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Banned from the Band

I’ve been asked to contribute a piece for an exhibition called ‘beatitudes’. It’s based on the sermon on the mount and one of those well known parts of the bible.

The version below is from the message translation.

Matthew 5 1-2 When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:

3 “You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

4 “You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.

5 “You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

6 “You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

7 “You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

8 “You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

9 “You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

10 “You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

11-12 “Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
I listen to Dr Bill Creasys Bible talks on audible and he has a very interesting way of explaining them which makes so much sense. 

At first I was going to create something on his viewpoint (it really is worth listening to). After a while though I started thinking about my own working style as an artist and what I want to say through my work.

I write a lot about poverty and a lot about the church and a lot about poverty and the church.

A lot of what I say is about the lack of understanding in some aspects of church life, the little things that churches do without really thinking about how their actions are perceived.

Recently there was an article in the Salvationist magazine (29/04/2017 edition) that told the story of a woman who felt she wasn’t allowed to wear a Salvation Army uniform because of a disability that meant wearing the skirt was unsuitable. The story loosely skips over the part where she was told she couldn’t wear the uniform with trousers (really, In 2017?), but thankfully she was able to push ahead and get trousers and feel like a valued member rather than a cheaper version, or as someone said to me a few Sundays ago, “not wearing the uniform properly”.

I have a similar problem, years of leg ulcers have left my legs… well, let’s just say I’d rather not have them on display thank you very much! 

Whilst you might have read the article you may have missed the editors comments at the front of the mag, but he spoke about the uniform, how it put him off joining for quite a while. He suggested that whilst the uniform has some uses, it mustn’t be  barrier for people joining.

Note: I know, I’m talking about the uniform again, I feel like I’m flogging a dead horse, but bear with me.

While the article and the editors comments spoke about barriers to the uniform from a disability perspective I have another barrier… cost.

A couple of Sundays ago (infact the same Sunday of the ‘proper’ uniform comment) I was talking to a friend about the cost of the uniform and a plan I was developing for the beatitudes exhibition.

I made my usual gripe of how a church started with the poor is in a position where only the rich can afford to join. I asked how they can justify charging £250 for a Sunday outfit just so you could take part. (My friend reads my blog I think, so let me just say I’m not repeating the conversation as a gripe to or about my friend!). 

My friend agreed and added that she wouldn’t pay so much for an outfit and had bought the uniform originally to play in the band, as a hard working mother and career woman the band was her weekly escape. We agreed, the cost was awful and went on our way.

Several days later I was still thinking about the conversation. 

Y’see, I don’t necessarily disagree with the uniform, sure it has its uses. But as it is, it’s impractical, expensive, badly designed and often badly made.

Imagine going to John Lewis, paying £70 for a skirt, getting to the till and being told they hadn’t finished it and you would need to take the skirt to a tailor to get the hem sewn up! At £70 I expect it finished and hand delivered in a box with a red bow.

Something bothered me about the conversation and it took a few days to recognise what it was.

My friends comment that she wouldn’t pay that much for an outfit… what bothered me?

It wasn’t that I wouldn’t pay that much, but I couldn’t.

In all innocence there is a level of misunderstanding in the church that is difficult to get across. I’ve been to a few songster practices, but realised there was just no point in going since I don’t have the luxury of being able to grumble at the cost, buy the uniform and join the choir anyway. I’d join the band, since I can actually play, but I’m barred from joining in church activities because of poverty. It’s important to get this message across so let me put it clearly…

I am barred from taking an active part in my church not because I won’t wear a uniform, but because I can’t afford to.

I am banned from being a useful member of my church because I am poor.

For those who still don’t grasp the reality of it, here it is in picture form…

 

Somehow, blessed are the poor in spirit seems the perfect starting place for my exhibition piece. Perhaps whilst the spiritually poor are blessed (Dr Creasy suggests that the blessing is in knowing you are spiritually poor and in the perfect starting place to find God), unblessed are the spiritually rich but financially poor.

How do I get this message across in one piece of work?

I thought of getting hold of an old uniform and embroidering over it things I could buy instead of the uniform, like five weeks rent, central heating for the winter. I’m not sure though it’d be enough to get the message across, people need to feel it personally. I thought of making the Salvation Army crest in goldwork embroidery and putting a price of £2,500 on it to try and get across how much the cost feels like to someone working. 

How do I get a middle class Christian to grasp what this feels like. Wanting to be a useful church member, but being asked to hand over almost two months wage for membership. Would you join the church on those conditions?

What it feels like to not be able to attend church events because you think your need for electricity is more vital. Trying to explain that the lunch club is failing because the poor community can’t afford the three course meals. Having a young girl pass the collection plate around and the sense of shame when you can’t put in. Telling my minister that my neighbour is a drug dealer and being told my neighbour is my mission field, yet not quite grasping what it’s really like for an ex-user to have a dealer on their doorstep. Offering to help at a coffee morning and being asked to bake cakes when I can just about manage a weekly shop for myself.

Just how do I get this message out there? 

I spent two years at Bible college, I’ve worked and volunteered for Christian charities for over almost two decades, and yet… I am not allowed to participate in my church, not because I am spiritually poor, but because I am financially poor. WWJS? (What Would Jesus Say?)

This Sunday is Candidates Sunday, a day when we consider Gods calling on our lives… I might stay home. Well, I have an important day on Monday and could use the time to prepare. The thought of listening to a sermon asking us to consider God asking us to act, yet the inner hurt of not being able to stinks a bit too much for me.

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How the Salvation Army changed the world.

I grew up in the Salvation Army (have I mentioned that before?) listening to the stories of the Army before I was born.

I heard how the ‘Army’ produced the first safety matches. Taking on the UK match companies that left poor workers with the awful occupational disease Phossy Jaw.

Or how we began the employment agencies over 100 years ago, well of course we did. Suddenly we have a church that is saving alcoholics and the newly sober people needed steady work, how else would we respond?

Or how we helped bring about changes in the law of underage sex and child slavery by our part in rescuing a girl sold by her parents for £5.

This week alone, I’ve had two conversations with people who’ve mentioned how older folk give money to the Army because of what we did for their husbands in the war.

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It’s all wonderful… and yet…

It feels as though, the last couple days, the UK has suddenly woke to the scandal of our Government and it’s abusive benefit cuts.

How did this happen? How did they manage to, overnight, put parents in the position of losing £120 a week, receiving just 50p a week from the Government in housing benefit support?

But this isn’t an overnight thing, the government have been bullying the poor for several years.

The country have, over the past few years, been enjoying the ever growing number of TV shows about benefit cheats, scroungers, “too lazy to work” streets and the huge number of kids everyone on benefits have. I’ve watched people’s attitudes harden as they sit around their TV’s shaking their heads at the seeming audacity of scroungers claiming something they’ve never worked for.

At this point in my rant/post I need to add a Disclaimer:

I apologise in advance to my mum, nephew and anyone else who I name in this post. I love you all, but I’m so annoyed that I can’t be bothered to change names today.

Okay, that’s done.

I sat in the car with my retired Salvation Army officer mother a few weeks ago and she started telling me about a woman she had seen on TV. The shame that this woman received so much benefit and was on TV saying it wasn’t enough… that is, until I spent time with my mum breaking down the woman’s likely weekly expenses and mum realised it didn’t leave her with money for food.

My mum, who spent decades of active officership working with homeless and mentally unwell people had somehow lost her ability to recognise the situation of the poor.

Anyway, I wasn’t writing this post about benefit cuts…

My church has recently started asking for more people in the congregation to attend the weekly lunch club it runs. I went a few weeks ago and for £3.50, me, and 12 elderly people, enjoyed a three course basic meal.

My church (or Corps to those Army folk who don’t like to think of us as a church) is situated in a large and poorer part of South Leeds, surrounded by HMO’s (Houses of Multiple Occupancy). Drugs, addiction and prostitution is rife in the area, so a perfect location for an Army hall.

We have a lunch for anyone to enjoy, four times a week, for a mere £3.50. You’d think we would be packing the place with hungry locals, but in fact, lunch club is dying.

Yes, there are patches of nice housing in the area, and patches of elderly housing, but there’s a lot of single people, young single people on benefits living in HMO’s. (I’ve written about HMO’s in the past too)

A single young person on benefits gets £57.90 a week. If we imagine a situation where all his/her rent is paid by housing benefit (hopefully, this is the case), how much is left for that person if they live in a HMO?

