A Picture of Jesus

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This week I was set an interesting challenge by Jane who regularly uses our food bank for additional support, she asked me if “This week when you bring the food parcel …. can you bring me a picture of Jesus …. I want to put it over my bed”. 

Obviously my difficulty  wasn’t for shortage of images that could be found, so many can be easily located just by pressing Jesus in the Google image search engine (and of course this is just what my good friend and colleague Charlotte did). The real challenge came in deciding which one to actually choose from the vast array. Of course there’s  been a push back against the western idealised blue eyed, blond Jesus of the past couple of centuries, but even if these were ruled out it would still leave a vast choice not just of ethnogaphic interpretations, but also of style, stance and theological message.

It made me realise just how personal our choice of “Jesus image” is …. it forces us to ask ourselves, “What am I looking for in my chosen image of Jesus”? For me it would be Jesus as liberator of all humanity, the embodiment of a person wholly human, and wholly divine – a human at one with himself and with God – and the one who showed us what the world could be like in the Kingdom of God. 

Of course the many images some up different aspects of the being and nature of Jesus – and create for us a kind of visual shorthand reference for our theological underpinning; his sacred and holy nature, his forgiveness, his love and protection, his sacrificial nature, his guidance as “shepherd”, along with many others.

In the end I decided I couldn’t (and really shouldn’t) be the one to impose my own choice of image on someone else so I printed two or three different images for her to choose from. A cop out? Maybe. Which did she choose? I didn’t feel the need to ask her – she’ll no doubt tell me if she thinks it’s important for me to know. Will it offer her the peace of mind she sought from it? I really hope and pray it does.

 

 

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Who uses food banks?

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Today has seen coverage in various media reports of yet another study on food banks and food bank use – there’s little new here, and little that those involved haven’t been saying to Government since at least 2012 – but somehow it falls upon closed ears.

This “new” major study from researchers at Oxford University and King’s College London has tried to get beyond the stereotypes, looking at those using the Trussell Trust’s network of food banks.

“In the most basic terms, these are people with many overlapping forms of “destitution”.

They have been missing meals, often for days at a time, going without heating and electricity. One in five had slept rough in recent months.

They are at the lowest end of the low-income spectrum, with an average income below £320 per month, described as living in “extreme financial vulnerability”.

These are usually people of working age, middle-aged rather than young or old, mostly living in rented accommodation.

About five out of six are without a job and depending on benefits”. 

(Source BBC News)
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, famously stumbled early in the election campaign when she seemed to wave off food bank use by describing the reasons people use them as “complex”. Likewise another Tory MP Dominic Raab brought comments when he said that many people use food banks as a response to “cash flow” issues. These responses are deliberately obtuse, or else a callous twisting of the reality of many peoples lives. The precarious nature of many of the poorest incomes do indeed mean that food banks become a lifeline when making harsh financial choices; “Should I put money in the gas meter or buy food?” – “Should I feed my children – or buy the new school shoes I’ve been told to buy to avoid the social worker being called?” Yes these are real comments, yes I’ve heard them directly with my own ears, and if Dominic Raab wants to call that a “cash flow problem”, or Theresa May thinks its all “complex” then I think they need to examine their consciences a little more.
Over the past few weeks our shelves at Pxi-Parson Cross Initiative Projects have been getting more and more depleted, and have required more and more topping up. We’ve spent nearly another £100 this week alone on food in addition to that donated directly.
We are nearing a crisis point – what happens then I genuinely do not know.
 

‘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!

Those who hunger …

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“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (Matthew 5.6)

Last weekend, Sheffield Church Action on Poverty held its eighth annual Pilgrimage. As part of this years event I (as Chair of the group) announced the launch of #EndHungerUK a national three year campaign led by Church Action on Poverty and other national organisations that will try to engage people in discussions around poverty and food, and hopefully build  a consensus of opinion and new policy to move on from the place we find ourselves today.

