No Words

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No Words

So many events have taken place over the past few weeks, a General Election, terrorist attacks in Manchester, London and overseas, and of course the terrible fire at Grenfell Tower. I have wanted to write about some of these but somehow I could not find the right words.

A Lament is defined in the dictionary as: “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” or “a complaint” – it is both a noun and a verb, a naming and an action.

Today at our weekly writing group I penned these words, a lament; for now I think this will do.

Seven Spaces

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When I first began in Parson Cross, back in 2010, I read a pamphlet by George Lings called Seven Sacred Spaces (part of the Church Army – Encounters on the Edge series), in it he describe some common spaces that could be found within monastic type communities. The model has stuck with me, and I’ve kept returning to it – and once again this year I’ve gone back to the allotments (on which PXI Projects has a plot) to explore the “seven spaces” there.

The spaces that Lings refers to are:

Cloister: A place for surprising and unplanned encounters.

Chapel: Where we experience faith and worship as a corporate “body”.

Cell: A personal spiritual space.

Chapter: A space where community meets and makes choices and decisions together,

Garden: Physical labour and engagement with creation takes place here.

Scriptorium: Where we can explore creativity and share in the passing on of knowledge.

Refectory: Here the community eats together, offers and provides hospitality to others.

So it was with these in mind that I returned to the allotments on Norwood Road, in the wonderful early summer sun of last week, to reflect on how these spaces are being brought to life already, and how I might join in with that and know God there.

Abba Moses, one of the Desert Fathers once said: “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” And so, at first I sat for a while in my own cell our plot (76) in prayerful reflection and preparation, the sunshine and shade dancing and moving across the place, trying to clear my head of my own plans and assumptions, and allowing myself to simply encounter the spaces and the people on the site.

After some time I journeyed out, along the pathways between the plots (the Cloisters if you will), peering over hedges and fences into the individual plots (Cells) taking in the birdsong around me, and the variety of cultivation happening on the allotments. At first I met Carol, it had been sometime since I last saw her, but we greeted each other and briefly passed the time of day, before I carried on my walk. I passed by Garys Lane, Plot 76 had been Garys previously but we took it on after he moved to this new plot, there was no sign of Gary but it was good to be reminded again of the continuity that lasts even when we ourselves are absent. I turned another corner, when a voice shouted “…give us a hand will you?” I walked onto the plot where the voice had come from to see Les tying a new scarecrow to a pole – I helped him until the task was complete, and we carried on chatting. Les’ plot is one of the neatest and best kept on the site, he’s put years of care and love into it, making it personal and a reflection of something that is him. On one shed wall was a painting done by Carol, it was of a field of poppies, she’d painted for Les in remembrance of all the Allotment holders that had died as a result of war.

On returning to the LEAF community plots (LEAF being one of our partner organisations) I found Diane hard at work in the sun with some children from one of the local primary schools, learning about and getting to work on planting out peas in trays ready for the coming growing season. One of the children had overheated in the hot sun, and in the end I had to drive him back to school with his class teacher (it was his birthday too – so the drive back became an extra treat after he cooled down a  bit).  He was glad he was back at school, and in the shade once more; and I too was glad to be back on the allotments, and to once again get the feel for the sacred and special spaces that we can find when we thoughtfully and intentionally seek them out.

A Radical Christianity

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Last week I was fortunate enough to spend time with some wonderful people, and here a number of inspiring speakers.

First last Monday 8th May, the Chris Howson  was the guest speaker at Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, of which I am currently the chairperson.

Chris spoke to us about the challenges of the Gospel message and the call to a Radical Christianity, In particular he spoke of the need for:
1. The message of a Subversive Gospel to be proclaimed.
2. A Compassionate Christianity to be practiced.
3. A Christianity that speaks out for just whatever the cost.
4. The sharing of a Joyful Solidarity with the vulnerable, marginalised and oppressed.