Gas/electricity/water  £10-15 perhaps

Weekly bus pass  £15

Basic food (tea bags, bread, milk etc..)  £5-10

Mobile phone*  £15

Even with just these four essential bills it leaves just over £10 for main meals, TV licence, clothing, taking a girl on a date, a drink in a pub to talk to another human, basic toiletries.

Imagine too, the mental strain of living in a room smaller than some peoples bathrooms, having your cooker a few feet from your bed. Having to remember to take loo roll every time you need to go to the shared toilet, neighbours fighting through thin walls, and the stench of marijuana from the guy below.

How wonderful it would be for that single person to be able to escape the confines of the HMO and have a hot meal at my church in it’s spacious dinning room with access to free wifi. To be able to sit with others and talk to someone rather than feel imprisoned in the cell-like place they call home.

But as I pointed out in another blog post, £3.50 is too expensive for the most desperate people in my churches area.

I think we have a situation where our Army folk have forgotten what it’s like to be poor.

Again, this post wasn’t about the shame of the HMO’s…

This week I saw a new Lap dance club given permission to be set up in Leeds.

“What do you mean by another one” I hear you say, “How many do we have?”

Well enough that one website has a top 5 list of the best ones. One of which is within walking distance of my church I might add.

Do I need to explain what’s wrong with treating women as sexual objects? or how I’ve seen women in our legalised prostitution area charge less than a Costas coffee for sex?

And, yet, this blog isn’t about prostitution either…

Yesterday my nephew took me out for my birthday, (yeah, thanks, it was a nice day).

I’ve had a few chats recently with him about life, the Army, God and romance.

A couple of years ago he gave up two years and a lot of money to train as a youth worker in the Salvation Army, and yet, I was sitting with him asking why his bible had a light covering of dust and he didn’t seem happy at his church, so much that he seems to have stopped going.

I recognised myself in him, as a young person, attending youth events and getting fired up by stories of the old Army. How, as a young person in the Army, he has the ability of changing the world for good and for God. I’ve seen his room filled with postcards and tokens from music schools and youth events that are supposed to remind him of his power to change the world.

Yet, yesterday I saw a young man with no outlet for his vision. I recognise myself, as a young woman, wanting to work with homeless people and being fired up by big church youth meetings, then coming home to my local church and being told there was nothing for me to do. I sat there, talking to this young man, trained by the church as a youth worker, but given no youth to work with, and so, he has an air of giving up about him.

Earlier that day he’d dropped off his money for another week of music school in the Summer and I worry how many young people feel hurt after a week of being built up, only to return to their church and find no part for them to play. I know it was one of the reasons I gave up church as a young person, and I see him in a similar way. I wonder too, how many vacant chairs in our churches were once filled by someone wanting to do ‘something’, but not given a chance.

Our young people are sent to camp to have the fire in their belly ignited, but then sent home and not given fuel for the fire.

“But they’re just young people”, I hear some of you older folk say,

You should come sometime, to the office where I get my university business support from. They’re you’ll see dozens of young people starting and running successful businesses, making a living and a difference despite having a lack of years.

And again, I say this blog post wasn’t about the lack of opportunity in our churches…

This blog is about how the Salvation Army in the UK once changed the world. I would have liked to have said How the Salvation Army in the UK is changing the world, but I’m not sure I can say that at the moment.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, we are doing many amazing things, it’s just, well…

Going back to the conversations I’ve had this week, you would think the public only think we worked in the war.

Our recent public face makes us appear that we’re more concerned with how a gay celebrity can have a uniform made that won’t cause us offence rather than the growing poverty concerns.

Last weeks Salvationist newspaper seemed more concerned with playing April Fools than speaking of the fire we should have for human rights.

I’ve heard more about people upset that they’re not bringing back the bonnet than upset that our neighbours are in need. I heard of a band master outraged about the joke including woodwind instruments in the ISB, so outraged that he was about to request a refund on a concert ticket because he didn’t want to hear woodwind. (Incidentally, this band master is the only one who allowed my flute into his band, so I don’t know why it’s such a problem). Is that his passion? His righteous anger is focused on buying a brass band concert ticket and the disgraceful possibility of having to listen to a few violins?

In a few years time, when those who fought in the world wars are gone, will we have people to replace those who give because of what we did 70 years ago?

We seem obsessed by asking our people for money, making sure our members buy fair trade, having matching church outfits, and driving our fancy cars to our fancy homes outside of the rough area of our church location.

I don’t have a fancy car or house and I live in one of those poorer areas, but I speak to myself as much as to the richer members of church.

Why am I (and fellow Army members) not doing anything about the hundreds of mostly men living within walking distance of church and living in poverty, loneliness and hunger?

Why am I (and fellow Army members) not picketing outside government buildings with placards stating that “the Army does not approve” of their cuts to the disabled and poor?

Why am I (and fellow Army members) not in the local public and committee meetings demanding the local council stop allowing more places of sexual exploitation?

Why are we content to play our music on quiet streets, playing songs people no longer know the words to, when we should be playing a battle cry outside parliament?

I hear you groaning at me, mumbling that the last TV series about the Army also showed us washing the feet of the homeless. Brilliant, and important to do, but so are many other Christian churches.

And yes, I recognise the number of soup kitchens we run, but again, standard church requirement these days.

We were called to be an Army though, not an average church. We were supposed to be at the front showing how it’s done, but we’re just another face in the crowd now. The early Salvation Army paved the way and left us a legacy that makes people and governments sit up and listen when we speak, but we’re wasting away and keeping far too silent on the war time issues.

Okay, okay, I’m ranting.

I’m angry, but as guilty as the next salvationist.

So why the rant?

I feel at a cross roads. I am in the Army, not because I was brought up in it, but because Christianity, for me, is also about action. I can’t talk about a God of Love and walk past my downtrodden fellow man and I want a church who feels the same way.

I also accept that I am about to start my final year at university and, well, time right now just isn’t a luxury for me.

I might be getting a degree in textiles, but my heart is for the homeless, if I was to choose between a job in a fashion house and less paid work with homeless people I’d choose the homeless person every time.

Being so close to the end of uni I keep thinking about life when it ends and I admit, I don’t quite see a place for me in an Army not in action. I wasn’t made for the wealthy lifestyle or the 9-5 office job, I was raised amongst the homeless, raised to fight for the needy and I’ve sat idle for far too long.

I have friends, in a church, who give everything they have so they can help others, and I look at my friends church and it appeals to me… it appeals to me very much.

And yet, I’m very much aware that I’m here, as a member of the Salvation Army, by no accident. Even my textile degree projects seems to have the Army running through them.

How has it come to the point where a non-uniform wearing salvationist has to say what the leaders should have been saying?

…6…7…8…9…10, okay deep breath.

I don’t know where this rant is taking me, I don’t know whether anyone will feel the passion I feel in this, but well, as another birthday passes, and I adjust my year of birth to fit my alleged age again, I just felt something on my heart that I needed to speak.

I worry about our world, whether my neighbours will manage with the next round of benefit cuts and difficulties. I recognise a hurt people taking their anger out in the voting booths and I worry for where this will lead us.

A quote often used these days is this:

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if, one only remembers to turn on the light”  – Albus Dumbledore, a great wizard, and perhaps in another life, a Salvationist.

We are supposed to be the lights that point to Jesus, truth and righteousness, we’re part of an Army that grew from poverty and the slums that sadly are returning, but without ignition, we’re just dull, grey bulbs.

Rant over.

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Links for more reading:

https://glynnharrison.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/when-william-booth-took-on-the-big-manufacturers-of-safety-matches-and-won/  Also read the link to the article this was written about talking about the Church of England and the dreadful Wonga.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39484897

http://michaelgallagherwrites.com/lizzie-blaylock-books/bridge-of-dead-things/eliza-armstrong.html

*I know many wealthier people think a mobile is a luxury, but try job searching without a phone and you’ll realise how vital it is. You can’t even claim benefits without making a lengthy phone call and having internet access.

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The old time hostels

Just thought I’d share this.

It’s part of a documentary from the 80’s about the Salvation Army. This clip shows one of the hostels I grew up in and my parents managed.

Things have changed a lot since those days (thankfully), but fond memories of many of the people I grew up around.

Anyway, enjoy watching my mum trying to reach the suit hanger and my dad’s stunning sideburns (I forgot about his sideburns).

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The Quilts of Hope Project

There is something special about blankets.

Whether this is the silver blankets handed out to marathon runners after the race,

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Or used to provide emergency heat to survivors and vulnerable people.

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The thick wool blankets handed out in winter,

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or the blankets with arms we use to watch TV.

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There is just something magical in how a large piece of fabric can comfort us, warm us and make us feel safe.

