Embarrassing things Churches do (to people in poverty)

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.”

If you want to read more, these blog posts might interest you.

Be the Angel (and other tips)

Communicating Poverty

Published by bettyvirago

Betty Virago is an award winning textile designer. Based in Yorkshire, England, and known for her Northern Folk dolls and the Quilts of Hope project.

11 thoughts on “Embarrassing things Churches do (to people in poverty)

  1. We do like to think we “know” what people need and aren’t careful about how we word things. I offered a lift to an evening meeting to someone in a village without evening buses. After 3 weeks of the same conversation she said to me “but how would I get home?” Without realising it I had said “would you like a lift there?” Which she thought meant I would take her but not give her a lift back, whereas I thought I was offering a lift in both directions to “there” meaning that event. Incidentally, if anyone had offered me beans or spaghetti on toast – I’d have refused and they wouldn’t have had to tell me to get out. I’d have gone before they killed me. Toast is not a good idea when you can’t eat wheat.

  2. I felt really awkward at PCC yesterday when they talked about the cost of the building renovations,and how we’d be expected to demonstratethe congregation had donate over and above by Grant making organisations – I can’t even tithe at the moment as the benefits dont even cover the rent!!

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I almost feel like suggesting printing off the post and handing it to your church, at the very least email the link to them.
      I know I moan a lot about The Salvation Army, and a lot of what I listed are done in ignorance. There are churches who seem to ask and ask and I wonder whether having a purpose built multi-function building with all the latest sounds and lighting is the best use of money.
      There are churches out there who are more focused on just getting to know the community, I have some friends who have a weekly meal for anyone (not just poor people) the church hall they use has no kitchen, the food is cooked on portable hobs and in someones kitchen (then carried across the road). Often these multi-purpose buildings make people in need feel uncomfortable too, like they’re not good enough to be there.
      My friends weekly meal together has a number of people who come because the benefits just don’t stretch, but it’s also frequented by the local GP and the odd Labour politician. There’s none of this, “you can’t help because you haven’t got a food hygiene certificate”, instead if you want to help you can, because that what families do. People in poverty are not scroungers nor are they wanting to be treated as the special case. They (we) just want to be equal to the next person. Sending you much love.

      1. We are trying to take out the pews and basically improve the building after years of neglect!

        In Birmingham there is a scheme to have “Places of Welcome”. Having once been told at a coffee morning that I could stay this week, but couldn’t return next week as I wasn’t over 75 and being told to get advice at the children’s centre by the GP receptionist when I didn’t have kids, it is so important to have places were anyone is welcome to come, drink tea or coffee, sometimes play games, sometimes find someone else there who can help you with a form you are struggling with. Often “places of welcome” have toast available for breakfast or soup and a roll for lunch, and its all free.

        One place I’ve been really blessed by is the Cafe run at Bearwood Chapel. The food and drink is really really cheap. They regularly give me my second coffee free knowing I’m on benefits. Plus 1 day a week (soon to be 3 days) the have a community lunch – 1 set meal that costs a donation!! I am regularly told not to go over the top with my donation!! There is also a “Real Junk Food Project” where they get food shops would throw out and turn it into meals and the cost is “Pay as you feel” which includes doing the washing up!!

      2. Places of welcome. Sounds good. Poverty truth organised a similar scheme that’s being set up at the moment.
        I also love the pay what you feel/can idea. Have a look at my post called free, fair, pay your share… I mention a hotel that works on that basis. You might benefit from what they do.

  3. Very moving and very true article. I and hubby went to methodist service. There was a homeless man sitting outside. I asked if he would like a cup of tea. I went in and asked the ladies for the tea for him, and I was grstares with indignant stares. Well we dont usually do that sort of thing here. I said he can have my cup of tea. But he cant have one of our cups, they said. I said dont u have a mug in the ccupboard he can have. ? I was quite annoyed because they were Christians”? I did get the cup of tea eventually, but it does go to show how some Christians treat those less fortunate.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I think most Christians would be mortified that these things go on, yet often don’t realise the impact they have.
      Imagine the alternative to your experience where the man was given tea and a biscuit by the women and invited in. What if that man was Jesus in disguise? or what if he had a real need that could’ve been provided.
      None of us are free from being judgemental at times, but I wonder if we miss huge opportunities by looking at the material value of a person instead of the spiritual.

      1. Thanks for naming this – it’s more common than we think. And not just in churches in “poorer’ areas. It also impacts on children in our congregations.

      2. Thanks Kathryn, I remember the feeling of not being good enough as a child in church, not because my parents were poor, but because we lived with homeless people – my parents ran hostels. I’ve remember feeling a divide between the richer and poorer kids in church.
        It’s a shame because it’s not what most, if not all, people in the church would have wanted. They just didn’t know.

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