On the Friday I had been invited to attend the Godly Play conference at Sheffield Cathedral, once again on behalf of Church Action on Poverty. The key speaker that evening was John Bell, well known through the Iona and Wildgoose networks an beyond. John talked about Jesus and the Miracle stories.

He noted that Jesus had “no set approach” to how he performed miracles, each used a methodology particular to its context, sometimes he uses touches, sometimes not …. sometimes they involved groups of people, others only one ….. sometimes they public, and sometimes private, to Jesus a sensitivity to context is crucial. John then went on to show how in the miracle stories Jesus also powerfully addresses powers, authorities and taboos – challenging them is at the very heart of the miracles.

Finally on the Saturday at the Godly Play conference, Peter Privett spoke to us about playful and childhood spirituality. He challenged us all to move from a focus on an “intellectual” faith, to a faith based on experience and wonder. Among the things he left us with were these words from the 14th century Persian poet, Hafiz:

“Every child has known God,
Not the God of names,
Not the God of don’ts,
Not the God who ever does anything weird,
But the God who knows only 4 words.
And keeps repeating them, saying “Come dance with Me, come dance.”

 

This estate we’re in (Re-blog)

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“It’s like the buses in Briggate” as my Mum would’ve said. In the first twelve months of this blog I’d never felt the need or call to re-blog anything from anywhere else, now in the space of a few days “…two coming along after another”.

Today I’m re-blogging an open letter that I am a signatory to in my role as Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty, a letter that has been written in response to a pastoral notice sent out through the Anglican Church today from Archbishops Welby & Sentamu. The letter and blog first appeared at “This estate we’re in…” by Rev Al Barrett:  http://thisestate.blogspot.co.uk/2017/05/dear-archbishops-response-ge2017.html?spref=tw

Dear Archbishops Justin and Sentamu,

Thank you for your pastoral letter, which many of us read eagerly when we received it. We do indeed live in ‘frantic and fraught’ times, and deeply-rooted Christian wisdom in the lead-up to this most critical of General Elections has the potential to make a valuable, even crucial contribution. As those who share with you both the weighty responsibility for helping Christian congregations reflect on the current political challenges with Christian faithfulness, your efforts to support and resource us are appreciated.

Thank you also for highlighting the vital issues of education and housing, of community-building and healthcare, of overseas aid and campaigns against slavery, trafficking and sexual violence. Thank you for pointing to the need for justice in our economic and financial systems, and for “a generous and hospitable welcome to refugees and migrants”. All of these we welcome, as crucial issues to be placed at the centre of our political conversations and decisions.

There were, however, aspects of your pastoral letter which have given us cause for deep concern, and which have driven us to respond to it with urgency.

Most prominently among those concerns is your use of the word ‘stability’. We appreciate the word’s Benedictine roots, and the critical contemporary challenge of “living well with change”. However, words also acquire meaning from their common usage in the present, and it is impossible to escape the fact that the leader of one of the major political parties competing in this General Election has used the phrase “strong and stable” almost as a mantra throughout the election campaign thus far. For your pastoral letter to focus so positively on such a politically freighted word seems to us, at best, as a case of desperate political naivety, and at worst, an implicit endorsement of one party in this election.

Our concern goes deeper than the level of perception, however. Your focus not just on ‘stability’, but also on ‘cohesion’ (as “what holds us together”), your commodification of ‘courage’ as “aspiration, competition and ambition”, and your conflation of the deeply-contested discourses of “our Christian heritage” and “our shared British values” (a conflation often appropriated by far-right nationalist groups) are also all deeply troubling. The quest for reconciliation and unity of course has a vital place within both the Christian tradition and the work of politics, but at this point in the history of the United Kingdom, politicians issuing calls to ‘unite’ risk concealing deep divisions under a banner of conformity, rather than addressing these divisions at their roots. The emphases on stability and cohesion in your pastoral letter risk colluding with such dangerous political rhetoric. The Benedictine vow of ‘stability’ goes hand in hand with the vow of ‘conversion of life’ – an ongoing process of allowing our hearts to be changed. That process often involves plunging into the heart of our divisions and conflicts, coming face to face with our ‘others’ and our ‘enemies’, and confronting our own tendencies towards self-deception, greed, exclusion and violence. There is a prophetic calling for the church here, that goes well beyond appeals to shared values.