I remember staying with my Aunty and Uncle as a child and becoming ill. Being ‘put to bed’ on the sofa and having a blanket wrapped around me. Being tucked in and feeling that, no matter how much I hurt, everything would be ok.

That’s the magic of blankets, duvets, coverings and quilts.

The Quilts of Hope project will bring communities together to make quilts filled with hope and love to vulnerable people.

We’re starting with a simple quilt of squares

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If you already know how to embroider you can make a cotton square with a positive quote or something more elaborate. The squares can be 5.5″ x 5.5″ or 10.5″ x 10.5″, we ask that when you make the square you think or pray for the people this quilt might help.

Then send the squares to us at:

Betty Virago

45 West Grange Road, Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS10 3AP

If you don’t yet know what to do we will soon be selling kits to make your square and using the money we raise to pay for the materials we need to finish the quilts.

email Betty at bettyvirago@gmail.com so we can tell you when the kits are ready.

We’ll be making some video tutorials as well, so there’s no excuses.

If you’re near Leeds you can join us for the magical part of quilt making when we all gather to hand sew the quilt. These are special events where we gather, pray, sing songs and talk together, and remember the people who might use the quilt.

Then when the quilt is finished we present it to a charity, to be used to warm, comfort and bless people in times of distress.

Our first quilt is going to the Joanna Project in Leeds who work with women in the red light area. Read more about that project at www.joannaproject.co.uk

But perhaps you know of a charity or group that would benefit from a quilt?

Email us and let us know.

 

 

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The Poverty of Self Worth

I’ve just come home from one of the most frustrating evenings.

I’ve been in London for the launch of the Joseph Rountree Foundation strategy for solving poverty in the UK. An important event which I urge you to search the hashtag #solveukpoverty and find the video of the event.

At 4pm we (20 of us) arrived for our train home to find all trains to Leeds from Kings Cross cancelled, we headed to St Pancras to catch a train to Sheffield with a plan of a further train home from there. But, so did hundreds of other rush hour commuters.

I was fortunate to get a seat and slept all the way to Derby (I didn’t sleep much the night before) where we were told to get off the train and wait for the Edinburgh train which went through Leeds. We followed the advice and found ourselves crammed onto a train with no chance of a seat. Eventually, with sore feet and a sore back I got to Leeds, several hours late and beginning to feel hungry. 

I went to McDonald’s only to get to the counter and my purse wasn’t in the pocket it usually is, neither was it in any other pockets I checked. I stood at the counter with most of my belongings spread out in front of me and the heavy feeling of loss came over me.

Thankfully some of my friends were still in the station and they had the level headedness to make me take everything out of my bag. There, right at the bottom of the main pocket – where I never normally put it, was the tiny thing I call a purse.

Relief.

I remembered that my student travel card had run out and I headed to the ticket office to renew it for tomorrow, only to be told the pass I use was discontinued this month and I couldn’t buy my monthly ticket. I was at that point, one nerve away from destruction and I stood my ground, rather I stood at the counter and refused to move until my discontinued pass was issued. It was a hairy ten minutes, but eventually they relented and a pass was bought.

Now, desperate for a sit down and food I staggered to the counter at McDonalds and tried a second time to place an order.

It was about half way through my meal that I noticed a man sitting at the table next to me, I say man, but really I’d put his age around 20. A young lad. He wasn’t sat exactly at the table, more beside it, hunched over. In his hands was a small burger, no chips, no coke. He was eating as though this was the first meal in days.

I’ve been around homeless people most of my life, but not in a long time have I seen someone who’s clothes were covered in that much dirt, his face was so caked in street life that the only expression I saw was despair.

It was at this point I remembered why my purse was in the pocket it was. I’d bought a bottle of Coke and a bag of mints in London and in a bit of a rush I’d just thrown everything in the bag. I took out the drink and mints and put them beside him, “something for later” I told him.

A few moments later I looked up and saw a man sitting at a table with friends, he’d seen what I’d given the young lad and smiled at me. I smiled back but my heart was heavy.

The JRF event I’d been to just that morning was about introducing long thought out strategies to help reduce the UK poverty epidemic. I’d sat amongst council leaders, politicians, financial advisors and charity leaders. We heard about the poverty in families, how a child born in a poor area on average will die nine years before a child born in a wealthy area.

The never ending poverty caused by zero hour contracts and low pay employment that will see many people leading a life of low wage work.

Then my friend, Mary, stood and spoke about her part of Leeds and the struggle of men in HMOs (Houses of Multiple Occupancy), where the negative effects of living in a tiny room with a bed in one corner and a cooker in the other leaves many of our men (and women) unable to buy enough food for the week.

A new poverty was mentioned, spiritual poverty, self worth poverty, where a person has been beaten down so low emotionally that they don’t have the belief that they can escape. The loneliness of living in a tiny room, not knowing your neighbours, not having enough food, having to choose between food and warmth, little things like having to remember to take toilet paper with you everytime you need the loo, trying to sleep with the sound of the fridge a few feet from your bed, not having the money or room for a washing machine and having no laundromat nearby. Each little bit of decency and hope being chipped away until you feel so unloved, so worthless that there seems no answer except death. This isn’t some third world country or some communist state, this is the UK, this is Leeds, Sheffield, London…

And here I am, sitting next to a young lad, the government could give him more money, but his addiction to the bottle of spirits hanging out of his pocket has too much of a grip on his finances. The council could (and should) build more homes so he can have his own bathroom to keep himself clean, but I suspect he isn’t yet stable enough to regularly pay the bills. We could even find a sympathetic employer but I think he’s a long way off keeping to a timetable. He needs something else. 

Some will laugh at my feeble attempt of giving, others will smirk and consider it wasteful suggesting he will sell the snacks for money for alcohol. Y’know, I don’t care. Perhaps, when the alcohol has gone and the pains for more are beginning he will find a bag of mints in his pocket, most likely he won’t remember me, but perhaps he’ll think to himself, someone cared and perhaps a tiny spark will stir in his soul. Maybe, just maybe, if enough people do small, seemingly insignificant acts of kindness, the sparks will grow and he’ll find the belief that maybe, just maybe he is worth more than this.

The young lad gets up and thanks me, then staggers out the door, a little while later I’m outside the train station, waiting for my taxi to arrive. I see a man walking to the station, sniggering, as he comes nearer he mutters something and looks towards the row of luggage trolleys. There on the concrete is the young lad, asleep on the cold ground, thankfully it’s not raining. Already a station staff member is on his radio and the sniggering man joins the staff member, then a third man joins in the joke that is homelessness.

As my taxi pulls up I see a police officer arrive and know already this young lad faces the possibility of a night in a cell.

Every so often I come back to an old photo of me, a grainy image of a girl about the age of the young lad who sat next to me. I’ve not thought of the image for a while, but I remember it now.

 When I talk about the spark in the lads soul I speak as someone who once had no spark. I once was that young lad. 

Maybe I’m just so tired that emotions are getting the better of me, or maybe what is on my heart needs to be said. 

If I hadn’t had small acts of kindness, people who became friends despite my unfriendliness, people who never saw me as worthless, I may never have made it this far.

We will always have people who snigger, people who tweet about about ‘benefit wasters’, TV programmes about so called scroungers, Loud and foul mouthed celebrities wanting to stir hatred. 

But we must, always, have more people willing to stir the sparks of hope, and perhaps in 20 years time a man in his 40s, will be sitting in a suit in McDonalds, after a stressful and long train journey. Maybe he’ll sit down with his meal and put his briefcase beside him and look across the room and see a young lad with no spark. 

And maybe, just maybe, this university educated business man will remember a night twenty years earlier when some stranger showed an act of kindness with a packet of mints.

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Be the Angel (and other tips)

Wow! That last post of mine sure got a lot of views. Thanks everyone. I put a link at the bottom of the page in case you didn’t see it.

I read a Twitter post from @blackbuttongirl who asked me what can be done? And I got thinking. I’m excellent at saying what’s wrong, but a bit slack on the solutions. So here are a few ideas I thought about on my way home tonight (Yay, I can afford to go to knitting groups again)

I met a bonafide Angel once, seriously!

Many moons ago I decided I would go to a church that my parents didn’t go to. I had a little 50cc moped and every Sunday I drove the 25 miles down the A58 to a church in Halifax. 

I was driving home late one Sunday night after youth club, about 11pm. This was back in the day before we all had mobile phones, where only banks had cash machines, and two-stroke petrol was still available at the pumps of most petrol stations.

Almost all of my motorbike stories start this way… So, I ran out of petrol.

