and bring in. We weren’t providing food that would nourish and sustain. We weren’t providing anything particularly healthy. I’m not convinced it was all that appetising either.
So, we pulled out of the foodbank, not because we didn’t care about the poor or feeding the hungry but because we simple weren’t convinced that this was the right way to approach it. Church is not meant to be about handing out vouchers. Come to think of it, nor is a real community.
So we got on with being a local church in our community. Yes we kept some emergency supplies in for people in crisis. However, we did three things. First, we were becoming a church family that ate together. There were different times in the week when this happened. We had our community café where people could drop in and members of the church were there to sit and chat over a mid-morning coffee or lunch time soup. We were relaxed about what people paid. Then on a Sunday night we met for food, worship and bible study. People began turning up from hostels or off the streets because they had heard that there was food. We allowed them to come and get some food but always were clear that this was about a meal together not hand out time. They were gradually joining with us.
I remember that the first few times, they would come and grab a few things from the table and them off they would dash. Gradually they began to stay and find a table to sit and eat at. Some of us would chat with them. Then they’d stay a bit longer as we sung a few songs together and increasingly we saw them staying into the whole gathering and participating in the Bible study, listening to teaching and asking deep, heartfelt questions.
Second, we became alert to where there was need and we began to find ways of lining people up so that things like shopping were shared. Another family would be included in with our family when we shopped. The result was that they weren’t just getting a few tins of sausages and beans but there were conversations about what they needed.
Thirdly, we encouraged those receiving to be part of a community not just recipients of charity. We at that stage were only able to do this in a small way by giving people opportunities to help volunteer in the kitchen on a Sunday night, with our ESOL classes or serving in the community café. It was a small start but it was a start at least.
Now, I’m not saying we had got anywhere beyond scratching the surface or close to a right and healthy, Biblical approach to wealth and poverty but it felt like we were re-orientating towards this. We were no longer the voucher place.
I think that there are a couple of problems with current Christian approaches to poverty and charity.
- I don’t think that these approaches have a deep enough understanding of the problem of sin in people’s own lives and how deep that affects them.
- I don’t think that these approaches have a deep enough understanding of the societal/structural problems (idolatry) that fight against people being able to live well.
The result is that we scratch the surface. We talk about being against poverty but actually we are against debt. We can help people to start managing their finances -and that’s a good thing – but we haven’t really started to engage the problem of poverty.
We offer charitable handouts but that places us as the middle-class saviours and we build dependency upon us. We become the voucher people, we are useful to the state, we put sticking plaster over its failings. However, I’m not sure that this really helps people and I definitely don’t see it as getting us near to a true experience of the Gospel. I would encourage each church to think carefully about its context and work out how best to be a loving sharing community with the Gospel at the centre. We’ll come back to that in our final article.