Complex yet very simple

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This may well be one on the shortest blog pieces I’ve ever written, the words below are the ones I typed on Twitter and Facebook

“The Government says: “the reasons why people use food banks is complex, so it’s wrong to link a rise to any one cause.”
So let’s be clear, all kinds of people use our foodbank service including:
People in work
People out of work
People with learning disabilities
People with mental illness
People who are sick
People who are well
People with addictions
People in recovery
People with debts
People who are owed money
People who have children
People who are over 50
People who are over 60
People who are under 30
So yes it’s “complex” but its also very simple – all these people have one thing in common, each of them is struggling to manage on the money they have and feel that through the charity of the foodbank they might have one less thing to worry about for at least a day or two.”

The response from Government, politicians and policy makers also needs to be simple, it requires a firm committment to doing away with the need for charity food aid in communities throughout the UK. It requires ploicies that yes “make work pay” and at realistic levels to support families. It also requires another long hard look at how we support those in our society who do not work for whatever reasons, how humanity and compassion can be returned to a system based upon “social security” and sustainable lifestyles.

The response from Churches, and everyone who has ever donated and supported a foodbank in many ways is also clear, please tell your MP, your Councillors, and anyone else you can think of that foodbanks and food charity is not how we will solve the “complex” issues that bring people to foodbanks for support, but that we will not rest until there is no longer a need for any citizen in the UK to need such support, in one of the worlds richest nations (as we are) there are better and fairer ways of supporting the most vulnerable in our communities. And for those of us who pray, we could do worse than to start with the words from the prophet Amos:

“… let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

(Amos 5.24)

 

For more about PXI (Projects) foodbank:

https://www.facebook.com/pxiprojects/

https://pxiprojects.wordpress.com/?fbclid=IwAR2xrpcw7SWlUAzvF-CnJKt2As07zKA_ln5wUUxSXUSIitGVjMXMHJrLAZc

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Universal Realities

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It’s been another crazily busy week at our foodbank session – in one afternoon we’ve fed 72 households, that is 112 adults and 55 children …. since January 2019 we’ve seen almost a week on week increase and levels are now at over 70% higher than before the Universal Credit roll out in Sheffield.

One household we spoke with today had made three (YES THREE) Universal Credit claims since December:

  • First claim after he lost his job in December – He waited the five weeks standard delay for first payment, but didnt recieve any money. He contacted DWP to be told he’d failed to reply to, an email (he hadn’t seen it) and so his claim was cancelled by DWP. So he submitted a new claim – another five week wait for his first payment.
  • Fortunately in this period he found a job. The wages weren’t great, but with the hours he put in and his partners part time wages, they earned enough in that month to take them over the threshold for Universal Credit, so his claim was cancelled by DWP.
  • Sadly a couple of weeks later he was laid off. He has now had to submit a new claim for Universal Credit and is subject to a five week wait for his first payment.

Stories like these are sadly too familiar, as people are left with little or no monies whilst waiting for claims to to be processed. Add this to the frequent amount of debt that people are carrying, rents and mortgages owed and the negative impact on peoples mental health can hardly be overstated. I wonder sometimes how people who find themselves in these kinds of situation cope, but of course most of the time they do, the bonds of family and community remain stronger than some might imagine, especially perhaps in places like Parson Cross and similar neighbourhoods elsewhere.

Into this situation we throw our volunteers and helpers, without which there would be no service, no food bank ….. week on week they too have to cope, not just with the pressure of giving out food parcels to around 70 households in four hours (thats roughly one every three and half minutes) but they also find time to listen to the stories (the lives) of those who attend. Stories of relationship breakdowns, of ill health, and addictions; of jobs lost, and dashed hopes, of choices made between fuel or food, of Mums not eating a meal so their child can do….. and all this shared and received with compassion, and often a smile.