There I was, on one of the lonelier parts of the road, no petrol, no warm clothing, no mobile phone. How did we ever survived before mobiles, but somehow we did.

Within a very short time a little red mini pulled up in front of my bike and a man in a black leather jacket and long hair got out.

“You ok?” He asked,

“No Petrol”

“Two-Stroke?”

I nodded

“It’s ok, I got some”

And without saying another word he opened his boot and took out a can of petrol, filled my moped and made sure the bike started fine. After grateful thanks, he got back in the mini and drove off with me following behind. Ahead there was a little roundabout and as I came up to it I realised, he was nowhere to be seen.

You either believe that a man, just happened to be driving down the A58 at almost midnight, instead of taking the motorway, with not only the right amount of petrol, but the right type, at the exact moment I needed it. Or something supernatural occurred.

Either way, I saw an angel.

1. BE THE ANGEL

The Internet is filled with Angel stories, I don’t mean people seeing glowing blokes in long dresses shouting Hosanna, I mean everyday people who get a buzz from doing something in secret.

This video I really find inventive…

Yes, you can video it, put it on YouTube, get a viral Facebook post about the great kid who gave his lunch money away, that’s all very nice… but if you REALLY want to get a buzz, do it in secret. Find some inventive way to give, without anyone knowing.

I’ve told this story before, but my dad (being a Salvation Army officer and someone who grew up in the workhouse and really knew poverty) used to give presents to families at Christmas. He knew that in houses where a parent was an alcoholic or the family were desperate the toys might be sold for money before Christmas Day, so he came up with a plan.

On Christmas morning, he went to each house, knowing the children had a better chance of keeping the toys if he saw them opening them. He also knew the shame of poverty, so he had a story. 

He pretended that Santa, being old, had somehow messed up. The presents meant for the children had accidentally been delivered to his house and he thought he’d best bring them straight round.

Of course, the parents knew the Salvation Army had given them the gift (I don’t think they knew they were on a list for donations – that too was a secret list he got the local headmaster to help him write) The children thought Santa was just a bit forgetful. Most importantly, the children didn’t feel their parents were in poverty. 


2. FILL THOSE SEATS

I have a real bug-bear about driving with empty car seats. I don’t have a car, but sometimes my mum will let me use hers. I make a point of asking people if they need a lift, because, well, it’s like this… It’s something I can do. 

Seek out people who don’t have their own transport and ask them if they want a lift, always tell them it’s not out of their way (even if it is). 

When the church has an event away from the building put a list up asking for names of people who have seats and people who would like a lift. Believe me, people who need the blessing don’t always ask for it, seek them out. On your way home look at bus stops for church members waiting for the bus, or people walking home.

Just as I once saw an angel, I was once called an angel…

It was one of those days when I had the luxury of a car for the day, it was also raining very hard. There was me, all alone in a people carrier, while outside the rain was pouring down. I thought to myself, If I see anyone getting soaked I will ask if they need a lift (offering lifts to strangers is not something I advise!) I saw an older lady, huddled in a doorway, soaked. 

Y’know that moment in church, when you hear the verse, I was naked and you clothed me. You snigger and say to God, “OK, well the next naked person I come across, I’ll give them my clothes” then you take a wrong turn and come across a nudist beach?

So I pull over, open the window and ask the woman if she is heading into town and would she like a lift. 

She is, and she does, so in she gets.

Driving towards town I start a conversation. The woman is going further than town, but says she can get a bus easier from there. She’s heading to the hospital to find out the results of a long stretch of treatment for cancer. Her daughter would have come with her, but her grandson was unwell so she is having to take this worrying journey all alone.

I drive her to the hospital, very much out of my way, but God approved. I stopped the car at the entrance of the hospital and asked if she was ok going in alone, she said she was, but thanked me, called me her angel, then asked if I would pray for her.

I tell you one thing, I sat in the car praying with this lady who thought she saw an angel, yet it was me who got the greater blessing.

3. EXPERIENCE THE SHAME

I can tell you the shame of asking for a handout, but it doesn’t come close to the real thing.

If your church gives out food parcels, next Sunday go and ask for one. Don’t let on that you are doing it as a test, or it’s not real. Plan a story, wage didn’t come through, caught speeding and had a huge fine, find a story that explains why you have no money.

Then ask the person who deals with the food cupboard for a food parcel. If you don’t know who that is, then ask the minister. I dare you.

If you manage it, take the request as far as you can, fill in the paperwork if they use it, if they put your name in a book think about the people you know who might see your name and ask yourself how you think they will react.

You don’t have to take the food, you can hand it back straight after (or secretly leave it on the doorstep of someone you know needs it)

Use the experience to enlighten others about the shame of asking for help, that way you might come up with an easier solution.


4. DEVELOP YOUR NOSEY GIFT

Going back to my dad and his Christmas parcels. He knew his stuff, he knew that a struggling alcoholic would be tempted to sell his kids toys, he knew that Christmas is harder for an alcoholic than perhaps other times of the year. 

My dad once said “One of the most important skills a minister should have is being nosey”

Y’see, when he was in the house handing over the box of toys and food, he was also having a nose.

Was the electricity working?

Did the house smell of mould?

Was the house warm?

Were they wearing clean clothes?

Mentally ticking off things he could sort out. Being nosey helped him help others.

Another moped story (and this time I had petrol)…

During the winter months I continued to ride my moped ‘over the tops’ to church. Through thick snow, ice, sleet, rain.

Sunday after Sunday off I went.

One Sunday a lady came to me in church and handed me a little gift, “something she saw that I needed”.

This woman was extremely wealthy, but she sat with the homeless, she was nosey and she noticed what no one else had. I drove through the cold with woollen mittens on. The gift was a pair of waterproof leather riding gloves.

She didn’t need to buy them, I certainly hadn’t mentioned I needed them, but she noticed.

Start taking notice of people, have deeper conversations so you know exactly what the need is.

5. PAY AS YOU FEEL

In Leeds we have a few cafes that use a pay as you feel approach. (http://therealjunkfoodproject.org) These are places where food is sourced mostly for free, then used to cook meals in a restaurant/cafe. The menus don’t have prices, instead a bucket (with a clever lid to stop people seeing what you’ve put in) sits there for those who feel they can pay. 

Sounds risky, but guess what, it works.

When you can pay, you pay (and many people pay over the odds to help those who can’t), when you can’t pay, you don’t. 

There are two great things that come from this way of doing food for free.

A) since no one knows who paid what, everyone is treated fairly.

B) the place looks like a cafe, not a soup kitchen… Which brings me to

6. PAINT THE PLACE

There is a church in Leeds that does a cheap meal on a Wednesday night. It’s very popular with the homeless, who manage to get a good, hot, homecooked meal in the evening. 

The church also has a choir practice which they now hold on the same evening, and yep, the church members who work in town no longer go home for their tea, then go out to church. They come for the cheap meal straight from work. Rich and poor, sitting together, in a nicely decorated room, with tables and tablecloths, a little bunch of flowers on each table. 

Move away from calling your meal a soup kitchen, call it a community meal, do anything to avoid making people feel like they are in line for the poorhouse. Sit with them to eat rather than create a ‘them and us’ situation.

7. MAKE SURE WE REALLY ARE ALL ‘GOING ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY’

If your church is planning a retreat or holiday consider setting up a holiday fund, start as early as you can. Maybe I can’t find £200 for a holiday three months away, but putting £2 a week in the fund for a year gives me over £100.

Find cheaper alternatives to the luxury hotel or private residential accommodation. 

Remember the pay as you feel cafe? Well, the United reform church has a wonderful hotel/residential training centre in Windermere that, well… Here’s a link to their page that explains the hotel prices.

http://windermereurc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Pay-What-You-Can-FAQs.pdf

I’ll try and tell you their amazing story.

They were facing a decline in visitors and were having to charge for little things to make up the money. During a staff meeting, where they were discussing a £40,000 arrears balance and what could be done to make more money. There was a suggestion that they charge 10p for cups to use the water fountain.

The manager spoke up, reminding the staff that Jesus mentioned giving cups of water in His name, we shouldn’t charge for water. This stirred an idea in the managers head.

The church, probably feeling they had nothing to lose, agreed to allow the manager to turn the hotel into a pay as you feel hotel, and people who could pay, paid. Within months the hotel overdraft was down to £500 and it’s still going strong. I stayed there for a conference on poverty last year and it was wonderful, and the staff treated us (most of who lived in poverty and didn’t pay a penny) as though we were VIP guests. 

There was no distinction between rich and poor, we were all equal.