Let’s remind ourselves of what that place looks like in UK 2016:

“Latest Trussell Trust figures show a 2% increase in foodbank use on the previous year with 1,109,309 three-day emergency food supplies given to people in crisis by our network of 424 foodbanks in 2015/16.”

Of course this is a fraction of the story – in Sheffield there are at least, around 16-20 emergency food banks and similar services. three of these are members of Trussell Trust. That one million plus figure is therefore a likely tip of the iceberg.

From our own experience, food bank use is varied. It includes all kinds of people with long term mental health and other associated issues, but it also includes short term emergencies like the person who received no payments from DWP whilst working his first month in hand, like those who’ve been on the receiving end of DWP sanctions, those who seen benefits messed up by the likes of Concentrix, and those who are just struggling because all of a sudden they’ve been hit by an on foreseen event.In our case one thing that is both upsetting and alarming is the rise in families requiring help from the food bank service – in our early days (2010-12) we fed very few families and children, in 2014-15 this had risen to around 1 in every 3 people we fed being children (under the age of 18), and this year we’ve seen that rise again to something approaching 46% of those we are now feeding being children.

Now  lets be clear (if a little controversial) the problem here isn’t really one about food. There is of course food a plenty in the UK just as there is across the first world, so much food in fact that we see alongside food banks large amounts of food waste. There are  moral, and economic, arguments around food waste – how its created, what we can do to prevent it, how it could be re-used (even as a basis for feeding people through charitable means). But food waste is not the experience we address in food banks – the issue there is poverty and fairness.

In the world, we experience food in a number of different ways, lets explore a few here to think about their different impacts.

  • Food as Commodity: This is the most common way we all experience food in the world today, and have for centuries. Whether from the local farmer, market or multi national supermarkets, food is bought and sold across the world. Poverty of course restricts your access to these markets, making choices limited, and putting some options out of reach. Food therefore like every other commodity comes at a price, and if that’s one you can’t afford then you’re left out – looking for another option, or go without. It’s one of the major problems with how we see food in the first world, divorced from its production, separated from nature, simply another commodity to be bought and sold.
  • Food as a Reward & Punishment: Of course sometimes food is given (or withheld) by those with power over others, at a basic level it maybe a parent giving a child a treat if they’ve achieved some task or other, or bottles of wine offered as “bonus rewards” for those who efforts are appreciated at work. Even as adults we will use food to help us in certain situations to gain favour, for example by taking a business partner out for lunch. Of course there’s a dark side too – food withheld from those who fail to perform, or who those with power want to punish.
  • Food as Social Bonding. Food has a real place in the forming and keeping of human bonds and relationships. Families traditionally eat together, celebrations often centre around food of some kind or other. Food undoubtedly has a social value beyond simple nutrition.
  • Food as a Gift: Then there is the food given to others as gifts. Once again this may be as treats for those we care about (presents bought and shared out of love) or it may be through, what Christians would associate with “Agape” (charitable love) where the gift is given with no condition or expectation, and ultimately as an expression that all food (and everything else) is a gift from God.

Increasingly, in the case of food banks in particular (and our response to food and poverty in general) these instances have been causing me more and more concern, as I feel the motives and even the practice are becoming modified by the world beyond.

Food donated to and given by food banks is increasingly being turned into, and seen as, a “commodity”. Charity Commission guidance says that all food should be accounted for and reported in the annual report and returns, thus more and more food banks are resorting to weighing in and out food as a way of measuring its commodity (financial) value.

Most food banks (our own included) operate some kind of “voucher” or “referral” system, exactly how these operate vary from place to place and food bank to food bank, there is no common unified system – because food banks are not, have not been designed to be, part of the system – they are a symptom of the system failure. However, the consequence of the voucher / referral system is that access is through a gatekeeper of one kind or another. Referrers might, and do, include: Social Workers, Health Vistors, Housing Associations, Citizens Advice and yes even the DWP themselves – in addition some food banks have reserved the ability to make in house referrals so no one has to leave hungry. The problem is here though, that somehow in this we’ve created a reward and punishment situation where a referrer has the power to make the decision about when someone (and indeed who) needs to be sent to a food bank.