The third Benedictine vow is that of ‘obedience’. Understood in a purely hierarchical way, it could be argued that this response to your pastoral letter is an act of disobedience. Our understanding of Benedictine obedience, however, is more mutual: as Rowan Williams has put it, “[n]ovice and senior monk are ‘obeying’ one another if they are attending with discernment to one another and the habits that shape their lives are habits of listening, attention and the willingness to take seriously the perspective of the other, the stranger”. At a time when the voices of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and the most marginalised are being ignored, silenced, even demonised, we want to respond to Benedict’s call to obedience with our whole hearts, and listen most attentively to those voices, not in the centres of power, but in its margins. When those voices are not being heard at the heart of our deliberations and decision-making, Jesus himself is being silenced.

You remind us at the beginning of your pastoral letter that we are currently in the season of Eastertide. We pray, with you, that the risen Christ will be seen and welcomed among us, as in the stranger on the Emmaus Road, that hearts will be changed, and that the peace of Christ will break down all our dividing walls.

In joyful obedience to our Risen Lord,

Revd Al Barrett, Rector
Revd Dr Sally Nash, Associate Minister
Revd Dr Genny Tunbridge, Common Ground Community
Penny Hall, Church Warden
Sarah Maxfield, Community Development Worker
Paul Wright, Street Connector Mentor
Jane Barrett, Youth & Community Worker
Bob Maxfield, Julia Bingham, Jo Bull
(all of Hodge Hill Church, Birmingham Diocese)

Revd Dr Richard Sudworth, Christ Church Sparkbrook, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr John White, Kingsbury, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Priscilla White, St Faith & St Laurence Harborne, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Kathryn Evans, St Paul Blackheath, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Andy Delmege, St Bede Brandwood, Birmingham Diocese
Revd Dr Susannah Snyder, Oxford Diocese
Revd Kate Pearson, Coventry Diocese
Revd Canon Kathryn Fleming, Coventry Cathedral
Revd Elaine Evans, Vicar, St Bertelin Stafford & St John the Evangelist Whitgreave, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Judith Jessop,  Methodist Pioneer Minister, Parson Cross, Sheffield
Revd Ray Gaston, Team Vicar, St Chad & St Mark, Parish of Central Wolverhampton , Lichfield Diocese
Revd Simon Douglas, Team Vicar, Parish of Tettenhall Regis, Lichfield Diocese
Revd Mark Hewerdine, Priest-in-Charge, St Chad’s Ladybarn / Fresh Expressions Enabler, Manchester Diocese

Revd Jo Musson, Claines and St George’s Parish Churches, Worcester Diocese
Ray Leonard, St Andrew Blackwall, Durham Diocese

Ann Marie Gallagher, Roman Catholic, Birmingham
Adam North, St Peter’s Hall Green, Birmingham Diocese
Nick Waterfield, Methodist, Chair of Sheffield Church Action on Poverty
Kim E Lafferty, St Stephen’s, Kearsley, Manchester
Dr Charles Pemberton and Ms Irene Roding, St Margarets Church, Durham

Jo Chamberlain, All Saints Ecclesall, Sheffield Diocese
Symon Hill, Oxfordshire
Greg Smith, Lancashire

‘Poverty may be complex, but it is not inevitable’? (Part 2)

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latin-tiles-001-1The other day I featured a guest blog from Jane Perry, a good friend and an independent social research consultant, she was the lead author of Emergency Use Only report (Oxfam et al, 2014). It was, I felt, an important and powerful piece from someone who has a real knowledge of the discussions and debate held close to Government circles. In her piece Jane points to some simple policy choices that could make a genuine difference to many who use food banks in the UK  in 2017 .