8. TREAT EVERYONE AS POOR

Another idea comes from a Salvation Army church in Cannock. Every Summer the Salvation Army hold week long music schools for the kids, these are quite pricey events, but the Army has a fund that can be applied for. You just have to ask your church minister or youth worker for a form. 

Oh, dear, that same old shameful experience of going cap in hand to ask for a handout form.

One of the youth workers realised the problem and decided to get enough copies of the fund forms for everyone. He sends one with every letter home to parents asking if their child wants to go. Every parent gets the letter and application form, no one feels singled out, no one has to know the fund has been applied for except the minister, everyone is treated equally.

It’s a small thing, but important.


9. REALISE OUR POTENTIAL

One positive thing about being ‘on the dole’ is the amount of courses I can do. I love learning new stuff and my pile of achievement certificates now have their own folder.

I’m qualified in a while range of stuff from Food Hygiene and First Aid, to Chocolate manicures and ear piercing. You want to have Hopi ear candling while having your shirt buttons sewn back on then I’m your gal.

I have been known to talk about being a flute player and yet, going to a church that only has brass band players, but I learnt the flute while at music college studying brass and woodwind instrument repair, of course, to know whether you’ve repaired an instrument properly you need to know how to play it. Maybe I’m not so useless at a church full of brass players after all.

What I’m saying is this. Some of us might not be able to put into the collection plate, but we might just have that skill your church is desperate for. All you need to do is talk to us longer than the few minutes over tea and biscuits after the service. Be nosey, ask what we like to do, we might not even be aware of our potential.

If you ask what I’m studying at Uni I’ll tell you I’m doing a knitting degree.

If you ask what sort of things I do at Uni, I’ll tell you how great I am at computers, how much I love using Photoshop, Illustrator and InDesign (InDesign is what would turn the drab yellow church newsletters into stunning professional magazines).

I might tell you about a little idea I have in creating jobs for vulnerable women in the area, or how I love teaching crafts and am looking for a venue to start a new craft group. Or I might let you know about the new skill I’ve learnt in quilt making at Uni and how I’m finding a way we could bring churches together in making banners.

But as of yet, I don’t think people know any of that. I’m still known as Betty who knits.


10. SIT WITH THE SINNERS

I was always told that the back row in church is for the sinners, but I thought my mum told me that to make me sit near the front (so she could keep an eye on me when she was leading a meeting). 

Several years ago I realised, if you want to get involved in people in need, the back row is the place to begin, so that’s where I sit. You might think I sit there because I’m a rebel, our church has a back row that’s a short distance from the rest of the seats, a real back row. I sit there on purpose.

If you feel ‘not good enough’, depressed, not worthy to be in a church, as if no one will want you, if you are the type of person really in need, you most likely will sit in the place where you can hide. In church that is often the back row. No one can see you on the back row, no one can look down on you or turn their noses up at you when they can’t see you.

I have another seat on the row in front where I sometimes sit, but if someone comes in during the service and sits on the back row, I want to be able to move and sit next to them. Yes, I’ve had occasions when I’ve wanted to get the air freshener out (I’m also a qualified reflexologist and know how to be close to smelly feet so I can handle BO). At the moment I’m building up a friendship with a woman who brings her dog to church. 

It’s my own little ministry. I don’t need to wear a uniform, be ordained, get permission, be commissioned, apply for missionary funding. I sit there and knit (which also helps them relax and feel there’s no ‘airs and graces’).  I have a real love for the back row people, the sinners, or perhaps the ones who are honest enough to know they can’t do it alone.

11. WANT IT, GOT IT, GIVE IT

The Jesus Army have a fantastic section in their church news letters called the ‘needs and givings list’ It’s my favourite part of the letter. It comes in two sections.

Needs – things people want, like a toaster, a study book, baby clothes, bunk beds.

Givings – I have a spare guitar, we have been given a load of flour if anyone wants some, our apple trees are ready if you want to come and pick some.

Anything and everything has been put on this list over the years and with each want I think to myself, do I have one of those that I can give away?

It’s a fantastic way of again allowing someone to ask for something specific, without feeling singled out as a beggar, because the whole church uses the system.

SO, There it is, my list of things that can be done to help people in poverty.

But it is quite simple:

1. Be an Angel, but remember secret Angels get an even bigger buzz.

2. Develop your nosey giftings, don’t just ask what they do, ask what they enjoy, how they do things, get into their lives and build deeper friendships.

3. Find ways to avoid the shame of begging, but have a go to see how deep the shame goes.

4. Realise that just because isn’t working, or working a low paid job, doesn’t mean they haven’t got a huge wealth of experience in things you just might be desperate for.

The Post I mentioned at the beginning is linked here:

Communicating Poverty

Here also is an advert by The Salvation Army in Canada, which is blooming marvellous at saying the same sort of thing.

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Communicating Poverty

This is a post I have written for the Leeds Poverty Truth commission, which I post here for others to read and ponder. 

Over the past seven years I’ve gone from being hospitalised every couple months to getting a place at University. I didn’t do it alone and although it was hard work it also came about through support.Family, friends, people at poverty truth who accepted me warts an’ all, Inkwell arts (Leeds MIND) who helped me see my skills as a crafts person and helped me with my Uni interview.

But just as important was my disability payments.

I don’t drink, smoke, use drugs. I don’t go clubbing, haven’t had a holiday in years and am not a fashionista. I didn’t waste money as many people on benefits are accused of doing.

Yes, I had a TV, and I had Internet, but my TV was a bulky second hand thing that stopped working when we went digital so yes, I had a BT box as well.

The disability payments helped me fight my agoraphobia by paying for a taxi when I felt I couldn’t walk on the street. It paid for a cleaner once a month who helped me keep my flat in order, It gave me enough money to attend the weekly knitting group, which in turn gave me confidence to start a regular knitting group of my own.

Most importantly it gave me my life back.

Sometime in November I received a letter from the benefits office informing me that I needed to change from DLA (Disability Living Allowance) to PIP (Personal Independence Payment). An assessor arranged to visit my home and assess me to see whether I qualified.
Now, I want to pause here…
Apart from the paranoia, voices, agoraphobia and all the other symptoms with my diagnosis I have an additional difficulty – I’m Articulate.

You might not see it as a problem, but mixed with a mental illness it can be a nightmare. You see, many people associate mental capability with the loss of speech. My ability to string a sentence together doesn’t affect whether I feel able to open my front door or curtains and get myself to the bus stop. However, as many articulate people with a mental health diagnosis will tell you, it can be your downfall.

And I think that’s what happened to my PIP application.

As the rejection letter stated, I was able to communicate. 0 points.

Forget that the assessor saw how I lived in a flat that could be on a Hoarders TV show. Forget that I am afraid of opening mail, or I forget my medication, or in times of extreme stress I can forget where I am and wander off. Forget that I haven’t opened my curtains in over six months because I don’t like the thought of people being able to see me. Forget that I have difficulty with basic living skills. Because I can talk about it, I can do it.

I needed 7 points to qualify, I got 6.

What began next was an immediate downfall and relapse of years of hard work. Eight months later it’s almost over, but I wanted to share what it was like, those eight months trying to survive on the basic benefit of £106 a week.

Mentally I thought my world had ended and started to think about how I would survive, I considered leaving my flat and living on the streets where my bills wouldn’t be so many. I even considered prostitution, seriously considered prostitution. I volunteered for a charity that worked with street prostitutes, but overnight I went from valued volunteer to client. Even though I didn’t return to the streets, there was a shift of connection between me and the other staff/volunteers. Even if they didn’t knowingly change, the change in who I was to them had changed.

After the initial shock came a long period of cutting back. I had to get rid of my cleaner, my visits to the knitting group disappeared because it was held in a pub and I couldn’t afford to eat there, couldn’t even afford a Diet Coke. I couldn’t afford a taxi in emergency, so I spent more time indoors which saw a return to my agoraphobia.

The benefit I am entitled to doesn’t include free prescriptions and my GP wouldn’t trust me with more than a fortnights worth of medication, so I cut down my medication, cutting each tablet in half.

Half of the medication led to me being more emotionally unstable and I began crying at every difficult situation. 

When I could manage to be practical I began cutting back on bills, my TV was the first thing to go, but I need the Internet, I have a dream of running my own business and the Internet was needed for study, but the Internet needs a landline to work so I also need a phone. The phone is also my call for help when I am unwell, my only way to ask for help when the black dog of depression makes leaving the house impossible.

