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

Standard

 

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)

Standard

C-1SCItXkAAb01W

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 ….

Standard

f2478_110

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!

Re-learning to pray

Standard

C6-F8JLWoAEBxB3

At the start of Lent I wrote a piece called Forty Days, one of the tasks I’ve set myself this year during this Lent season, alongside the fasting and casting off of bad habits, is to renew and re-learn parts of my prayer life.

I’ve often used art and creative writing as a method of prayer, and so it is to this place I’ve returned at this time. Again in that previous blog piece I talked about how the Psalms are for me a kind of go to part of scripture when I’m looking for a prayer focus, and how at the start of Lent I was particularly focussed on Psalm 51, and so it is that for the first fortnight of Lent, this psalm has remained a key focus for me. The photo above is of the prayerful artwork that has emerged from some of that reflection, but I wanted to share and record also some of the process and practice behind this art.

My first act of course was to read and re-read the psalm, in a kind lectio-divina manner, allow the words to lodge inside me, and waiting for particular words and sounds to stand out. The first phrase that stood out in this way was “teach me wisdom in my secret heart”*, and so the first thing I did was to use some of the remaining ash from  Ash Wednesday to finger draw a secret heart on the white card. This heart represents that deep inner self the part of us the we hide from others, and even ourselves; it’s the part of us where our insecurities, fears and prejudices sit – the part of us where we hurt in ways we don’t always understand even ourselves, maybe it’s got similarities to what Freud described as the Id, that most primitive and instinctive component of personality.

Next I created  a clean heart** made from clay super imposing it over the secret ash heart. But I wanted somehow to reflect the process by which I might imagine Gods work in the repentance – forgiveness – healing circle, and the whole Grace thing. That’s where I got the idea of the jigsaw pieces from, and the idea that through grace a new picture is created, the cleansed heart is not just clean, it is also re-newed, re-stored, re-created. Initially I took each piece of jigsaw and on the reverse side wrote more phrases from the psalm that had stood out as I read it yet again, things like: Have mercy, Steadfast Love, Abundant mercy, Wash me, Cleanse me, Purge me, You desire truth, Create in me a clean heart. These were then incorporated into the heart, but not neatly and perfectly, not in a joined up way that might suggest the full picture revealed and all issues resolved – but also not in a broken way, I felt a need to express a healing process. The pieces connect, some to each other, but all to the heart.

Finally I took inspiration from the Japanese practice of Kintsugi, a means by which pottery is repaired using a lacquer mixed with gold, silver or sometimes platinum. This practice embraces the flawed and incompleteness of things, and seeks to still see the beauty that is there. Verse 12 in the psalm says:

“Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and sustain in me a willing spirit.”

For my the gold paint that I used to fill the gaps between the jigsaw pieces, to unify them with the clay heart, represented this plea from a place of repentance – Gods grace can restore us and sustain us, and even (as with the Kintsugi pieces) reflect the beauty of Gods gift in and through our own incompleteness.

 

 

*Verse 6
**Verse 10 (and Isaiah 64.8 Job 10.9)

 

 

 

 

 

Pastors, Priests and other roles

Standard

17201263_10154920290596011_7803375917668045511_n

It seems like I spend a fair amount of time as a Methodist Pioneer actually defining, and describing exactly what it is I am to myself and to others. It seems to be made more complicated to some because of the fact that I am not ordained, and by the fact that I have work and lay roles that often overlap. As a Methodist Local Preacher (lay) I cannot completely divorce from my day job as Pioneer employed and commissioned by the Methodist Circuit, its impossible; and yet the roles are different. The former brings me into contact and demands I minister (in)to “traditional” mainstream church, the latter calling me to move beyond, to those distanced from that space and those traditions.

So what am I? I’m a pioneer, but I’ve been talked about and addressed as: Pastor, Priest, Lay Minister, Father, Reverend and others…. so let’s explore.

The term “Pastor” derives from the Latin for “Shepherd”,  “Priest” has a more complex linguistic background it seems, emerging from Presbyter (Late Latin) meaning “an elder” and / or  from Latin praepositus a “person placed in charge”. Of course the linguistics aren’t the sole arbiter of what we might now imply and understand by these terms today, but they do give us an interesting start point.

Most obviously Pastor resonates with Jesus words to Simon Peter recorded in John 21.16 “…take care of my sheep”. It suggests a role of care, nurture and guidance “[The role of the pastor is] to help people pay attention to God and respond appropriately.” so wrote Eugene Peterson “… [and to] keep the community attentive to God.”  The shepherd also plays a protective role and where necessary sacrificial one (John 10.11) putting the needs of the “flock” above the needs of self. In the mission context in particular perhaps, this latter part can be very real, as people from our little community of volunteers and helpers put themselves into vulnerable positions sometimes with relative strangers; taking food into their homes, drawing close to them in order to in turn minister to (and receive from) them.

I guess priest isn’t a term we use in Methodism with any great regularity, preferring instead the term Minister for those who are ordained. As a pioneer however, I am working both “within” and “outside” the tradition of Methodism, working with, missioning and ministering amongst people not of that tradition, and of no traditions.

“Chaplain” is a term that I sometimes use. indeed I am as part of my role formally recognised as Chaplain in two of our local schools. Traditionally the chaplain role is to be an ecclesial role somehow attached to secular institution. Typically therefore we might encounter chaplains in hospitals, schools, the military etc. However it is an approach to ministry to feels to somehow fit with much of what I am, and the role I play – encountering the secular over the overtly religious, or ecclesial. The Chaplain role is closer to just being – being present, being alongside, being available as a resource, being a friend – but I guess it doesn’t fit the bill entirely in all circumstances.