I want to add to the discussion with some further thoughts around the existence and role that food banks are now playing in UK, today I’m taking part in a round table event at University of Sheffield, (with friends from UTU – Urban Theology Union, and Sheffield Church Action on Poverty) about Theology & Food Poverty and some of the points raised here will also form part of that discussion.

To start, there is sometimes an assumption by many that food banks and churches simply act out of charity and in response to biblical passages such as (Matthew 35.25), and that this at some level makes us complicit in wanting, or needing poverty and food insecurity to continue in order to serve our own desires to “help the poor”. Now clearly charity, and the desire to help alleviate the dire situations many people find themselves in, is part of the motivation, and for some I guess it may not go any deeper, however from my own experience in North Sheffield this has not been our sole approach or intention. We’ve tried to operate much more along a basis of standing in solidarity with our neighbours in need; of listening to and learning from the life experiences we encounter, and importantly being open to being challenged and changed ourselves by the things we share.

As Christians, we should attempt to hold a picture of the food shared through food banks as moving us nearer to an act framed by the Eucharist feast rather than simply an offering of  charity and alms to the poor – food not as a commodity to be bought or earned, but as a gift from God to be shared. Of course that’s not easy,  those of us who operate food banks cannot simply ignore the power (and authority) that roles gives us over others, but we can choose how we hold that power. We can either assume the mantle of serving in some less formalised extension of the welfare system (filled with rules and entitlements), or we can seek to place ourselves, to some degree at least, “at odds” with the system. Some food banks limit the number of referrals any family can have at any time, (often three times in a given period) – we’ve never imposed such a limit, we’ve always said we are willing to offer support, “For as long as the need is there….” still our statistics show that despite this most people rarely come more than 3-4 weeks without a break. For the record, we’ve never (since opening the doors in 2010) turned anyone who has turned up at a food bank session away without food regardless of referral vouchers or the like. Crises, and for most people food banks are still a place to go only when facing a crisis, don’t always stop after three visits (or three weeks) sometimes they can drag on for months. When someone came to us recently and said “I’ve been told by housing they won’t give me another referral because I’ve had my three ….” our response was, “Well here’s some food for this week, go back and tell housing there’s no set limit to how many times they refer you”, and of course we’ve gone back to referrers too and told them the same. We aren’t asking referrers to limit access, simply to assess need, and hopefully to use food bank as a support until they can find a solution.

So why bother with referrals at all you might ask, and it’s a good question. Partly it’s about rationing and managing the food we are given (and also therefore a fear on our part we could not cope adequately with an unrestricted demand), in part it’s about an accountability to those who donate (yes we can say that people coming are genuine and have a defined need), it’s also about making sure support is being given for some of those more “complex” underpinning issues. Knowingly or unknowingly, willingly or unwillingly, food banks operate effectively as a sub-currency, where inadequate incomes are subsidised through food. At their best food banks are turning commodities into gifts and transforming bureaucratic referrals into genuine mutual relationships, where personal complexities can be more fully understood and supported.

There is one big problem with food banks – the problem of normalisation. Increasingly food bank collection points can be found in more and more supermarkets, where shoppers simply add to the stores sales by buying extra to drop in the box. What does this cost the shop? Nothing – in fact it merely adds to the sales figures, and helps tick the corporate responsibility box. Don’t get me wrong those of us running food banks are grateful for every item bought and donated, but the problem is that its all becoming “normal”. We’d hoped that food banks were a temporary phenomenon, it appears they may not be!