Because I am at University I get a grant, somehow this was a lot less than the previous year and since I’m on a textile course a lot of the grant went on materials I need for the course. My results went down and I had a few occasions where I found myself hiding in the toilets to cry. I even had to consider whether I could afford to go to University, but knowing if I quit I still had to pay off the debt was the one thing that kept me attending – I was screwed whether I stayed or quit.

Food at University is expensive, so I missed meals, I tried taking sandwiches, but I have a two hour commute to uni and since I find looking after myself difficult at the best of times, getting things together enough to make a lunch everyday was virtually impossible.

I remember one lesson where we had to make our own paints. We were asked to bring in organic, free range eggs. I cried in the middle of the supermarket because I had to buy eggs that I couldn’t afford knowing it was going to be turned into paint when I really needed food.

The university has a hardship fund, it has to be asked for at the main reception which is manned by young students. I felt devastated having to ask someone over twenty years younger than me for a hardship fund form. The shame that at my age I couldn’t handle money. The form itself doesn’t allow you to hide the shame though as there in bold letters blazoned across the front are the words HARDSHIP FUND. Thankfully no one from my course saw what I was carrying. Filling it in was a nightmare, I had to get help. I’m not stupid, but I found the form almost impossible to complete.

Despite the hours it took to complete and the pages of evidence I had to photocopy, I didn’t qualify.

My grant ran out very fast, and university finished far too early, and I found myself in May, with endless days of emptiness. I start my intern year in September, but placement after placement was unpaid. One milliner wanted someone to work five days a week, no travel expenses paid, but she’ll make a sandwich for your lunch. A lot of students had given up and gone straight to their final year, it was unadvised by staff, but you can’t live on fresh air and companies seem to want free labour. 

I remember the first time I ran out of food. Where do you find a food bank? Thankfully I had the Internet, but if I didn’t have that I’d be totally without connection to the outside world. Another shame, having to ask for food. I was an emotional wreck as I turned up at the food bank, crying far too hard to make my needs known. I’ll never forget the Christian couple who sat me down and gave me a cup of tea, allowing me to gather what little self esteem I still had. They gave me food, some essentials and when I got home I found a small box of maltesers. I sat there with this box of chocolate, wondering why I deserved this? I can’t afford a pint of milk, so why should I have a luxury like chocolates? 

But the food parcel contained other things, a tin of unknown meat I smelled and decided I couldn’t face, a tin of hotdogs I didn’t know what to do with. Pasta, more pasta than I knew what to do with (Pasta is fine, but you can’t eat it on it’s own). Knowing food bank parcels are limited to three I also knew I could only get one in extreme emergencies. I’d have to be at deaths door to get another one.

My local church does a three course meal every day, £3 for three courses. I was in the church one morning when a man came in and asked if he could only have the soup and main meal and pay £2. He was refused. 

“It’s £3 for three courses. If you don’t want the pudding you don’t have to have it, but it’s still £3”

Another annoyance was the realisation that a lot of Christian people had no idea how desperate things are for those on benefits. I knew this mans willingness to forego pudding had nothing to do with not being hungry, but the opposite. He simply didn’t have £3. I remember helping out at the messy church and being told since I was helping I could turn up early and have the meal for half price, if only they knew, even half price was out of my reach.

My rent remained at £45 a week because I was a student, you can start doing the maths if you want (£106 benefit minus £45 rent, minus £10 Internet, minus £5 mobile, minus £10 gas and electricity, minus £5 prescription payments, a £5 weekly repayment of tax from a job long since lost, £5 water rates £5 for the computer design programmes I needed for my degree…) A cat that had to have flea medication stopped led to a flea bite that came infectious and an ulcerated leg still being treated on the NHS over six months later. 

The appeal process is hard, getting someone to help you appeal is tough enough, but getting the benefit service to give you the correct information is the worst frustration. I was warned by a benefit advice service (who simply couldn’t take on anymore clients) that ‘they’ (the benefit phone line) would try and give me the wrong information. When I phoned to make my appeal I asked several times whether I had made an appeal and had the right information, yet a few months later a follow up call informed me I hadn’t even started an appeal. The wrong information had been given me and I was past the deadline to appeal. What saved me is that I wrote the details of my initial appeal phone calls down.

The appeal itself consisted of a medical form about my illness. I had a NHS mental health worker and contacted her to help me complete the form. She informed me that she wasn’t trained in filling in forms and couldn’t help. Thankfully my switch from volunteer to client at the sexworker charity filled it in for me and the long appeal process started. It also led to me realising my mental health worker wasn’t helping and we decided to part company.

At some point you start to consider the cost of it all. I don’t mean life, I mean the cost of all this to the government. Yes, they stopped paying me £100 a week, but how much did it cost to get four police officers to pull me from the roof of a multi-storey car park when I felt so desperate I didn’t know what else to do? How much has it cost in emergency mental health workers? GP and nurse appointments for an ulcer? I remember feeling so faint a few weeks ago that I considered calling the emergency services, telling them I fainted and hoping they would take me to hospital and give me a meal. 

How much has it cost me personally, to go from the person who was getting strong enough that when I finished university I would be ready to go back to full time employment, to the person who wonders whether they will make the next week? 

It’s the food that bothered me the most, food and the collection plate at church. It’s the evenings when I felt light headed, or tried to believe Bovril made an evening meal (Hey, I hear it’s becoming all the rage in posh places). Going through the supermarket looking for any packet of rice or noodles that cost around 50p, that’s how much I could afford for a meal.

It’s not being able to go to church because I didn’t have the taxi money and there isn’t a direct bus, knowing that there were members of the church with empty car seats, yet no thought of sharing their luxury, and it’s wanting desperately to tell them exactly why you missed a Sunday, but knowing if they consider £3 a meal as affordable then they simply wouldn’t ‘get it’.

It’s the pretending to my mum that everything is fine, and the phone calls asking her if she wants to go out somewhere, knowing she might pay for a hot meal, my first in a few days. It’s the mixed blessing of finding a £20 note in your pocket that a friend has put in there as a gift. Knowing you are so lucky to have wonderful friends, yet feeling so broken that friends are feeling sorry for you.

A few weeks ago my appeal went before a judge (How much has that cost?) he decided I earned 13 points.

Last week I got a letter from the benefit office saying they have now decided I qualify for PIP

“No” I thought, “You didn’t decide, the LAW spoke out for me”.

When I heard I was getting that small amount of money back (£85 a week) I cried, it’s over for now, they will assess me again in 2018. For the next two years though I have a chance to build up what confidence they couldn’t destroy, gather my self-esteem from the recycling bin and try and move forward again.

Anyway now I get some money, back pay from the time my money first stopped, what am I going to do with that money? I’m going to stock my cupboard because I never again want to go without a meal to the point of fainting. The government hadn’t saved a penny in the end, but they’ve spent a fortune, in NHS, Police, legal bills, far more than if they had left me to work my way back to health. Far more than if they had accepted the word of my GP, and realised that being able to communicate isn’t a gauge for well-being.  

Being able to articulate what that period of difficulty has done though, might turn out to be in my favour. 

Starving people into work, shaming people to beg for food, cutting single people off from social activity, pushing disabled people off support before they are ready will never succeed.

Imagine if the payments were raised just a little, I know many working people would be in outrage, thinking yet again that we are getting something for nothing.

However, I worked for years putting into the system so that, should I get ill, I would be supported. But the truth is far from what you believe. With just a little more money, being able to provide enough food to feel emotionally healthier, being able to be socially active, to be well mentally enough to succeed as a human, that’s how it should be. If we can move away from shaming and starving people into work, and move towards supporting people to thrive enough and build confidence enough that they are desperate to give back. That will create a benefit system that works.

I leave you with an image of that time, my fridge.

A small note:

It seems a lot of people like this blog, perhaps this post will make you smile and nod too.

https://bettyvirago.wordpress.com/2015/09/14/embarrassing-things-churches-do-to-people-in-poverty/

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Of the Cloth – A conversation with an Adherent

My definition:

Adherent – a member of the Salvation Army who doesn’t wear a uniform
Soldier – a member of the Salvation Army who wears a uniform

What the Salvation Army website says:

‘While you do not have to be a member of The Salvation Army to attend worship meetings, or to receive practical help and support, there are two ways of making a commitment through the church.

Becoming a soldier – a member of a Salvation Army church – is a voluntary personal commitment arising from a personal spiritual conviction. 

Adherent members do not wear the uniform but are committed to The Salvation Army as their church and, as such, can identify themselves as members of The Salvation Army. It is the opportunity to explore your faith and how you best express is.

