Strangers and Foreigners

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Last weekend I was privileged to be invited by YMCA White Rose (through my friend Jonathan) to join him on a trip to Budapest where we met folk from KIE (the YMCA in Hungary) and explore possible link projects back to our shared North Sheffield base.

Amongst our many conversations, there was one theme I seemed to keep coming back to – it was the very one that Erzsebet (local KIE leader) had offered for discussion at the Saturday  night youth group – that of “Strangers and Foreigners”. It is perhaps not strange that many of the young people wanted to question, and indeed understand, why the UK had recently voted to leave the EU. It was indeed news to them that whilst England and Wales had both voted in favour of “leave”, the North of Ireland and Scotland had voted “remain”. Indeed that the margins of the result, the divisive nature of the campaign itself, had left many of us with a feeling of not being sure who “we” are and what the future for us holds. I also suggested that in my experience, that the vote was not just about “nationalism”, and indeed any nationalism demonstrated in the victorious Brexit campaign was some particular form of English Nationalism rather than a UK or British Nationalism (regardless of how this was being portrayed within or beyond our boundaries).

These conversations have led me to once again return to the idea of identity, national and other, and to try and understand what part place and space might play in my personal identity (as well as that of my friends and neighbours).

I openly admit I struggle (and always have) to have any sense of what it means to be “English” – I can cope with some sense of being British, in that it is the place where I have spent my life. I acknowledge that the relative wealth I enjoy as a part of this nation (still around the 5th richest in the world) the result of years of imperial power and our part in the slave trade, and because of our status as a successful trading nation. But I cannot identify with being English – I don’t know what it means, I don’t feel an ownership. I’m not being (no matter what politicians and others might hint) unpatriotic in saying this, it just doesn’t feature as part of my identity.

I can say “I’m a Yorkshireman” (and a Northerner) – to me these identify characteristics that I do own. I can feel a pride at times in my “call a spade a spade” bluntness, I feel attached to a history of industrial heritage, of mill towns, coal and steel that I feel a has provided a sense of gritty resilence to many of us living in this part of the world. Indeed I can own a sense of Britishness, born out of a history that I and my family through generations have been a part of (one of my ancestors even sailed with Captain Cook to plant the British flag on “undiscovered” parts of the globe) – and even when these exploits do not bring me a sense of pride (for example the wealth we gained as a nation through systems of slavery and oppression) I still acknowledge it is a part of me. But, I have no concept of Englishness, and when confronted with Little Englander nationalism the more I start to feel a stranger in my own land.

The Bible tells me (Galatians 3.28): “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” my discipleship calls me to identify in this way above the labels the world would set for me. Our UK Prime Minister famously, and recently, said: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere…” but that makes me really ask myself what this daughter of an Anglican Vicar also makes of Phillipians 3.20 “…we are citizens of heaven…”

All I can say is this, as I was invited and welcomed into Erzsebets home, as I spent Saturday evening with this group of young people in a cellar in Budapest, and as I sat in St Stephens Basilica on Sunday morning attending a Catholic Mass, in Hungarian and Latin (of which I confess to knowing little of either) I didn’t feel like a stranger and foreigner. As we shared food, sang songs together, and as the faithful shook hands and shared the peace, I knew I was home – a citizen of heaven, belonging and beloved.

 

 

 

 

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Our Fair City

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ckcx7ylwgaar15uSome of you might remember the Sheffield Fairness Commission back in 2013 and its report on the inequalities highlighted within the City. Well three years on and the campaign seems to be getting a reworking, in the last fortnight I received an email           re-inviting me to be a “Fairness Champion” (how could I refuse?) and informing me:

“Over the next twelve months we are going to be working on ‘Making Sheffield Fairer’, focusing on four campaigns – Fairer Food, Fairer Money, Fairer Work and Fairer Futures – initiating as many actions and as much ‘doing’ as possible, in order to start making as many small changes as possible that will make a real difference in communities and neighbourhoods across Sheffield.”