In our food bank alone last year we gave out over 2000 food parcels, shocking around 42% of these were for children under 18. Approximately 41% were given out as a result of benefit issues (usually delays or sanctions), and another 38% because of “low income”. The hardship people are facing is real, and it’s long term; I leave the last words to one man who came to our food bank last Friday, he said:  “People are desperate so they need help. ….. I have had no gas since November because of debt. If you have no money you can’t afford to pay for utility bills”  #FoodBankVoices

 

 

 

‘Poverty may be complex, but it is not inevitable’? (Part 1)

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Today’s post is a first here, a guest post from Jane Perry. You can read more about her at the bottom of the post, it was originally posted on May 2, 2017 / Posted in Christianity, Church of England.

 

Dear Mrs May,

On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show yesterday (30/4/2017) you said “There are many complex reasons why people go to food banks”. It must be hard, as Prime Minister, to be faced with so many complex problems – negotiating Brexit whilst attempting to maintain the economic stability which you rightly identify as key to the long-term security of our public services, being just two of them. But I do have some good news for you: The continued rise in food bank use is not inevitable. It is something you can deal with, and relatively simply.

In 2014, I was part of research lead by Oxfam, working with the Church of England and other partners, to understand food bank use. We wanted to go beyond taking cheap shots at ‘welfare reform’ to uncover the underlying reasons why families have little option other to turn to food banks and set out what might be done to prevent that happening. You don’t need to do that work, the detail is all there in our Emergency Use Only report, now supported by an increasing range of other studies. And there’s little need to worry about whether those findings are still current, the main thing that has substantially changed in the last 3 years is that things have got harder and less certain for many of those who need our help most.

If you read the report, or indeed just talk to people in food banks, I’m afraid there is one central finding that you won’t be able to ignore: Most people are there because they simply do not have enough money to meet essential bills and to feed their families. With alarming frequency, families told us something had happened which left them with literally no, or very little income. We called this ‘acute income crisis’ and set out how it could be distinguished from – even though it was usually underpinned by – ongoing, chronic, low income. I’ll return to low income in a moment, but first we need to be clear: acute income crisis is real and is affecting 100,000’s of people across the UK right now. That is shocking, but it is something we, or rather Government acting on our behalf, can do something about. Here are 3 suggestions for where to start:

  1. No one leaves a Jobcentre hungry. In the UK, we expect the social security system to be there to support the poorest and most vulnerable, when they need it most. There are good reasons why Jobcentres, not food banks, are the best place to offer immediate help and ongoing support to work on underlying problems. That is what our benefit system is designed to do. However, repeated evidence shows that is not currently happening as it should do. You can fix this.
  2. Ensure continuity of income. Often the biggest challenges facing low-income families is insecurity: not being able to rely on regular income, from work or benefits. Universal Credit is a big step forward. It is essential UC is adequately funded and implemented well, ensuring that a basic safety net is there for everyone, all the time. It is early days, but reports from foodbanks in UC areas are worrying. With continuity of income in mind, you might particularly encourage DWP to think again about the 6-week waiting time for first payments, or at least make sure a robust short-term support system is in place and that all claimants are made aware of it.
  3. An economy that works for everyone. Low pay and insecure jobs are a blight on British society, as is the ‘race to the bottom’ to ensure that benefit payments are kept lower than wages. When work pays, then there is no reason to be afraid of giving decent benefit payments to those who genuinely need it. Again, your Government’s increase in the Minimum Wage are very welcome, but we need a decent Living Wage. Too many people are working hard in jobs where the pay for which falls short of what they need for an acceptable minimum standard of living.

As I’m sure you’ve reflected since, the only appropriate response to Andrew Marr’s question about nurses using food banks is “if that’s correct, that is appalling. I’ll look into it and do everything I can”. The only thing that is intractable about foodbank use is the determination to love and care shown by those who run or support them. That social solidarity should be encouraged but there are so many better ways that energy could be used, turning ‘I need…’ into ‘We can…’. However, people cannot move forward if they are left without enough money for food. Their lives are complicated, but the message is clear: This will not do. Policymaking is complex, but that’s no reason for inaction.