Today our voluntary team stayed on an extra hour in order to make sure everyone who came had been given a food parcel – it’s never enough, but it’s all we can do, and we’re glad that we can even though we are sad that we have to. We don’t ask for gratitude and thanks ….. but every now and again we are blown away by the grace we are shown by people who come to us, today we were given a donation of £1 from a young woman who has come to food bank a number of times over the last few months, with it this letter (see photo above):

“TO EVERYONE,

Thank you so very much for all you do. Your kindness is like looking up into the sky and seeing stars, which I do feeling I am not alone.”

To be honest – I have nothing more to say

 

 

 

Foodbanks and the politics of salvation

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I am getting increasingly concerned and frustrated by food banks, in Sheffield and elsewhere, that think their work is “apolitical” ….  I’ve even discussed the difference between “apolitical” and non party political on social media sites belonging to such foodbanks and I have had my comments deleted.

Such voluntary silencing of the role of and reasons behind the growing use of food banks and other charity food relief is itself inevitably political. Important voices from the past remind us:

“Not to speak, is to speak. Not to act, is to act” Deitrich Bonhoeffer

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” Desmond Tutu

Foodbanks only exist because of a failure in civic and political policy and the way society supports citizens when we become vulnerable within our society. That vulnerability immediately effects our access to the “marketplace” and the accepted ways of providing for ourselves. In the post war welfare settlement, that vulnerability was mitigated by a system of Social Security payments and services that “cushioned” us in such times.. It provided payments to cover the basic needs, rent rebates, free school meals, home help services, meals on wheels etc. That settlement has been under attack for many years in this country and elsewhere as a new “Neo liberal” approach has been pursued by governments of different shades, and has resulted in a much more individualised, privatised, corporatised and charity based approach. Foodbanks have become a key element within that – and although many of us involved in them have struggled to see what alternatives we have, other than to leave people in need, we have played our part. That is why those of us involved in foodbanks (as well as those who support us with donations and the like) cannot simply remain silent as we pass out an ever increasing number of food parcels, and receive praise for the “good work” we do. Either we speak out about the unacceptable nature of what we are a part of or, by our silence, play a part in allowing it to go unchallenged.

It may be that foodbanks, especially those in large franchises (in the UK the Trussell Trust) stay quiet because of fear of upsetting their donor base, be that the corporate support of the likes of Tesco, Asda and others, or the grant funding from the Lottery and elsewhere. Maybe they feel that the general public would not be as generous  if they challenged the very response they are offering as really no solution at all, or maybe they self censor fearing what they may overstep some Charity Commission ruling on “political” commentary, forgetting that most of this revolves (rightly) around party political partisanship – also (it seems) too easily forgotten when MPs of various parties parade themselves in front of the cameras for publicity shots at nationally co-ordinated food drives in supermarkets up and down the country, Whatever the reasons for any self  imposed “political” silence  the facts remain -the solutions we require to do away with the need for foodbanks will need to be political and require both civic and policy changes – the very stuff of politics.

For many church based foodbanks, I fear that the issue is also tied (conciously or not) to their own theology of salvation. They see people as needing to be “saved” and the Church (and God hopefully at least) as being the means of their salvation, foodbanks too neatly fit this narrative. Foodbanks also allow some churches to feel they are doing “good work” in feeding the “poor” and “needy” – and I’m not belittling the sense of value that is genuinely felt when we help and support others – the important question to keep returning to is what am I actually doing, and why am I doing this. Are my actions in foodbank simply an act of personal and collective generosity in that I love giving away food to people when I can – or am I actually making choices;

  • Who decides who gets the food?
  • Who decides who gets referred and why?
  • What do we ask of those who want / need the food?
  • What price are we exacting? (One man at our foodbank recently said ” .. if I could afford to buy a burger at McDonalds it would cost me 99p – here its supposed to be free but every time I come I’m saying I’m an addict – I can’t cope”)

Lets be clear when Jesus speaks out in Matthews gospel and says:

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”
– Matthew 25:35-36

Jesus is not talking about foodbanks and charity, he is talking about justice and the full provision expected within the Kingdom of God, personally and collective responsibility to one another.