Salvation Army churches are led by officers (ministers). All officers are soldiers who feel they have been called by God into ministry through The Salvation Army. They then begin the process of becoming a Salvation Army officer. This afternoon I had a coffee with Bev, who attends a Salvation Army church as an Adherent. I wanted to find out what made Bev choose to be an adherent instead of a uniformed soldier (Salvationist) and whether the physical uniform played a part in her decision.’
http://www.salvationarmy.org.uk/being-salvationist

This afternoon I had a coffee with Bev, who attends a Salvation Army church as an Adherent. I wanted to find out what made Bev choose to be an adherent instead of a uniformed soldier (Salvationist) and whether the physical uniform played a part in her decision.

Bev started coming To church as a new mother to the mum & tots group over 30 years ago and pretty much stayed. Bev is a qualified child carer and foster parent, so continued to be involved in parent & child groups and Sunday schools.

Although being a part of the church now for over 30 years it was only three years ago that Bev became an ‘official’ member as an adherent. The reason was simply that she was asked.
Bev seems pretty much part of the furniture at the church and I guess people automatically assumed she was a member. It isn’t a big thing for Bev, “I was happy going along and didn’t feel I needed to become a member to believe”

Being an adherent has made no real difference to the role she takes at church, she works hard, perhaps five days a week, helping with lunch clubs, parent & child groups, the two youth clubs, holiday clubs, Sunday school and when she has time she helps with the cleaning. She is a valuable asset to the church, yet doesn’t wear a uniform so is unable to take an official role in the church. Then again, Bev was working hard for the church long before making it official as a member.

In interviewing Bev, there is a sense of frustration, of feeling unappreciated.

It’s understandable that she feels frustrated about not feeling recognised for the week in, week out commitment she makes. She mentions the annoyance at special events.

One occasion in particular when an important church official was visiting and suddenly a uniformed member wanted to help out with food preparation, later they were publicly thanked for their hard work at that particular event. “Some take the praise when others have done the dirty, they don’t thank the ones that do it every week, but then thank each other”. I recognise what she says, how often at big events the caterers are brought in the be thanked for their hard work, yet many of those are one time helpers, being brought in for standing ovations, when the ones who work every week hide at the back.

She mentions that recently a uniformed member moved from another church and took over the job of a non-uniformed member without asking whether that was ok.

Bev speaks of “them and us”, I ask if she means uniform and non-uniform members, but she tells me it’s between the haves and the have-nots. However with the cost of the uniform being so high I wonder whether it amounts to the same thing.

Bev says she simply couldn’t afford the cost of a uniform and even some of the casual items of clothing are out of her price range, wearing a uniform is out of the question. However, when volunteering at the church she wears a Salvation Army polo shirt, paid for by the church as part of her ‘work clothes’.

I asked Bev, if she could afford the uniform, would you wear it?

“I wouldn’t wear it, people wear it and I don’t think they’re true Christians and shouldn’t wear it. I feel sometimes I am a better Christian than the uniform wearers. I think it’s wrong to think that wearing a uniform to give you a sense of being better than someone else is wrong.”

I’ve also seen this attitude to the uniform before, the sense that putting on the uniform somehow makes you a good Christian, makes you feel superior to people in the church who choose not to wear it. It’s not what the uniform was designed to do and certainly not a Christian belief.

You’re either a sinner or a saint, and saints are dead people. Wearing a uniform or not wearing one doesn’t raise your status in anyway.

Not wearing a uniform means Bev can’t take an official role in the church, she can’t become YPSM (in charge of caring for the young people) because she isn’t in uniform, but people don’t see the amount of youth work she does without it becoming official.

Like many people, the uniform is out of price range for Bev. This hasn’t stopped people becoming soldiers though, the corps sometimes will buy the uniform for the person when they can. I asked what would happen if the corps (church) offered to buy her a uniform. A definite No. “Everyone would know I’m a charity through the network (leadership) meetings. I’m not a charity case.”

I know myself, as someone who couldn’t afford a uniform. Society has left people claiming benefits with a sense of shame, TV programmes showing benefit claimants as scroungers, the government checking disabled people with the belief that we’re mostly faking it. People in full time work having to use food banks rather than the government change work laws. There is a sense of shame about having to ask for something, a bigger shame than I’ve ever known about being poor.

The church should be different and I know what Bev means. We should be equal in the church, a lot is said about the New Testament and it’s ‘all is one in Christ’ from Galatians 3, but they mostly are talking about male/female equality, not slave/free (rich/poor). The uniform should be something we can all afford, or nothing at all.

Bev also talks about the style of it. If she wore it (around £250 for the full uniform) and saw a man on the ground in need would she feel able to kneel down and help him? Bev laughs, “not in that tight skirt.” Again I think about the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’ve heard how the uniform gets soldiers into places where they couldn’t if they were not in uniform, but they mean the few times when the Army have spoken out about political decisions. It’s not practical to help when the need arises.

I asked Bev, is there one situation that you remember when you’ve been made to feel less than equal for not having a uniform.

Bev tells me of a time when a uniformed member called her the washer-upper, rather than use her name. I think about this for a moment then close with two questions.

1. Is an adherent a lower form of membership? “Yes”

2. Are you equal to a soldier in the corps? “No”

It’s a shame that two membership types have created a hierarchy, which was never the plan. But I also recognise what she says, and I know, deep down, others do to.

My blog usually comes with images, and I thought what would be a fitting image, perhaps an invisible man to identify with Bevs feeling of not being appreciated, but then I remembered a poster from the Salvation Army in Canada.

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Artwork is Work

This morning I received an email
Hello Joy, 

This morning during Social Services prayers I took the opportunity to ask my colleagues to judge the entries in the logo competition. 

I am delighted to be able to let you know that one of your designs has been chosen and will be the logo for the SAFE Summer School of Arts. 

Unfortunately there is no prize but we will make sure that your name is mentioned. 

Congratulations, 

With best wishes,

NAME REMOVED!, 

Learning Disability Inclusion Development Manager.

The Salvation Army, Social Services


The Salvation Army have a large group of members with disabilities who choose to become SAFE members (Salvation Army Fellowship of Endeavour) and as a member of the Salvation Army with a disability I paid my yearly £5 to be a member of this group.

Recently a call was put out for someone to design their logo for the SAFE summer school of arts, where SAFE members do arty things like play a brass instrument or sing in a choir (maybe other arty things are included, but I’m not sure).

No prize or reward was mentioned, but since I’m always moaning that church doesn’t include non-music arts I felt obliged to enter. Hooray I won and here is the design which had to be based on the theme, “I am found”.


See! All that debt I’m occurring at Uni is paying off.

I’m glad I won, but it brings me back to the age old question, Is it right for an artist to work for free?

Yes, I know in my last post I spoke about an embroiderers gift to the church in the form of altar cloths, but you only need to type a Google search for Bible and fair wage to see what God thinks. A job well done is deserving of a fair wage.

It’s one of those difficult questions, when is it right to work for free and work for money?

Back in May, Sainsubury’s in Camden got into bother for putting an advert in the paper asking for a budding artist to design and paint their staff canteen. The reward? Getting your work recognised, (by Who, the staff at the checkout?), something to start off your career and build your reputation.

Artists responded with a similar advert asking for a well-stocked supermarket to volunteer to stock artists kitchens with food to build their reputations.


Two years earlier a similar story circled the Internet of a big bucks company asking artists to apply for a ‘competition’ and at least the winner got a flight to Vegas.


Now, before any of you get cross with me, I know the competition didn’t offer a prize, I know it wasn’t a paid job and I know that I didn’t have to enter if I didn’t want to.

All valid points, but hear me out.

Do you think a Christian composer of worship music works for free? No, that’s why every church has to pay for a music license. Worship composers get commissions on their work.

Our church regularly plays short videos made by visual artists during their services, some I expect are ‘borrowed’ from the Internet, but the creator of the video won’t be seeing credit or commission for their work. They won’t be receiving a little cheque at the end of the year because yet again we’ve watched the little heart logo video on Sunday.

Even a preacher gets a fair wage, and rightly so.

What really bugs me is that I spent several hours designing a logo for free, to be used by a Christian charity that has a bit of money, for a weeks holiday which I can’t afford. 

Maybe I should talk more on this blog about living in poverty. About having the government take away my disability payments (although I went to court Tuesday and have won my disability payments back without the judge even needing to see me). 

I should talk about what it’s like to not even have enough money to pay for the meal at church (which is made for the poor of the community) or how hard I laughed when watching a documentary three nights ago on how Londoners are paying for expensive bone broth (bovril to you and me) as a snack, when I’m having a mug of chicken bovril as my evening meal. 