So if we go back again to those linguistic roots to consider this “priest” role we see again it is one of being “in charge”. Now where I work there’s a bit of a workplace banter around this, one of our community even bought me a giant mug (they understood my addiction to coffee) with the words “THE BOSS” written big on it. Banter yes, because although I try to hold the role very lightly, although I try to encourage and empower others around me – in the end as the person paid by the Circuit to be here, to be responsible – the scary fact (for me) is, I am in charge!

Priest, is in the end understood as a hierarchical term, and that’s probably for me as good a reason as any to steer clear of using it, but at the same time it would be completely wrong of me to deny I have power, I do – and an authority to exercise it within the bounds given to me by the wider Methodist Church. As all Spiderman and Stan Lee fans know “with great power there must also come great responsibility” and the denial of oneself holding any power is not being in least bit responsible. Each of us has power in different situations, and each of us has to decide how we choose to exercise that power – hierarchical power and authority however brings its own issues and complexities.

And so as I undertook my first baptism this Sunday of the beautiful Rebekah Ann, her young life full of hopes and possibilities; and as the parents, godparents, and church were each asked in turn to make our promises and commitments – I felt myself as both priest and pastor. In charge of the occasion, responsible for dutifully and humbly serving  God and the Church through this particular sacrament, and also aware of the part I was playing in helping each one of us there to be attentive to God and the grace that is conferred upon us all.

What a Feminist Looks Like

Standard

clergy

I’m not a feminist, how can I be, after all I’m a man. In the same way that being a straight, white, male with no disability  debars me from speaking “on behalf” of black people about racism, LGBT people about homophobia, people with disabilities about the discrimination experience by them – I cannot speak of womens oppression, or therefore of feminism, from any experience that qualifies me. I have to accept (and do accept) that I am part of the world that oppresses, I even have to accept that there have been times (still are times) when my attitude, my behaviour has been, inadvertently or otherwise, part of that oppression, and even where that is not the case, that I am a direct and indirect beneficiary of that oppression. So I cannot say “this is what a feminist looks like”, I cannot speak “on behalf” of women, but that doesn’t mean I cannot take sides.

In a similar way I’m not an Anglican, I’m a Methodist and as such I’ve been reluctant to get drawn into the current “debate” in Sheffield (and beyond) about the whole issue of the appointment of Rev Philip North as the Anglican Bishop for Sheffield Diocese. But seeing and hearing the sadness and upset this issue has caused for many of my females colleagues in ministry in Sheffield, I felt I needed to say something.

I do not understand the “theological objections” to the ordination of women, I do not understand how “mutual flourishing” operates, but this I know – I have served with, and been ministered to, by many women since becoming a follower of Jesus, some have been ordained, others have not; their gender has made no difference to their faithfulness to Christ, no difference to their abilities, no difference to their grace and love as found in Jesus, no difference to the calling they each have been given. For any powers or system to deny such callings, has (in my opinion) little to do with the Kingdom of God and much more to do with the Empire of Patriarchy.

 

 

 

Forty Days

Standard

c51rio9waaaw-q5

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday the start of Lent. It’s a season in the Christian calendar I always look forward to, but often one when I feel like I didn’t quite arrive where I’d hoped. This year, I was fortunate enough to spend the whole of Ash Wednesday morning in quiet contemplation and prayer with friends, as well as sharing in the ashing ritual where we made the sign of the cross on each others foreheads, a ritual that links us with centuries of previous Christian witness, cleansing and prayer.

The cross is of course for forgiveness, but also to call once more to repentance; an acknowledgement that both individually and collectively we do things that are wrong, that we fall short of a perfected humanity, and the need for us to recognise these things in order that we might move on. The ash further reminds us of our own mortality, “Remember ..” say the words of the liturgy “…you are dust and to dust you will return.”

As in the past, alongside the “giving up” of sweets, cakes and other indulgencies for the season, I’ve also made two other committments this Lent:

  • To try and revitalise my prayer life (which if I’m honest has become somewhat lazy)
  • To genuinely offer a repentant heart before God (to search out my own faults and shortcomings, and allow God to effect changes in me)

One of my key scriptural sources at times when I’m looking for a focus for my prayer and reflections I turn to the Psalms, and it was there that I started again yesterday. I particularly focussed on Psalm 51, a psalm all about repentance and forgiveness:

1. Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
    and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
    and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
    and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
    wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
    let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
    and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
    and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
    and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
    and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
    and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
    O God of my salvation,
    and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
    build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
    in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
    then bulls will be offered on your altar.

As the morning progressed, and I moved into deeper reflection and meditation upon this psalm and others, I wrote these words, which I share with you all now:

How; amongst

all the hurt and the hate,

all the fear and the greed,

all the racism and misogyny,

can we find the Way?

How; amongst

all the fake news and fake smiles,

all the dreams and the nightmares,

all the sales pitches and political spin,

can we find the Truth?

How; amongst

all the dark times and dark places,

all the turned off hearts and switched off minds,

all the snuffed out hopes and blown out dreams,

can we find the Light?

Lent is that time to go deeper, to face the reality of our own lives and existence, our own faults and failings, time to ask the big questions of ourselves, our generation, and of God. It’s a time to journey into the wilderness where (if we are fortunate) we may hear a still, small voice that helps us make a lttle more sense of it all.