 

 

 

“We have failed ….” Reflections on Foodbanks & Universal Credit

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This Saturday (20th October 2018) I’ll be leading worship at the start of the annual Pilgrimage organised by Sheffield Church Action on Poverty. As I prepare it’s has reminded me of a previous event organised by the group, and the words I spoke then.

It was a conference held in Sheffield on 30th November 2014, and I spoke about how we as a society would have “failed” if food banks were still with us and were needed in five years time. That date is nearly on us, and presently there are no signs of the need for, and reliance upon food banks lessening, either by the people who use them, or by the state and welfare agencies (who now seem to have them written into their plans and strategies).

The “failure” of food banks now seems both inevitable and clear, even before the deadline I spoke of has been reached.  Now I am called into meetings and briefings about the roll out of Universal Credit in my city of Sheffield; and am told by council staff and others that food banks are part of the infrastructure that will help my neighbours and fellow citizens cope with the new system of welfare. I am asked how might local government and other agencies help support food banks in order that they might better meet the likely increased demand for them following the roll out of Universal Credit (other areas have seen increases of 52% in food bank use following the introduction of the new system).

Lets be clear;  the crisis facing food banks is not one of somehow better ensuring supply meets demand – the problem facing food banks is more fundamental, how do they escape from helping perpetuate a base injustice that is becoming enshrined by the dismantling of the post war consensus around social security, and the return of pre war models of  the “deserving and undeserving poor relief”. Food banks with their “quasi systems” of referrals, and time limits on the like are simply reinforcing the hoop jumping  exercises already faced by people and families on low incomes who rely on the state and other agencies to help maintain a decent standard of life. Austerity is not just a set of political choices made by the current Conservative Government but is also a political culture and tone that has established itself in the aftermath of the global financial crash, and the crisis of neo-liberalism. Sadly its is one that despite our talk of solidarity, despite our best intentions, food banks have not overturned, and in fact may have (without ever intending to) in fact helped perpetuate.

Where does this leave us? I don’t now but here’s some thoughts.

I am grateful for those around me who are helping to unpick and challenge what the next steps might be. Politically we need to find new models of community based support that meet the needs of those struggling on low incomes (and temporarily no income) but that do so with dignity, compassion and inclusion, at the same time we need to find ways of going upstream to the heart of the problem. Some politicians are now too happy to avoid the issue of poverty and food bank use by arguing that the issue is “complex” – yes it is and therefore it needs sound public policy responses not simplistic solutions. Poverty comes in many forms and with many complexities:

  • Poverty and poor mental health
  • Poverty and low wages
  • Poverty and disability
  • Poverty and isolation
  • Poverty and debt
  • Poverty and addiction
  • Poverty and deskilling
  • Poverty and ill health

This list of course could go on, which is of course why food banks aren’t the answer – and neither is any simplistic approach like “the best route out of poverty is through work” – but there are people not able to work, or not able to get secure work, or work with a level of decent wages (and I don’t simply mean paying the “national minimum wage”) sadly their are plenty of people working who are still experiencing hardship, and yes even visits to food banks!

But for many of us the problems are not just political but also theological – so much of the food bank response has been through churches and other faith based organisations, we must also challenge ourselves about what we are doing. Yes we are responding to a call (as phrased within my own Christian tradition) to “feed the hungry” and provide for those in need; but lets examine our deeper motivations too. Are we sometimes only too glad to have found a new “centre stage” for our civic presence? Are we sometimes guilty of stepping into “saviour” mode?

Many of us involved in food banks know that we cannot simply continue as we are – we are at something of a crossroads, the next few years will likely see a number of things, and these will set the pattern for our future.

  1. We are likely to see an increase in the “corporatisation” of some food banks. Franchised food banks, securing local (and possibly even central) government funding, national deals with supermarkets (and other companies) and increased pressure for the need for “robust” referral systems to ensure public accountability.
  2. The closure of many smaller, “independent” food banks as they struggle to cope with the increased needs and demands upon them.
  3. The emergence of new models (which will no doubt throw up their own problems and questions) of community support.