Or how I spent most of yesterday afternoon in bed because hunger is easier to manage when your asleep.

But don’t worry, because the folks who can pay for a holiday will be able to be more blessed because I’ve worked for free.

I feel like sending a photo of my empty fridge and cupboards as a thank you response.

But you’re right, no prize was offered… Because visual arts isn’t valued in the church.

Last week, whilst designing a future pattern I was in the Leeds Parish Church, it was a nice visit and I had a free cup of tea, which they had no idea how much that was needed and appreciated. More about that visit in another post I think.

There are some beautiful textiles in the church but as I walked around I caught an image which just sums up how I often feel the church, especially the Salvation Army, considers designers and artists. Opposite the huge organ, which is one of the first things I noticed when I walked in the door, was a large wooden cabinet and behind that was a piece of artwork, well, let me just show you the photo…


I’m sure the people who spent time painting whatever is behind the cabinet are feeling very proud that their offering to the church has been so well received.
1. Artists advert to supermarkets. http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/sainsburys-asked-artists-free-work-so-artists-asked-sainsburys-free-food-171529
2. Artists response to call out for free work because they dig his style. http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/meet-hero-designer-who-publicly-shamed-showtime-asking-him-work-free-159579

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The Price of a Coffee

There’s a scene in the film Schindler’s list, where freedom is in sight for the Jewish people but Oskar Schindler is having to flee. He looks around at the mass of people he helped keep alive and no one would complain if he then surveyed the survivors and shouted at how great it is that so many survived.

Instead he looks at what he still has, the ring made by hidden bits of gold fillings, his car to help him escape… How many more people’s freedom could he have bought? It’s the part of the movie that always gets to me. That realisation that how ever much you have given, you might have been able to give that little bit more. As a Salvationist it’s something that drives me:

“While women weep, as they do now,

I’ll fight

While little children go hungry, as they do now, 

I’ll fight

While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now, 

I’ll fight

While there is a drunkard left, 

While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, 

While there remains one dark soul without the light of God, 

I’ll fight-I’ll fight to the very end!”

― William Booth

There are some people who know the value of a life and put themselves in a position to do the most good. Oskar could’ve sold his car, but that lavish lifestyle helped get him into places where he could do the most good. Would he have been able to get into the nazi regime if he had turned up on shanks’ pony? If he turned up to a party asking to buy human beings but only bringing cheap wine, would he have got through the door?

I have been lucky enough to experience poverty and to be around people who know how the price of a coffee for some, could mean the difference between an evening meal or a night of hunger. I’ve met women selling their bodies to unknown men in darkened cars so they can put £10 on their electricity meter, and although the going rate for sex in Leeds is a little higher (sorry to be blunt, but sometimes you just shouldn’t mince your words), each time I go into a costa coffee shop I’m reminded of the women I met who charged less than the price of my coffee.

Lucky? Yeah, it’s strange to think of it as luck. A privilege maybe to know real survivors and real strong women, yes, most definitely.

A lot of my ideas and university projects are based around charity projects, mittens for women who work in the cold, craft classes that are cheap enough for all, knitting groups in places that don’t expect you to pay a fortune for a drink.

I know how many people in poverty don’t have the luxury of a wide screen TV and SKY (despite the myth that we all do) I read the studies that show how knitting and crafts can help boost confidence and keep depression at bay, but I also know how the hidden extras of attending a craft group can keep some from benefiting. 

Our latest project at Uni is a craft project. We’re making a quilt by hand, learning the techniques of making and producing a one of a kind item. Two quilt groups, two single quilts.

We asked what is going to happen with the quilts at the end of the project and were told they would be given to a local charity for a family in need. Two quilts to help two families.

Sounds wonderful.

And yet… Something bothers me.

I’ve seen before where something is given to charity with conditions, or in some cases, no conditions but the wrong gift.

  
Recently I heard a story from members of the guild for Weavers, Spinners and Dyers.

They had a community project where they made knitted squares that were sewn together to make dressing gowns. The idea being that they would keep someone warm over winter when they couldn’t afford heating.

This might be the charity they gave them to.

Cosy at Christmas

Nothing wrong with the idea I suppose, not my cup of tea. I’d rather keep warm with heating or in something a bit less colourful, but the thought is certainly there.

The story I heard was that members of the guild were becoming increasingly worried about the squares they were knitting. Would a person in poverty know how to wash their hand spun, hand knitted luxury squares? Would a poor person know how to wash delicates?

I pointed out to the people worrying that the chances of the person having the means to wash the dressing gown was more of a worry than whether they would damage all their hard work.

It’s not just that many people in poverty don’t have a washing machine, nor is it the lack of laundromats in poorer areas, the simple choice of fitting one bulky gown over several everyday items of clothing into the machine means they might never get washed. At a fiver a load, washing clothing becomes a choice of what is needed most.

There is another niggle I have about choosing what to give. I know many people don’t give cash to people begging on the streets and I see the logic in donating that money to a charity instead, each to their own in that respect. As long as you really do give to the charity instead!

It’s the giving situations where choice is denied the receiver. Those times when you decide to buy the guy a coffee instead of giving cash, but don’t ask first whether the guy even likes coffee, never mind if he even wants one.

The ever recurring rumour that the government will give people on benefits cards to shop in certain places instead of allowing them the choice to spend the benefit money where they want (yep, I know it allows people to spend their benefit on things you might not approve of, I’m sure some of you’ve spend money on things I don’t approve of) So what if some of my benefit money is spend on wool, it keeps depression at bay, has got me into University, and put me in the positive mood to write this blog that you so enjoy.

It’s the removing of choice I disagree with. The idea that because you are poor, your choices cannot be trusted. The feeling of despair you feel when you have so little, and then even the freedom to choose is removed from you.

And that, kind of brings me back to the quilt.

It’s a lovely gesture, hand sewing a quilt, putting hours of love into the project, imagining the faces of those little poor kids who can’t wait to sleep under their quilt. Won’t they be so grateful, so appreciative, won’t they just love me all the more for it, won’t I be treasured in their minds with every warm sleep they get because someone hand sewed a quilt for them. And won’t I get such a warm fuzzy feeling in my giving. Won’t I sleep so soundly under my 15 tog duvet with freshly laundered cover knowing that somewhere in town is a little child sleeping under my thin hand sewn quilt.

And suddenly it no longer becomes about helping a family, but about how grateful they should be and how fuzzy my feelings will be.

I challenged this idea, suggesting an alternative. What if the charity were allowed to sell the quilt, maybe they’d get £100, maybe £10, but what if that quilt could help 2 people? Two quilts, four families helped? Two quilts, twenty families helped?

A quick look on Asda gave me this information:

http://direct.asda.com/george/home-garden/duvets/D26M04G04C14,default,sc.html#http://direct.asda.com/george/home-garden/duvets/D26M04G04C14,default,sc.html?srule=g_price_asc&start=0&sz=20

£7 – single size summer duvet

£15 – Slumberdown 13.5 tog duvet and pillow set.

  
Hand sewn traditional quilts are lovely, don’t get me wrong. I’d love someone to make me one, but it would just be decoration. The quilts at Uni are filled with the thinnest stuffing available and small, they just fit a single bed. You couldn’t wrap up warm in one. 

It wouldn’t replace the softness of a cheap duvet, and it can’t be changed with a new cover as often as the £7 Asda duvet. Who’d pay me £14 for a hand made single duvet? (I’m imagining hands shooting up) Two children will benefit if you do, what about £21 (three children) how many children do you want to keep warm? 

Sadly, I’m in the minority. One family is going to receive our quilt, I hope they like it, maybe they’ll spread it across their knees while watching the wide screen TV they don’t have, maybe they’ll spread it on the floor as a rug. Our quilt group has chosen what will happen to it, we now have to choose which charity is given it.

I have another suggestion, what if every student in the quilt group took the finished quilt home for one night. What if they turned off their heating, removed their duvet and spent the night under the quilt, then decided whether it would benefit a family.

What if I took them on a day trip, I could show them the family who live on my street, no wallpaper, little furniture and bits of scrap carpet for walking on. Four people living in a one roomed flat, a teenager and his little sister sleeping night after night on the sofa (year after year!), mum and grandmother sharing the only bed. What if the students were allowed to go to their little flat and hand the quilt over, sure the fuzzy feeling would be overwhelming, and my neighbours would be grateful, oh my, they would be so grateful. What if, when walking out of the flat I pointed to another flat, same situation. What about them? Two quilts… How many families?