 

Jane Perry  previously worked within government, at the Department for Work and Pensions, and for the Policy Studies Institute and National Centre for Social Research. She is now an independent social research consultant. She was the lead author of Emergency Use Only report (Oxfam et al, 2014), pioneered the ‘Listen Up!’ project in Sheffield Diocese, and also produced Paying over the Odds (Church Action on Poverty, 2010).

 

It’s Friday ….

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These final days of Holy Week are always a special time for me as we contemplate the powers and forces overcome by Jesus on the cross …. there will be time on Sunday to celebrate, but today on Good Friday it’s important to hold onto the pain, the sadness, the cruelty, the betrayal that put Jesus on the cross. Important because, without experiencing the depths of the pain, the victory that has been won is at risk of being cheapened.

We took the decision last week to still run the food bank today despite (or in some ways because) it’s Good Friday, the need for food and especially for the love and grace we try to offer is highlighted not diminished by the crucifixion and passion narrative, we attempt to act as servants who figuratively “wash the feet” of those who come to us for support, without judgement. Some of the folk who came joined in our Good Friday service, others took Palm crosses and prayers, and there was the usual mixture of emotions, including sadness, anger, anxiety and despair. The President and Vice-President of the Methodist Conference, Roger Walton and Rachel Lampard, have both spoken about confidence, suffering and hope in this year’s Easter Message. They ask:

“…Do we sometimes race over the reflection of holy week and the pain of Good Friday, in order to reach the joy of Easter?…”

and go on to say:

“…The Christian vocation means feeling and facing the suffering and injustice of the world, alongside God, until new creation is complete. Staying with suffering and tackling injustice is no easy option but is where Christian confidence takes us…”

 

So on this Good Friday, we hold onto the pain and the suffering, the hurt and injustice, because it matters – the powers and forces that put Jesus on the cross are still part of our world today, and reflected (arguably more than on any other day in the church calendar) today. So we hold on to those feelings – we watch and we wait – and we hold onto hope, even when it seems lost. One of my favourite reflections on Good Friday is this one from SM Lockridge, placing us right in the midst of the pain and the sadness:

It’s Friday
Jesus is praying
Peter’s a sleeping
Judas is betraying
But Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
Pilate’s struggling
The council is conspiring
The crowd is vilifying
They don’t even know
That Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The disciples are running
Like sheep without a shepherd
Mary’s crying
Peter is denying
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s a comin’

It’s Friday
The Romans beat my Jesus
They robe him in scarlet
They crown him with thorns
But they don’t know
That Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
See Jesus walking to Calvary
His blood dripping
His body stumbling
And his spirit’s burdened
But you see, it’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The world’s winning
People are sinning
And evil’s grinning

It’s Friday
The soldiers nail my Savior’s hands
To the cross
They nail my Savior’s feet
To the cross
And then they raise him up
Next to criminals

It’s Friday
But let me tell you something
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The disciples are questioning
What has happened to their King
And the Pharisees are celebrating
That their scheming
Has been achieved
But they don’t know
It’s only Friday
Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
He’s hanging on the cross
Feeling forsaken by his Father
Left alone and dying
Can nobody save him?
Ooooh
It’s Friday
But Sunday’s comin’

It’s Friday
The earth trembles
The sky grows dark
My King yields his spirit

It’s Friday
Hope is lost
Death has won
Sin has conquered
and Satan’s just a laughin’

It’s Friday
Jesus is buried
A soldier stands guard
And a rock is rolled into place

But it’s Friday
It is only Friday
Sunday is a comin’!

SM Lockridge – Sunday is coming!

As we served people today at the food bank, and some of us shared in the Good Friday worship in the chapel, these words from Desmond Tutu rang out as a herald for Sunday:

Victory is Ours, so we can say;
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.
(Desmond Tutu)

It’s Friday …… but Sunday is coming!