I’ll finish this blog reflection with the words I have chosen to start the pilgrimage this Saturday with – they seem fitting for the times we are in:

Today we set off on a journey together; 

a journey of discovery, 

a journey of understanding,                                    

a journey of emotions,                                            

a journey of prayer.

One step at a time,                     

we journey onwards with God.                         

This is pilgrimage.

Changing Seasons

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This weekend saw the Autumn Equinox and at Share Ministries we marked it with an evening of folk music from local friends and an open mic session for others to share songs and poems.

Autumn Equinox (also known within Pagan community as Mabon) is celebrated when day and night are of equal duration before the descent into increasing darkness and is the final festival of the season of harvest. It is also a time to recoginse that the balance of the year has changed, the wheel has turned and summer is now over.

Recognising and marking seasonal change is important, it’s important to do so within the context of creation (the natural world around us) but its also important to do so in our own lives (we are of course also part of that same creation). Seasonal change in our lives can take many forms; we move from childhood to teens  and early adulthood through our middle years and into our old age. But of course other changes of season may also take place; our health may change, relationships come and go, hopefully we learn to love and also inevitably to cope with the loss of people we love. In all these changes in our life seasons God travels with us, offering light even in the dark times, providing us a sense of balance in our lives that holds us firm in good times and bad.

My ministry seems to be in something of a season of change – decisions about new priorities and partnerships are underway, as well as new challenges faced by those I work alongside and those we seek to serve as friends in community. Universal Credit casts a dark shadow over the coming season as the roll out hits Sheffield around November / December this year, its total effects are still of course unknown but the experience of many in places it is already in operation show it has caused more problems than solutions, deepened peoples experiences of poverty rather than lifting them from it. In the past six months alone our food bank service has seen a further 26% growth in those seeking help – if Universal Credit increases these figures we will find it increasing hard to cope with demand in the same way, thankfully our supporters are still generous and we will continue to look for the best ways to exhibit our key values of Love, Hope, Grace and Advocacy despite the increasing challenges.

Our Equinox Blessing

Blessings for the bounty of your Summer harvest.

Blessings for balance in our life as we attune with the power of equal night and day.

Blessings for that which falls away, that which needs to be released with faith and trust into the mystery.

Blessings for gathering and storing the light & warmth of the Summer sun as we head through this transition season towards the dark of Winter when the earth goes to her womb-place and takes that which has fallen away and uses it to create new life that comes in the rebirth of Spring.

May we all harvest well so the light within can carry us through the time of least “outer” light.

 

(Photo by Katie York – Sunshine & Poppies)

This Class Gives

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Apparently people were “queuing round the block” to donate food for a Sheffield food bank in return for a limited edition Peter McKee can ….. Now good people across this country give to food banks including the one I’m involved in at Parson Cross Initiative each and every week with no expectation of reward; I’m glad this stunt is bringing more food, I’m hoping it will prompt debate, I’m worried people will still not question why some are still needing support from food banks in UK 2018.

As a nation we must quickly come to understand the “cost” of allowing the current state of affairs to continue:

  • The “demonisation” of those not working – or indeed those “under employed” to use the latest government jargon
  • The distrust of those claiming disability or sickness benefits, this is true across the board, but is often even more so in relation to “unseen disabilities” and mental health issues
  • The ignorance and assumptions of those who “have” about those who don’t. Allied to this many of us seem to forget that our economic grasp of life is relatively fragile. Only this week we were giving a food parcel to a man who less than 12 months ago had been doing fine employed full time as a driver.

All these attitudes, underpinned of course government policies deliberately designed to create another “hostile environment” around benefits and social security payments, have a cost on all of us. Not simply a financial and economic cost but a moral, and indeed a spiritual one.

We are called to respond – as Christians we are called to respond with love and grace, with an eye on justice and the values of the Kingdom of God so often spoken about by Jesus. As humans we are also called, the cost of excessive inequality, and a lack of compassion leads us towards a kind of barbarism that devalues the humanity of each one of us.

 

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.