Great – so after yet another Friday in our food bank in Parson Cross, another Friday where we’ve fed around forty people (over half of which are were children) – let’s talk about “Fairer Food”. First thing Friday morning I was contacted by a Social Worker who asked me if I could help support one of her clients, a single Mum with two children. The Social Worker said she knew that her client wasn’t actually living in our catchment area, she had a referral for a neighbouring food bank but had been told that morning that they couldn’t help as they’d run out of food (a situation many food banks including ours have come close to before).  We helped, of course we did, “Glad we can ….” as we often say “….but sad we have to”  but lets be clear none of this is fair – none of this is just.

I’ve said it before, as have many others, FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION to either poverty or food insecurity, they are simply a desperate defensive response, a field hospital if you will for some of the casualties of current policies.

When Health Visitors phone me up asking for formula milk for a young mum and her child it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

When social workers, aware of the growing shortages, offer to set up workplace donation boxes to just “help out a little” it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

And when food banks have to ration food, or turn people away because of the shortages on their shelves, it proves FOOD BANKS ARE NOT A SOLUTION.

We can’t go on like this!

I hear from friends who move in higher powered circles than me, valiantly banging their heads against walls that I would have long ago lost patience with. Telling me that those who walk the corridors of power still argue that the reasons behind why people turn to food banks are complex and cannot be put down solely to Government policy. Yes they are complex, we see people every week with a range of issues from mental health issues, benefit delays, debt, family breakdowns, homelessness, budgeting issues and many more. But the complexity of the problem does not mean the policy solution is to leave things to charity and voluntarism, these have a place but not for the general provision of basic welfare and social security, these are issues dealt with by a civic and civil society, fairness and justice don’t come through someone offering you free food.

So why do I continue to be involved and help run a food bank, when it seems that through our efforts all we are doing is giving government and those with power an excuse to continue to ignore the plight of those on the receiving end of “austerity” politics? In the end, for me its a question of faith and of solidarity with my brothers and sisters in need, as it says in the book of James:

“Suppose there are brothers or sisters who need clothes and don’t have enough to eat. What good is there in your saying to them, “God bless you! Keep warm and eat well!” – if you don’t give them the necessities of life?”
(James 2:15-16)

That still doesn’t make food banks a solution,  it makes them a humanitarian response to a desperate human need.

 

 

Something Inside

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Food bank choir 28.05.16There is very little in this blog piece I can take credit for, and yet so much to celebrate. Sometime ago, last year in fact at the Venture FX / Break Out gathering, my friend Lucy (a trainee Anglican priest) and myself reflected on our work in Sheffield and thought in particular about a drumming project we’d undertaken together in Parson Cross and the food bank work done there. In a mad moment we thought “I wonder ….if we could get a food bank choir to happen one day?”

Lucy picked up and ran her musical giftings all over the dream, she made contact with a number of food banks and other emergency food projects in Sheffield, including once again our own in Parson Cross. With months of prayer, rehearsals, nurturing and encouragement a choir was crafted from small groups from the various projects. Yesterday was the fulfillment of that dream, for the first time the full choir came together to perform songs as part of the annual Sheffield Food Festival. Their singing was a joy, and inspiration and a true message of hope.

After the event, one of the choir members wrote: “There are times when the food bank feels like wading through treacle. Today I feel like a bird set free.”

 

Here are the words of just one of the songs the choir sang (Something Inside):

The higher you build your barriers the taller I become
The farther you take my rights away the faster I will run
You can deny me, you can decide to turn your face away
No matter ’cause there’s

Something inside so strong
I know that I can make it
Though you’re doing me wrong so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh, no, something inside so stro.o.ong
there’s something inside so strong

The more you refuse to hear my voice the louder I will sing
You hide behind walls of Jericho, your lies will come tumbling
Deny my place in time, you squander wealth that’s mine
My light will shine so brightly, it will blind you ’cause there’s

Something inside so strong
I know that I can make it
But you’re doing me wrong so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh, no, something inside so strong
theres something inside so strong

(chorus with a bit more umph)
Something inside so strong
And I know that I can make it
But you’re doing me wrong so wrong
You thought that my pride was gone
Oh, no, something inside so strong
theres something inside so strong

Brothers and sisters
When they insist we’re just not good enough
When we know better
Just look ’em in the eyes and say

I’m gonna do it anyway
I’m gonna do it anyway
I’m gonna do it anyway
I’m gonna do it anyway

Because there’s something inside so strong
And I know that I can make it
But you’re doing me so wrong
Oh, no, something inside so strong
there’s something inside so strong