I’ve been doing a lot of work with Leeds poverty truth and Churches action on poverty over the past two years. As someone who has had to claim poverty, who’s experienced going hungry and had to choose between food and electricity (and not that long ago either!) I’ve got some idea of the embarrassment when having to go without.
It’s made me very aware of how churches can miss out or unknowingly discriminate towards poverty and I was going to write a list of my own personal thoughts some time ago, but didn’t.
Today I had to go to a womens meeting at a church with my mum, I won’t name the church… okay, I will… it was a Salvation Army church.
The talk was on acceptence especially with the current refugee crisis in the world and how important it was for Christians to accept everyone.
At one point in the meeting the woman joked that we had all been locked in the building, later telling us that there was a man on the doorstep and she had locked the door because she didn’t want to give out food parcels today.
After she had told us the importance of accepting everyone she began telling us about food parcels and how great the church was in helping the homeless. Then she told us how difficult it was judging who was in need and who wasn’t in need. She told a story of her husband meeting a man in the church who said he hadn’t eaten a meal in ages, her husband offered to make him beans on toast, but the man didn’t like beans, so he offered to make him spaghetti on toast (sort of tastes like beans to me) again the man said he didn’t like it, so her husband told him to get out. This, she said, was proof that many people are not really in need. Telling us of a more recent event where a man came telling her he had worn the same clothes since Christmas, she said she approached him and he smelt fine, so refused him help.
I was thinking, when Jesus fed the five thousand, how would his message of love been received if he had asked for proof of hunger before being fed.
Anyway, here is my list:
Embarrassing things churches do to people in poverty
1. Groups you can join, only if you have money. I can sing, yep, I even have a photo on my wall of me singing at the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, and not in the audience! Yet, without finding the money for an Army uniform or asking for charity or second hand, my church will not benefit from my singing because unless I have the uniform I cannot join the choir.
2. You can go with the walking group, if you have a car. Or attend the Bible study if you can drive yourself to some large house in the posh part of town, but you have to get the bus home late at night – ‘cos we ain’t gonna offer you a lift. Don’t assume people have transport, or are not afraid to ask for a lift, or at least arrange walking group meet up points at a railway station car park instead of the middle of no public transport land.
3. “Our Church is like a family, we’re all going on holiday together.” Except I can’t afford the couple hundred you’re asking me to pay for a weekend retreat.
4. I’m gonna stand here until you cough up. There’s got to be a better way of asking for a church collection other than standing in front of me with plate in hand, with everyone watching, until I cough up the dough. Seriously, I’ve had several Sundays when I’ve not gone to church because I don’t even have 10p for the plate.
5. This isn’t weightwatchers, I shouldn’t pay for missed days. The above mentioned womens group have a system where you pay every week, even if you’re not there. It’s 60p, not much I know, but I live on benefits and have had times when I don’t have that much. I didn’t turn up one week because I didn’t have the money, but it meant the next week I have to pay £1.20. It’s like weightwatchers. If I miss a week I stop going until they’ve forgotten me, then I can come back as a new member, but is that how church should be?
6. But why can’t I have food without religion? There’s a church (not Salvation Army!) near me who gives out food parcels, but only if you’ve sat through the service. It’s sort of assuming that to be hungry I couldn’t possibily be a Christian and have my own church, who might not have food parcels. I’m in need, so I must be a heathen! Please, don’t humilliate the person any more.
7. My name’s in THE BOOK, so don’t put it in the book. My mum has a friend who’s been hit badly by the bedroom tax, my mum (on her pension) was paying for this womans groceries despite the woman going to my mums church where they have food parcels and this woman being active in the church. It turns out, everyone who gets a food parcel has to have their details written in a book kept in the cupboard with the food. The woman didn’t want people knowing she was having to get hand-outs so was going without. Just the thought of a book available to all in church labelling you as a food parcel recipient was enough to stop this woman going to her own church for help.
8. The benefit system can fail you time and time and time again. Some people don’t handle money too well. Some are addicts and spend their money on other things. Some people get sanctioned (no money AT ALL until the benefit office think you’ve learnt your lesson) because they are 10 mins late. There’s no limit on the times a person can be without. This idea many churches have that you can only have a food parcel three times is crazy. If Jesus fed five thousand with a few tuna sandwiches why do we believe our food supply won’t cope with someones need for a fourth (or fifth, sixth…) parcel?
9. And what do YOU do for a living? One of the most difficult things when I lost my job was meeting new people who often asked your name then asked, “What do you do?” Nothing, absolutely nothing. Is not a confidence building answer.
10. If you belong to us, You don’t need us. Some of the most desperate people I have met already attend a church. Regularly attending a church doesn’t mean I have all my eggs in a row. It’s not an easy thing to ask for help, especially from church people who think they know you. I sometimes wonder what people at church really know about me. Do they know how little I often have to live on? Why would they? As long as I’m seen to put something in the plate then how do they know that I’m returning to a cold flat because I can’t afford heating? How do they know I really would like to go on the walking trip or the retreat, but I can’t get there and haven’t been able to afford a holiday in years? A few weeks ago I was asked to help with our messy church. Something I can do (finally). I was told that I could come beforehand and eat with everyone at the lunch club. “It’s normally £3, but since you’re helping you can pay half price”.
It was one of those days when I had nothing, I was even missing out of my knitting group because I couldn’t afford a coke at the pub. With no food in the house and not even £1.50 for my half price meal I plucked up my best courage and biggest smile.
“No thanks, I’ve got somewhere to be beforehand, I’ll just come to the meeting.”