Meanwhile, as I’m watching our volunteers pack another bag of food, serving a coffee and a sandwich, I try to remind myself (and those around me) this is meant to be a gift. An act of love and solidarity to our neighbours in need – it’s not fair, it can’t be fair. So what are the alternatives available – should we shut the doors and leave people to their own devices and a system that’s failed them? Should we allow ourselves as food banks to be co-opted into a new welfare system based on charity, and therefore seek a more equitable system of food distribution by becoming the system? Or do we continue to struggle through the mess of it all, understanding that only campaigning, and a massive change in policy and the way we together provide for the livelihoods of all citizens will resolve this situation in the end?

Meanwhile we’ll be back again next Friday to do our best, to respond with love and grace.

Green Wellies and Harvest Feasts

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6685965833_dc8cf987bb_bA few weeks ago I was invited to help lead a YMCA learning hub on the subject of “Disability and Special Needs” -also in attendance was Rev Katie Tupling who offered a timely reminder that in any civil rights cause “Nothing about us, without us, is for us” and she of course is right.

I’m not a person with a disability, and can’t therefore with any legitimacy start to speak of that experience, but I am a Dad (in this case technically ex-foster parent) of a young man who has a diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Moderate to Severe Learning Disabilities (M/SLD). When I speak it’s from this perspective, and with this passion behind it – but my experiences are NOT the same as my sons. I’m not the one who has been kicked, and spat at, not the one who has been called vile and hurtful names, and I’m not the one who has to live it out day after day.

In his case, as with many others, we’ve had to fight and argue (and we still do) for so many of the support services he needs. Even as I write this we have no idea what staff will be around (if any) over Christmas to provide him the support he needs, and whilst that’s irritating to the extreme for us, not knowing the extent of support we’re going to have to provide, because those being paid and contracted to do it won’t or can’t – it’s nothing of the uncertainty and insecurity it causes him. There are some things that we (as parents) have had to deal with that, certainly as a child, he didn’t directly: like when someone had stuck the prayer book pages together to hide the “badly” almost illegible prayer he had written, or the “tuts” we got from some in the early days when he would climb over the pews in his bright green wellies.

But I don’t want this blog piece to just be another set of moans and groans (though believe me it could be) about the negative aspects of dealing with attitudes towards disability, or the difficulties around accessing benefits and support services; instead I wanted to share some good memories from living and working alongside young people with physical and learning disabilities.

One of my Pioneer Ministry roles takes me into local schools, doing assemblies, prayer days, Godly Play sessions and Chaplaincy. One of the local schools I work with is Woolley Wood School, a specialist school for children with special needs. I always say at Woolley Wood that the children there “know how to celebrate” – I can honestly say that I’ve witnessed some of the best Harvest and Christmas celebrations ever there. There is something about how staff, parents and children grasp and live every moment of those times to the fullest. Last years Harvest Festival  in particular, will forever live in my memory. A group of us from the food bank had been invited to the school, we spent time in the classroom, learning new songs and the sign language to go with them, then all of us went into the long wide corridor laid out for lunch like some great feast in the nave of a cathedral. Each class had cooked and brought something to the feast to share with everyone, we sat and we ate and we drank. Then we went outside to dance and play and enjoy each others company, before returning inside for the final act.Once again, we (as guests) were seated at the top end of the corridor and the children seated down the sides, some in wheelchairs, some independently – singing and signing “Love grows stronger when you give it away”. Gradually from the far end of the corridor a small group of children, and adults pulled along a decorated wagon – as it passed each class in turn their harvest offerings were heaped into the wagon, and then each class followed on behind it. For the full length of the corridor it came, piled higher and higher with food for the food bank, and the singing grew, and the laughter and the tears. My few words of prayerful thanks added nothing – all had been said, sung and given already.